Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Doctor Who Season 10, Episode 9: Empress Of Mars

This week's Doctor Who goes all Edgar Rice Burroughs on us, as our heroes encounter humans on Mars in the Victorian Era. Fortunately, Taylor Kitsch doesn't show up.

The episode is from frequent Who actor/writer Mark Gatiss. He'ss a very uneven writer, whose output is either just OK or downright awful, yet somehow he keeps on getting work. He previously wrote The Unquiet Dead (OK), The Idiot's Lantern (meh), Victory Of The Daleks (not bad), Night Terrors (yikes), Cold War (good), The Crimson Horror (meh), Robot Of Sherwood (OK) and Sleep No More (the one with the monsters made of eye boogers!). He's also starred in several episodes, including The Lazarus ExperimentVictory Of The DaleksA Good Man Goes To War and The Wedding Of River Song.

Empress Of Mars was definitely a step up from the recent three-part Monks debacle. It feels very much like an old school Doctor Who story, as once again I could easily see this episode airing during the Tom Baker era.

There's way too much going on here though, as lots of ideas were shoehorned and crammed into an all-too brief episode. As a result, none of the concepts on display are given enough time to gel. For example, the Doctor brings up the notion that the humans here are the invaders, encroaching on Martian soil. And BOOM! That's it! The idea is never further examined, expanded upon, or even mentioned for the rest of the episode.

Better they should have shortened the Monk storyline and expanded this one into two episodes!

On the plus side, it's always good to see the Ice Warriors in action, and this episode gave us a bit more info on their culture and society.

Not much Nardole this week, as the TARDIS shanghais him away from the action for most of the episode. In fact the TARDIS becomes the engine that drives the entire plot, which is something I hope they tone down quickly.

Missy comes to the Doctor's rescue at the end, as she continues her campaign to convince him she's turned over a new leaf. I still don't buy her change of heart for a minute.


The Plot:
In the present day, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole show up at NASA to witness a momentous event, as the Valkyrie probe is about to scan the Martian ice caps for the first time. The probe beams back an image of the pole, showing the words "God Save The Queen" spelled out on the Martian surface. Cue stinger and opening credits!

The Doctor and Co. then travel to Mars in the year 1881, which the TARDIS says is when the message was made (give or take a day or two). Nardole detects life forms under the surface, so he, the Doctor, Bill don spacesuits and investigate. Oddly enough, they spot a campfire in an underground cavern (?) and realize there's breathable oxygen there. No one explains why the Martian gravity appears to be the same as Earth's though.

Bill wanders off and falls into a deep shaft. The Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS to get ropes and climbing equipment (?). Nardole does what he's told, and once he's inside, for some reason the TARDIS takes off on its own, kidnapping him and stranding the Doctor and Bill on another planet in the past.

Bill comes to and finds an elevator. Suddenly it opens and a terrifying figure in a steampunk spacesuit exits. The figure removes its helmet, revealing a human face underneath. Meanwhile, the Doctor spots an Ice Warrior, the indigenous species on Mars. It heads toward him menacingly until he gives it a traditional Ice Warrior greeting.

Back on present day Earth, the TARDIS materializes in the Doctor's office. Nardole tries to pilot it back to Mars, but it refuses to budge. Despite the fact that he knows how dangerous Missy is, he goes to the Vault and seeks her help. She says (through the door) that she'd be happy to help, but he'll need to free her first. Despite the fact that for decades Nardole's insisted that the Doctor not leave her unguarded for even a second, he actually considers letting her out...

In 1881 Mars, the Doctor and Bill find themselves guests of a group of British soldiers from the Victorian era, led by Colonel Godsacre. They explain that they found a crashed spaceship in the South African veldt. Inside they found an injured Ice Warrior (who they named Friday, after the Robinson Crusoe character). He asked for their help to patch up his ship, though what help Victorian soldiers could possibly be in repairing space technology is left to our imaginations. In exchange for their assistance, Friday offered to take them to Mars where they can mine it for its vast mineral wealth. Once there, he even helps them build a powerful laser cannon with which to blast the caverns.

