❉ A combination of Mars, Martians and Victorian soldiers finds writer Mark Gatiss on top form.
“War is hell, what?”
What a great idea! British troops circa 1881, resplendent in red jackets and pith helmets, on an expedition to Mars, in an Ice Warrior version of the film Zulu (1964), the military epic recognisable from many a Sunday afternoon. Mark Gattis says he has been waiting years to write this story and his enthusiasm shone from the opening to the end titles, as he delivered a tale every bit as good as his previous high points The Crimson Horror and last year’s Sleep No More (craftily referenced through the mouth of the Empress herself).
Intriguingly, Gattis’ portrayal of the Victorian British army wasn’t a flattering one, something else the episode shares with Zulu. Among its ranks were cowards and blackmailers – notably the deliciously named commanders, Godsacre and Catchlove (Anthony Calf and Ferdinand Kingsley, both excellent) – and a thief, the aptly monikered Jackdaw (a great performance by Ian Beattie), who was prepared to drug a senior officer in order to loot wealth from the Empress Iraxxa’s tomb. His disregard for the laws and customs of the indigenous civilization reflected the innate sense of superiority that had seen the British army conquer a large percentage of the globe by 1881, and it was a nice touch that both Godscare and Catchlove looked at Mars as just another foreign province to be claimed for Queen Victoria. It was an equally agreeable touch that the Queen was again portrayed by Pauline Collins (if only in a portrait that had thoughtfully been brought along).
The troops’ dialogue sang with authentic-sounding phrasing – “You’ll get your share of the rhino,” “dancing the Newgate polka” – with the occasional contemporary lapse – “Sod this for a game of soldiers.” Overall, the expedition was so well characterised and researched (black recruits have served in the British army since the early nineteenth century) that you got the feeling Gatiss enjoyed writing for the redcoats more than the Ice Warriors.
Perhaps this was because the lords of the red planet themselves were presented as almost uniformly loyal to the major innovation in Ice Warrior lore, their Empress (Adele Lynch, commendably authoritarian), a nice parallel with the human soldiers’ allegiance to their own Queen Empress. Intentionally or not, Iraxxa had a similar silhouette to Nyah in the film Devil Girl from Mars (1954), as well as, apparently, the lower jaw of Theresa May.
“More straightforward than the Monk trilogy that preceded it, Empress of Mars was ultimately more rewarding for being an enjoyable and satisfying character piece.”
The increased budget and modern special effects techniques allowed the production to show how quickly the Warriors can now move and how nimble their claws are – in contrast to their more ponderous, pre-2005 forbears – while the panning shot of their cryogenic chambers lighting up one by one, spiralling up the wall of a cavern, was a fantastic illustration of their military might. It was quite amusing, though, when the Empress noted that it was a shame she couldn’t have defrosted more warriors to send against the humans, a comment that could have come straight from the 1963-1989 series to excuse only two or three monster costumes. Some things about Doctor Who never change.
A fine, if stomach-turning, innovation was the way Ice Warriors’ sonic weapons now scramble victims’ bodies into scrunched up balls of clothing and flesh. There’s something particularly horrible about this idea, especially in the way the ‘bodies’ bounced idly against Mars’ tunnel walls like discarded footballs. A first-class piece of reinvention.
More straightforward than the Monk trilogy that preceded it, Empress of Mars was ultimately more rewarding for being an enjoyable and satisfying character piece. In pitting two military empires against each other, Gattis’ message was that if we have to have armies, let there be mutual respect between them and respect for the different cultures they represent, as symbolised by Godscare’s moving, redemptive final scene with Iraxxa. Such an understanding is a good way of stopping wars.
I’ve left mentioning the regular cast until now as Empress of Mars was a particularly meaty one for the guest players, Kingsley in particular. As ever, though, Capaldi and co. were on fine form, even if Lucas’s absence indicated the Doctor, Bill and Nardole were taking more of a back seat than usual. Pearl was as cute and committed as ever, while Capaldi moved deftly between gleeful enthusiasm – witness his boyish grin at the discovery of the giant ‘God Save the Queen’ message on Mars – to his intense seriousness when trying to maintain a peace between humans and Ice Warriors. If you look up ‘gravitas’ in a dictionary I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a picture of Peter there.
Caveats are few, but significant: if Godscare was a disgraced coward, how come he ended up in a position of command again? And how did Catchlove know about it? The TARDIS’s detour back to the study may well be explained in future, but if it isn’t it was a clumsy piece of plotting to remove Nardole from the story (even if it was a good excuse to show Missy at the controls of the Doctor’s ship). It was also a shame that Gatiss missed the opportunity to allow the Doctor to slip in a Sex Pistols reference regarding ‘God Save the Queen’, especially as this regeneration likes his rock music.
Of course, the story gets full marks for including Alpha Centauri, late of the 1970s stories The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon – voiced by the same actress, Ysanne Churchman, no less – as the Ice Warriors’ off-world contact. The fan boy in me was grinning from ear to ear.
With The Lie of the Land director Wayne Yip delivering atmospherically shadowy Martian tunnels and a stunning Ice Warrior hive, Empress of Mars was, perhaps, an unexpected but more than welcome triumph. Thank you for the drama and nostalgia, Mr Gatiss.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One every Saturday at 7.20pm. Click here for episodes and extra content.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 was released on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 17 July 2017. Complete Series 10 available on DVD & BD later this year.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.