Mark Gatiss’s love for the Ice Warriors is no secret. Not only did he pen their return to the series back in 2013’s Cold War, but he has frequently praised them in interviews across the years. If one was to hazard a guess as to what Gatiss’s favourite Doctor Who monster was, the Ice Warriors would be a safe bet. So it comes as no surprise that for the episode Gatiss is treating as his final ever episode on the show (on the off chance he doesn’t get invited back by Chris Chibnall) features them in a large capacity and, amusingly, features a cameo very few “modern” Doctor Who fans are likely to get. How many people know who the Alpha Centauri is and have seen the episodes it appeared in? Gatiss also was intent to deliver something Doctor Who fans have never seen before; the Ice Warriors on Mars. Yes, despite them being native to the red planet, the Martian warriors have never actually appeared in an episode set there. So how does Empress of Mars fare, being both Gatiss’s potential final episode and as a grand return for the Ice Warriors?
Well, ultimately Empress of Mars is fine. Functionally fine. It’s never particularly bad at any point, but yet never quite breaks the mould to stand on its own two feet. While the episode is enjoyable, it’s ultimately largely forgettable as well. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the closing scene with Missy, hardly anything of any consequence would have happened in the episode. While this isn’t a bad thing, it’s certainly good for the show to have a “breather” episode after the Monk Trilogy and before next week’s The Eaters of Light presumably leads directly into the two part finale. In fact, the episode does feel like it was intended to come earlier in the series but was instead rewritten to come later, in order to add a breather episode at a guess; the episode does find a way to remove Nardole from the plot very quickly, almost as if he originally wasn’t supposed to be in it at all. The episode never does quite explain why the TARDIS upped and left. Perhaps it has an allergy to Ice Warriors since it did the same thing in Cold War?
The episode starts off well enough, the opening 10 minutes or so are legitimately quite interesting, as the Doctor attempts to warn the Victorian soldiers that their Ice Warrior ally “Friday” might not have their best interests at heart. While the rest of the episode is incredibly easy to predict from this introduction (of course the sulking second in command will betray the group at some point), Gatiss does get a chance to shine with some fun dialogue and banter. Bill pointing out the similarities to many Sci-Fi movies, and being horrified at the Doctor’s lack of pop culture awareness, was quite funny. Especially since it carried on a trait established back in 2014’s Last Christmas; “There’s a horror movie called Alien?! That’s incredibly offensive! No wonder you keep getting invaded!”
But perhaps the main failing of Empress of Mars was the pacing. It takes way too long for the episode’s plot, and for the titular Empress, to appear by which point everything is incredibly rushed as there’s too little time for anything to properly develop. This leaves the episode being rather oddly balanced. That said, there was some joy in seeing the Ice Warriors stomping around blasting people to bits.
The most disappointing thing was seeing the episode squander a rather interesting concept; Victorians on Mars fighting the Ice Warriors. What could easily have been a fun romp suffers from doing a little too much for its slim runtime. I get the feeling Gatiss was intent on exploring so many different ideas and storylines, all of them great, when the simple story of a group of Victorian soldiers fighting Ice Warriors on Mars would have more than sufficed. Which isn’t to criticise Gatiss at all. It’s great to have ambition for a story. But perhaps the episode could have benefitted from dialling itself back to focusing on the conflict and having the conflicting species and ideologies form the core of the episode, with just an inkling of Gatiss’s trademark humour and irony to make the whole thing sparkle.
As for the titular Empress, she fails to make much of an impression. Feeling like a re-tread of the Empress of the Racnoss, namely an actress in lots of prosthetics shouting all her lines and struggling to create a character audiences can connect with. Perhaps this was due to the Empress not making her debut until nearly 30 minutes into the episode, but it’s a shame to see the episode’s titular character be underserved. However, the concept of Ice Warrior hierarchy deserves exploring in the future so hopefully the Empress makes a return.
Another problem was that the episode seemed to recover a lot of the ground established in Cold War, feeling very much like a repeat of that episode. Ice Warriors encounter human soldiers from the past, a betrayal from a scheming second in command, the Doctor trying to deflate the conflict, the Ice Warriors attacking the humans over a perceived slight etc. While the storylines weren’t exactly the same, Empress of Mars returned to a lot of the same ground, which left it feeling very familiar and predictable.
Now, this review may make it sound like I really disliked Empress of Mars, but that’s not the case. I did enjoy it, but I found the episode pretty unremarkable and largely forgettable. Most of the supporting cast does a good job while Capaldi is once again on fine form. The Ice Warriors felt like they’d marched right out of a Troughton serial which was great. But that said, the episode does struggle to maintain interest throughout. Even on rewatch, it’s easy to find your interest dipping. Coupled with it being incredibly familiar as well as being rather unremarkable in its own right, it’s easy to see this episode becoming the “episode you have on in the background when doing something else” in future marathons.
If this is to be Mark Gatiss’s final episode for the show, it’s a shame he will depart with one that is, well unremarkable and forgettable. While functionally Empress of Mars just scrapes by, there’s nothing about the episode that is particularly memorable beyond the novelty value of finally seeing the Ice Warriors on their home planet. It squanders what could have been a fun-Crimson Horror esque romp that could have explored the differing ideologies of Victorian values and Ice Warrior culture, with perhaps a comment on how the idea of Britain being “great” was built on the suffering and deaths of others, in favour of an episode that tries to be everything. It tries to be funny, it tries to be scary, it tries to be a romp, it tries to be dark, and it tries to have multiple underlying themes which ultimately leads none of them to really connect. With a bit of rethinking and some dialling back of some elements, Empress of Mars could have really been something special. As it stands, it’s a passable experience but certainly won’t linger in the memory.
Trivia and Speculation:
A portrait of Queen Victoria appears in the episode. The portrait shows Victoria as portrayed by Pauline Collins in 2006’s Tooth and Claw.
The Doctor mentions that he really should get around to fixing the Sonic Screwdriver’s inability to do anything with wood. This failure of the device has been used as a convenient way to stop the Doctor saving the day with the device, and has been the butt of many jokes, over the last few years.
The Alpha Centauri returns to Doctor Who, 43 years after its last appearance in 1974’s The Curse of Peladon featuring Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane. Ysanne Churchman, the voice of Alpha Centauri in the classic series, returns to voice the character in this episode. At 92, she is the oldest cast member of the entire Doctor Who revival series.
At one point in the episode, the Empress shouts “Sleep No More!” to her waking Ice Warriors. Sleep No More was the title of Mark Gatiss’s Series 9 episode and this bit of dialogue is perhaps a shout out to that episode and a nod to how Empress of Mars replaced a potential sequel to Sleep No More.
The Doctor’s shocked reaction to Missy is intriguing. Was he just surprised she came to help and didn’t attempt to steal the TARDIS? Or does he know something we don’t? Is there in fact something about Missy that we the audience don’t know, yet the Doctor does? Or maybe her being let out of the vault inadvertently started something.