Traditionally Doctor Who is considered to be the protector of Earth and mankind against all manner of alien invaders, but what happens when it’s mankind who are the invaders, and the invades are former archenemies of The Doctor? That’s the conundrum when Victorian age explorers land on Mars amongst a hive of Ice Warriors – what will The Doctor do? Meet me after the small time and space jump for my thoughts on “Empress of Mars.”
The Ice Warriors
I first encountered the Ice Warriors long before I had ever seen an episode of Doctor Who in the book Monsters Who’s Who. Originally conceived as replacements for the at the time retired Daleks, these Martian natives who appear to be armored reptilian humanoids are definitely among the top tier of Doctor Who villains/monsters.
Formidable in both the classic and new era of Who, the Ice Warriors remain among the most popular of The Doctor’s adversaries, and of course this isn’t the first time he’s encountered them in the second series, there’s also “Cold War” and indirectly “The Waters of Mars,” but I wish we’d have more, and here we are, meeting for the first time I am aware of, a female Ice Warrior, an Empress.
The Doctor on Mars
I’ve made no secret of how much I love the often-dismissed and underappreciated film John Carter, so for me, this episode which on its surface pays homage to the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs just rocked my world. The concept of a Victorian expedition to Mars is just the kind of thing that would turn Burroughs’ crank, and maybe those of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as well. Mark Gatiss, one of my favorite creators/performers in both Doctor Who and Sherlock, had a lot of fun with this one.
This wonderful episode opens with The Doctor, along with Bill and Nardole, dropping in on NASA as they are monitoring the new probe Valkyrie, designed to see under the polar caps of Mars. In true a WTF but cool reveal that has been the trademark of the Steven Moffat Who, the first thing the folks at NASA see under the Martian polar cap is a message – “God Save the Queen.” Is that awesome or what? Cue opening credits. I guess we’re going to Mars, and probably the past, to find out what that means.
The Doctor’s Movie List
The Doctor and crew are off for Mars in the year 1881, when the message was created. Other than Bill’s disbelief that The Doctor has never seen The Terminator (he’d like it, it’s got killer robots), he seems quite sure that there were no humans on Mars in the 1800s. They keep running into stuff that does not make sense. They’re underground in man (or other creature) made tunnels, there’s oxygen, and there’s fire. The tunnels prompt Bill to make another observation, that it’s like The Thing, another movie The Doctor would like, cuz everybody dies. I love this. If Bill wasn’t in this show, she would definitely be into this show. Finally a fangirl companion.
Things fall apart quickly when Bill falls down a hole and run into Victorian explorers, the TARDIS seemingly shanghais Nardole, and The Doctor comes face to face with a rather frightening new Ice Warrior – those special effects folks are always upping the ante and improving designs. As if that last one isn’t bad enough, The Doctor also runs afoul of a shoot first ask questions later Victorian era soldier. It is interesting that in the new era The Doctor seems to have a certain respect for the Ice Warriors, as opposed to the hatred he feels for the Daleks or Cybermen. I suppose one could surmise the Warriors are only protecting their territory. Bill compares them to The Vikings with Tony Curtis in one last but frankly older-than-her-years reference.
The soldier, Captain Catchlove, claims that the Ice Warrior, whom he has named Friday in honor of the book Robinson Crusoe, crashlanded on Earth, and he helped him back to health, and returned him home to Mars, in exchange for a fortune in gems on the planet. Catchlove believes that Friday is the last of his kind, but The Doctor knows better. The fact that Friday doesn’t like hearing about The Thing is just the tip of the, pardon the pun, iceberg.
The Doctor doesn’t take long to figure out what’s really going on. Friday needed the humans to help free his hive, and worked up this convoluted plan to do the deed. And once again, we get to see a Who monster serve tea in a Gatiss adventure. Meanwhile, Catchlove’s uncover the hive, and more, the tomb of an Ice Queen, and the entrance of that hive. The Doctor has a conundrum – the humans are the invaders here, and the Ice Warriors could easily wipe them out, should it come to that.
The Ice Queen
Simple human greed in raiding the tomb awakens the Ice Queen, Iraxxa, and she is not happy. The Empress of Mars has a very interesting weapon to kill humans, it turns them into compressed soda can-like husks. Nasty. The Doctor tries to negotiate with her, telling her the surface is barren, and please don’t kill the humans. She doesn’t quite believe him, and so recruits the opinion of the only other female there, Bill. Bill sadly only has one thing to say, pretty much yeah, yeah, the noisy males are right. What a wasted opportunity for Bill’s character.
It’s humans vs. Ice Warriors, with the latter growing in number and superior in technology. As with most stories on Doctor Who, humans end up making bad decisions. Mankind never changes. They turn on themselves, and make enemies of other lifeforms. This should be written into the Doctor Who rulebook along with The Doctor lies, etc. More often than not, mankind itself is the bad guy, and here in “Empress of Mars” it’s no different. In the tunnels of the polar cap on Mars, the battle has begun.
With Friday, switching sides and at her side, Bill makes up for her previous missed opportunity, and distracts Iraxxa in the midst of battle. The problem is that seeing Friday with the humans, and also seeing The Doctor threatening to cave in the polar wastes onto them all, like the movie Frozen, one he has seen, makes Iraxxa even more angry. Not to seem sexist, but seeing how scary and unreasonable the Empress is, no wonder male Ice Warriors are so angry and irritable. Iraxxa, at least, is certainly a handful.
While The Doctor’s threat is moot, it was bothersome to me that he stoops to mankind’s level in making idle threats. It is the soldier Godsacre who saves the day, one who had been ostracized earlier for cowardice. The character has a nice turn of events considering his subplot that was easily dismissible earlier comes to fruition. This is another reason we will miss Mark Gatiss, this episode reputedly being his last.
Endings and Beginnings
There is forward movement in the evolution of a Who monster race, with the Ice Warriors joining the other races of the Whoniverse in the Galactic Federation. There’s a treat at the end of the episode for classic Who fans, with the appearance of Alpha Centauri, voiced by Ysanne Churchman who did it originally, from the Ice Warriors serials “The Curse of Peladon” and “The Monster of Peladon.” That was fun, more please. I always enjoy call backs to the classic years.
And then there is the matter of Nardole. We see him open the vault when the TARDIS returns to the university, and ask Missy for help returning to Mars. At the end of the episode they do return to pick up The Doctor and Bill, who are both rather surprised. Missy on the other hand, seems concerned about The Doctor. Does her Time Lady senses tell her something about her fellow Time Lord? Perhaps his next regeneration is coming maybe?
This was a fun episode, more fun than I thought it might be, but Mark Gatiss always surprises and comes through. The Ice Empress is indeed a scary villain/monster, a proper expansion of the mythos, and suitable for sofa hiding. I also liked the black leather X-Men costumes Team TARDIS were using for spacesuits. Yellow would’ve been better though.
Next: “The Eaters of Light!”