Who Review: Empress of Mars

The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole infiltrate NASA to watch the first pictures sent from a probe orbiting Mars. This probe is equipped with new technology that can “see” beneath the Red Planet’s ice caps. To their surprise, they discover a message spelled out with rocks, a message that indicates humans had already visited the planet. Not just humans, but British humans. The TARDIS team take a trip to Mars, traveling back in time to 1881–the year the message was made. There they find a team of Victorian soldiers, with an unlikely man-servant whom they have named “Friday.” He’s an Ice Warrior, one of the native inhabitants of Mars. But why is this noble warrior willing to trade his freedom for no apparent gain? Indeed, he has not only given shelter to these human soldiers, but has also given them a powerful blasting tool, allowing them to mine the planet for its precious metals and gems. The Doctor smells trouble, and his suspicions are confirmed when the soldiers uncover what appears to be the tomb of an Ice Warrior queen. The tomb is gilded, or possibly made entirely of gold, with jewels set around the edges. Enough to make any poor, greedy Victorian soldier drool. The Doctor fears this may not be the final repose of the dead, but merely a chamber for the sleeping. And if awakened, there may not be just a queen to deal with, but a whole hive of waking Ice Warriors. The Doctor’s warnings go unheeded, and he and Bill can only watch as his fears come true…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

We last saw the Ice Warriors in Matt Smith’s final season when Mark Gatiss brought them back in a story called “Cold War.” In that episode, the Doctor, Clara, and the crew of a Russian submarine encountered a single Ice Warrior, separated from his kin by thousands of miles, and thousands of years. Aways looking for a new angle on old foes, Gatiss pits the Doctor against an Ice Warrior queen on the Ice Warriors’ home planet. Neither of these–a female Ice Warrior, and the Ice Warriors at home–have featured in previous stories. As is befitting a Victorian setting, the Victorian soldiers have come to Mars to colonize and claim it for Britannia. They got there thanks to a lone Ice Warrior who crash landed in the South African veld (sometimes spelled “veldt”–a term that refers to the South African plains), where these soldiers were stationed. In return for helping him fix his ship, the Ice Warrior promised to take them to Mars and reward them with the mineral riches of his world. When the Doctor meets the soldiers, they are mining Mars with the equipment provided by the Ice Warrior. Knowing the Ice Warriors of old, the Doctor is troubled by this, and immediately suspects an ulterior motive. When they eventually stumble upon the tomb of Iraxxa, the warrior queen, surrounded by a hive of Ice Warriors that kind-of resembles the icy tombs of the Cybermen (as seen in “Tomb of the Cybermen” and “Attack of the Cybermen” in the Classic Series), the Doctor’s suspicions are confirmed. The Ice Warrior wanted to return to his hive, and made use of the soldiers to that end. The hive has been frozen for 5,000 years and is long overdue a wake-up call. However, while the hive has slept, Mars has become a desolate wasteland, and no longer suitable for their habitation. All this comes as a shock to the queen, but the Doctor hopes to use the Ice Warriors’ situation to bring about a peaceful end.

This was a good story, though not one you want to spend too long picking at. If you take it all at face value, it works well enough. But you don’t want to ask questions like:

  • Why was this lone Ice Warrior away from his hive, while the rest of them slept for 5,000 years?
  • How could Victorian soldiers help an Ice Warrior repair his space ship?
  • Why did the Ice Warrior need these soldiers to get to his hive? Couldn’t he have used the mining device himself?

Of course, these questions might have been addressed and I wasn’t paying attention. Still, it’s an interesting idea, i.e., Victorian soldiers on Mars. It’s a shame it doesn’t have enough time to develop fully, which is why some of these plot holes get glossed over. I was afraid we were going to get another “non-enemy” story, where the bad guys aren’t really bad, just misunderstood. The Ice Warriors aren’t really bloodthirsty, power-hungry Martians, as their name might suggest. Rather, they’re just another alien species trying to survive in a rough universe. If you’ve read my past reviews, you know I like my baddies to be bad, so I struggle with the idea of this warrior race being so easily talked into peace. But I can give this story a pass since it seems to be a prequel to the 1970s “Peladon” stories (“The Curse of Peladon” and “The Monster of Peladon”), where the Ice Warriors have joined the Galactic Federation, and are now trying to be play nice with the rest of the universe. Gatiss is perhaps suggesting that this incident, where the Martians are forced off their home world, is what precipitated their change of heart.

As usual for New Who in the 2010s, the effects and the acting are exceptional. The Ice Warrior costume was always one of the more impressive designs of the Classic Series (even in the 1960s), and New Who tries to stay close to the original concept, with some enhancements. The empress is a bit screechy, almost to the point of annoying. Her voice reminds me of the Racnoss, the red spider encountered by the Tenth Doctor in “The Runaway Bride.” I guess if you’re a woman trying to do a shouty-hissy kind of voice, it’s hard not to get a bit raspy. Aside from that, Adele Lynch does well as the lead baddie, especially considering she doesn’t have huge TV resume (at least according to IMDB). Another new talent “discovery” for New Who?

I can’t leave this review without calling attention to a couple of particularly cool references. First, did you spot the painting of Queen Victoria? If you’ve been watching New Who, you might recognize the portrait as that of the Pauline Collins Queen Victoria from “Tooth and Claw.” This is only right and proper, since that’s what Queen Vic looks like in the Whoniverse. A great piece of thoughtful continuity. And then there’s a cameo at the end that made my Whovian fan-boy heart flutter. I won’t give it away, but I will note that the voice was done by the same person who did it in the Classic Series. That person is 92 now, making them the oldest returning Classic Who cast member.

When the TARDIS crew first lands on Mars, Bill falls down a shaft, and the Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS for some rope. As soon as he enters, the TARDIS dematerializes, taking him back to the Doctor’s university quarters. Why did the TARDIS do this? Apparently, Mark Gatiss wrote “Empress of Mars” before Nardole became a regular character, so this was how he wrote him out. At first it looks like we’re just getting rid of Nardole to simplify the story. Okay, technically we are. But Gatiss and Moffat use this happenstance very creatively when Nardole then appeals to Missy for help to get the temperamental TARDIS back to Mars in 1881, playing into the broader Missy/Vault story arc. Nardole gives Missy use of the TARDIS, and she successfully navigates it to Mars, where they pick up the Doctor and Bill.

But now Missy is out of the vault. And what’s that look she gives the Doctor? Why does she keep asking if he’s all right? Does she have something to do with the TARDIS going wonky in the first place…?

“Empress of Mars” is a good story, worthy of the season. Not one of the best, and not one that will stand heavy scrutiny, but worth watching.

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