[The Following Review Contains SPOILERS!]
Taking a day trip to the parts of NASA that tourists don’t get to see is par for the course when The Doctor is your tutor. It’s all old-hat to Nardole, of course, but Bill Potts finds the whole thing fascinating. So does The Doctor, who is happy to be on hand when the new Valkyrie probe – currently exploring the area under the Martian ice-caps – sends back its first message.
Strangely enough that first message is the words “God Save The Queen” spelled out in large stones.
The Doctor knows darn well that humanity – much less The British – did not reach Mars in the year 1881, which is when Valkyrie claims the stones were moved. The Doctor also loves a good mystery and the excitement of encountering something that he cannot explain. Soon he, Bill and Nardole are off to Mars in the not-too-distant-past.
Their journey will bring them into contact with a British expedition, led by one of The Doctor’s old enemies/occasional allies… the last of the legendary Ice Warriors of Mars!
Empress of Mars is a love letter to classic Doctor Who, giving The Ice Warriors some much needed development as a species. A viewer’s enjoyment of the episode may be tied to one simple question – do you enjoy the Pertwee era of the Classic Series and stories that serve to answer the unanswered questions raised by old episodes? Even if the answer is “no”, Empress of Mars proves quite enjoyable, though long-time fans with a love of “continuity porn” may enjoy it more.
Writer Mark Gatiss freely admits to The Third Doctor being “his Doctor” and having always had a soft spot for The Ice Warriors, who are among the most popular of The Doctor’s antagonists despite having only appeared in only four episodes before Gatiss’ Cold War. That love is well on-display throughout this episode, which feels like a lost Terrence Dicks script that explores the questions regarding the original Martian race and why Mars is a dead world in the near future yet the Ice Warrior empire is strong and independent in the far future.
Taken on its own terms, however, Empress of Mars does have some fairly big flaws. The chief problem is that all the supporting characters are cardboard thin, made up of the stock characters that populate every Doctor Who story involving soldiers encountering noble alien warriors (i.e. the trigger-happy Imperialist, the idealistic young Redshirt, the fixer whose greed gets him killed).
The Doctor and Bill also seem slightly off this time around, with Bill quoting familiar science-fiction movies chapter and verse – a personality trait from her first episode that only Gatiss seems to have recalled. Another problem is that much of The Doctor’s dialogue seems to have been written with Jon Pertwee in mind rather than Peter Capaldi, yet he does a fine job pushing the most surly of Doctors into the role of diplomat.
It may not be the deepest story or have the most well-developed characters, yet Empress of Mars proves an amusing piece of pulp fiction. The performances are all spirited and there’s never a dull moment. Its only real flaw is being too ambitious for an hour-long episode and one wishes that Mark Gatiss had been allowed to turn this into a two-parter.