Doctor Who Series 10, Episode 9
“Empress of Mars”
Posted by Sage
Rumor has it that Chris Chibnall is considering instituting an American-style writers room on Doctor Who. And Series 10 is turning out to be a great example of how changing that structure would change the stories that are being told. As Kim and I have both been saying throughout our recaps this year, the Doctor and Bill are vessels for this season’s writers to work through their fear and anger about What’s Happening in the World™; thus the proportion of allegorical episodes is higher than usual. And that’s fine. That’s what art is for. But I wonder if sketching out a series together would have resulted in a more varied set of episodes, with some fun to offset the life lessons.
In “Empress of Mars,” Mark Gatiss tackles colonialism and the insatiable appetite of the British empire. (I’m in the middle of my 6000th viewing of Eddie Izzard’s Dressed To Kill, and this episode can be summed up by the “Do you have a flag?” bit.) Fortunately for all of us, it goes much better than his exploration of modern obsession with productivity did in “Sleep No More.” Though I didn’t ENJOY that episode, I did have a great time ripping it to shreds.
I caught some of “Robots of Sherwood” on BBCAmerica the other day, including the part where the Doctor tries to nudge Clara into an adventure that’s a little more him, like visiting the Ice Warrior hives on Mars. So bringing these guys back to Who is something the writer’s been thinking about for a while. And when you’re dealing with a classic monster, you don’t want to be like, “Hey, here come those crazy Ice Warriors! Wonder what they’ve been up to.” Their reintroduction in this episode is super effective, since the British regiment are so pumped up with self-importance that they really believe that this creature they haven’t even endeavored to understand is really their loyal servant, Friday. This isn’t Terminator. It’s Planet of the Apes, and the Ice Warriors are just biding their time.
Another pro for this episode is that it dispatches Nardole pretty quickly. (I’ve warmed somewhat, but I can only handle him in small doses.) Bill falls into the underground camp, so the Doctor orders Nardole to the TARDIS, which engages and takes off as soon as he’s in the door. (She always takes you where you need to go, so where he needed to go was Missy? The Doctor needs her for some reason? I’m getting way ahead of myself.) It’s a good choice because, lest we forget, Nardole isn’t a human. And this negotiation had to happen human-to-Ice-Warrior, with a Time Lord as a referee.
Once they’re both down in the hole, Bill and the Doctor find that some of the Victorian British soldiers calling Mars their temporary home are dicks, some aren’t so bad, and most are just following orders and holding with the status quo. The story they hear is colonialism in its purest form: the invader acts as if they’ve done the invadee a favor by barging in and taking control. And that may be true-ish for the soldiers and Friday, but the former were really pushing their luck by saddling the latter with a stupid name and making him serve them tea. Then again, did he have a flag?
When you assume that everyone loves and is grateful for you, it makes it difficult to see the forest for the trees… or to worry about how enthusiastic your indentured servant is about helping you to build a colossal drill that could double as a weapon. After the Doctor and Bill convince the men via psychic paper that they’ve been in statis on the ship the whole time (“It waaaas, yes, wasn’t it? Very roomy.”), the Doctor tries to rap with our Man Friday a little bit. The Ice Warrior is “old and tired and spent” (get in line), but the Doctor can sense that there’s more going on here than a busted spaceship and an unfulfilled promise of untold riches. He cribs Bill on the Ice Warrior species, with an emphasis on their changeable nature and vast array of emotions. “They could slaughter whole civilizations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower.” Bill compares them to the Vikings, and she’s not far off.
They say the Ice Warrior ship won’t fly, but the Doctor can see that some of the Brits aren’t in a hurry to leave Mars – not without their payday. The villain of the whole affair is Catchlove, an arrogant, dandy-ish captain who’s gots to get paid. (“The simple fact is, you don’t belong here. The sooner you get off this planet, the better.” “Don’t belong? We’re BRITISH.”) Fun fact, Catchlove is played by Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Ben. Google image tells me he is very cute and dates (dated?) Louise Brealey from Sherlock. Carry on.
Those Ice Warrior jewels finally show themselves when Gargantua breaks through a wall that surrounds a lavish tomb – the tomb of the Ice Warrior queen. The unevenness of the match-up puts the Doctor in a tricky situation. The humans are in the wrong, he confirms to Bill. But the Ice Warriors can destroy all of them without breaking a sweat. You can’t broker peace and dole out punishment at the same time. The Doctor wants to prevent bloodshed, so he has to hope that the British soldiers will realize the error of the ways on their own. He has no choice but to help them, disgusted by some of them though he is.
A couple of men are put on watch while the Doctor tries to convince Catchlove and the rest to leave the queen well enough alone. (Even if they want what they were promised, it’s another indication of the men’s weak characters that they have no qualms about desecrating what they believe to be a grave.) Of course, one rogue idiot decides to wrench a jewel off of the sarcophagus, waking the queen, aka Iraxxa, aka the Empress of Mars. (Are we amused NOW, Queen Victoria?)
And can I get a “YAS, QUEEN” for this she-Predator REALNESS? Cheers, creature department. She’s magnificent.
