11 June 2017

Doctor Who Empress of Mars review

2017 Series Episode 9 - tx 10/06/17. Written by Mark Gatiss. Directed by Wayne Che Yip. Episode reviewed by John Connors.
Funny how things turn out. There we were getting excited about the return of the Ice Warriors when what Mark Gatiss’ lively episode does even better is the return of the supporting characters. It’s been a while. One of the aspects of the Steven Moffat era has been relatively brief appearances by cast members outside of the regular or returning cast. Once in a while someone pops up who gets more to do- David Suchet being a recent example- but generally those additional characters are just there to flesh out the plot. Delightfully in this episode Gatiss gives at least five of the guest cast significant chunks of material so that you feel as if you know them a bit. Makes a welcome change.
Ssssspoilerssss beyond this point…

 Naturally the Ice Warriors are great. Shot here to further accentuate their size, these green armoured behemoths were my favourite Doctor Who aliens as a child- and this was when we got lots of globby aliens – so it’s fantastic to see them back and in numbers of more than two. Enjoyable though it was I never quite came to terms with `Cold War`s’ depiction of the unclad Ice Warrior as a Xenomorph- like tube scrambler; I kept imagining Ssorg or Sskel doing this and spending an hour getting out of their armour! Thankfully this behaviour has been quietly dropped. None of this episode’s Ice Warriors remove anything instead displaying a trick much more in keeping with their bulk as they push up through the red sand. That I can imagine Sskel doing!
The other innovation was the Empress Iraxxa, played with appropriate relish by Irene Lynch whose cry of “Rise my Ice Warriors, Rise!” will no doubt become a convention bar favourite for those fans who love to repeat lines from the series. The idea of the lone Ice Warrior whose discovery on Earth brought the Victorians to Mars (yes we were all wondering how that happened) becoming a servant does seem similar to those tea serving Daleks and even Staxx but plays out differently.
The initial information about this episode suggested Edgar Rice Burroughs with its bold Martians vs Victorians concept and some of this has remained. The Victorians’ huge digging machine (Vega Nexos would love one of them!) built with Ice Warrior help and their insistence on a table cloth on a wooden table on Mars is just perfect. Yet Gatiss eschews a full on fantasy romp instead going for more of a Zulu approach as we see the situation from different viewpoints.
Anthony Calf’s Godsacre who is revealed as a coward who’d escaped execution is particularly effective drawing on the actor’s usual type then taking it elsewhere unexpectedly. Ferdinand Kingsley’s Catchlove is no less a bloodthirsty leader than Iraxxa but lacks her cunning and acts out of self- preservation proving in the end to be more of a coward than Godsacre. Jackdaw played by Ian Beattie is a sneakier operator, out for what he can get and I was surprised (in a good way) that he is despatched so early. As for Bayo Gbadamosi’s Vincey, wasn’t he just the one person you thought would survive till the end and Gatiss kills him. How could you?
I’m amazed reviewers have been critical of these characters but it may be because they’re not used to this amount of material being given over to others apart from the Doctor and co in recent series. I personally would like to see more of this sort of thing because we will remember these people and it adds to the depth of the episode. What I also liked was the way Iraxxa and Bill have a sort of connection amidst the “noisy males” and how Bill and Friday became best mates. Throughout the episode did a great job in developing the scenario given the obvious limitations. I suppose we would like to have seen the whole Ice Warrior hive awaken but maybe someone will be able to do that one day.
A word about that rather shocking development of the Ice Warrior weapon. I loved the old distorted mirror reflection effect they used back in the day and it’s great that this new look references that but goes further and leaves each victim as something like an inflatable! I suppose it's easier to tidy up at the end of a long battle! And for a tiny percentage of the audience (ie us fans) there was Alpha Centauri on tv in 2017!! It’s the most unexpected revival since the Macra showed up in `Gridlock` but even better (the now 92 year old) Yssane Churchman is back, Back, BACK to do the voice. 
Of course I’m aware that people who are not uber fans may not have got quite the same level of excitement from this episode as we did. Seeing more than two Ice Warriors, those new guns, a Martian Empress, Alpha Centauri- these are things we love and there was even the “rank has its privileges” phrase heard in `Day of the Daleks`. Yet I feel the episode is still a tremendous amount of fun even if you don’t get the significance of these references. Sometimes you wonder if Gatiss is deliberately echoing the actual structure of classic stories by putting the Doctor and Bill in a cell and writing those supporting characters. By the way it was yet another triumph for our leading couple this week. Peter Capaldi's performance now has so many shades as well as a devilish humour that it is a joy to watch him each episode. Nobody has given us such a nuanced Doctor since Tom Baker, it's really odd how this year he seems to have caught the moment. It makes his impending departure such a shame of course.
Visually the oranges and reds plus the big old drilling machine and the appeal of the green “upright crocodiles” against the Victorian uniforms really added much to the production. The detail was impressive especially in those wonderful steampunk spacesuits the Victorians had. This careful approach also spilled into the script which even included a real nineteenth century song and lots of genuine expressions like “my old love” and “right as ninepence”. Oh and there was an Ice Warrior collecting crockery and though we didn’t see it I suspect he does the dishes.
`Empress of Mars` is a delight, packed with incident and re-establishing the Ice Warriors as a more interesting antagonist than the better known Daleks or Cybermen. Let’s hope this is not – as he has hinted it could be – Mark Gatiss’ last episode because Doctor Who needs his rich, spirited stories.
Ysanne Churchman who voiced Alpha Centauri but is best known as Grace Archer. Ysanne is the oldest actor to appear in Doctor Who.

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