Doctor Who review: Empress of Mars "looks to the future while nodding at the past"
Mark Gatiss delivers a five-star tale of Victorians versus Ice Warriors, and even manages to find time for a classic alien cameo
★★★★★ I do hope, dear reader, that you weren’t spoilerised before seeing this episode. I wasn’t and as a result – I’m not ashamed to say – I gave a little fanboy squeee of delight when, at around the 40 minute mark, Mark Gatiss ticked off a big box on my wish list and, for a fleeting moment, brought Alpha Centauri back into the Doctor Who fold. After 43 years!
Once seen, never forgotten. Described by Jon Pertwee’s Doctor as a “hermaphrodite hexapod” (there’d be a more PC term today, no doubt), this peculiar alien, a delegate from Alpha Centauri, debuted in the 1972 classic The Curse of Peladon and was last seen in the less-than-classic The Monster of Peladon (1974). In the 70s, without its cloak it looked like a huge tentacled phallus and caused hilarity in rehearsals. In 2017, we only get a glimpse of its bulbous head and single eye.
Pictured: Alpha Centauri photographed in rehearsals in January 1972 by Radio Times’s Don Smith
Once heard, never forgotten. Of indeterminate gender, he/she/it had a high-pitched voice provided off camera by seasoned actress Ysanne Churchman (famed as the ill-fated Grace Archer from the BBC radio soap). How wonderful that Churchman is still going strong in her 90s and agreed to record a brief voiceover cameo for Alpha Centauri in Empress of Mars.
There I go, blithering on about something that lasts less than 30 seconds on screen. It will mean nothing to the passing punter but for someone who’s been watching Doctor Who as long as I have, it is a small pleasure. Moreover, with the appearance of a representative from Alpha Centauri (who knows, it could be the same individual), Gatiss shores up the mythology of the Ice Warriors. He depicts the turning point in their history when they looked outwards and would one day embrace the Galactic Federation, which loomed over those 1970s Peladon stories. “This might be the beginning of the Martian golden age,” says the Doctor.
The Ice Warriors themselves debuted in Doctor Who 50 years ago (November 1967) and swiftly became one of the most popular adversaries. After a long absence, Gatiss first brought them back – just the one, actually – in the 2013 Matt Smith episode Cold War. Strangely, across all those years we’ve seen them on Earth, the Moon and Peladon, yet until now never on their home planet Mars.
They were originated by Brian Hayles (who died in 1978) and it’s fair that now Mark Gatiss has taken a degree of ownership. He establishes that they congregate in a hive; they hibernate for millennia underground (rather too close to the Cybermen, Silurians and Sea Devils for my liking); they have a gross new body-boulderising death ray; and they are in thrall to an Ice Queen, an empress with the reptilian equivalent of dreadlocks and shocking teeth. The masks, costumes and make-up are all extraordinarily good – faithful to the past while improving on it.
While macho posturing and blather about the “code of the warrior” can be wearing and done to death in drama, the set-up here contrasts the mettle of the Martians with that of the Victorian soldiers. In microcosm, it examines the standards and capabilities of two empires. (Sweetly, Queen Victoria is glimpsed as Pauline Collins’s version from the 2006 David Tennant episode, Tooth and Claw.)
Gatiss provides a cast of guest characters with more than a smidgeon of depth – hard to pull off in the 45min format and lacking this year. The Ice Warriors aren’t just stock monsters. They are, as they’ve always been, since Bernard Bresslaw played Varga in 1967, relatively complex beings; warriors that act with honour, strength and loyalty but open to reason and negotiation. “Friday”, the soldiers’ factotum, has dignity and wavering allegiance. Queen Iraxxa is formidable and knows when to kill and when to listen.
The red-coated soldiers look fresh out of the classic 1963 movie Zulu – Empress of Mars is set in 1881, only two years after the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, which that film depicts. Gatiss gives his men fruity names. Godsacre, the cowardly colonel who deserted his post and survived a hanging, is sensitively played by Anthony Calf. He made his TV debut in Doctor Who way back in 1982 (The Visitation) and I remember him vividly from the original 1994 staging of My Night with Reg.
The fabulously monickered Ferdinand Kingsley (son of Sir Ben, dontcha know) is excellent as Captain Neville Catchlove. Dashing-bordering-on-dastardly, he resists twirling his tache but does give his luscious locks a tidying flick. “We’re British. Mars is part of the Empire now,” he preens.
“In this scenario the humans are the invaders,” explains the Doctor. “On the other hand, the Ice Warriors have vastly superior armaments, which will wipe the humans out.” It’s the Doctor’s Dilemma of the Week, and crucially it’s left to Bill to mediate with Iraxxa. The Ice Queen tells her: “We are both surrounded by noisy males. I would value your opinion.” Really? Well, I suppose it could happen. Although the Doctor has a hand in brokering peace, it’s pure Mark Gatiss that it’s principally two women, a “coward” and ultimately an indeterminate cyclops who achieve a happy ending.
Empress of Mars was commissioned before Nardole had been made a mainstay. He slots nicely into the bookends of this episode but is otherwise omitted. Unless I missed it, no explanation is given as to why the Tardis flies him back to Earth (seemingly of its own accord) abandoning the Doctor and Bill. In a roundabout way it brings Missy into the mix.
I love the eerie choral theme Murray Gold gives Missy (excellent soundtrack this week), who looks quite at home inside the Tardis. But whatever is she hinting at when she examines her old friend? “But Doctor, please tell me. Are you all right?” That gives quite a chill. She sees something no one else can. It gives credence to the suggestion that maybe he’s holding a regeneration at bay, a condition that may go back to the ravages of Oxygen or earlier, that like the William Hartnell Doctor at the end of days “this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin”.
Empress of Mars has so much going for it really. It’s tightly written and directed, well cast, gorgeously designed, looks to the future while nodding at the past. Everything I like in a Doctor Who.
For pure entertainment, Empress of Mars is wavering between the four- and five-star mark on my radar but, because it has so many details that tickle me and because this could well be Mark Gatiss’s last stab at Who, I’ll be generous and award it the V for Victory.
PS. Next week’s is bloody good too. We’re on a roll now towards the finale.
Series ten reviews:
Episode three: Thin Ice ★★★★★
Episode six: Extremis ★★★★★