Writer Mark Gatiss will surely rate as one of modern Doctor Who‘s most divisive writers. Over the course of the show’s 12 years on our screens, Gatiss has contributed a whopping number of episodes – some excellent (2005’s The Unquiet Dead, 2013’s The Crimson Horror), some mixed (Victory of the Daleks from 2010) and some altogether awful (2015’s abysmal Sleep No More). At his best, Gatiss has delivered truly chilling, classic Doctor Who stories that tap into the basic fundamentals and strengths of the show, whilst at his worst, his tales reek of fanboy-pleasing concepts and references that do little for the enjoyment of the more causal viewer.
Empress of Mars certainly sits in the higher echelons of Mark Gatiss-penned Doctor Who episodes. After previously reimagining and reestablishing 60’s Who mainstays the Ice Warriors in 2013’s Cold War, Gatiss now gets to play with them in a wider setting, whilst putting a neat twist on the alien invasion format by casting the humans as the invaders.
The initial concept itself is an admirable bit of left-field genius on the writer’s part – victorians invading Mars and seizing it as part of the British Empire is a fun idea that only a show like Doctor Who can tell. Likewise, the titular Ice Queen is a wonderful bit of natural evolution for this classic monster, further strengthening the idea of the Ice Warriors as a rounded and honourable race of aliens with a society and a code, something that was developed over the course of their appearances in the classic series.
What follows is an atypical scenario, one that pays tribute to other 1960’s Doctor Who adventures like The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), with it’s base-under-siege setting and the overwhelming attack of the alien enemy enmasse (see that aforementioned fanboy-pleasing at work). The episode plumps for simplicity over complexity, and delivers what it promises when it comes to its monsters.
Unfortunately, as breezy and enjoyable as the episode gets, the humans-as-the-invaders concept doesn’t go as far as it could, with some of the moral arguments seemingly absent after the first 10 minutes or so. There’s some lovely character development set around disgraced Colonel Godsacre (Antony Calf), whilst Ferdinand Kingsley‘s villainous toff Captain Cathchlove provides plenty of menace as he instigates the conflict between man and martian, but there’s a nagging feeling here that the idea never quite hits the heights its aiming for, instead content to simply get that bit out of the way and get to the Ice Warriors slaughtering the Victorian Soldiers (though the solid effects work and some grisly death scenes are almost worth it).
There are also a few annoying potholes that manage to slightly derail an otherwise enjoyable episode – what happens to the remaining soldiers at the end? And why did the TARDIS abandon the Doctor? Annoyingly, these ideas are all left hanging, and are unlikely to be solved.
But these annoying questions aside, Empress of Mars still has plenty to love, from the excellent steampunk-inspired production design, the glorious introduction of the Ice Queen (Adele Lynch) and a cheeky 70’s monster cameo to the ever-charming and funny interplay between the Doctor and Bill (the Frozen line is a highlight!).
As a fun, fluffy and enjoyable bit of typical Doctor Who, Mark Gatiss can certainly chalk this one up as a win, despite proceedings not playing out with the moral complexity an idea like this could and should sustain. As much as his work on Doctor Who over the years has been divisive, we’d certainly be disappointed if Mark Gatiss didn’t make a return to the show at some point.
Doctor Who returns next week on BBC One. Be sure to check out our review.