Empress of Mars

Story No. 298 Iraxxa
Production Code Series 10, episode 9
Dates June 10, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Wayne Yip
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: A Victorian mission to Mars uncovers the tomb of the Ice Empress.


The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway by Matthew Kresal 16/12/21

Having wrapped up the Monks trilogy that had come to define much of the middle of this season, Peter Capaldi's Doctor looked set to continue his last hurrah with the return of an old foe. The Ice Warriors, those reptilian warriors from the planet Mars, were one of the most iconic monsters to come out of Classic Who but had featured only once previously in its 21st century incarnation (ironically enough in Matt Smith's final season in 2013). Written by Mark Gatiss, Empress of Mars would not only bring the Red Planet warriors back but fill in part of their story while also telling an immensely satisfying SF action/adventure story along the way.

The episode certainly starts out with an interesting premise. As a space nerd, the teaser sequence finding the TARDIS crew visiting NASA mission control as a probe discovers a message in English buried for more than a century under the Martian ice cap is practically catnip to me. This being Doctor Who, they do exactly what they'd expect them to do: jump in the TARDIS and visit 1881 Mars when the message was left. There they find a cavern with an Earth-like atmosphere and a group of soldiers from Her Majesty Queen Victoria's army being aided by an Ice Warrior they have nicknamed Friday. The basic setup is in some ways similar to that of stories form the era of Classic Who, and it's hard not to think of a story like Tomb of the Cybermen when a tomb is found and the titular Empress rises to reclaim her planet and her throne. Gatiss though has shown how much he thrives on writing quite traditional Who fare, and Empress of Mars is an absolute showcase for that.

There are other influences at play, as well. Seeing Victorian British soldiers in their red uniforms on Mars with the intention of setting up a colony in the name of Queen and Country instantly brings to mind the steampunk Space: 1889 role-playing game. Indeed, the episode is filling the legacy of fiction tying into Victorian colonization. There are elements of various Mummy tales; for example, the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s or how the British soldiers treat the tomb. The Ice Warrior's siege of an outnumbered British force brings to mind the classic war film Zulu. Gatiss though is astute enough as a writer not to give a wholehearted endorsement of it, and the episode does a nice job of exploring the darker side of the era, with its disregard for native cultures and those willing to employ guns, germs and steel in the name of glory, wealth and empire. Empress of Mars is at once a colonial tale and a refutation of so many of its tropes.

Something else that Gatiss and the episode does is make strong use of the Ice Warriors. Despite their iconic presence in fandom, their lumbering presence and voices have also made them something of a source of ridicule in some circles. In reintroducing them in Cold War, Gatiss and company sought to change that reputation, and that continues here. The Ice Warriors are perhaps at their most menacing and threatening as a result, no longer lumbering figures you can easily out-run as they were in the 1960s but cyborg tanks that can overwhelm you with barely a moment's notice. The introduction of the titular Empress (played wonderfully by Adele Lynch) is just one part of the expansion of this Martian race as the episode also touches upon elements of their mythic past, their culture and indeed their role in the future of the galaxy seen in their later Classic Series appearances (which leads to a particularly fun cameo moment in the episode). If much of what Gatiss has sought to do with them was to bring them up to date and let them be the threat they were always meant to be, then he and director David Yip have succeeded wonderfully.

The performances and productions continue to stand out as well. That Capaldi's exit was right around the corner makes re-watching this a bittersweet experience, as he seemed to have really settled into the role with this episode highlighting his range, from the mad grinning in NASA mission control to the deadly serious "Let me try and save your lives" when he's trying to broker a truce between the humans and the Ice Warriors. Pearl Mackie's Bill continues to shine as a character, and it helps that she and Capaldi share a wonderful sense of chemistry together, bouncing pop-culture references back and forth off each other during some of the episode's best comedic moments. Matt Lucas' Nardole is once again sidelined for much of the episode, but his appearances work, especially when it comes to the final scene and who else gets involved. The supporting cast is strong as well, with Anthony Calf and Ferdinand Kingsley playing two very different kinds of British army officer, as well as the aforementioned Lynch as the Ice Empress Iraxxa. Productionwise, the episode is a showcase for the series' production values, as it mixes together period elements (something for which the BBC is almost always reliable) and genre elements wonderfully under the strong direction of Yip. The results are solid all around.

Indeed, that word can be used to best describe the episode: solid. Mark Gatiss has created a nice piece of genre action/adventure that at once plays with elements of Britain's colonial past while also not being afraid to acknowledge its dark side. It's a script that is wonderfully brought to life by those both in front of and behind the camera. If you're looking for a solid forty odd minutes of Doctor Who, you could do a lot worse than sit down and watch Empress of Mars.