A surprisingly good episode featuring a sub-par villain, Empress of Mars delivers a story that is both wacky and compelling.
I’ve never been much of a fan of the Ice Warriors, reptilian adversaries of The Doctor who are described as being unstoppable, only to be stopped easily by The Doctor through the power of talking. But this episode takes a sub-par villain and turns them into something more: a foil for humanity’s frailty.
Empress of Mars is not a big episode, the entire thing could have been filmed on a single soundstage, but the ideas are big. It’s a story about humanity at its worst and best, and about honor.
Let me be clear: I don’t like the Ice Warriors. I know that Mark Gatiss is a huge fan, but I’ve always found them to be dumb, clunky one note hulks. The only episode of the new series to feature them was Cold War of Series 7, also written by Gatiss, which was an episode that left a bad taste in my mouth.
This episode, however, was a delight to watch. I was never bored, and wasn’t able to predict the twist at the end. There was a minor plot hole, where Friday inexplicably joins forces with The Doctor to stop his people from killing all of the humans. This isn’t so much of a hole, but rather something that wasn’t properly set up. Earlier in the episode Friday mentions that he is “tired”, and we are to assume from this exchange that he is tired of fighting and wishes to create a peace between the humans and his people. Although I felt this could have used a bit more fleshing out, this is my only real complaint about the episode.
The idea of taking the standard Ice Warrior story and injecting Victorian soldiers was fresh and exciting. The true villain of the story, the quintessentially British Captain Catchlove (played by the even quintessentiallyer British Ferdinand Kingsley) is delightfully sinister even when he is offering Bill a choice between Chinese or Indian tea.
The truly defining moment of this episode is when Colonel Godsacre (Anthony Calf) reveals that he was hanged (but not executed) for cowardice, only to redeem himself both in the eyes of the Ice Empress Iraxxa (Adele Lynch) and the audience. The idea of using a human to both express the flaws and virtues of humanity is not new to Doctor Who, but no one does this sort of writing better than Mark Gatiss, who was given the opportunity to write this episode as a sort of parting gift from Steven Moffat.
In the end, this episode gives us everything we need from Doctor Who: time-traveling science fiction adventure, anachronistic characters and whacky but still somehow scary villains, and a human story to which viewers can relate.