There are two fascinating ideas that run through Empress of Mars - one is philosophical - whose side are you supposed to be on when the humans are the invading aliens. And while it isn't really hinted at, would his perspective differ from humans like Bill? In fact, this is such an obvious moral dilemma, I'm surprised it has taken the show as long as it has to ponder that very question. And if the show didn't want to tackle such a heady subject as that then there is the other idea of the deliriously anachronistic sight of Victorian soldiers tramping all over the surface of Mars. Now, this isn't quite Doctor Who embracing steampunk as to play the scenario out, the soldiers discovered the Ice Warrior ship on Earth, it involves the slight divergence from history as humans got to Mars early. This episode plays out a lot like a Edgar Rice Borough's novel, with a title that evokes The Princess of Mars.
Both of these points are tremendous building blocks for an interesting story, so it is shame that the episode does little with either. And sadly Empress of Mars comes out like the epitome of an undercooked outing. The author, Mark Gatiss does almost nothing with either point beyond pointing out that they are there. He writes the story as the Doctor is the Doctor, he saves the day and people's lives and it is his job to ensure there is diplomacy when the humans and Ice Warriors are happy enough to use violence. This is just business as usual, there is no politics or nuanced morality that was on offer during the last couple of years most notably with The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. This episode could have just been a brilliantly fun romp with Ice Warriors and Victorians on Mars but it settles for giving us an explicit setup of its ideas and then goes absolutely nowhere with it.
One reason why this episode doesn't exactly work could be because the two ideas just cancel each other out. The dilemma proposed of the Doctor being forced to side with either the humans or Ice Warriors isn't dramatic if one or the other doesn't pose a particular threat. A bunch of 19th century soldiers aren't going to pose much of a threat to creatures like Ice Warriors. There is even an opportunity for the episode to dig a little deeper with Catchlove making a couple of references to his unshakable belief that the British empire can tackle any challenge. This series has already shown it isn't afraid to tackle the crimes of imperialism, look at Thin Ice, but Mark Gatiss doesn't seem compelled to show the kind of intelligent curiosity that Sarah Dollard did. The hubris of a would-be conqueror could have given Empress of Mars something really meaty to focus on, but all this just happens in passing or undeveloped mentions.
Mark Gatiss has currently written more episodes for the modern era of Doctor Who than anyone who hasn't been a showrunner. The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot's Lantern, Victory of the Daleks, Night Terrors, Cold War, The Crimson Horror, Robot of Sherwood, Sleep No More and now Empress of Mars. His record is a lot better than his reputation would suggest with only Victory of the Daleks and Sleep No More being the only truly bad outings. The rest of his stories do suggest a trend, Gatiss is keen to set his episodes in the past but rarely does he explore and interrogate what the past actually means. Some of his episodes worked in the confines of history because it threw aside realism in favour of a more comedic approach, playing with the larger-than-life stereotypes of a particular era than the actual reality. And since this episode gives us Victorian soldiers in their imperialist uniforms, there is the potential to give everyone a really posh accent, have words like 'topping' and 'wot', flow very freely and make the whole thing a caricature of Britain's past being outgunned by the Ice Warriors.
The story of the soldiers just focuses on two people in particular, the villainous Catchlove played by Ben Kingsley's son - Ferdinand and Anthony Calf's broken and rather feckless Godsacre. Neither of them turn in a bad performance but when you look at them compared to the other guest appearances in this series, neither make much of an impression. Neither of them pitch their performances big enough to work as archetypes of the Victorian mindset, neither do they deliver performances which might help us to discover the episode's hidden depths. And when you compare this one to the absolute classic of Cold War with three brilliantly nuanced performances, they really don't make any dent. The settings also make a difference. The cold claustrophobic feel of a Russian submarine looks much better than Martian caves, which made this episode look 'set-bound' in a way the show hasn't done in a very long time.
I guess I am being a little hard on this story but that is because it is a story where it is far easier to focus on its flaws rather than teasing out its elusive strengths. And no matter how much I am underwhelmed by what the script does with Victorians on Mars, it is still a completely bonkers idea that the episode can't help but derive some energy from. Both Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi remain brilliant, even if they do remain on the side-lines more than they have done in previous episodes.
Capaldi succeeds at playing the Doctor as a diplomat with his knowledge of Ice Warrior culture and history ringing true through his performance. And Bill's renewed love of pop-culture makes a comeback, it feels like something she was supposed to mention after her declaration of loving sci-fi in The Pilot but only Gatiss remembered to bring it back. But because he is the only one to bring this back, she feels a bit different than she has done during the rest of the series, but her string of references make for some good gags and it fits really well with Mackie's energetic performance. Bill's willingness to act as decoy and her ability to parley with the Empress as a fellow woman suggest that she is both a companion coming into her own and is a logical progression for her character over the course of this series. And Doctor Who should be more than just a hangout show with the Doctor and his companion but with a duo this good, it is hard for any bad episode to be truly terrible.
And if there is one thing this episode shows its love for, its the Ice Warriors. Gatiss has now written a third of their adventures and he has had the chance to explore their culture and fill in some of the blanks surrounding it. Easily the single best moment of this episode comes when the Doctor summarises the complex duality of their society - crediting them with both great beauty and a destructive wrath. Bill even suggests they are the like the Vikings, even though a more provocative episode would have addressed the comparison between them and the 'great civilising' forces of the British empire. The conflicted loyalties of the Warrior known as Friday manage to represent the episode at its most complex. And it pulls of a pretty decent climax as Godsacre is prepared to sacrifice himself to save his men. But these moments are too isolated to gel into anything but they are indicative of the levels Gatiss can reach when he totally engages with the Ice Warriors.
Finally, in a move that I and other fans loved but no doubt left casual viewers slightly confused, the show went to the trouble of bringing back 92 year old Ysanne Churchman to voice the alien, Alpha Centuri in a move which directly links Empress of Mars to The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon, which featured Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning and then Elisabeth Sladen. If this is how Gatiss is going to bow out of the series - he isn't sure if next showrunner Chris Chibnall is going to bring him back - then its hard to imagine something both really delightful and something that so perfectly illustrated his struggle to move beyond what Doctor Who has been and create something unique and completely new...