After the middling Monk trilogy, Doctor Who fell back on a well-trodden house style this weekend for "The Empress of Mars", a Mark Gatiss-penned romp. But even though this is a classic storytelling style for Who, and even though it had some interesting ideas tucked inside it, it never really strived to be anything more than average.
Let's talk about those interesting ideas first: Namely, the zany premise of Victorian soldiers up against Ice Warriors, and also the concept of the Doctor challenging his relationship with the human race when they're the invasive force in a scenario. They're both rife with potential, but the show never actually managed to really capitalise on them. The honour-driven culture of the Ice Warriors clashing with the stiff upper lips of Victorian England should have made for an interesting conflict, but the story we mainly got was one of how the fantastically mustachioed Captain Catchlove was basically a bit of a jerk... and then he got killed for being a jerk, and that was that.
When you have an idea as purely fun and intriguing as old timey Victorians fighting advanced aliens like the Ice Warriors, choosing to focus on turmoil within the human camp — specifically Catchlove's sheer desperation for control and power within the hierarchy of the platoon, despite the fact they're stranded on Mars! — just feels like a totally bizarre idea. Although some comparisons were ultimately drawn between the misguided sense of honour driving the two factions — blindingly loyal to their Queen and Country, the humans choose to oust noble coward Colonel Godsacre because of his status as a deserter, while the Ice Warriors, blindingly loyal to their Queen and Planet, choose to almost damn their race to extinction for the sake of protecting a dead world — it never came together in a way that really felt satisfying beyond its basic premise of smashing the two sides together like they're disparate toys in a sandbox.
Honestly, the balance of this episode felt way too tilted in telling the story of the human soldiers that, by the nature of 90 per cent of their presence being as fodder to get killed off by Ice Warrior laser blasts (crumpling them into square corpses, a hilariously grim effect), weren't that interesting to learn about in the first place. The Ice Warriors themselves seemingly existed just to stand there, hiss and shoot people — which would be fine, if not for the fact that lip service was paid to the far more interesting scenario of the prideful Ice Queen Iraxxa having to deal with the death of her world, which really needed more time under the spotlight. Most disappointingly of all, the Doctor and Bill felt weirdly ancillary to everything going on, so that not even their own interactions together and usually fabulous chemistry could distract you from the fact that this was about as by-the-numbers a story as Doctor Who could get.
To be fair, sometimes that's kind of what you need from Doctor Who. Gatiss has a long history of writing these sort of episodes, a palette cleanser of vanilla Who-ness after something that tries to push the envelope of the show's abnormally vast scope (which the Monk Trilogy definitely tried to do, although whether it succeeded is up for debate). It wrenches you back to a familiar status quo that you can judge the episodes that do try something different by.
But it's a shame that part of this season — which started so very strongly, and has lost its way a little in the middle a bit — had to be dedicated to that kind of thing, considering there's only so much of the Capaldi/Mackie era left. A pairing as electrifying as these two deserves much, much more than just an average episode of Doctor Who.
Assorted Musings (in Time and Space):
- Gonna need to take a minute to appreciate the names of some of the soldiers in this episode. Godsacre. Catchlove. Sergeant Major Peach. Jackdaw. They were all suitably, ludicrously British, and I loved them.
- The whole thing about Alpha Centauri showing up at the end is really only the sort of fanwank you can get away with in the season before a soft reboot/creative team shakeup sort of thing, isn't it?
- Speaking of fanwank, another good nod to past episodes: The portrait of Queen Victoria the redcoats had with them wasn't "our" Queen Victoria, but Victoria as played by Pauline Collins in the 2006 episode "Tooth and Claw"!
- It seems like Missy has noticed something is very wrong with the Doctor, presumably regeneration-causing related. Was it something Monk related? Did the bacteria infect him, just at a slower rate? Was one of those shots Bill fired in "The Lie of the Land" not really a blank? Mysteries!
- Speaking of Missy, that slow panning shot of her around the time rotor of the TARDIS to reveal she's out of the vault was understated yet one of the most gorgeous of the episode. Michelle Gomez can pull off one hell of a charmingly menacing glare.