Mark Gatiss’ latest offering was a great idea which was let down by its execution, a little like last week’s episode – hopefully this isn’t a trend, as we enter the final quarter of this series.
The episode’s premise was Doctor Who at its best: we arrive on Mars in the 1880s, and are greeted by Victorian soldiers. This threw up all sorts of questions – how did they get to Mars? How will human presence on Mars in the 1880s have affected human history? Why don’t the soldiers appear to be at all shaken by their interplanetary travel? Sadly, these are questions which the episode leaves unanswered.
Science fiction is renowned for its history of commenting on colonisation and Empire, and ‘Empress of Mars’ pays homage to this through its basic premise – the only reason that humans appear interested in Mars is to mine it for its resources, and to claim it as British. Gatiss is at his best when writing historically, and it is the lines of background characters in-between the plot which excel in this episode.
This series of Doctor Who has been commended for its progressivism, and ‘Empress of Mars’ sets itself up to continue this trend by introducing an Ice Queen, the first female Ice Warrior in the show’s history. Sadly, after one throwaway line about babbling men delivered by the Queen to Bill, there are no attempts to comment on the position of women in the episode. Maybe I’m asking for too much from Doctor Who, but in a series which has already shown us how forward-thinking it’s able to be, I think that this episode could have handled the Ice Queen a lot better.
If a threat is nullified in a minute or two, as they all seemed to be in this episode, it’s difficult to take them seriously.
It was, overall, the pacing of this episode which let it down. As soon as you’d become used to the tone of a scene, it shifted dramatically – we moved from Ice Warriors climbing out of the floor (a cool idea, by the way), to the Doctor threatening to kill everyone, to the Ice Queen being taken hostage, to her kidnapper being killed, to her saviour joining the Martian army, in a matter of minutes. The problem with this kind of pacing is that it becomes difficult to take the episode’s action seriously. A few weeks ago, in ‘Extremis’, the simulation reveal was slowly drawn out, excruciatingly so, which was highly effective, as it allowed the audience to get caught up in the gravity and consequences of the action. If a threat is nullified in a minute or two, as they all seemed to be in this episode, it’s difficult to take them seriously.
Perhaps more interesting than the episode’s action itself was the background Nardole and Missy storyline. Why has the TARDIS malfunctioned twice in the last three episodes? Why is Missy worried about the Doctor’s health? How might this be leading up to the return of John Simm’s Master? And, again, when will we found out how the hell Missy managed to escape from the Daleks last series? With three episodes to go, and a lot of unexpected routes to follow, I’m more than happy to put my disappointment with ‘Empress of Mars’ to one side in anticipation of what I hope will be a cracking final three weeks.