Review: “Doctor Who – Empress Of Mars” (TV Show Episode)

Well, it’s time to review the ninth episode in the new series of “Doctor Who”. Again, although I’m not sure how many of the new episodes I’ll end up reviewing or how long it will take me to review them. But, I’ll try to review as many as I can.

So, that said, let’s take a look at “Empress Of Mars”. Needless to say, this review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS.

The episode begins with a group of NASA scientists eagerly awaiting a transmission from a probe that they’ve sent to Mars. Before the transmission can arrive, The Doctor and Bill turn up to watch.

One of the scientists explains that the probe uses a type of technology that will enable them to see what is underneath Mars’ ice caps. Of course, the transmission from the probe arrives a few seconds later….

Sorry NASA, it looks like Britain got there first!

Using the TARDIS, the Doctor traces the message back to the year 1881 and, along with Bill and Nardole, travels to Mars to investigate. They explore a series of tunnels underneath the Martian ice cap until they suddenly notice that there is a fire burning. Since there’s fire, there’s oxygen … and someone already there.

Soon, both The Doctor and Bill discover that the British army has set up camp on Mars. The 19th century soldiers have travelled there after discovering a crashed spaceship in South Africa. A creature called an Ice Warrior was comatose inside the ship and, after they nursed him back to health and named him Friday, he led them to Mars with the promise that there were riches to be mined:

And, yes, the episode even explains that Friday’s name is a “Robinson Crusoe” reference, as if nobody could work that out themselves.

Of course, both The Doctor and Bill are appalled by the fact that Mars has become part of the British Empire. But, the military officers point out that they haven’t found anything on Mars and are possibly thinking of abandoning the planet. Of course, a few minutes later, the mining team breaks through into a sealed room and discovers a large golden sarcophagus….

Huzzah! Treasure?

The Doctor warns them that this is a hibernating Ice Queen and that they should leave Mars before she wakes up. But, a while later, one of the soldiers decides that it would be a good idea to pry off one of the jewels on the side of the sarcophagus with his pocket-knife…

It’s just one little gemstone. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Soon, it is up to Bill and The Doctor to try to negotiate a peace between the Ice Queen’s reawakening army of Ice Warriors and the Victorians…..

One of the first things that I will say about this episode is that it’s actually a slightly better episode than I had expected. The preview trailer from last week and a description in the TV listings that went something like “…this time, mankind is the aggressor” made me worry that this would be a silly episode that would also be filled with heavy-handed political lectures, like some previous episodes in the series (such as this one and this one).

But, for the most part, this episode is actually a reasonably good piece of old-school sci-fi drama. One of the things that really helps to keep the episode interesting is the fact that the conflict between the humans and the Ice Warriors is a bit more morally-ambiguous than it first appears.

Whilst the Doctor initially appears to take the side of the Ice Warriors, he also realises that they would probably massacre the humans if given the chance.

Rather than a simplistic “good vs evil” episode, the episode is about a conflict between two aggressive military powers and, by extension, two queens (Queen Victoria and the Ice Queen – hence the ambiguous title of the episode and the “God Save The Queen” message at the beginning).

Even so, the Doctor still manages to squeeze in a “state the obvious” lecture about how colonialism is wrong. But, this is fairly brief. The same is true for the other few “obvious” political moments in the episode.

Likewise, the story of this episode isn’t entirely predictable either, and the ending is actually surprisingly clever (with neither side deciding to stay on Mars – for practical reasons, rather than ideological ones).

Another thing that helps to keep this episode interesting is the characterisation. Whether it is Friday’s somewhat conflicted loyalties, the ill-disciplined Victorian troops, or the tension between Colonel Godsacre and the treacherous Captain Catchlove, this episode puts a reasonable amount of effort into the characters. This helps the episode to rise above predictable silliness in some parts.

Yes, the Colonel is probably one of the most complex and interesting characters in the episode.

Still, that isn’t to say that this episode isn’t silly at times. I mean, it’s about Victorian soldiers and reptilian aliens on Mars! It is probably also based on old “Doctor Who” episodes from the 1970s/80s too. Still, the melodramatic parts of the episode are played to full effect and help to add some light-hearted comedy and drama to the episode.

Whether it’s the fact that the Ice Queen gives a very movie-like (for want of a better description) speech to her awakening army or the hilariously old-fashioned Victorian dialogue (eg: “I dare say that the British army is more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles” LOL!!), there’s lots of enjoyably silly melodrama here too.

Likewise, the costume design in this episode is pretty much what you would expect. The Ice Warriors look a little bit like people in rubber suits, but this fits in well with the “vintage Doctor Who” atmosphere of the episode. Although I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of the 19th century military uniforms, they look fairly similar to other depictions of Victorian soldiers that I’ve seen. Even so, the episode manages a few interesting steampunk flourishes too:

I say! Does that space-suit contain a built in gramophone?

The lighting and set design in this episode are surprisingly good too. The episode will often contrast the gloomy red/orange Martian caves with bright blue lighting and/or fog.

Orange and blue are apparently the most visually-pleasing complementary colour pair in existence (it’s why these colours appear in movie posters so often) and this fact is used to good effect in many parts of this episode.

This is only a small scene, but the set design and lighting looks really, really cool.

Seriously, you can’t go wrong with orange and blue. Which is probably why it’s so common in movies etc…

The episode also includes some really awesome ominous red/blue lighting too.

All in all, this is an ok episode of “Doctor Who”. It certainly isn’t the best episode in the series (so far, that title probably goes to either “Extremis” or “The Lie Of The Land), but it is hardly the worst either. There’s some vintage-style sci-fi, a plot that veers enjoyably between serious drama and silly melodrama, and some fairly decent set design too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get something between three-and-a-half and four.

2 comments on “Review: “Doctor Who – Empress Of Mars” (TV Show Episode)

  1. babbitman says:

    I quite liked this one, despite having my doubts (like yourself). The basic plot kept things relatively simple but with sufficient undercurrents to keep it interesting. The Ice Empress was very good, much improved from the old 70s Ice Warrior costumes (they were re-introduced in Series 7 in Cold War, set on a Soviet submarine). Their weapon was quite disturbing too, crumpling people into small bundles of mis-shapen limbs and clothing. Probably give it 3.5 out of 5. A nice touch at the end was the message from the aliens from our neighbouring star:

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Totally. Surprisingly, I don’t really remember the series 7 episode that much though. Oh god, I totally forgot to mention the weapon in the review – but, yeah, as special effects/ futuristic wepaons go, it was certainly disturbingly inventive.
      I also didn’t realise that the part at the end was a vintage “Doctor Who” reference though – I just thought that it was a slightly random comedic moment. Although, being pedantic, I have to wonder how any lifeform can live on a star of all things? LOL!!

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