Mark Gatiss has become something of a law unto himself of late. Apart from Moffat himself he is the only writer from the first series in 2005 to still be writing for the show. Indeed, since Moffat took the big chair as show runner the one thing that became certain each year is that there would be one episode written my his good friend Mark. That isn’t to suggest that he hasn’t turned in good stories in that time. Night Terrors, Cold War and The Crimson Horror have all been enjoyable stories but increasingly there is a sense that Moffat lets Gatiss get on with what he is doing while he marshals the rest of the season. This has recently led to stories that have have been at fine in isolation but have often felt tonally and thematically removed from what the rest of the season is doing as a whole. So it is with Empress of Mars.
There is a danger in too much hearkening back to previous eras that what is produced becomes a throwback. That was the overriding sense that I got from this story. From its entirely studio based sets, the Doctor’s part in the action and the way some characters are shunted off to the side this felt like a definite throwback to a much earlier era of the programme. This should, in theory, be something that pleases me but considering the mostly high quality writing and production of this season it seems massively out of place by comparison.
The pre-credits sequence has the Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive at NASA to watch the arrival of a Mars probe. The whole thing felt a bit forced with the Doctor’s dialogue sounding like it was written for David Tennant at his most smug. The scene only exists to have the visual of “God Save the Queen” written on the surface of Mars and it isn’t really strong enough to warrant it. The TARDIS could have randomly appeared on Mars and it would remain mostly unchanged.
Then Nardole and the TARDIS vanish in move to up the danger that is so blatant it would make Terry Nation blush. I have been really enjoying this 3 person TARDIS team and losing Nardole from the mix was disappointing. His minimal appearances back on Earth paying the barest lip service to the overall story.
Victorians in space is a well trodden path in science fiction and so it was bound to crop up in Doctor Who at some point. On paper Mark Gatiss would seem to be one of the writers best placed to take it on. Unfortunately it portrayal of Victorian colonialism was a little too romantic for my taste. Considering how Thin Ice came at historical racism pretty head on the colonialism in Empress of Mars gets off pretty easy. The soldiers are portrayed as mostly ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure types with the Doctor never calling them on the damage that the British Empire is doing during that time.
Having said that the performances are all very good. Anthony Calf as the emotionally damaged Godsacre is a picture of understated grief masking a very deep pain of PTSD in a time when such reactions were dismissed as cowardice. Ferdinand Kingsley throws himself in the role of the charming but dastardly Catchlove and makes for a wonderfully hateful villain.
The Ice Warriors are some of the more complex aliens from the show’s history mainly due to them turning out to be one for the good guys in The Curse of Peladon. Despite the fact that they have been both villains and allies in the past their background is rather underdeveloped and so I appreciated them being fleshed out more here. Introducing a leader for them in the shape of Iraxxa and showing that she is capable of both wisdom and violence. It is a great performance by Adele Lynch and if we ever meet the Ice Warriors again I would like to see the character return.
By the end of the story the continuity of the Ice Warriors made sense, at least to me. I am one of those people who was very happy to see the brief cameo from Alpha Centauri at the end linking this story to the Peladon stuff from the Third Doctor’s run. I was especially pleased to learn that it was in fact Ysanne Churchman who was once again the voice of Alpha Centauri. That made me smile.
So this story isn’t all bad but a lot of it just felt awkward. The call back to the “Rank has its privileges” exchange from Day of the Daleks would normally have been welcome but making the person at the receiving end of that treatment the one black soldier made it feel uncomfortable instead. The same could be said of Iraxxa talking to Bill about noisy men. It felt like a throwback to a time when Terrance Dicks appeared to think that all feminists were short tempered women who insisted on wearing trousers. Bill’s suddenly talking about films all the time was a character trait that seemed like it came from nowhere and I suspect we’ll never see again.
These are all little things but they mount up and many could have been quite easily avoided with some minor rewrites. As it is they hamper an episode that has a lot going for it and ultimately left me feeling indifferent. That is part of the reason it has taken me a while to put this review together as it has taken time to actually process and have an opinion on what happened. This certainly isn’t as bad as The Lie of the Land but it is at the lower end of the scale. It speaks to the quality of this season as a whole that it might have stood out more in seasons past.