In the ninth episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole travel to Mars when NASA finds a strange message left on the surface. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For talk of imperialism
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an Ice Warrior (series 7, I think?), but even then, it was a lone Ice Warrior. I don’t have any experience with them outside of the newer series, so I wonder if there’s stuff I missed that was of importance in “Empress of Mars.” (Like, I admit that I don’t really understand the Alpha Centauri thing? Who is that?)
That being said, I did enjoy this episode. It’s not perfect by any means, as I found that there were some strange holes left in it. But there’s still an interesting critique of imperialism nestled in the script, and Catchlove is the kind of villain that you can despise so fully that it’s fun? Seriously, he’s AWFUL, and I don’t feel bad about his death at all. I have a little more sympathy for Godsacre, and there’s more depth to his character here than I would have expected. But my main problem with “Empress of Mars” is that while the plot itself is pretty cool, the characterization across the board felt lacking. Everyone seemed to be only granted a surface-level examination of who they were. And while that worked splendidly for Catchlove, I found myself wanting so much more from everyone else. Despite that she was on screen often, I can’t say all that much about what Bill’s role was here. She has a couple of decent scenes with the Ice Warrior queen, but what do they tell us about Bill? Or about what she’s feeling? Or how this experience has impacted her? If you remove Bill’s scenes, is this episode any different? I’m not entirely sure.
It’s hard to analyze this, too, because it’s clear the Doctor has a longstanding history with the Ice Warriors. We’re told about their emotional and violent culture, and Capaldi does a fine job communication just how deeply upset he is at the idea of the Ice Warriors coming back. But the weight of this history sits over the whole script, and that made it a little challenging on my end to feel a connection to anything. At least Godsacre had another layer to him, and his journey from cowardice to brave dedication was fascinating. He believed so fully in this idea of himself as a coward that he didn’t even fight back when Catchlove revealed what he’d done.
At the same time, it’s a little hard to sympathize with much of this because these are all imperial soldiers. Gatiss’s script addresses this in part through Catchlove; he’s an easy villain to hate because he’s a perfect scapegoat for the violent nature of imperialism. Catchlove truly believed that as soon as he and the others claimed Mars in the name of the queen, Mars was theirs. There’s a telling line of his where he dismisses the Doctor’s notion that they don’t belong on the planet. His response? This all belongs to the Queen, so of course they belong. It’s an absurd, violent idea, but it fits so well with what that character believes. But what of the others? Godsacre’s transformation relies on him becoming a warrior for someone else. Is there much criticism of what he was doing there in the first place? And what of the motivation of the Ice Warriors? I understand that their slumber, once over, compelled them to re-awaken and reclaim their place on Mars. They are the indigenous species. But what is the next step supposed to be? Are the Ice Warriors alive and well in the future? (Does this provide the explanation for the end of that episode in series 7?) What about NASA discovering the message built by the Doctor, Bill, and Godsacre? The Doctor helped it happen, so what now?
Truthfully, as short as it is, my favorite part of this episode was seeing Missy in the TARDIS. I’m still confused as to why the TARDIS took Nardole back to the Doctor’s office. Did the TARDIS want Nardole to let Missy out? Why does Missy think the Doctor isn’t well? Oh, gods, there’s more here than meets the eye, right? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
The video for “Empress of Mars” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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