After the last few weeks and Moffat’s “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to his Monks arc, The Empress of Mars is a return to something more traditional, a monster driven episode that uses that old series trope of juxtaposing both past and future; in this instance, soldiers of Victorian England are facing off against what is left of the native inhabitants of Mars. Yep, the Ice Warriors are back!


When NASA discovers a message reading GOD SAVE THE QUEEN on Mars’s surface, the Twelfth Doctor, Nardole, and Bill travel to the Red Planet to investigate it. On arrival, they find themselves embroiled in a conflict between the Ice Warriors and the Empress Iraxxa, and Victorian soldiers — who are determined to conquer Mars. It’s just the same, only this time the humans are the ones invading. Now which side should the Doctor help: humans, or Ice Warriors? One thing is clear: the Doctor must choose fast, as the Martian hive awakens around them.

The Ice Warriors. Not as well known as the Daleks or the Cyber-men, but to longstanding fans of the show, they’re equally cherished. First appearing in The Ice Warriors back in 1967, and recurring several times through the show’s classic era, they, or at least one of their number, returned for Cold War back in 2013. A warrior race, akin to the Vikings, these reptilians are bound by codes of honor, easily offended, and lethal. It’s a mix that means you’ll need more than a stiff upper lip to handle them.

The basic premise of the episode is that British soldiers find a crashed spaceship, rescue the lone survivor, an Ice Warrior they name Friday, and with his promises of gold and gems, accompany him back to the red planet to claim their reward. Obviously Friday is playing something of a long game, and his assistance is really a pretense as he hopes to be reunited with his people, most notably his Queen. The Doctor and Bill arrive just in time for this to happen; she awakens, and as you’d expect all hell breaks loose. The Empress seeks to awaken her hive and unleash them against the invaders, while the British are beset by infighting within their ranks on how to handle with this enemy they vastly underestimated. Meanwhile, the Doctor is in the middle, working as a peacemaker to ensure both sides survive.

Recurring writer Mark Gatiss returns to further flesh out these creatures, and like his previous episodes, the result is a mixed bag. The idea is pretty great, as lampooning ourselves is something we do pretty well, as is offering a critique on the behavior of our country in days gone by. The British Empire swept the globe unabated in this Victorian age, an industrial and imperial behemoth that sought to add to its strength and wealth, so of course if given the opportunity we would have invaded Mars. These colonial behaviors are reflected well in the episode, notably with the servitude of “Friday,” the Ice Warrior they saved and seemingly bent to their whims. It’s a sad sight having him be at the service of these officers, mirroring sights you’d see in India or Arabia as these Red Coats held territories for her Majesty Victoria. These political subtexts made for an interesting watch, and the atmosphere built nicely too, often feeling like these men were venturing into a Mummy’s tomb, capturing a great Hammer Horror vibe in these early stages, coupled to some nifty tech designs including some steampunk spacesuits and a surprisingly horrific effect of the Ice Warrior’s weapons. Human compactors yo.

After the Empress is unleashed, things lose their way a little. Despite fearsome weaponry, there is just something lacking in the threat they pose; more is made of the in-fighting in the British ranks. The idea of exploring these invaders is not explored too well, and the arrogance of the Brits is used for a brief moment of hubris at the hands of a sonic blaster, rather than anything smarter. The clash of culture too is only grazed, two warrior nations, one that puts importance in its civility — hell, the Brits even take along fine china on their trip to Mars. But again it feeds more into moments of quirk or humor than anything deep and critiquing of our imperialistic past.

The Empress Iraxxa is well realized, and has something of a kinship with Bill, the only other female in the group. But aside from a short conversation little is made of this; in fact Bill is somewhat sidelined, and the episode is weaker for it. Again there seems to be little point to having Nardole around, and his disappearance for the majority of the episode reinforces that. In connection to that, the fleeting appearance of Missy also feels odd. For all the work to build up the threat of the Vault and its prisoner as the arc this season, it’s become very patchy in its execution of late. I don’t believe for a second she is anywhere near redemption, and it’s hard to believe the Doctor would either.

Despite a being a so-so affair, Gatiss wins many bonus points for bringing Alpha Centauri back to the Whoniverse, made even greater by the fact that she is voiced again by Ysanne Churchman!

There’s a lot that Empress of Mars gets right, the buildup in terms of plot and atmosphere especially. However, when the episode should go up a gear, it does so in a somewhat superficial way, forgoing exploring the themes that have been set up and are available with this clash of cultures for something more superficial. It’s still entertaining, but could have been much more.

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