Mark Gatiss seems to have aimed for a classic series feel to this episode, which is appropriate for the return of the Ice Warriors. In particular there is a lot of Pertwee-era about this, with more than a hint of Troughton. It has a claustrophobic, Troughton-era atmosphere, with a lot of the action taking place on one studio set. The whole encounter with the Ice Warriors themselves is reminiscent of The Tomb of the Cybermen, but sadly lacking much in the way of mystery about what is going on.
This was originally conceived as a Peladon story and a Brexit allegory, and some hints of those themes survive, with this episode showing us the birth of the Ice Warriors’ membership of the Galactic Federation. This should predate the existence of the Federation itself, so the magnificent Alpha Centauri cameo does not make sense in those terms, but it still just about works as of course his/her/its race exists before the Federation so there is no reason why there shouldn’t be this kind of contact between them.
Superficially, Empress of Mars is little more than a fun romp that riffs on classic Who, but Gatiss puts some meat on the bones with all the Victorian empire building stuff. It is an odd combination in some ways, but throwing together the 19th Century and future tech is quite a compelling combination and one that is not entirely unfamiliar in sci-fi. The uninitiated in niche aspects of the genre such as steampunk may find it all a bit silly.
The Ice Warriors don’t quite hit the mark for me, doing little in the episode other than a very one-sided battle, but the empress herself is a nice addition to Ice Warrior history, and a very cleverly designed costume. I do like the continuation of this kind of exploration of their society, with the Ice Warriors, Ice Lords and now the Ice Queen.
But the highlight of the episode for any dedicated Doctor Who fan is that beautiful little cameo appearance from Alpha Centauri, and how lovely that they managed to get the original actress, Ysanne Churchman, back to voice Alpha at the age of 92. Doctor Who nowadays is so good at giving us a mix of fresh ideas and also revisiting the past from time to time, and to do that with such joy and respect for what has gone before is heartwarming. RP
The view from across the pond:
Taking a look at the history of the Ice Warriors on television, we see them start out as a typical monster of the week, which is fine for an introductory story. By the next time, still very much a monster of the week, but now we see there is a class system to their species. The time after that, gone is the repeat villain, we learn they are an intelligent, just race. Sadly, we then have The Monster of Peladon bringing them back to a warmongering villain of the week, which is a shame because it’s rare that we can get such a development to any of the monsters. Fortunately, Cold War brought back the intelligence and in that, we discover they have families that they care about. Might we learn more about these awe-inspiring beings with next latest installment? Perhaps the title gives that away.
The Empress of Mars is in all respects a “jolly good romp” of an episode. And I’m not being funny; I choose these words with care. It feels like one of those Saturday afternoon movies from my childhood that I’d enjoy without knowing their names and then spending years wishing I could watch again. It’s cheesy in all its steampunk glory but it’s a good story, with more than a hint of allegory. And the way it revels in its Britishness is marvelous. These soldiers found themselves traveling to Mars but made sure to bring all their teacups and saucers? Priorities, wot!! Even the title is right out of Edgar Rice Burroughs with his Princess of Mars. And the timing of the story is right too. It’s the late 1800s for our visitors to Mars as it was when John Carter found himself there.
The conflict is a pretty typical “us vs. them” story but it is not without merit. It has the benefit of giving one Ice Warrior, “Friday”, the opportunity to recognize that the Doctor is someone he can rely on, even trust. So we’ve learned that they have a queen now; not so dissimilar to their earthly counterparts. Friday’s motivation for coming back to Mars is to find his own people, so when he does and they want to fight the humans, it’s interesting that Friday works to find peace. Perhaps this is another element of their culture that we have not been lucky enough to see before.
Watching the Doctor have to decide whose side he wants to take when the humans are the invaders is interesting. The supporting human cast ranges a bit. The second in command is an utterly loathsome character, while the Captain ends up being a wonderful character. His surrendering to the Queen is outstanding and speaks of the merits of redemption.
The Ice Warriors themselves look amazing. Their queen is a work of art, literally when we first see her. The scene where the queen recognizes Bill as the only other female present and bestows a form of royalty on her, making Bill a representative of humankind, is a powerful statement and a fantastic scene. Perhaps in some way, Bill might be considered a princess of Mars? (Why stop now, right?) But for all that makes this a fun episode, nothing drives the point home better than that familiar voice of our old friend Alpha Centauri. I had no expectation that I was about to hear the voice, let alone see the face, of that old friend. Seeing and hearing him/her/it after all this time made me cheer out loud! It brought this episode from good fun, to instant classic.
I won’t deny there are better stories with deeper concepts, but this is Doctor Who being true to itself, its history and its fans. And it shows through every hiss of their icy voices.
… both human and Martian!
Read next in the Junkyard… The Eaters of Light