Sunday, 11 June 2017
Empress of Mars - Review
I always worry going into a new Mark Gatiss Doctor Who episode. After writing one of the best stories for the very first series - the spooky The Unquiet Dead - he followed up with a number of very weak entries. Just looking at the DWM 50th Anniversary poll, three of his stories lie in the bottom quarter - The Idiot's Lantern, Victory of the Daleks, Night Terrors. Cold War, which brought the Ice Warriors back, fared a little better. Since then we have had Robot of Sherwood, which is very badly structured, and Sleep No More, which gained the bottom place in last season's polls. Victory was particularly awful, and it's significant that the Daleks themselves couldn't be bothered waiting for it to end - clearing off fifteen minutes before the finish.
I'm very pleased to say that his reputation has improved somewhat with Empress of Mars. It is a good old-fashioned sort of story, one that could have fitted into any previous era. Gatiss is known to be a big fan of the Pertwee era, and this had a certain Pertwee vibe. We even had a cameo appearance from Alpha Centauri from the 1970's Peladon stories, which proved to be the swan song for the Ice Warriors in the classic series. Centauri was even voiced by its original actor - Ysanne Churchman, still going strong at nearly 92 years of age.
The episode was littered with movie references - some explicit, as Bill suggested viewing ideas for the Doctor. The original of one of these - The Thing - was itself an inspiration for the original Ice Warriors story. A mention of Disney's Frozen was inevitable. It's clear that Gatiss is a big fan of 1964's Zulu. We have a beleaguered squad of pith-helmeted red jackets on foreign soil, fighting against the superior numbers of the native population. It's significant that Ice Warrior "Friday" was found in South Africa. Much could have been made of Imperialism and colonialism - turning the Red Planet pink - and overt messaging could have killed the episode dead. The soldiers are more mercenary - more interested in promised mineral wealth than imposing Victorian values. Fortunately Gatiss decides to make the story one of trying to get two races to get along with each other, as the Doctor has previously tried to do with the humans and the Silurians / Sea Devils. The Pertwee era again.
I'm going to hazard a guess that Gatiss is also a fan of The First Men in the Moon - another 1964 movie, derived from the H G Wells story, which opens with present day space explorers discovering that the Victorians had got there first.
The soldiers were well served by the script, with some of the minor characters given some depth. Special mention must be made of Anthony Calf as the commander - Godsacre. He is looking for a fresh start after being almost executed for cowardice many years ago. His secret is known by Captain Catchlove - a splendidly villainous turn by Ferdinand Kingsley - son of Ben. Godsacre gets his moment of redemption, and it was only right that he was the one to plug Catchlove.
Nice to see more than a single Ice Warrior, and Iraxxa - the Ice Queen - is a great addition to the Ice Warrior race. Gatiss could have gone for a new Ice Lord, like Izlyr or Azaxyr. One slight quibble was the Ice Warrior method of despatch. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. The compression effect in this episode was supposed to look gruesome, but tended to appear slightly comical. Back in the day, deaths by Ice Warrior sonic disruptor were achieved by filming the victim in a flexible mirror substance - Mirrorlon - which was manipulated from behind by a stage-hand, so that the victim's body seemed to warp and buckle. It was actually more effective than the new effect.
Set in the late 19th Century, this is the earliest Ice Warrior story, chronologically speaking. They head off to a new home at the conclusion - explaining away some very old continuity problems where the creatures were noticeably absent from their own home planet. The humans are going with them, but aren't likely to last long if there aren't any women with them. I'd like to think that they get settled on Peladon - where we know the biology is compatible.
Finally, the story arc. There was no explanation as to why the TARDIS returned to Earth, or why Nardole couldn't get it to return to Mars. I am going to guess that this was the work of Missy, who is plotting to get her hands on the ship. Since the Master was brought back, it has been clear that he / she does not have a TARDIS, and presumably she no longer has her Vortex Manipulator, so if the character is to escape back into the cosmos she will have to obtain some wheels at some point. The latest issue of DWM declares that Michelle Gomez is leaving the series along with Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat, but I'm sure the character in a new incarnation will be left available for Chris Chibnall to bring back.