With Empress of Mars, as is to be expected of him, Mark Gatiss gives another welcome piece of ‘bank holiday’ Doctor Who. From the war film, horror and Victoriana pastiche, to the cheery boldness of its opening, to its gleeful wearing of Doctor Who’s history on its sleeve, the episode’s a delight. The kind of fast-paced adventure romp that’s exactly what’s needed after the longer arc of the last three episodes. The variety of storytelling that’s been on offer since the Capaldi era began is still a pleasure to behold.
The summer weather outside today, and its tendency to remind me of childhood visits to Longleat, leaves me disposed to look more heavily at the episode’s engagement with Doctor Who’s past. As Gatiss has acknowledged, the episode owes a debt to The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), along with all that stories own influences. This Ice Warrior equivalent benefits from the faster format of the modern series. Where the Cybermen emerged from their tombs halfway through their story, spending the rest of it going in and out again and staying resolutely contained, the Ice Warriors’ mass awakening forms a vital part of this episode’s climax.
We could, admittedly dwell on that awakening, and this alien civilisation for longer, as we did on the Cybermen in 1967. There’s a little less time for that here, though we see an expansion of the Ice Warriors’ hitherto unseen culture on Mars. More lore is laid down here than has been in many years. In particular, we have a new addition to the society’s hierarchy with Iraxxa. Special mention can go here to Adele Lynch for a marvellous performance. Making a virtue of her costume’s physical restriction, she relishes in the otherworldly distinction she brings to a role that, prosthetics aside, is largely a pastiche in itself (the warrior queen of a once proud race, etc. etc.). She gives the part the gravity it needs to succeed.
Empress of Mars also expands the Ice Warriors’ story by acting as a prequel to the Peladon stories of the Jon Pertwee era. It isn’t quite apparent until Ysanne Churchman’s delightful surprise cameo as Alpha Centauri (flaunting her strange power to coincide with real-world trouble for the sitting Conservative Prime Minister, as she did in 1972 and 1974). The Ice Warriors have long been a fascinating species in Doctor Who, with the shift away from casting them as villains in The Curse of Peladon (1972). To see this shift actively occur is a pleasing piece of knot-tying. And hopefully no less dissatisfying an ending to the viewers it was lost on. (If that is the case, perhaps it can be repaid with further expansion in stories yet to come.)
This being a Gatiss episode, there’s a heightened awareness of genre as well as Doctor Who on its own. There’s a host of tropes so heavily used that it’s hard to remember where they even began. Hot-headed, mutinous blowhards; cowardice redeemed; unlikely alliances formed to avert catastrophe; it’s all there. And this awareness of genre is at its most blatant in Bill’s constant film references – here, for the first time, they grated in their insistence, but I’m willing to let that slide for the Doctor’s Frozen punchline. Quite apart from anything, this isn’t Doctor Who that demands to be taken too seriously (Victorians on Mars struck me as a clue).
It’s a treat after the sprawling, contemplative epic of the last three episodes to see the TARDIS crew leap into an adventure for the fun of it. Here we see the sense of fun that needs to be kept alive in the series even as the longer plot strands are threaded through each week. While Nardole (or rather Matt Lucas) graciously goes back to a peripheral role for this week, he does enable a further spot of tantalisation when he allows Missy to pilot the TARDIS. In the final scene, more hints are made as to her changing relationship with the Doctor. And, unlike last week, where frustration arose from what felt not-quite-developed-enough, here what feels to be deliberately omitted intrigues and intrigues further still.