“Well, I dare say the British Army is more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles!”
Hearing that an upcoming episode of Doctor Who is written by Mark Gatiss is usually cause for trepidation. Despite being heavily involved in Nu-Who the Gatiss-scripted episodes are a very mixed bag. I’ll defend ‘The Crimson Horror‘ and even The Idiot’s Lantern, but even I can’t find too many positive things to say about ‘Sleep No More’ or ‘Robot of Sherwood’ – and I liked them. Gatiss’ last foray into episode writing was with the aforementioned and much-maligned ‘Sleep No More’, which went on to being the the show’s lowest rated episode ever (somehow even lower than the dismal Tennant era story ‘Fear Her’). Is ‘Empress of Mars’ any better?
Well, that’s an easy one – yes, ‘Empress of Mars’ is undoubtedly better than Gatiss’ last offering. Whereas ‘Sleep No More‘ had the wonderful found-footage/horror film set up, it fell apart completely when it came to the big reveal that the big scary sand monsters were made up of the sleep in people’s eyes. Yeah, not the proudest moments in the Nu-Who canon. ‘Empress of Mars‘ desperately tries to avoid Gatiss’ usual problem of his reach exceeding his grasp by reverting to more of a classic type of episode. The Mark Gatiss touches are still in full effect though. A big Gatiss-ism can be seen in the premise in which he, once again, mashes up famous British imagery with an outlandish set up. We’ve previously had The Queen’s Coronation vs. face sucking, TV dwelling aliens (‘The Idiot’s Lantern’), Robin Hood vs. robots (‘Robot of Sherwood’), and The Blitz vs. Daleks (‘Victory of the Daleks’). ‘Empress of Mars’ has it’s own variation on this formula with Zulu-esque red coat clad British soldiers fighting against classic Who villains the Ice Warriors (previously seen in the Gatiss scripted episode ‘Cold War‘). And it all takes place on Mars. Although for such a ridiculous premise, the episode doesn’t feel bogged down by it. ‘Sleep No More‘ ran out of ways to carry on it’s found footage aesthetic, leading to the super-dumb idea that the sleep making up the sand monsters were also cameras… or something, it really wasn’t the best explained. While ‘Empress of Mars’ sticks firmly to well-worn Who territory, it doesn’t run out of steam like some of the much more high concept episodes do.
Like a lot of the older episodes ‘Empress of Mars’ takes place in pretty much just one location; an underground cavern on Mars. The reason for the soldiers being there (they found an Ice Warrior ship on Earth and were led to Mars by the occupant) is quickly explained but pretty much holds up. They’re unable to leave as the ship is damaged on the surface above and there is only one rudimentary space suit between them. It does beg the question – how did the soldiers get from the crash site to the cavern? The premise luckily doesn’t get much thinner than that and a few niggling questions are worth it as the episode ends up being a surprisingly strong one. The stuff with the Victorian soldiers is a particular highlight. The authentic Victorian sounding dialogue and costumes, mashed up with the ridiculous Ice Warriors, are a delight – one Gatiss clearly relishes in. The whole thing feels like one big awesome B-movie. There’s giant lasers, alien hives, steampunk space suits – all the good stuff. It might not be one of the deeper episodes of the series but it is one of the most enjoyable.
The supporting cast are fun, if a little undercooked. The villainous Catchlove, played by Ferdinand Kingsley (son of Ben) is rather one note but he makes for a enjoyably moustache twirling, power hungry subordinate to Anthony Calf’s broken and seemingly cowardly Godsacre. Godsacre’s late-on change of heart isn’t unexpected in the slightest but it’s well done by Calf and Gatiss’ script is sincere enough that you completely buy it. As to be expected Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are absolutely fantastic once again, even as The Doctor and Bill stick to the sidelines a bit more than usual this episode. It’s dangerous move to reduce the best two actors in the show but it works wonderfully, allowing Capaldi to play the Doctor as a diplomat rather than hero. The conflict is between the English soldiers and the Ice Warriors, Bill and the Doctor are just in the middle of it trying to stop one side from completely destroying the other.
‘Empress of Mars’ ranks highly among the Mark Gatiss scripted Who episodes. It’s not quite as enjoyable as ‘The Crimson Horror’ nor as good as ‘Cold War’ but it’s an enjoyable B-movie romp. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Zulu. The cast are all either excellent or enjoyably over the top and the endearingly cheap-looking sets hark back to the simpler days of Russell T. Davies’ Who. It might not go down as a classic episode of Nu-Who but give it a few years. By then I think it will be seen as underrated entry in a very strong series.