Doctor Who – Season 10 Episode 9
“Empress of Mars”
Doctor Who heads to Mars after a message is discovered on the surface left at the time of Queen Victoria.
The most recent episodes have been really full on so it was possibly for the best for the show to slow down and deliver something more stand-alone. It did feel refreshing to be focusing on something new after three weeks of dealing with uninteresting Monks.
As set-ups go this episode couldn’t be simpler. The Doctor and Bill take a day trip to NASA and discover the message that leads them to Mars during the Victorian Era where they encounter British Soldiers and a lone Ice Warrior. Immediately this raises a number of questions such as “How did the soldiers get there?” and “Why is the Ice Warrior working with them?” so it’s a solid basis to build the episode.
The early scenes are fairly promising as we are told the backstory and receive a basic introduction to the secondary characters. None of them are especially memorable but the visual of British Empire Soldiers on Mars is just bizarre enough to work.
One thing the episode does very well is establishing that the situation isn’t as simple as Humans vs. Aliens. The Humans in this story are far less than sympathetic as they talk about Mars being another territory annexed by the British Empire. Depending on your political views this doesn’t paint them in the best light so it is certainly easy to lean towards the Ice Warriors as the sympathetic party in all of this.
Interestingly the Ice Warriors aren’t entirely sympathetic either. Friday (Richard Ashton) is outed as a liar as the episode progresses. He initially tells the Doctor and Bill that he returned to Mars because he’s old and tied but it turns out to be an elaborate plan to wake up his Empress. Even at that his motivation can be largely understood as he is faced with a scenario where he could be the last of his kind so it would stand to reason that he would want to make sure that his people can survive.
The Doctor even addresses this argument by stating that he finds it difficult to take a side here. It’s not a long or detailed moral quandary but the fact that the episode doesn’t treat it as a simple “Aliens attack Humans” scenario is somewhat appreciated. I do think it should have been the backbone of the episode though.
Once the Ice Warrior Empress (Adele Lynch) wakes up there is a lot of potential for an exciting conflict that never quite materialises. The Ice Warriors themselves look great with a very 70s edge to the costuming while updating them nicely but the clunkiness of the suits probably made it difficult to create engaging action out of them. I did like the effect their weapons had on the soldiers even if there was a complete lack of investment in them making their deaths completely lack in impact.
Bill’s interactions with the Ice Warrior Empress stand out because focus is given to a female perspective among males. The Empress only values the opinion of another woman because she doesn’t trust men for reasons that remain undisclosed. Bill is able to talk her around somewhat due to that bond but the episode doesn’t do enough with it. The main problem is that the Empress’ motivations are so thinly developed that it’s unclear why she values Bill’s opinion over anyone else’s. It wouldn’t have taken much to establish why she doesn’t trust men so it’s puzzling as to why the episode doesn’t do it. It could have been an interesting reversal on the British soldiers who wouldn’t consider women equals at that point in history.
The resolution of the Ice Warriors story was really underwhelming as well. Fair enough an agreement is reached and the origin of the message that led the Doctor here in the first place is revealed but the tension on display here was somewhat lacking. At no point did I feel invested in the conflict so it meant that I didn’t really care about it when it ended. I also didn’t feel that the Doctor and Bill were ever in any real danger. The episode completely runs out of steam very quickly and never recovers.
An uncooperative TARDIS is one way this episode attempts to create tension. In theory the Doctor and Bill being cut off from an escape route because of an absent TARDIS is a good idea that has worked well in the past but it falls flat here because the episode fails to establish tension anywhere else. It’s also a transparent attempt to further the vault story but this falls flat as well since it’s more clumsy than interesting. Nardole enlisting Missy to help him fix the malfunctioning TARDIS should have been more significant than it was but it came across as limp. The Doctor’s reaction to seeing her at the controls was just bizarre and Missy promising that she doesn’t mind going back into the vault failed to garner any interest from me. This season really has lost momentum lately and I hope that it can regain some of it now that we’re in the last run of episodes.
An underwhelming entry that fails to take advantage of the potential it has. One of the best things this episode has going for it is the idea that the conflict isn’t a simple one and that the Doctor finds it difficult to take sides because he sees both points of view. The episode addresses it but doesn’t explore it so it’s left as something that feels unresolved. Similarly the Empress trusting Bill because she’s a woman doesn’t quite work because her motivations aren’t well developed so it’s unclear why she doesn’t trust men.
The Ice Warriors look great with a 70s touch to the costumes while updating them nicely. It’s clear that the suits are too clunky to make the action exciting but the effect of their weapons is cool to see. The resolution to the episode is underwhelming and the continuation of the vault story is clumsy at best. This season really has lost momentum in the second half so hopefully it can be regained for the final run of episodes.
- great looking Ice Warriors
- some good ideas
- potential that isn’t lived up to
- a lack of tension
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