The Doctor realizes there are no jewels on Mars, and Friday's using the soldiers to help uncover his hive. He voices his concerns to the Colonel, but Captain Catchlove refuses to believe him. Just then the soldiers use the laser to uncover a large cavern. Inside they find a large sarcophagus, which the Doctor says houses the body of the Ice Queen, leader of the Ice Warriors. Godsacre posts a couple of guards— Jackdaw and Vincey— at the entrance to the tomb, with orders to let no one near it until he figures out what to do.

That night Jackdaw decides to pry some of the large jewels off the sarcophagus, dreaming of riches. For some reason, disturbing the gems causes the Ice Queen to wake up. She kills Jackdaw with a wrist-mounted weapon that compresses him into a small cube (!). 

Friday approaches his Queen, whose name is Iraxxa, and tells her they've overslept by five thousand years, and the planet's now barren and lifeless. Just then the rest of the soldiers enter, along with the Doctor and Bill. A deadly battle seems imminent, as both sides poise to attack.

The Doctor appeals to Iraxxa, telling her that the Ice Warriors can't possibly survive on the surface without help (isn't that what their exosuits are for?), and suggests the two sides work together. Iraxxa notices Bill, and asks her what she thinks as a woman. She says the Doctor's not lying. 

Suddenly one of the troops accidentally fires, hitting Iraxxa's helmet. She returns fire, killing several more men. The Doctor tells Godsacre to retreat, but Catchlove refuses. He reveals that Godsacre is a traitor and coward, and assumes command. He traps Friday and Iraxxa in the tomb, and locks up the Doctor, Bill and Godsacre in a makeshift brig.

Godsacre explains that he was arrested and tried for desertion and cowardice, and sentenced to hang. For some reason the hanging didn't work (?), and he was able to escape and somehow resume command. Catchlove was the only one who knew his shameful past.

Inside the tomb, Iraxxa awakens an army of long-dormant Ice Warriors. They break through the tomb entrance and attack the soldiers. An Ice Warrior breaks through the ground inside the brig, and rises from the ground. Turns out it's Friday, who wants to form an alliance with the Doctor.

Friday frees them from the brig, and the Doctor runs to the laser drill, while Godsacre flees in terror. Just as Iraxxa is about to execute them all, the Doctor points out to her that he has the laser aimed at the roof. If she doesn't stand down, he'll fire and bring millions of tons of ice and rock down on their heads. 

Catchlove then grabs Iraxxa and holds a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her if she doesn't help him pilot Friday's ship back to Earth. Suddenly Godsacre reappears and executes Catchlove for treason. He then begs Iraxxa to kill him. She's impressed by the fact that he coldly executed one of his own, and says she'll call off the attack if he pledges himself to the Ice Warriors. Amazingly, he agrees.

The Doctor then tells Iraxxa he sent out a "cosmic email," and it won't be long before a space-faring race picks it up and offers to help the Ice Warriors. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Alpha Centauri, an alien who first appeared in 1972's The Curse Of Peladon, answers the call and welcomes the Ice Warriors to the Galactic Federation.

Alpha asks for some kind of physical marker to help them land. The Doctor, Bill and Godsacre then spell out "God Save The Queen" on the Martian surface (!).

The TARDIS then reappears, and when the Doctor enters he finds Nardole AND Missy inside. He tells her this can't be, and she'll have to go back to her Vault. She says fine, but then worriedly asks, "Are you all right?"

• We've seen in past episodes (of the modern series, at least) that the TARDIS possesses a level of sentience and often takes the Doctor "not where he wants to go, but where he needs to be."

Never has that been more true than in this episode! This week the TARDIS ends up driving the entire plot. It brings the Doctor and Bill to Mars at exactly the right moment in time, resulting in the Ice Warriors fulfilling their destiny to join the Galactic Federation. It then takes it upon itself to hijack Nardole back to Earth and refuses to budge, knowing he'll be forced to turn to Missy for help, for reasons known only to it. 

