Empress of Mars

This is most likely to be Mark Gatiss’s last Who script, and while none of his episodes were exceptionally brilliant, only very rarely have they been particularly bad. This final offering is much the same: consistently entertaining without being spectacular. However, it’s sort of pleasingly ordinary after the big concepts and high stakes of late, and the simplicity of the story works to its advantage in the context of the series.

In fact, it’s very old school, not just because of the returning foe. Victorian soldiers and Empire enthusiasts seem to be a very Classic Who thing, and more than most modern episodes it fitted the pattern of an old four-parter condensed into 45 minutes. The power struggle with in the human ranks is the most obvious example, along with our heroes getting imprisoned just as things start getting interesting.

Catchlove is a good old-fashioned Doctor Who shitbag, one of those characters who’s somehow more villainous than the monsters he’s up against. Gatiss does more with the Ice Warriors here than he managed at the previous attempt, with the first female of the species we’ve ever met providing an extra dimension. As you know, I’m always fond of situations where there’s good and bad on both sides, and the fact that both Godsacre and Friday are willing to switch allegiances in the end makes this far more interesting than a simple battle between good humanoids and bad monsters.

It’s only a shame that the peace that breaks out in the climax sort just… happens. It’s all very exciting, but the logic that changes the Empress’s mind requires a few little leaps. It’s also one of those where the Doctor doesn’t actually do much – he’s a bystander in the resolution, and there’s not much that would have transpired differently had he never shown up in the first place. Maybe that’s for the best though – considering one of the few things he does is create the message that made him come to Mars in the first place, the whole thing is built on a bootstrap paradox that could have destroyed the universe had he become more involved.

Elsewhere, Nardole gets sent packing very early on, and sits the vast majority of the episode out. It makes me wonder whether the story was initially planned without him, which is something that sometimes happened with “additional” companions in the old days. It’s a shame the team was incomplete when they’ve only got a short amount of time left together, but the Missy arc that Nardole moves on continues to be intriguing and pleasingly ambiguous.

The best thing about the episode though? Bloody Alpha Centauri! One of those moments that I’ll always remember experiencing the first time. When the Doctor started talking the Ice Warriors expanding into new horizons, I recognised it as a little nod to the Peladon stories and thought that was that. Then that voice! The same voice! I laughed and applauded, and then had to explain to my partner what the fuck had just happened and why I was suddenly so happy. Completely incomprehensible to the vast, vast majority of Saturday night BBC One viewers (and I’d have been in that bracket were it not for this project), but I just love the audacity of doing it and getting away with it.

And furthermore, if the analogy from the original Peladon story still stands, then the Doctor encouraging the Ice Warriors to join the Galactic Federation as a means of gaining support and achieving greatness is incredibly relevant to current times. This is another thing that proves the Ice Warriors are far more civilised than the British.

RATING: 8

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