Back To The Red Planet
♦Our man in Los Angeles, Robert Cave, takes a look at the ninth episode of Doctor Who Series 10, Empress of Mars, on last Saturday on BBC1 in the UK…
Director: Wayne Yip
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Stars: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
Well, that was rather fun. Maybe it was a little mechanical in places, labouring to bring the Ice Warriors back into the Doctor Who universe in force, but it was all carried along by such and excited tide of joy that I was more than happy to be swept up along with it.
We started with a trip to NASA HQ for a quick set-up of a message on Mars. Yeah, the Doctor investigating an old message isn’t a new idea, showrunner Steven Moffat has used it a number of times before, most notably in “The Time of Angels” and The “Pandorica Opens,” hell you could even argue that Neil Gaiman employed it at the start of “The Doctor’s Wife” but it works here for the novelty of seeing modern-day NASA getting some of their space exploration dues.
And then we are on to the main thrust of Mark Gatiss’ story – a steampunk regiment of the British Empire troops on Mars with advance technology provided courtesy of an Ice Warrior “Man Friday,” who has hopes of reviving his race.
Yeah, the whole notion of the Ice Warriors as a hive collective ruled by an Empress might seem a bit tired, especially in comparison to the overly familiar extra-terrestrials of the Aliens franchise and the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact, but the idea works here in parallel to Victoria, Queen of the British Empire.
There are plenty of references to the show’s past for regular fans, including a portrait of Queen Victoria featuring the likeness of Pauline Collins, who played the monarch in question in the Tenth Doctor episode “Tooth and Claw” but they don’t intrude on the story’s narrative thrust.
Here, as in much of world history, the British are the invading force, meddling with forces they do not understand. But this isn’t a story that is tightly focused on the evils of Empire, and there are always more than enough evils to go around, the arrogance and avarice of Ferdinand Kingsley’s Catchlove is far more self-serving than it is patriotic.
Catchlove’s comeuppance at the hands of the cowardly Colonel Godsacre was very welcome, but I didn’t feel as if we had spend enough time finding out about either him or Empress Iraxxa so her decision to take him into her service as an advisor wasn’t quite as satisfying as it should have been.
Yet even this niggle was entirely wiped away with the joy of seeing the Alpha Centauri cameo on the communications screen. For those not intimately familiar with the show’s complex continuity this was is a reference/prequel to “The Curse of Peladon” – a 1972 story that also featured the Ice Warriors. Interestingly, “Curse” is widely viewed as a political allegory about the hopes of a new younger generation joining the forerunner of the European Union. I’m not sure how much the links to “Peladon” are intended to covey a modern pro-European message, but it is certainly another interesting parallel in a week that saw the UK dealing with the aftermath of its first General Election since the UK held its most recent referendum on EU membership.
However, the most intriguing element this week may have come from the Missy/Master subplot. The recent reveal that the Vault the Doctor has been guarding throughout this season does indeed contain his greatest Time Lord adversary had seemed to be a bit of an anti-climax, but Missy’s purported attempt to reform herself and her apparent concern for the Doctor’s health raises a whole lot of interesting questions, and what made the Tardis take Nardole back to the Vault in the first place?
These seem to be questions that won’t be answered until the last two episodes of the season.
But before we get there, we have another exiting treat in store in the shape of Rona Monroe’s story. Aside from being an acclaimed playwright Rona also wrote “Survival” the last story in the classic run of the series and her next story “The Eaters of Light” will mark the first time a writer from the classic series has worked on the revived show. I’m keen to see her what her take on Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will be.