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Doctor Who – S10E9 – The Empress of Mars

Previously on Doctor Who, “The Lie of the Land

Episode 9 marks the return of popular classic Doctor Who aliens, the Ice Warriors, after one crashes in South Africa and picks up a squadron of Victorian-era British soldiers ostensibly to “mine” Mars in thanks, but is actually using them to drill down into his hibernating hive. The Ice Warriors have an established history of crashing on earth, first appearing in the 1967 2nd Doctor “The Ice Warriors” when they crashed during a future Ice Age and tried to conquer Earth, trying again via terraforming in 1969’s “The Seeds of Death.” By the time of their next return in “The Curse of Peladon,” they had mitigated their aggressiveness, then returned as bad guys in “The Monster of Peladon.” Episode writer Mark Gatiss revived them in New Who when a single Ice Warrior appears in the 11th Doctor’s “Cold War” aboard a Soviet Submarine.

The Ice Warriors weren’t the only Classic Who characters to make a return: the conclusion reveals a heavily-guarded appearance from Alpha Centauri, delegate of the Galactic Federation, who last appeared in the Peladon episodes and is played by the same actress some 45 years later. Voice actress Ysanne Churchman, 92, is now the oldest woman in Doctor Who, having been wooed back into service 25 years after she retired. Cheers, madam!

Images: Simon Ridgway/BBC America

In total classic form, “The Empress of Mars” is a visually interesting, self-contained episode with some humor and tons of Who references, featuring more humans at their worst. The plot doesn’t entirely make sense, but is a fine way to spend an hour if you’re nostalgic. As one of the final hours we’ll spend with Capaldi’s Doctor, however, perhaps not the best, although certainly better than wood lice.

Continuing the surprise visits to classified places, the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole pop into NASA as the Valkyrie rover discovers “God save the Queen” spelled out in rocks on Mars’ surface. Having offered to take Clara to the Hives of the Ice Warriors in “Robot of Sherwood,” the Doctor finally makes it back to Mars one companion later, zipping his team to 1881 Mars when the message originated. In the conclusion, the message is laid as a beacon to the Galactic Federation who vow to help relocate the Ice Warriors away from their now-dead planet. Cute, but questionable, leaving such a message after the rescue, a prank worthy of Missy or River Song but rare for the Doctor.

In this turnabout semi-homage to the 1964 Michael Caine film “Zulu” about 150 Victorian soldiers fighting 4,000 Zulu warriors, Gatiss touches on more commentary on racism as Victorian soldiers attempt to subjugate Mars’ indigenous peoples, dismissing them as upright crocodiles. A reference to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe compounds the racism when the soldiers nickname the rescued Ice Warrior “Friday” and turn him into their butler, although it is clear through “Friday’s” epic sighs that he is only tolerating these jerks as long as they’re doing his dirty work. Political commentary remains with vague references to the ongoing “look to the future” Brexit debates.

Upon arrival, dashing Victorian officer Catchlove greets Bill. Played by Sir Ben Kingsley’s son Ferdinand Kingsley and recently palace chef Francatelli in Victoria, Catchlove is outfitted in an awesome steampunk diving suit turned space suit, and that is the last time he’s awesome as he quickly slides into a quintessential blustering imperialist and brashly seizes control of his platoon. Why would soldiers in the veldt have a diving helmet, by the way?

Nardole rushes to the TARDIS for ropes, but it takes off with him and parks itself back at the university. The TARDIS previously ran off like this in the last Ice Warrior episode, “Cold War,” due to the HADS. As he is unable to cajole the TARDIS into returning, Nardole is forced to let Missy out of the Vault, begging the question, Did Missy set this up? Answer: Obvi.
(Real story: Gatiss was asked to include Nardole after he’d written the screenplay.)

Using the Death Star-like weapon/drill Friday taught them to make, the Victorian soldiers pierce the Ice Warrior queen’s chamber. Portrayed by perennial villain Ian Beattie, known to Project Fandom regulars for playing ain’t shit characters like Game of ThronesSer Meryn Trant and VikingsKing Brihtwulf, Jackdaw inadvertently activates the sarcophagus by prying and wakes Queen Iraxxa after some 5,000 years, becoming the first to die at the hands of her laser weapon which turns men into garbage wads. Much posturing and yelling ensues on both sides, with a few humans left dead, including the explosive Catchlove, thanks to catching a bullet from the colonel. The Queen herself is just OK, reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Klingon females Lursa and B’Etor, calling for her warriors to arise and smash the small party of invaders but finally simmering down to wait on the Galactic Federation for relocation. Amusingly, she consults Bill’s opinion as a fellow female amongst the clattering men:

“We are both surrounded by noisy males. I would value your opinion.”

