Empress of MarsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 10 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Empress of Mars: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), Godsacre (Anthony Calf), Friday (Richard Ashton) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Wayne Yip

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
with Michelle Gomez, Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley,
Richard Ashton, Adele Lynch, Glenn Speers,
Ian Beattie, Bayo Gbadamosi, Ian Hughes,
Lesley Ewen,
and the voice of Ysanne Churchman

Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales production for BBC ONE
First broadcast 7.15pm, 10 June 2017​This review contains spoilers.

This review contains spoilers.

 

Earlier in the week, a friend circulated one of the pictures released by the BBC to promote Empress of Mars. It depicted an Ice Warrior serving tea to the Doctor, Bill and the British officers around a cloth-covered table, with hints of reddish cave walls. He declared that we had reached ‘peak Gatiss’. Empress of Mars repeats many of the techniques used in The Crimson Horror, Mark Gatiss’s previous excursion into Victoriana for Doctor Who, but perhaps with more restraint and to more broadly entertaining effect.

There’s a great amount of detail in Empress of Mars which enhances its worldbuilding. Careful attention is paid to the Martian atmosphere. The introduction of Friday the Ice Warrior is a canny reinforcement of the idea that a menacing Ice Warrior bearing down on you is not necessarily hostile, a concentrated homage to The Curse of Peladon. From the Doctor’s poetic description of the Ice Warriors, blending or suggesting details established in Brian Hayles stories with Doctor Who Monster Book lore, the accretions of fandom and the innovations Gatiss introduced in Cold War, we move to learn about Ice Warrior hives and tombs that are not really tombs. The imagery owes something to The Tomb of the Cybermen via Dragonfire, but more widely to every film or television production featuring people or creatures preserved in ice. This is a fortress of solitude for superbeings more than it is a memorial to the dead.

Influences are mixed and matched. The rhetoric surrounding the discovery of Iraxxa draws from late-nineteenth century imperialist fiction; I can spot H. Rider Haggard’s She but Gatiss doubtless knows his way around many more. However, the presentation of her tomb owes more to the European Middle Ages than Haggard’s sub-ancient Egyptian fantasies. Bill’s fourth-wall breaking recognition that the Ice Warriors are modelled on Vikings is in some way honoured, though Iraxxa on her bier looks more like a mediaeval knight, gilded like the armour of the Black Prince. Her awakening helps justify the awkward idea that reptilian Ice Warriors have hives like bees, the gold leaf fragmenting and disappearing like the pupal skins of some social insects. Dialogue throughout presents the Ice Warriors as guardians of military honour, but their military honour proves a concept over which there can be debate without integrity being compromised, in contrast with the non-negotiable values of devotion to Queen and Country and of bravery and cowardice proclaimed by the British soldiers.

As this last point indicates, worldbuilding isn’t just a matter of sketching in Ice Warrior culture. One of this story’s observations is that the imperial culture of the Victorians is alien to their modern British descendants. By locating the soldiers as veterans of the Anglo-Zulu War – the battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879, is mentioned as the site of Colonel Godsacre’s desertion – the soldiers are associated both with both imperial conquest and with one of the British Empire’s most substantial defeats in southern Africa, where a European army equipped with technologically-superior weaponry was no match for a force armed with assegais which they held in contempt. There’s more than an echo of this in Captain Catchlove’s dismissal of the Ice Warriors as ‘upright crocodiles’; and the demonstration of the ‘thin red line’ formation in the episode only shows, as it did at Isandlwana, how soldiers could easily be picked off. Just as there are parallels between Iraxxa and Ayesha of She, then Catchlove has something of H. Rider Haggard’s imperialism about him. He’s far more the ideologue of empire than Godsacre is, and that he is also a practitioner of blackmail and unapologetically avaricious is not just a good character sketch for a forty-five minute drama, but a sharply unsubtle commentary on the reality of the supposedly civilizing mission inspiring British rule as presented by Haggard and others in the late nineteenth century.

