The Monks have been defeated and the Doctor can see again so the third and final block of Series 10 can begin. We open with “Empress of Mars”, where in the present (around 2017) NASA is getting new images from Mars and Team TARDIS is casually interrupting this important event because the Doctor wanted a day trip with the kids. What the images reveal is that the message “God Save the Queen” can be seen on the surface of the red planet, so off the team goes to uncover the reasons behind this.
The message comes from 1881 so the team goes to Mars in that Earth year. As they are exploring, Bill falls down a hole and Nardole goes back to the TARDIS to find ropes and other stuff they can help her with. The TARDIS has other ideas and takes him back to Bristol, 2017, while both Bill and the Doctor encounter the British Army, along with “Friday”, an Ice Warrior.
They sit down to have tea with Colonel Godsacre and Captain Catchlove (I swear, these names), who explain that they found the injured Friday near South Africa. He promised them treasures if they can get him back to Mars, so naturally that’s what they did, decades before humanity was supposed to begin exploring the stars. Catchlove is disappointed because Mars turned out to be a dead planet with nothing to help the glory of the British Empire, that is until they uncover the tomb of Iraxxa, Empress of the Ice Warriors.
The tomb is covered in what seems to be gold and precious stones, but the Doctor warns the soldiers not to disturb it as it might not be just a simple coffin but a complex hibernation system. Jackdaw, one of the soldiers goes against the Colonel’s orders out of greed and steals one of the gems, therefore awakening Iraxxa. Another soldier shoots at her out of fear, which doesn’t harm the Empress but she kills him in return.
Catchlove demands eye for an eye but the Doctor keeps on trying to maintain peace. The humans did invade Mars, but Iraxxa did just kill someone. Because Catchlove keeps insisting that they need to fight, Iraxxa wants war as well and refuses to grant mercy other than that of a quick death. Godsacre listens to the Doctor and commands Catchlove to stop but instead of obeying he reveals that the Colonel is not actually his superior as he was supposed to be hanged for desertion and only survived out of luck. He takes command and prepares for war because the British Army can take a few lizards, what could go wrong.
Iraxxa awakens the rest of the Ice Warriors and slaughters half the army (granted, there were only a two or three dozen men there) while Friday seeks the Doctor’s help as he doesn’t want a pointless war either. Just as the Doctor is about to convince Iraxxa that she needs to cooperate with the humans, Catchlove threatens to slit her throat unless she helps him repair the ship they came with so he could go back to Earth. Alone, leaving his men behind, like a real captain.
Godsacre, who deserted the army out of cowardice and then deserted the Doctor shoots Catchlove and surrenders to Iraxxa. He seeks an honourable death from her but the Empress invites him to join her army instead. Together they seek to establish a new Ice Warrior empire and the Doctor helps them contact the one and only Alpha Centauri. They ask for a marker to help them find the Ice Warriors, hence the message: God Save the Queen. The Doctor and Bill leave Iraxxa to create a Martian Golden Age, hopefully not an aggressive one. Nardole has returned with the TARDIS, but he had help: he asked Missy to control the ship, which the Doctor didn’t appreciate too much.
Throughout the episode, I was wondering whether I would be able to reference the Peladon stories of the Third Doctor, as those are my personal favourite Ice Warrior stories, and then Alpha Centauri appeared and I was over the moon with joy. A relatively small easter egg for Classic Who fans but still a pleasant one, and it gives me the opportunity to say that you should totally watch “The Curse of Peladon” and “The Monster of Peladon”. Possibly even listen to “The Prisoner of Peladon”. That put aside, let’s talk about the Ice Warriors as classic monsters. This is not their first time encountering a modern Doctor, as the Series 7 episode “Cold War” had one face the Eleventh Doctor and Clara Oswald, but I felt like “Empress of Mars” was more true to the species. The Ice Warrior mythos could have been handled better but overall I liked the fact that they weren’t pure villains but rather portrayed as an intelligent and honourable society.
If anyone, Captain Catchlove was the antagonist of the episode as the opportunistic, arrogant and selfish coward. Other members of the army represented the good and the bad: Jackdaw the greedy, Sergeant-Major Peach the loyal, Godsacre the cowardly but ultimately dignified. We also had Vincey, the young lad who just wanted to go home and build a family, but we all knew he would meet his end once he started talking about his quiet home and future wedding. The British Army as a whole was flawed but not irredeemable, which is honestly a better portrayal than what you could expect from one of the most British shows out there. Then again, Doctor Who hasn’t been pulling any punches this season, so why wouldn’t it point out the arrogance of Victorians.
At the beginning, I was thinking and even hoping that “Empress of Mars” would of on to explore imperialism as a concept and rip to shreds like “Thin Ice” and “Oxygen” did with capitalism, but it ended up focusing more on the pointlessness of fighting. Still a satisfying message but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have been able to do both, apart from the limited amount of time. My biggest problem with episode 9 would have to be this overall, that it didn’t go as deep as it could have done and so in the end it just fell flat. By no means a bad episode, in fact it’s the bets Mark Gatiss has done for a while a now, but it lacked real emotional depth or social criticism that most episode this season had plenty of.
“Empress of Mars” felt like watching an episode of Classic Who for many reasons, and that comes with both the positive and the negative. On the one hand, it’s amusingly silly at times which makes it all the more enjoyable, on the other there are some serious plot holes to address. Are we not going to talk about how a bunch of Victorian soldiers ended up on Mars in 1881? Even with the help of an Ice Warrior that’s just nonsensical. It is part of Doctor Who’s charm though, events like this, and it was especially the charm of the Classic Era. Another characteristic of the show’s original run was less serious characterisation compared to New Who, which shows mostly with the main characters. The Twelfth Doctor is consistent as a character but not much indicates where he is in his life apart from the fact that he’s with Bill, who gets to do next to nothing and instead becomes the more traditional kind of companion, the one who asks questions and doesn’t save the day – though let’s admit, she did call out Victorian sexism and had an “I’ve got this” moment when the Doctor needed distraction. They have a few good moments and their constant film and TV references are amusing, but at the end it’s another flaw of “Empress of Mars” that it fails to properly kick off the final block. These are supposed to be the final four episodes where the stakes are higher and the end is near, yet this episode could have easily been between “Knock Knock” and “Oxygen” instead of following the Monk arc. The only overall continuity element we have is Missy, but her scene and the Doctor’s reaction feel out of place, showing that Mark Gatiss is once again out of touch with the given season.
Because it felt like Classic Who and even had references to it, “Empress of Mars” was a fun episode for me personally but as far as the bigger picture goes it’s rather insignificant and makes me wonder where the end of the series is headed. Next week in “The Eaters of the Light” the team goes back in past to the Romans to fight an ancient creature. Episode 10 is written by Rona Munro, the same woman who wrote “Survival”, the final episode of the Classic Era so I’m definitely not giving up on the end of this series just yet.