THE EMPRESS OF MARS
There's a day in every Doctor Who season that dawns with an awful inevitability. Run and hide though you might, here it comes, bearing down upon you with inexorable doom. And thus it was that we trudged, wearily and reluctantly, to the sofas for the yearly Mark Gatiss episode.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could say we were pleasantly surprised, that the usual haze of Gatiss-induced tedium didn't immediately envelop us, that we laughed merrily and were awed, thrilled and profoundly moved? We'd love to write that review. But alas, it was business as usual.
We're not going to say that this is like a classic Who episode. Well, it is, in some ways, obviously. A Dalek with a broken eyestalk could see that. But that maligns the classic series episodes, many of which were brilliant and inventive and fun and gripping and made us fans in the first place. This has some classic features, but very definitely not in the good way.
We start as the Doctor and crew appear at NASA as a mysterious communiqué from Mars come in. Seems Nardole's A-OK with the Doctor swanning off and leaving the vault unguarded these days after nagging him unmercifully about it for the first half of the season. Also, after the rest of the plot had unfolded, we wondered: just why did the Doctor go there, anyway?
Oh well, off to Mars. Bill falls down a hole, and there's actually a moment of heart-wrenching tragedy: Nardole is whooshed away in the TARDIS for almost the entirety of the episode. Nardole! Come back! Or at least take us with you!
But no, we're stuck on the Red Planet with an Ice Warrior and a Victorian dude in a charmingly steampunk spacesuit (love that mini gramophone horn). The Ice Warrior turns out to be the Man Friday to the soldiers' Robinson Crusoe: cue wincing all around at the horrific imperialism of the former British Empire, sure, but isn't this a bit of a fish in a barrel scenario? Hands up anyone who doesn't realise by now that all that stuff was appalling. No one? Not even down the back? Not a particularly hard-hitting political point then, is it?
So it's all fraightfully naice tea and scones as the soldiers outline how they helped out an alien by fixing his highly technologically advanced spaceship for him. O rly? Considering the trouble most people have even putting a flatpack together, all we can say is that it must have had a truly excellent manual. Even less believably, it transpires that their leader was once hanged for desertion but it didn't take, after which his executioners apparently shrugged and let him go, after which he was allowed to rejoin the army. Right.
Although to be honest, we'd rather have a ludicrously unbelievable story than one built from a pile of clichés, which is how the rest of the episode turns out to be structured. The 2IC is a frothingly hot-headed one-dimensional mad dog. The rank and file resent the officers. What's more, the lower ranks include not only someone stupid enough to try and steal things on a planet with no exit but also someone stupid enough to wave his daguerreotype of the Girl Back Home, thus marking himself inevitably for death.
And the Ice Warriors? We like the fact that Friday is in fact playing his bumbling masters, but when the Empress wakes up….sigh. It's just the usual by-the-numbers posturing about how mighty they are, etc etc, interspersed with some all-girls-together stuff with Bill that's utterly cringeworthy. It doesn't even make sense: the Doctor's made it as clear as a Metebilis crystal that the Ice Warriors won't survive unless they work together with the humans, although what this lot, or indeed any humans, are able to contribute to the Ice Warriors' survival is far from clear. After all, the Ice Warriors can outtech the humans on absolutely every level.
Fighty fight fight, the Ice Warriors turn the soldiers into amusingly bouncy bundles of washing and the Empress does some extremely dull ranting. The Doctor attempts to fix the situation not with ingenuity or reasoning, but by threatening the Empress with an enormous gun. Yup. We said an enormous gun. However, before this plan can work, Mr Frothy puts a knife to her throat and the Doctor is all outraged. How, exactly, is Mr Frothy's threat of violence worse than the Doctor's?
We would like to have seen how Mr Frothy's plan would have worked out, as his wheeze of getting an Empress to fix his ship for him strikes us as agreeably deranged. We imagine that Empress training is kind of unlikely to include engineering modules. But hey, you never know. Sadly, we'll never find out as the mad dog gets put down and the Empress marvels at how he was sacrificed without tactical advantage. Personally, we'd have thought that stopping someone who was about to half-inch your transport home was a pretty heavy-hitting tactical advantage, but what would we know?
The Empress spares Godsacre's life, at which point he promptly forgets the Queen he's just entreated God to save and whom he's sworn to serve and instead rapidly enlists in the Ice Warrior army. Um… What's going to happen to the rest of the soldiers we're not sure, and they don't bother to enlighten us. Perhaps the scene where Godsacre spins round and mows them all down was left on the cutting room floor.
The performances are as good as they can be with such a duff script. We all know Gatiss is a fan of the Victorian era, and he's clearly diligently done his research, fact-checking all his references and sprinkling the script with period-appropriate oaths and ejaculations. That's nice. And can we mention the steampunk spacesuits again? They really are good. Otherwise, it's cliché piled on tedium all the way.
Almost. Because the last three minutes are worth the rest of the episode put together. Speaking of ejaculations: yes, after more than 40 years, rudely-shaped Galactic Federation Ambassador Alpha Centauri is back! And voiced, what's more, by the original voice artist Ysette Churchman, now 92. Now that's girl power. We're beyond tickled that she came back. What's more, at the end there's a bonus dollop of Nardole and Missy. We woke up for the first time in the entire episode.
If you're a die-hard fan of trad Who, this is probably entertaining enough. We guess. For us, it's just going through the motions. However, there's one massive bright spot: we're out of the Gatiss zone for the rest of the season. Jolly good show, old chap.
To explain the oxygen thing, "The indigenous Martians were superb engineers" is perfectly OK for a 43-minute episode, although we do wish they'd tried just a tiny bit to also handwave away Mars's apparently new gravity of Earth-normal.
The picture of Queen Victoria features Pauline Collins from Tooth And Claw.
PLEASE DON'T REMIND US
This is chock-full of references to very many things we can't possibly list here, but the most obvious: when the Empress is waking up the Ice Warriors, she commands them to "Sleep no more", which is also the title of another Gatiss episode.