The most sympathetic of the soldiers is Vincey, the one who has a girl back home, and with deliberate irony this black character he’s given a name which is, in She, the family name of the British descendants of the forgotten white rulers of Kôr in central Africa. Gatiss enjoys the irony of depicting the reality that Victorian Britain was not monolithically white ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with a character name borrowed from a figure intended to represent white superiority. Likewise, his inclusion of Catchpole’s evident attraction at their first encounter towards Bill, whom Haggardian imperialism would regard as inferior to a white person. Bill’s stunned, appalled face at the casual way in which the British officers have named their Ice Warrior ally Friday, and by extension why they think he should to wait on them, helps pay off her earlier string of cultural references. It’s juxtaposed with the way the script is already establishing Friday as a courteous warrior, a mind rather than a shell. Arguably it also points towards Godsacre’s journey from servant of colonialism, whose demeanour is that of a dead man walking (as his grave name suggests) to a more self-aware person serving the colonized, much as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, rescuer-captor of the original Friday, passes through several states of consciousness of his own actions during Robinson Crusoe the novel.  

The regulars have quirks here which might not be found welcoming. Neither Bill’s tendency to spout film anecdotes nor the Doctor’s apparent ignorance of so much pop culture (which surely his tenth self knew about) rang as true as the production hoped or expected. Nevertheless, Peter Capaldi’s fiercely deliberate portrayal of the Doctor’s observation of Martian ritual helps bring home how crucial for all those on Mars negotiation is, and though I found Bill’s characterization early in the episode to be at odds with how she has been portrayed earlier in the series, Pearl Mackie restores her to alert and intelligent Everywoman by the second half of the story.

Empress of Mars feels much more cohesively whole somehow than several other episodes have this series. It also feels more welcoming. Perhaps the assembling of recognizable old-fashioned ‘types’ among the characters helps; but so do the warmth of the red Martian soil, the fire, the gold and the green-hued Ice Warriors themselves. In recent years Doctor Who has often seemed grainy and blue, and so much of The Lie of the Land seemed to take place in a dystopian grey haze which reminded me of the post-nuclear Yorkshire of the BBC’s 1984 film Threads. Faced with a warm colourscheme it’s up to Murray Gold’s music to suggest cold and the thin atmosphere ‘topside’, and his thin, reedy notes manage just that.

She featured a mysterious African queen who beguiled white men to do her will. Iraxxa, here, does not perform that part of Ayesha's role. Instead, it’s another queen behind a veil who is acting as seductress. It’s never explained why the TARDIS returned itself to the Doctor’s study at St Luke’s with only Nardole on board, but we are invited to guess who is its secret remote operator. The final scene of Missy as contrite woman-child facing the Doctor, backlit, as Murray Gold’s score slithers across the speakers, sets up how compromised the Doctor might just be by Missy, and also how the end of this Doctor’s era, now so close, might be brought about by his belief in an old friend's better nature.

On a lighter note, perhaps… Who else of a certain vintage grinned or even punched the air when that high-pitched voice turned out to belong to a certain hermaphrodite hexapod? Who else exclaimed ‘It was Ysanne Churchman’? As the Ice Warriors are welcomed to the universe and give up isolation, those who regretted that this episode wouldn’t be set on Peladon learned that one doesn’t have to go there to use the Ice Warriors to make comments about Britain and its relationship with its neighbours in Europe. By invoking one of Doctor Who's own imperial phases, that of velvet jackets, Venusian aikido and broad political allegory, to warn about British imperial nostalgia (the brief visit to NASA is a concession to contemporary expectations, but feels like a stand-in for a Pertwee-era British Space Control), Empress of Mars recalls strong storytelling values whose appeal rightly stretches beyond the fan audience these references court, and help Doctor Who feel more anchored on Saturday nights than it has sometimes felt this year.