And to top it all off, the TARDIS neatly closes up a causality loop, making sure the Doctor writes "God Save The Queen" on the Martian surface. The exact same message he saw at the beginning of the episode!

The problem with a sentient, self-sufficient TARDIS is it opens up a very large can of worms. For example, there've been many, many stories over the years in which the Doctor found himself physically separated from the TARDIS, and had to rely on his wits to get himself out of a deadly situation. But if the TARDIS is capable of materializing itself around the Doctor and rescuing him whenever he's in trouble, then that torpedoes any and all tension from now on. He'll never be in any danger again if his trusty time machine can whisk him away any time it wants.

A TARDIS that can come to the rescue on its own becomes an even bigger writing crutch than the sonic screwdriver, with its ever-expanding list of functions.

• So why did the TARDIS run off with Nardole this week? Does it have some sort of agenda known only to it? Or could Missy somehow be secretly influencing it, and it's actions are all part of an elaborate escape plan?

• Once again Doctor Who muddies the waters regarding just how the TARDIS works. At the beginning of the episode we see it physically hurtling toward Mars, but then a few seconds later it materializes on the planet's surface.

So which is it? Does it fly from one place to another and land, or does it just fade out of one location and into another? The answer is apparently both/neither. It does whatever's convenient to the script.

• For the first half of the season, Nardole clucked like an old mother hen anytime the Doctor left the Vault unguarded. This week he willingly accompanies the Doctor to NASA and even Mars, with nary a complaint. I guess he finally gave up on the idea?

• I really liked the steampunk spacesuit the Victorian soldiers wore in this episode. They looked like they'd been adapted from old-time diving suits and helmets. The tiny Victrola-like speaker on the side was a nice touch.

• Speaking of spacesuits, the TARDIS' wardrobe must have quite an extensive collection of them. These black numbers worn by Team TARDIS this week are an all new design we've never seen before.

Compare that to the Tenth Doctor, who I'm pretty sure wore the same orange spacesuit all through his time on the show.

• Pearl Mackie as Bill must have been paid by the movie reference this week, as she mentions The Terminator, The Thing and even The Vikings. The Doctor gets into the act as well, referencing Frozen, along with the most famous line from the Star Wars franchise.

• Kudos to whoever did the makeup and costumes for the Ice Warriors this week. Especially the Empress— her scaly skin and mouth full of disturbing, pointy teeth were suitably terrifying.

• There was a very nice touch in the episode that went by almost unnoticed. Friday tells the Doctor that he returned to Mars because he's old, tired and spent. He then knocks a saucer off the table and instantly catches it in his claw before it falls an inch, revealing he's definitely lying about his abilities.

• Last week in The Lie Of The Land, the Monks had a room filled with viewscreens that displayed various important events and figures from human history. One of the screens featured an image of the REAL Winston Churchill, and not Ian McNeice, the actor who played the Prime Minister several times in the series.

This week the Doctor mentions Queen Victoria, and we cut to a portrait of her. The painting is of actress Pauline Collins, who played the Queen back in 2006's Tooth And Claw. Interesting.

So why the inconsistency? Eh, it's understandable. In this episode the Doctor actually mentions Queen Victoria before we see the fictionalized version of her. So the audience is clued in as to who she's supposed to be, even if she doesn't look exactly like the real thing. 

In the case of Churchill, far more people know what the real deal looked like than they do the Doctor Who version. If they'd actually showed Ian McNeice on the Monks' monitor, the majority of the audience would have probably said, "Who the hell's that fat guy supposed to be?"

Some internal consistency would be nice though. Pick a version, real or fictionalized, and stick with it.

• The Ice Warrior's primary weapon, which can compress a man into a small, bundled cube, was hilarious and horrifying at the same time!

