The Doctor, Bill and Nardole meet Victorian soldiers on Mars, home of the Ice Warriors. In an average, but inconsistent episode, the team has to stop these two warrior races from going to war.
Mark Gatiss is the most average longtime writer of Doctor Who. Since 2005, the nine episodes he’s written for the series have ranged from not bad to awful. “Empress of Mars” is on the higher end of that spectrum, but takes its place as just another episode. The character development is mostly rote and the ending is predictable. But we do come away with a few standout moments.
The first is having the Ice Warriors onscreen again. Even though they are one of the bigger Doctor Who adversaries, they’ve only appeared in six stories over the show’s history. Any chance to spend more time the complex, honor-bound warrior race is good in my book. Plus, we got to meet their Empress, Iraxxa! She is awoken by Victorian soldiers who saved the life of an injured Ice Warrior they name Friday. In return for their help, he takes them to Mars with promises of treasure. But it’s a stratagem to resurrect his Queen.
Once she wakes up, the Ice Warriors and soldiers are at each other’s throats, ready to wage war. The Doctor intervenes, trying to broker peace. He’s stuck in a tough scenario. He usually pushes back against those who are invading a planet, which is exactly what the Victorian troops are doing. But the Ice Warriors have vastly superior technology and can wipe out the humans in an instant, also an unacceptable scenario for The Doctor.
Colonel Godsacre is willing to listen, but his second-in-command, Catchlove, wants war. He reveals that the Colonel had previously abandoned his post. He was hung for this crime, but the hanging failed. So he was somehow put back in command? Anyway, Catchlove locks up The Doctor, Bill and Godsacre, but his men lose badly to the Empress and the Ice Warriors she’s restored.
If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Gatiss wrote a similar episode, “Cold War,” a couple of years ago. Move the setting to a nuclear submarine, make it one Ice Warrior and you’ve got the same set-up. The repetition is pretty distracting. The only difference is the ending. In “Empress of Mars,” Godsacre kills Catchlove when he threatens Iraxxa and offers his life in exchange for his men and planet. The Empress sees the honor in the sacrifice and decides instead to recruit the Colonel, ending the conflict.
You may be wondering where Nardole is in this. Well, the TARDIS randomly goes faulty and decides to return home. To get it back to Mars, Nardole asks Missy for help. This is despite the fact that Nardole has been the one continually pushing The Doctor to guard the vault at all times. Now, he not only asks Missy for help, he lets her pilot the TARDIS to rescue them! It’s completely out-of-character and felt like Gatiss ignored his part of the season for his story. Not great. Missy willingly returns to the vault, even with all of time and space at her fingertips, adding the intrigue to her arc.
But otherwise, this episode is filler. Gatiss can’t seem to elevate his stories to a level where they’re anyone’s favorite. I’m glad the Ice Warriors are back. However, I’d like another writer to try their hand and see if they can generate a story worthy of their presence.
– The way the Ice Warrior weapons kill people, by crumbling them into a ball, looks really stupid
– Bill is a bit of a movie buff, trying to get The Doctor’s interest in various films. He at least promises to put Terminator on the list. Time travel and killer robots? What’s not for him to love?! But he did see Frozen, so that’s something!
– I like that the Empress (Iraxxa) values Bill’s opinion above the others, the only two women among “noisy males.”
– Nice cameo at the end by Alpha Centauri, last seen in “The Curse of Peladon” in 1972! They got the same voice actor, Ysanne Churchman, as well!
– Another fun cameo: Jackdaw, the soldier who removes crystals from the Empress’ tomb, is played by Ian Beattie. He’s best known as Ser Meryn Trant on Game of Thrones.