One of the men very rudely pulls a gun on her, so turns him into a box. (What a neat trick.) Friday is like, “So, um, we’ve been asleep for 5,000 years. But it’s fine.” Catchlove tries to start shit; the Queen calls him “the pink thing.” The Doctor steps in to vouch for the gross ignorance of the men who surround her and pleads for her mercy on them. Even Friday backs him up. But because toxic masculinity trumps self-preservation, the men try to shout the Doctor down and defend their own honor. The queen interrupts them all. “And you, female,” she says, addressing Bill, whose behind them all. “What do you say?”
She joins the Doctor and Friday in advocating for a peaceful conversation, and Friday asks the Queen not to take into account the shame of his service of the soldiers. It was a “tactical decision.” But a clumsy hand lets a bullet fly and it ricochets off of the Queen’s armor. The ceasefire is over as soon as it started, and the soldiers scatter. They use Gargantua to block Friday and the Queen in the tomb, and Catchlove decides that now is a good time to try and assert his dominance. He exposes their colonel as a deserter who was meant to be hanged. This information is completely irrelevant right now, the Doctor tells him. No one is fit to be in charge because every last one of them is out of their depth, coward or not. But it’s enough for the men to start following the captain’s orders, so they throw Colonel Godsacre, the Doctor, and Bill into the makeshift brig.
But Catchlove’s drive isn’t bravery; it’s just greed and malice. The colonel cops to cowardice, but says that Catchlove took advantage of his knowledge of the colonel’s shame and “bled me dry.” With a mad men like that in charge of the mission, all of them are definitely dead. But their ace in the hole is Friday, who, even though he’s been humiliated and lowered by these men, still wants this situation to come to a bloodless end. Real pride comes from knowing who you are, no matter what happens to you. And the Ice Warrior retained his principles, because the way that he was treated has no bearing on what he knows to be true about himself and his race. That’s going to save them all.
In the meantime, the Queen wakes up the rest of the Ice Warriors (gorgeous shot there), and the soldiers pathetically fight a losing battle. Noble land mermaid Bill Potts speaks for all of them again, since the Queen asked for her take earlier. She links hands with Friday to symbolize the union they can have, but frankly, it’s too late and the British have embarrassed themselves (and Queen Victoria) too much. So the Doctor hops into Gargantua and gives the Queen an ultimatum: either she calls off the offensive or he shoots straight upward, and they all die in an avalanche of ice and snow.
What happens next is not the norm in the universe of Doctor Who. Catchlove gets a hold of the Queen and uses her as a hostage so that he can get to the ship which, by the way, has been functional for a while now. But before he can strand them all there (and, what, take an Ice Warrior Queen back to Victorian England?), Godsacre steps in his path and shoots Catchlove dead. And I’m a little conflicted about it, to be honest. I mean, he had to go, that’s for sure. But is this the way that Godsacre proves his bravery? Even more troubling is the next bit, where he asks Iraxxa to “finish the job” because Godsacre believes he deserved to be executed for desertion. It takes more courage to live with guilt – to try to make up for where you went wrong. Yet this offer of his passes by without much comment, except for the queen refusing to put him out of his misery. She asks him to pledge his allegiance instead, and his agreement finally brings about the truce. (“I knew that would happen. Always been my problem.” “What?” “Thinking like a warrior.”) Later, the Doctor congratulates Godsacre, telling him that he “changed the mind of a very stubborn Martian monarch.” By what, saying “please help me commit suicide?” I don’t really see why Godsacre should be lauded here, and I wish this particular plotline had a bit more nuance.
One crisis averted (and celebrated by Bill and the Doctor showing up to NASA Mission Control JUST TO GLOAT), another is set in motion by Nardole. The TARDIS brought him back to the university where he had no choice but to ask Missy (“Excuse me, miss?”) to help him fly it back to Mars to save Bill and the Doctor. So when Nardole picks them up, there she is, seductively peering from behind the console. (Seriously, the sexual tension in this scene…) The Doctor panics, because this is definitely against the rules of her execution agreement. But Missy just wants to know one thing, and her single question lends some legitimacy to the theory that Twelve’s regeneration has already (sniff) begun.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- My notes: “YAY BLACK WOMEN AT NASA.” Also, I love the detail of the controller’s sweaty upper lip.
- More notes: “Literally how does Peter keep getting better looking.”
- “Basic physics, innit?” “Could have been BASIC DEATH.”
- Nice touch to have a portrait of the Queen Victoria from “Tooth and Claw,” but WHAT IF props had aged up Jenna Coleman’s Victoria for it? I would not have been mad.
- “Such a fanciful notion. A woman in the police force!” “Listen. I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes, because you actually are Victorian.”
- “You dare touch me?” Listen, I identify with this Queen more than I think I’m supposed to.
- Ughhhhhhh I have to talk about the Gatiss email, don’t I? Very well. As you may have heard, apparently the writer was initially against casting a black actor as one of the soldiers and went so far as to REQUEST the BBC not do it. He cited that the British army were fighting the Zulus at the time, which may SOUND like some bizarro form of sensitivity. But these questions of authenticity come up in strange (read: sadly predictable) places. Compare the portion of the show’s international audience who would remember that historical detail to the masses who love the modern series for its relatively reliable colorblind casting, at least in supporting roles. He also called it a “difficult email to send” because of course trying to block that colorblind casting is all about how the white man who has the influence to do so feels about it. How depressing it that.
ANYWAY, Missy is out, y’all! And John Simm can’t be far behind. While we wait to see what she’s really up to, let us know how you liked “Empress of Mars” in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBCAmerica