There’s a long-standing wisdom that the best episodes of DOCTOR WHO are titled “Something of Something.” Even better when the first “something” is “Planet” and the second is “death.” So on the surface, the Mark Gatiss-penned ‘Empress of Mars’ has everything going for it. Thankfully, this is one case where initial perceptions are gladly confirmed by a instantly classic Time Lord outing. [Look out! Some minor spoilers about!]
After NASA spots the words “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” on the surface of Mars, The Doctor and his companions arrive to discover the unexpected presence of Queen Victoria’s army. In their service is Friday, someone the Time Lord immediately recognises as an Ice Warrior. Yet with Nardole and the TARDIS stuck back on Earth, the actions of the army awaken the Ice Queen, Iraxxa. As a battle rears its ugly head, The Doctor must find a way to convince both sides to stop.
Gatiss has never made any secret of his love for the old-school DOCTOR WHO episodes and creatures, and he is clearly in his element here. It’s not simply a “classic” because of the presence of a recognisable villain, but for its quintessential Britishness. “Don’t belong?” scoffs an affronted Captain Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley). “We’re British. Mars is part of the Empire now.” It’s an episode that could just as readily fit in with the Second, Third, or Fourth Doctors. Indeed, Gatiss also used the Ice Warriors for the Eleventh Doctor episode ‘Cold War.’
Naturally, these are a far more sophisticated breed than the ones first introduced in 1967. Nevertheless, director Wayne Yip finds a terrific balance between paying visual tribute to the often hokey costumes and settings and thoroughly modern sensibilities. The fact that much of the episode is set in a single location helps keep the retro feeling alive.
After a three-part arc over the last few weeks, it was nice to have a return to a good old-fashioned monster mash. ‘Empress of Mars’ leaves its mark firmly on the ongoing continuity, not least of which because of the cameo of bug-eyed alien ambassador Alpha Centuri (voiced by original actress Ysanne Churchman), who previously met the Ice Warriors in the Third Doctor episodes ‘The Curse of Peladon’/’The Monster of Peladon.’ Also leaving us with a number of questions, including where the Missy (Michelle Gomez) arc is taking us, we get the impression this was a small island of fun before the final curtain begins to drop on the Twelfth Doctor.