What happens when a new NASA probe discovers a curious message on the surface of Mars? Well, naturally the Doctor and Bill have to go investigate it, which is exactly what happens in Empress of Mars. Written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Wayne Yip, Empress of Mars follows the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie), and Nardole (Matt Lucas) as they explore Mars after finding “God Save the Queen” written on the surface of the planet. What they discover is rather unexpected: there are Victorian soldiers on Mars. How is this possible? Unwittingly, they awaken Iraxxa, the Ice Queen (Adele Lynch), from her five millennia slumber, leading to an ultimate showdown between two of the most stubborn races ever: Victorian soldiers vs. the Ice Warriors. (As always, this review will contain spoilers. You’ve been warned!)
This episode was lots of fun. I find a lot of Mark Gatiss’ scripts to be a bit hit or miss, but this one was much closer to a hit than a miss. The Ice Warriors are actually given something fun to do (as opposed to their previous appearance in the rebooted Doctor Who back in 2013’s Cold War, which just featured one lone Ice Warrior wreaking havoc on a Cold War-era nuclear submarine. Aside from a small B-plotline involving Nardole (Matt Lucas) and the TARDIS being recalled to Earth (and getting stuck there) shortly after they arrived on Mars (which leads to him asking for Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) help in getting the TARDIS back to Mars), this episode is a standalone monster-of-the-week episode. The final scene, where the Doctor finds out that Missy actually piloted the TARDIS back to Mars, ties into the overall season arc, but that’s really the only bit that does.
As far as an episode of Doctor Who goes, Empress of Mars has all the qualities you’d want it to have. The Doctor and Bill get to have a good dynamic through the episode, the plot is fairly straightforward and without any major plot holes, there’s a really nasty, hateable villain that ends up not being the actual monster, and there’s a cool looking monster for the Doctor to fight against. In this episode, the hateable villain is Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), a member of the Royal Army who’s been blackmailing Godsacre (Anthony Calf), the original man in charge of the regiment, and takes control in order to fight the Ice Warriors. He’s a nasty piece of work, like someone straight out of a Bond movie. I mean, his name is Catchlove, after all. That’s the epitome of a villainous name. Has there ever been a noble character named Catchlove? Anyway, Kingsley plays Catchlove with lots of mustache-twirling panache, as utterly despicable as the character is, he’s lots of fun to watch.
As for the rest of the guest cast, they’re largely forgettable and many of them exist solely so that they can later be killed in typical horror movie fashion. Which is totally fine; I don’t need detailed backstories for five or six soldiers. Godsacre is given a good enough backstory to make up for the lack of backstories for everybody else. He’s a soldier who was originally sentenced to be executed for deserting his leadership post in the army, but the execution was botched. The only other soldier who knew this was Catchlove, who blackmailed Godsacre and ultimately overthrew him as the leader. This immediately made Godsacre a bit sympathetic. Especially since the audience doesn’t find out about this until about halfway through the episode, long after we’ve watched Godsacre be the one soldier who wasn’t immediately blood-thirsty for violence against the Ice Warriors. So, that was a nice touch.
Speaking of Ice Warriors, they’re a lot of fun in this episode. Particularly the Ice Queen, Iraxxa. Like the Daleks and the Sontarans, the Ice Warriors have always been portrayed as a race that enjoyed the art of war, so having an Ice Queen that acted much like a general in charge of an army would act was lots of fun. In the trailers, Iraxxa was often shown to just be yelling orders, but in the episode, she actually is given an array of emotions to display. Particularly nice is how she reacts to Friday (Richard Aston) – the Ice Warrior who crashed to Earth and had the Victorians bring him back to Mars so he could awaken the Ice Queen – when he wakes her up. Her reaction is very much like that of a mother seeing her long lost son again for the first time. It’s sweet, and it makes her immediate rage against the Victorians shooting at them all the more poignant. Aside from the Ice Warriors’ natural love of war, Iraxxa is so intense because she’s trying to protect her people. It’s a nice, humanizing touch that’s given to her character, which makes the addition of the Ice Queen a nice one.
This is another one of those episodes where the Doctor is pretty anti-war, so much of it is spent with him trying to get the Ice Warriors and the Victorian soldiers to negotiate a peaceful coexistence. Capaldi always does a good job with this kind of material, and Bill ends up being a big part of negotiating too, which is nice. Pearl Mackie portrays this side of Bill well. She’s able to keep level-headed even when dealing with two sets of races who are ready to murder each other. The Ice Warriors are a race in which women are immensely powerful, and that plays into the episode as well as Iraxxa values Bill’s opinion almost more than the Doctor, and Mackie is able to quickly adjust to that dynamic change and give Bill that extra bit of power while also holding on to her natural fear and hesitance. It’s a good balance that Bill has in the episode, and I think Pearl Mackie did a great job with it.
There is one kind of odd thing about the episode. The promotional pictures for it included a few with the Doctor at the Vault, but there was no scene like that in the episode at all. The closest we got was Nardole outside of the Vault asking Missy for help with getting the TARDIS back to Mars, but nothing with the Doctor and the Vault. So, I wonder if that scene was cut, or if the pictures weren’t meant to be associated with this episode. It’s an odd mistake to make, and they don’t look like pictures from a previous episode. Regardless, it’s not a big deal. Like I said, the series arc is mostly unimportant in this episode; it’s basically an afterthought in order to give Nardole something to do. Which is fine; this episode didn’t need any help from the series arc in order to be good. It had strong enough legs to stand on its own.
Overall this was a pretty good episode. It’s one of Mark Gatiss’ better scripts, complete with an ending that actually works and doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina for once. Wayne Yip continues to do a good job with his directing, really nailing the scenes where the Ice Warriors needed to be creepy, but also nailing the bits where they needed to be sympathetic. The acting all around was pretty strong, especially from Pearl Mackie, Peter Capaldi, Adele Lynch, and Anthony Calf. Murray Gold’s score was good, and there’s a nice moment right at the end when the Doctor sees Missy on the TARDIS where Missy’s theme from series 8 of the show plays. It’s the first time we’ve heard that theme in a while, and I forgot how much I love it, so it was nice that Gold included it in this episode.
On the whole, I enjoyed Empress of Mars, so I’ll give it four out of five stars. It’s not gonna be a fan-favorite episode, but it was fun.
Doctor Who returns next week with The Eaters of Light, airing at 6:45 pm on BBC One and 9:00 pm on BBC America.