She presumptively turns the colonel’s long-standing death wish into conscription, along with apparently the remainder of his men. Yet again, the Doctor, having temporarily settled tensions between a stranded party of humans and deadly extra-terrestrials, leaves the humans to handle themselves. Despite the Doctor’s poetic description of the Ice Warriors as capable of epic destruction yet deep feeling, not unlike said Klingons,  nothing else supports that.

Unfortunately, the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole have very little to do other than to appeal to the titanic females, the Queen and Missy. The Doctor attempts to intervene on the humans’ behalf and ends up tossed in the brig with Bill and the cowardly colonel, where he literally observes the progressing action through a hole. Shoutout to Pearl Mackie, looking fantastic with a long braid and Hunger Games Quarter Quell spacesuit, as Bill gets totally fed up with archaic attitudes, believably shouting, “LISTENNN…” before going off. The Doctor’s corresponding face recalls the 9th Doctor watching Rose explode on the Victorian undertaker Sneed in Gatiss’ first episode “The Unquiet Dead.”

The conclusion was, yet again, a bit of a speedy mishmash with much talk of bravery and service but not many specifics on how that might come about, and seemingly no protest from the humans who previously just wanted to go home. This marks the third 10th season episode to breach a type of tomb or vault, cementing definite foreshadowing of the final episodes, but what of? Most likely the return of the Monks in their true form, AKA probably the Mondasians, considering this plot essentially mirrors 1967’s “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” in which a similar group of terrible humans attempt to raid the Cyberman tomb and accidentally wake them. Speaking of foreshadowing, at the very end,  Nardole and Missy return in the TARDIS, with the latter giving the Doctor a thorough once-over and asking if he’s truly alright. Has any season spent this many episodes alluding to a Doctor’s regeneration?

Quotes, Theories, & References

  • “Listen… I’m gonna make allowances for your Victorian attitude, because, well, you actually are Victorian.”
  • Gatiss had planned to produce a “Sleep No More” sequel for this episode but opted for the Ice Warriors instead as it might be his last Doctor Who episode, bringing his writing full circle after starting with the Victorians in 2005’s “The Unquiet Dead.” Iraxxa wakes her warriors with, “Sleep no more,” in allusion
  •  The Queen Victoria portrait is of Pauline Collins’ portrayal in the 10th Doctor’s “Tooth and Claw,” when she contracted lycanthropy (werewolves) and formed Torchwood.
  • Catchlove is based on a real man named Edward Napoleon Buonaparte Catchlove from that general era, mentioned in a book called Running the Show by Stephanie Williams.
  • The 2nd Doctor took Jaimie, Ben, and Polly to the moon in “The Moonbase,” 2 years before Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing (although it was set in 2070).
  • “I have a bad feeling about this.”—borrowed from every Star Wars film.
  • Jackdaw’s song “She Was Poor But She Was Honest” wasn’t recorded until the 1930’s.
  • Victorian slang: “all my puff,” “sweet Fanny Adams,” “rhino,” “a load of gammon,” and “blue funk.”
  • NASA: Last visited by the Doctor in 2011’s “Day of the Moon” versus the Silence.
  • Logic-wise, let’s all just pretend living on Mars is equivalent to Earth like we haven’t been watching The Expanse. And where are they bathing?
  • Bill’s movie references return with a vengeance: The Terminator, The Thing, Vikings (1958), and Frozen.
  • Bill compares the Ice Warriors to Vikings; not knowing she means the movie, he agrees, having of course personally known Vikings through Ashildr.
  • The Doctor comments that he loves a countdown, calling back to “Heaven Sent” when he said his whole life was a countdown.
  • The Doctor was made an honorary guard of the Tythonian Hive after the 1979 episode “The Creature from the Pit” with a similar plot line.
  • The sonic screwdriver is once again defeated by wood, yet another time this season where his gadgets were totally useless.

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About Sarah Powers (168 Articles)
By day, Sarah Powers is an eminently sensible journal editor, but, by night, she can be found watching questionable scifi, pinning all the things, rewriting lists, pantry snacking, and not sleeping. She was once banned over an argument about Starbuck and Apollo, and she has to go right now because someone is wrong on the Internet.

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