If there is one thing which can be said about Mark Gatiss's considerable output under the Doctor Who banner, it is that he loves a pastiche. From the Dickensian Yuletide Ghost story to the found footage horror story, Gatiss has a fascination with reworking the old – and on "Empress of Mars", we see a patchwork-pastiche of even greater complexity. We finally have an Ice Warrior story set on the Martians' home planet, but, in addition, the title recalls the tales of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The conflicted colonialist attitudes of the humans recall Malacandra, the Mars of C.S. Lewis. The humans in question seem to have arrived on Mars just after the Battle of Rorke's Drift – as immortalised in Zulu. And, they bring an Ice Warrior back to his native land, ostensibly as a servant, but hiding his own agenda – which is, of course, a major part of the plot of King Solomon's Mines. And we have not even started on the references to Doctor Who itself. The set up again relies on the resurrection of an Ice Warrior and in other ways, the story brings to mind the first two episodes of Tomb of the Cybermen. References are made to the Tythonian Hive – either a (misspelled) reference to Pyramids of Mars or to the title character in a rather less well-loved story. And, of course, there is the cameo for another Brian Hayles creation...
The story, unoriginal though it is, works because it creates a
constructive ending rather than a destructive one. Themes of redemption
and honour drive the plot through the clichés. The examination of
British Imperialist attitudes is not as detailed as in "Thin Ice", but
there are some nice touches – the fact that the Ice Warriors are clearly
more advanced than Victorian Britons does nothing to temper colonialist
arrogance. However, the characterisation never rises beyond the basic –
disgraced commander, ambitious junior officer, cheeky NCOs. Aiding this
enormously is a very talented supporting cast. Anthony Calf makes
Colonel Godacre very sympathetic, whilst Ferdinand Kingsley shows a lot
of the charisma and raw talent that made his dad a star. Ian Beattie is
great fun as Cockney chancer Jackdaw – a far cry from his most
recognisable role, the loathsome Ser Meryn Trant in Game of Thrones.
On the Martian side, Adele Lynch chews the scenery gloriously as
Iraxxa, the titular empress. It is a bit of a shame that the Ice Warrior
voices have moved even further from their original sibilant hiss, but,
as they have a lot more dialogue, this is a necessary sacrifice for
character over effect. The regulars are on reliably wonderful form.
Nardole is removed for most of the episode, but we have, again, a great
showing from Peter and Pearl – the Doctor has never seen The Thing, Terminator or The Vikings, but, like seemingly everyone on Earth, he is very familiar with Frozen. Of special note is the scene between the Doctor and Missy, which hints at so many hidden depths.
Wayne Yip holds it all together very well. It must be said that the fact
that the fact that this is a very studio bound story is clear, more so
than any other story this century. Increase the shot length and reduce
the shot number, and you would have something very similar to a Doctor Who
story from last century. It still looks fantastic, being painted in
contrasting primary colours, the ochre of the Martian caves, the red of
the army tunics, the green of the Ice Warriors. Yip also manages to make
the effect of the Ice Warriors' sonic guns look shocking, when it could
easily have come across as ridiculous.
"Empress of Mars" will never go down as a classic. It is, however, tremendous fun and well worth a rewatch.
NEXT: "The Eaters of Light"