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Doctor Who: Empress of Mars

Doctor: 'There's no setting for wood. Why is there still no setting for wood?'

This was by no stretch of the imagination Mark Gatiss' best episode, but it was far from being his worst. The dialogue was at times bland, the contrived way in which he split up his three main protagonists clumsy, and Catchlove was a walking cliche. Thankfully, the return of the Ice Warriors and an unexpected voice cameo from Ysanne Churchman injected some interest into the proceedings—I just wish there'd been more Nardy. There, I said it and the world didn't end.

My desire to see more Nardole isn't quite the compliment it seems, it just would've counteracted the banality of the Doctor and Bill's dialogue, which at times came across as utterly characterless. It was as if it'd been written for generic doctor X and plucky companion Y. At least Nardole's character stands out—even if it is frequently for the wrong reasons. Several times I found myself imagining past Doctors saying Capaldi's lines, and they all sounded great. Which seems to be a running flaw with Gatiss. Back in 'Victory of the Daleks' I complained that he seemed to have an issue getting the correct personality into his dialogue. In that episode, Matt Smith sounded like he was saying David Tennant's lines, and tonight Capaldi appeared to be saying lines that seemingly anyone with a mouth could've delivered.

At its heart, this was a story as straightforward as they come. After Bill's rather clumsy fall down an inconveniently placed hole, and Nardole being inexplicably—a cynical man might say conveniently—whisked away by the TARDIS, the whole plot moved efficiently from point A to point B without much in terms of deviation. Catchlove's stupidity generated the bulk of the tension, but apart from a small group of Victorian soldiers talking in a rather stereotypical fashion, and the Ice Warriors speaking in an ever increasing hiss, not an enormous amount happened. Which is a shame because the premise was pretty solid. It's just a pity it didn't amount to much more than greedy, belligerent humans and overly-confident Ice Warriors trading barbs.

The redemption of Godsacre was probably the episode's main achievement. He felt like the only character who went anywhere, although the rationale behind his conversion from coward to saviour, all in the space of five minutes, was poorly explained. Kudos to Anthony Calf for his overall performance, however: Godsacre was easily the most rounded character, with the most emotional meat on his bones, and Calf gave it his all. I also liked that the Doctor didn't try to stop Iraxxa from killing Godsacre, instead explaining that his intuition to do naught was a likely byproduct of his own warrior instincts. (Which felt like a nice tie-in with his War Doctor heritage.) Godsacre's execution of Catchlove, although likely explainable in military terms, did feel a tad harsh though. Sure he deserved it—for being irritating, if nothing else—but it was a bold choice by Gatiss to cap a zero-to-hero story with a killing.

The question of whom the Doctor would side with when the invading race was humanity (everyone's alien to him, after all), could have led to all manner of interesting story ideas, but Gatiss seemed too enamoured with his Victorian soldiers to bother exploring them. And I did enjoy the introduction of the Ice Queen, I just found her interactions with Bill nowhere near as sharp or as insightful as they could've been. I would have loved to have seen a more meaningful exchange of ideas between the episode's two main female characters. I'm not sure Gatiss did a great job of explaining why the TARDIS just upped and left, either. I suppose it's conceivable that an answer may still be forthcoming, but on face value it was an inexplicable development. Evidently this episode was written before Gatiss knew that Matt Lucas would be a full-time cast member, but sidelining him so shamelessly really did lack finesse.

One of Gatiss' weaknesses as a writer is a penchant for running with the lamest of ideas. (Monsters made of eye sand, for example). Thankfully, tonight's story managed to avoid that pitfall—in fact, it could quite happily have functioned as a mid-serial episode from the Pertwee era—but the whole thing definitely felt undercooked. The premise was deceptively simple, the caves had a lovely retro charm, the Ice Warriors looked as effective as men in rubber suits can look, and the exterior CGI looked sublime, but nothing felt adequately explored. According to the Radio Times, Iraxxa's 'Sleep no more' line was a remnant from a script originally pitched as a sequel to Gatiss' season nine episode of the same name. Thankfully that script never happened, but what we got instead, although an improvement over its predecessor, still had a long way to go before reaching the seemingly insurmountable heights of 'The Unquiet Dead'.

I also found Nardole's willingness to free Missy somewhat puzzling. After eight weeks of harshly admonishing the Doctor over his lazy attitude towards his security duties, tonight he seemed to ignore his own advice completely, and just let her out. Missy's last line—'Are you all right?'—was likewise a strange line of dialogue to end on. Are we supposed to conclude that something is wrong with the Doctor? Obviously, he's going to regenerate soon, but is there something that we're supposed to be aware of now? And how does Missy know? Questions I'm sure they'll answer in the last quarter of the season. (He says crossing his fingers.)

Other Thoughts:

—Nice hat-tip to Pauline Collins' version of Queen Victoria from 'Tooth and Claw'.

—I loved the Ice Warriors' compactor weapon. It was unintentionally hilarious.

—I'm not sure why Catchlove continued trying to kill the Ice Warriors after watching a bullet bounce off the head of the Ice Queen at close range.


Catchlove: 'Well, I daresay the British Army is more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles!'

The Doctor: 'The simple fact is you don’t belong here. The sooner you get off this planet, the better.'
Catchlove: '“Don’t belong here”? We’re British! Mars is part of the Empire now!'

Doctor: 'What’re you doing?'
Nardole: 'Fire, oxygen. Basic physics, innit?'
Doctor: 'Could’ve been basic death!'

Bill: 'If there are people here, why would they bother writing messages on the surface of the planet?'
Doctor: 'State visit, patriotic fervor... rogue graffiti artist.'
Also posted at The Time Meddler.


  1. Maybe they thought if they hit the exposed flesh they'd don some damage, but sadly they trained shooting with Imperial Stormtroopers. :)

    I guess Missy is shown to apparently care for the Doctor's weelbeing making the ending a cliffhanger of whether she's completely good now.

  2. Is it bad when the best thing you can say about main characters is that they weren't too distracting?

  3. You can tell Gatiss is the same age as me -- not a great episode, but I enjoyed singing along with a re-mix of The Man Who Would be King, Flashman, Zulu and Aliens...

  4. "Monsters made of eye sand" that would be a stupid idea for an episode THANK GOD no one's made that. I mean that would have to be the worst episode of the Moffat era thank god we dodged that bullet. THANK. GOD.

  5. As you say Paul, this is neither Gatiss's worst nor best. It actually reminds me a bit of the tabletop RPG: 'Space 1889' in a way, with Victorian era empires colonizing Mars and such, although the Ice Warriors are far more powerful than the Martians in that game.

    So, a bit silly, but amusing, and far better than the abysmal 'Sleep No More', but Gatiss will never be a favorite writer of mine.


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