• When Jackdaw pries the jewels from Iraxxa's sarcophagus, he sings "It's the same the whole world over, it's the poor what gets the blame. It's the rich what gets the pleasure, ain't it all a bloomin' shame?"

This is the chorus from the song She Was Poor But She Was Honest. Trouble is, the song was written by Billy Bennett in 1930, and Jackdaw's a Victorian soldier from 1881. Whoops!

• At one point, Vincey, a black Victorian soldier, looks longingly at a photo of his fiance, who appears to be white. At first I assumed there's no way in hell something like that would have been permitted in the 1800s, and that this was another case of forced diversity trumping historical accuracy.

Turns out that's not the case! Believe it or not, interracial marriage was actually a thing in Britain from the 17th Century on. Mixed marriages weren't always completely accepted in British society, but there were no laws against them as there were in America.

By the way, as soon as Vincey started pining for his girlfriend, talking about getting married in the little church with the twisted spire down by the river, I knew he was as good as dead.

• When locked in the brig, the Doctor tries to open the door with his sonic screwdriver, but it's ineffective against anything made of wood. Frustrated, he cries, "Why is there still no setting for wood?"

Good question, Doc! It's been established that the various models of sonics are made by the TARDIS itself. So it can travel through time and space, but it can't create a sonic that can affect wood?

The sonic's wooden weakness was established back in 2008's Silence In The Library. I was sure it'd been mentioned before then, in the Classic Series, but I guess not.

By the way... where the hell did the soldiers get the materials to build a wooden jail cell door in the first place? I'm pretty sure there ain't no trees on Mars. And what were they burning in that campfire? Did they bring a supply of lumber with them on the ship? Whoops!

• According to water Mark Gatiss, the character of Major Catchlove was named after a real person. Gatiss says he did a lot of research for the episode, and got the name from a history book by Stephanie Williams called Running The Show. The book mentions a Victorian soldier named Edward Napoleon Buonaparte Catchlove, who lived in the period when Empress Of Mars is set. Gatiss wisely shortened the name to Neville Catchlove for the episode.

• Near the end of the episode, Iraxxa wakes her army of Ice Warriors, who are hibernating in small chambers inside a vast cavern.

This is VERY reminiscent of the iconic scene of the Cybermen breaking out of their hibernation pods in 1967's The Tomb Of The Cyberman. In fact the scene in Empress Of Mars is so similar it had to be a deliberate homage to that earlier moment.

• So what was up with the giant eyeball at the end of the episode that welcomed the Ice Warriors to the universe?

That was Alpha Centauri, who in this case isn't a star system, but an old-school character who first appeared in 1972's The Curse Of Peladon. In that episode, Alpha Centauri was a delegate for a Galactic Federation, which included two Ice Warriors!

Actress Ysanne Churchman played Alpha Centauri back in 1972. Amazingly, the show managed to bring her back here to reprise the role!

Many fans have mocked the "ridiculous look" of Alpha Centauri over the years, citing it as a low point in Doctor Who makeup technology. Eh, it doesn't bother me. The episode was made in 1972 on a minuscule BBC TV budget, so what the hell do people expect?

I'm not sure exactly when The Curse Of Peladon takes place, but I'm assuming it was most likely the "present day" of 1972, when it was aired. If that's true, then the Alpha Centauri we see here in 1881 is either very long-lived (which, as an alien, is possible) or an ancestor with the same name as the one in The Curse Of Peladon.

This Week's Best Lines:
Bill: "Maybe someone's been messing around with time. Like in The Terminator."
The Doctor: "
The Terminator?"
Bill: "It's a movie. You haven't seen it?"
The Doctor: "I'm a very busy man."
Bill: "Well, you'd like it. It's got killer robots."
The Doctor: "Oh, I'll put it on the list."

Bill: "Oh, it's like the underground tunnels in The Thing."
The Doctor: "The what?"
Bill: "It's a movie.You'd like that one too. Everyone dies."
Bill: "Even if there are people here, why would they bother writing messages on the surface of the planet?"
The Doctor: "State visit? Patriotic fervour? Rogue graffiti artist?"