Doctor Who Series 10 - Episode 2 - SmileBookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 April 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Doctor Who: Smile (Credit: BBC / Simon Ridgway)
Doctor Who Series 10 Episode 2: Smile

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
With Kiran L. Dadlani, Mina Anwar, Ralf Little,
Kiran Shah, Craig Garner,
Kaizer Akhtar, Kalungi Ssebndeke

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by Lawrence Gough
Produced by Peter Bennett
Executive Producers: Steven Moffatt, Brian Minchin

This review contains spoilers.

 

The tenth twenty-first century series of Doctor Who has been keenly promoted as a new start, but it’s enthusiastic about showing it’s taken old lessons to heart. Smile follows the precedent of The End of the World by taking Bill to the far future, to have (recalling one of the promotional lines of 2005) an adventure in the human race. However, where The End of the World was a celebration of diversity within and beyond humanity, giving the Doctor and Rose a range of different beings to interact with in separate story branches, and a villain who did not appreciate the parable within her own narrative, Smile concentrates much more on how the Doctor and Bill react to each other in an environment where humanity is absent, memorialized by an environment intended to cater to human needs, the murderous machines built to help the last humans, and by the fertilizer made from the skeletons of the slaughtered.

Bill’s hope when setting off is to find that the future is a happy one. This is a change from her present, where study with the Doctor provides hope in a background of low aspiration and petty betrayals. The Doctor takes her somewhere which has supposedly discovered the secret of human happiness – and there’s an irony in that the colony building screams its optimism to the Doctor when there are no living (or at least awake) humans present. Bill doesn’t seem to be addicted to crisis and peril in the way that some of her predecessors have been, and Pearl Mackie conveys well her evolving assessments of the situation. Where Rose in The End of the World could phone her Mum when she needed reassurance that her world was still there, it’s the smell of rosemary in the nursery which reminds Bill of home, and that home is the student union rather than her foster mother’s. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who heroines tend to be detached from family much more than Russell T Davies’s earthly lead characters, and have a corresponding need to build alternative networks.

Bill’s search for belonging is not buried so far down as it was for Amy or Clara. Her distress at realizing that the colonists might be the last remnants of humanity bubbles up from Pearl Mackie like an unexpected hot spring on downland. Doctor Who has form for seeing companions bond with abandoned children, which arguably include since Listen the Doctor himself. Here it’s Praiseworthy whose awakening, soon after Bill’s discovery of (I presume) his dead grandmother, gives Bill someone to hope for, and whose protection is the catalyst for the story’s resolution. In the final TARDIS scene Bill has moved on from the abstract ideal of happiness to the more practical question ‘Is it going to work?’ before going on to tentatively accept responsibility with the Doctor for the ‘jump-start(ing of) a civilization’. Given that the Doctor knew the colony by its positive reputation. perhaps she already had her answer, but Bill is still the student working out these questions for herself, perhaps like the young audience at home. The episode sees another accessible, believable performance from Pearl Mackie, immediately well-established in Doctor Who’s soil without obvious need of ground skeletons.

Bill’s idealism is balanced by suspicion of deep-rooted prejudice. Her reaction to seeing that the Doctor has been served two algae cubes to her one is to ask whether this is ‘a bloke’s utopia’. However, her sense of the epic survives; even after the cryogenic units have been revealed and the Doctor has acknowledged that he was mistakenly going to blow up the human colonists, he calls the ‘shepherds’ who awoke first ‘those with (relevant) skills’. For Bill they are ‘the brave… the best’. Epic is important, with many of the colonists having names whose meanings are obvious to the listener. Like the warrior classes (at least) of early European cultures, their name patterns claim ownership of their own story. It’s a neat irony, and one which offsets any romanticization of colonization, that to survive the colonists end up having to pay rent to their servant caste. Back in 2003, Russell T Davies’s ‘pitch document’ for Doctor Who emphasized that it should be ‘pioneers’ who take viewers into space in the series, rather than alien creatures. It might be a leap too far to emphasise here the associations of Frank Cottrell Boyce and Steven Moffat with Liverpool and Glasgow, two of Britain’s biggest slave-trading ports, but the case is there for making that connection when considering the story’s shaping of the colonist narrative. Such stories inevitably express debts towards tales of settlement in the American West or in this case, with its intensive agriculture, the American South or European colonies in the Caribbean.  Admittedly, as transposed into Doctor Who, these tropes are rarely left uncriticized. Here the enslaved evolve into an indigenous people before the colonists can properly revive, leaving the claims of the colonizing culture hollow. The Vardy robot murders, however, fit less comfortably into a ‘slave revolt’ parallel, but instead suggest the futility of trying to second guess and avoid unhappiness. Perhaps everyone is on better terms with human folly by the end of the story.

