Doctor Who series 10: Empress Of Mars review

Mark Gatiss pens Doctor Who series 10 episode 9, as we head off to the red planet in Empress Of Mars...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

10.9 Empress Of Mars

“Is this Neil Armstrong?”

Now that’s how to end a Doctor Who episode.

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Following what had been a fairly enjoyable 40-odd minutes, Mark Gatiss demonstrated again his underappreciated love of adding in a classic Who reference to his stories, by having a good chunk of the audience scrambling for their Peladon DVDs. The appearance of Alpha Centauri – voiced again by Ysanne Churchman! – was just the kind of surprise that I thought the show had lost the ability to keep. A small addition, but one that both gives long-time fans an added grin, and also gives the impression that the universe ticks along whether the Doctor is visiting or not.

If Alpha Centauri is entirely new to you, then go and discover The Curse Of Peladon and The Monster Of Peladon for the first time, and have a really good time as you do so.

It was the highlight for me of a slightly bumpy episode, albeit one that was an upgrade on last week’s The Lie Of The Land. But I also thought it was an episode that ramped up to a really good last five or ten minutes.

It’s hard in a 45 minute episode to make a supporting guest character really strike home, but credit to Gatiss and Anthony Calf for making Godsacre stand out. A man who was supposed to have been killed for an earlier act of cowardice, coming to terms with his desertion, and ultimately making amends. A little arc that just gave the episode an extra something.

Arguably, there were parts where it needed it. There were bits here where I felt things were ticking along, where Ice Warrior queen Iraxxa was turning into a shouty villain for no real shouty reason. Where there was a shoot out that – however stylishly done it was – never really leapt off the screen. Little moments here and there where things dragged for me too. But also, a fair bit bubbling under the surface too, with well aimed political subtexts within easy reach. A good job they were, too, else no subtexts would have been better than bad subtexts.

“I dare say the British army is more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles”

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The episode itself felt a pretty much a standalone piece of work, save for the return of Missy (coming to her shortly). It landed – after a pre-credits bit at NASA – the Doctor, Bill and Nardole land on Mars in 1881. Curiously, there’s a bunch of Victorian soldiers already there, complete with their stiff upper lips, their carry on chaps British accents, and a good dose of God Save The Queen.

The problem? It’s not just them there, and they have a strange assistant. That’d be an Ice Warrior they’ve named Friday. Ice Warriors are good value in Doctor Who, not least because they have form in changing sides when necessary. That gives Gatiss something to play with, as we learn that the humans are effectively the invaders here, yet the Ice Warriors could wipe them out in seconds if they wanted. The Doctor needs to form a strong, stable coalition of chaos to keep things in some kind of order. Else the Doctor, Bill and Nardole would have been pegging it down a corridor in double quick time, like a magic runny three.

Peace and harmony is something easier wished for than achieved when a gun goes off, tensions rise, and the fact that an Ice Warrior hive is being opened up is revealed (I doubt there was a single person watching who bought it when Friday insisted he was the last of his kind. We know the rules of Doctor Who). The inevitable stand-off happens as dormant Ice Warriors resurface, with Iraxxa ready for war, having been cooped up under the surface of Mars for 5000 years. She’s not in the best of moods.

The Ice Warriors themselves are always welcome in Doctor Who, although Empress Of Mars does nothing to make them particularly scary or sinister. In a series that’s been capable of generating some real jumps, and underlying tension, I thought both were absent here. It wasn’t a direction the story seemed interested in going.

Instead, perhaps the most interesting thing about the character of Iraxxa is that she does seem to have a kinship with Bill, that slightly tailors how she makes her decisions. Mind you, the highlights for Pearl Mackie in this episode were her movie references for me. It’s certainly the only Doctor Who episode I’ve seen that should have had a spoiler warning for The Thing at the start of it (there were flavours of The Thing, incidentally, in the last Ice Warriors episode, Cold War, also penned by Mark Gatiss).

Of the other TARDIS regulars, Nardole found himself sidelined for most of the episode again, after a few weeks in the limelight. Here, he headed off to find some rope from the TARDIS, that promptly headed off on its travels with him inside.

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This proved the catalyst to bring Missy back to the story, as Nardole – who has been adamant that she shouldn’t be let out of the vault all series – now consents to let her leave, in order to help save the day. We’ve thus got Missy still being contrite and helpful, and more chillingly – and who knows where this will lead – asking the Doctor at the very end if he’s alright. My Harriet Jones alarm was going off at this stage, even if yours wasn’t. For that single moment to be the very last part of the episode was telling in itself. Even if we didn’t already know a regeneration was on the way. Why does Missy sense the Doctor isn’t right? We’ll find out really rather soon, I’d wager.

With three episodes left, nobody is buying the sweet and innocent Missy, though. Again, notwithstanding relatively known spoilers, for the final quarter of the series run, one of the Doctor’s most deadly foes is heavily odds on to go deadly again. It just seems a case of when and how. One further thing there: it seems that the whole vault side of the story has been pretty much dismissed now. Unless something else happens there, the question has been far more fun than the answer.

“Don’t move! I’ll sort this beggar out!”

Reading back over some of the comments following the next time trailer for Empress Of Mars that played last week, it seemed this was the episode that many had written off before they saw it. I think Mark Gatiss and the production team have comfortably exceeded expectations, though. It’s hard not to get the flavour of a contained old-style Doctor Who adventure from it, not least because it’s a clash of very British characters against an alien foe. What other show on the planet does that?

There’s quick wit here too, in a story primarily contained in one or two locations (as I noted in my spoiler-free write up, large parts of this one felt like they could work equally well on stage). And by the end, I found Empress Of Mars a satisfying, occasionally very nerdy Doctor Who story. Not a great one, but a perfectly decent way to spend 45 minutes.

Next week? Rona Munro returns to Doctor Who for the first time since Survival, with The Eaters Of The Light. And there are just three episodes left to go…

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Our review of last week’s episode, The Lie Of The Land, is here.