10.9 Empress Of Mars
This Doctor Who story, as the title suggests, quickly finds the Doctor, Nardole and Bill landing on Mars, and it’s an odd situation they find themselves in the midst of. On the one hand, there are some Victorian soldiers, on Mars for some reason. And on the other, there’s a classic Who monster, whose identity has long been given away in the promos (but I’ll still err on the side of caution). It sets the scene for an episode of Doctor Who that’s pretty standalone, that moves on from the Monks three parter, and quietens things down a bit.
It’s from the pen of Mark Gatiss, and it’s a more traditional approach he’s taken here than with his last Who adventure, Sleep No More. For long periods, in fact, I thought it could work happily as a stage play as much as a TV episode. Problems are presented, and answers need to be found. Chunks of it pass the time more than sparkle, but there are some really memorable touches in here, and a back third that sees the episode at its best.
Gatiss also weaves in relevant subtexts into the story, and not far under the surface there are threads that tune into British democracy over the last year or so. In fact, it’s a very British episode this in many senses, none of which I’ll spoil here.
It’s also an improvement on the muddled Sleep No More, Gatiss’ most ambitious and arguably weakest Doctor Who adventure. This sits somewhere in the middle of his Who stories for me, earning extra bonus points for movie nerdism, and for giving Peter Capaldi some good material to work with.
The episode is a bit more centred on the Doctor and Bill than we’ve had for the past few weeks, with Matt Lucas’ Nardole back towards the sidelines again. Much of what you get is conversation too, which is no bad thing.
As with many Mark Gatiss episodes, there are sprinklings of classic Doctor Who for long-term fans of the show. What’s nice here is that there’s a comfortable 45 minutes to enjoy, whether you are or not. We’re not at the level we were in the first five weeks of the run, but whilst Empress Of Mars is no classic, I found it solid, and enjoyable, and nerdy.
Given that just three episodes follow this one before the series wraps up – and the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who stands at the exit door – this might be the last pretty standalone episode we get for some time. It’s not a bad one.