So much of the episode is a two-hander between Bill and the Doctor, who gradually reveals more of his personality to her. Peter Capaldi continues in a much more relaxed portrayal of the Doctor which is much easier to watch than his disgruntled, tortured Time Lord of series eight or the most midlife crisis-ridden moments of series nine. He’s someone who enjoys his travels again, which have been cast in a new context now he is sworn to stay on Earth to protect the Vault. Capaldi enjoys or makes us enjoy the multiple levels of denial: the evasiveness, the childlike naughtiness – referring to Nardole as ‘Mum’ – and his insistence that he doesn’t set out to save the day, but just passes by and mucks in, delivered in a tone which suggests the Doctor barely convinces himself more than he fails to convince Bill. As Bill says, he’s a great tutor, but the Doctor’s lessons are often in what he does (or does not) rather than what he says. He’s careful not to betray his suspicions about the absence of people in the colony to Bill, who is too curious and too excited to look at the Doctor’s mood badge and see that he is considerably less happy than she is. At the same time, the Doctor wants to protect her from the horror of the situation, leading to a powerful variant of the ‘Let’s get back in the TARDIS and go’ trope. Here the Doctor pretends to himself that Bill will be happy watching movies in the TARDIS while he dodges the robots again to blow up the city, but at the same time he’s not disappointed that she rebels and comes with him. A tidy parallel is drawn between the mood badges and the sign on the TARDIS door. The Doctor denies that he travels the universe putting it to rights, but the TARDIS seeks out ‘urgent calls’ anyway where the Doctor can usefully provide advice and assistance. Smile provides a restatement of the Doctor-companion relationship – Bill’s sigh as she leaves the TARDIS reminds me of Sarah Jane Smith’s resigned plodding after the fourth Doctor as he sets off towards problems, or Turlough’s transfer of the Doctor to Peri’s care in Planet of Fire – ‘Look after him. He gets into the most terrible trouble’ – but nowadays the Doctor’s methods and assumptions are questioned much more, and rightly so.

I didn’t find the emojibots as ‘cute’ as I felt it was hoped the audience would. There was an innocence about them – they (and the Vardy robots they represented) wanted to smile, they were unhappy without people but unhappiest when people were incomprehensibly sad. They were more compelling when being sinister, staring out of windows balefully like figures in the 1980s Miss Marple television title sequence. Given that the entire city was made of Vardy robots I expected to feel it brooding a little more, but the light and architecture didn’t lend itself in that direction. Instead much matter-of-fact internal photography was broken into by slightly jarring shots, such as the view of the sun through the latticework of the glass roof, as if we’re looking up through a skeleton’s rib cage. The use of the City of Arts and Sciences in Smile plays with both architectural intention and alternative meanings derived from other angles. The Hemisfèric, according to its website, is intended to suggest a huge human eye but we never see it from an angle which would encourage that interpretation. Instead, it sometimes appears like a sunken, skeletized beast. Soaring optimism lives alongside inevitable decline; that the Wheel Turns (to recall Kinda) is a recurring part of Doctor Who. The robots’ loss of innocence, as they reveal they understand the concept of rent (and the pound sign has survived to Doctor Who’s far future) is the basis for a better society than one based on robot servitude.