Catchlove: (looking at the Doctor's psychic paper) "So, according to this you’ve been on board Friday’s ship the whole time?"
The Doctor: "Yes. We were That sounds... that sounds..."
Bill: "Convincing."
The Doctor: "Yes, that’s right. On his ship."
Catchlove: "Well, I suppose it was pretty roomy, what!"
The Doctor: "Yes! It was!"
Bill: Yes.:
The Doctor: "Wasn’t it? Very roomy. Yes."
(This scene makes me laugh, as it's so blatantly obvious the Doctor and Bill are winging it here)

Godsacre: "Mars is dead. Dead as a coffin nail. Friday is the last of his kind."
The Doctor: "Is he now?"

The Doctor: "The Ice Warriors, they could build a city under the sand yet drench the snows of Mars with innocent blood. They could slaughter whole civilisations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower."
(Nice to see an enemy race that does something besides shriek "EXTERMINATE" over and over!)

The Doctor: "This is the tomb of an Ice Queen. I have a bad feeling about this."
(The Doctor may not have heard of The Terminator, but apparently he's a Star Wars fan)

The Doctor: "The sooner you get off this planet, the better!"
Catchlove: "Don’t belong?! We’re British! Mars is part of the empire now!"
(Good luck maintaining a supply line to it!)

Friday: "He speaks the truth, Majesty. The war, all that we fought for, is less than the dust now."
Iraxxa: "And you! Female. What do you say?"
Bill: "Me?"
Iraxxa: "We are both surrounded by noisy males. I would value your opinion."
Bill: "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Er, they’re not lying to you."

Iraxxa: "You ask for mercy for these creatures?"
The Doctor: "Indeed."
Iraxxa: "Then I grant it."
The Doctor: "Thank you."
Iraxxa: "They will die quickly!"

The Doctor: "Look, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge of your stupid expedition! You don’t stand a chance against the Ice Warriors!"
Catchlove: "What, all two of ‘em?"
The Doctor: "There’ll be more, you idiot! The Hive is active. Don’t you see? They’ll do anything to defend their home planet."
Catchlove: "Well, I dare say the British Army is more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles!"

The Doctor: (trapped in the brig) "There’s no setting for wood! Why is there still no setting for wood?"
Bill: "But you’ve got a plan?"
The Doctor: "Yes, of course, I’ve got a plan. I’m all plans. I’m MADE of plans!

Godsacre: "Who the deuce are you two, really? You speak of us as though we’re a different species. You seem to know all about these these... Ice Warriors.You seem to know a lot about most things."
Bill: "Well, we’re sort of police."
The Doctor: "Speak for yourself!"
Godsacre: "Ha ha ha!" 
Bill: "What, you can deal big green Martians and and rocket ships, but you can’t deal with us being the police?"
Godsacre: "No, no, no, no, no It’s just such a fanciful notion. A woman in the police force!"
Bill: "Listen, yeah, I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes because well, you actually are Victorian. But anyway!"

Bill: "How’s it looking out there?"
The Doctor: "All quiet. It’s traditional, at this point, to say, 'too quiet."

The Doctor: (to Iraxxa) "One good blast from the Gargantua here and your army would be on ice forever. Trapped in an eternal winter like... like Frozen! It’s a movie."

Iraxxa: "You would destroy yourself at the same time!"
The Doctor: "That’s a price worth paying, isn’t it? It’s a simple choice, Iraxxa, the oldest one in the book. We must live together. Or die together."

Bill: (after Iraxxa agrees to call off her attack) "You knew that would happen."
The Doctor: "Always been my problem."
Bill: "What?"
The Doctor: "Thinking like a warrior."

The Doctor: "Mars is dead, but the Ice Warriors will live on."
Bill: "Will they make it?"
The Doctor: "Oh, yes. In fact, this might be the beginning of the Martian Golden Age."
(The Doctor's obviously been watching his old adventures on Netflix)

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