There’s a contrast in the portrayal of the colonists themselves which could have been better managed. The introductory scenes featuring Kezzia and the Vardys outside in their pastoral idyll, celebrating the pollination of crops in a golden field under a blue sky, impress: one warms immediately to Kiran L. Dadlani, and once inside the city, Mina Anwar is a familiar and reliable television face who does not disappoint here. The costumes, with their suggestions of wings and gauze, suggest holiness but are only introduced when we know everything is going wrong: a tragedy in heaven. One could comfortably spend forty-five minutes with Kezzia and Goodthing, and the ease of their introduction and sudden dispatching is a greatly effective piece of misdirection. However, Ralf Little’s Steadfast and his fellow gun-toting revivees could come from an entirely different society. Their outfits aren’t co-ordinated and one doesn’t have the sense the production has the same grip on these characters than it did on the two Shepherds met and lost before the credits.

As with The Pilot, the script is dotted with odd nods back to earlier Doctor Who stories, particularly twenty-first century ones. These deliberate references seem to suggest that a phase of the series including both Russell T Davies’s era and that of Steven Moffat is coming to an end. The Doctor’s mention that an algae emperor ‘fancied me’ recalls the tenth Doctor’s memory of Martha in Partners in Crime, and we learn that yes, lots of planets have Scottish people claiming independence from everywhere they land. These are ironic takes but they suggest that the Doctor’s life and the programme’s is a little more complicated now than it once was: glibness has consequences. The Doctor’s method of winning at chess – knocking over the board – is dishearteningly similar to the gameplay of a neoliberal financier of which I’ve read, though The Curse of Fenric’s change of the rules so that the pawns join forces would have seemed as contrived as it did then and even more out of place. The references to The Ark in Space, indirectly through the Doctor’s expository dialogue, and directly through Steadfast’s self-identification as ‘Medtech One’, are nice in a vague sense of suggesting Doctor Who has a long-term scheme for human future history (though one would be hard-pressed to get anyone to agree on what it is) but it must jar for several long-term fans in that although there is an element of specialization depicted, Smile doesn’t quite portray the same kind of stratified society as that depicted on Space Station Nerva.

The most disconcerting features, though, were a couple of lines of dialogue. I’m not sure that the Doctor should be rubbishing a society which communicates through emojis as one for ‘vacuous teens’ – he’s more open-minded than that, surely? Towards the end, as the Vardy robots prepare to strike down the survivors of humanity, Bill has a redundant ‘What’s happening, Doctor?’ which doesn’t serve her previous character development well. This review is based on an advance viewing copy, watermarked as a work in progress, and I wouldn’t mourn those lines if it turned out they had not made it to the broadcast cut.

A more pleasing recall was the device of linking the second and third episodes together with a cliffhanger, as the TARDIS fails to return to the Doctor’s study and Nardole’s kettle but lands on the frozen Thames in Regency London and the Doctor and Bill are approached by a curious but not that threatening elephant through the presumably freezing fog. We go from a clinical and almost sterile environment to a cluttered one which pre-dates modern hygiene and where exotic animals replace robots. The Doctor’s magic haddock of fable (and the final, ‘face on’ view of the city as giant fish) is about to be realized as a more intentionally threatening undersea beast – or is the season catchphrase of ‘not evil, just different’ to be repeated?

Overall, Smile is a welcome addition to the series. It’s by no means as slow as I feared after reading the Radio Times preview, it uses its locations well, and cements the partnership between the Doctor and Bill, both adventurers in contrast with the cautious, rule-keeping Nardole, and where Bill’s wide-eyed enthusiasm reignites the Doctor’s interventionist wanderlust. It doesn’t always quite come together, but there are strong performances and ideas and design ideas which should keep an audience intrigued and entertained until the end of the episode, together with a not-heavily carried sense of myth, as might be expected from Frank Cottrell Boyce on the strength of In the Forest of the Night. The horror is depicted in a pre-watershed friendly way with enough grim humour to amuse enough of the audience while the youngest have the joke ‘skeleton crew’ explained to them. Perhaps it could all have been a little more buoyant, but on the whole Smile is dramatically convincing and sets the audience up well for next week.