Thursday 15 June 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-9 -"Empress of Mars"

By George, that was jolly good fun, what?

"Empress of Mars" is inarguably the most straightforward episode we've had this year, and in a season that has seen a conscious attempt to go back to basics, that's saying something. There isn't a single surprising thing in this episode; even that lovely monster cameo at the end is about as predictable a bit of fanwank as you could get with Mark Gatiss in charge. Indeed, this is about the least surprising episode you could get from Gatiss; Victoriana crossed with Pertwee, with a touch of Troughton, is about as Gatiss as you could get.

None of which is a criticism. Straightforward and predictable is not always a bad thing. Sometimes all you want is a good, old-fashioned adventure where you know who's good, who's bad, and who appears bad but will ultimately come good. After a few episodes that tried to do new things with Doctor Who but didn't really pull them off, going back to the old days and just doing it bloody well is a tonic.

This is an episode that exists primarily to justify some arresting visuals. Mars is always a source of spectacle, and the conceit of the British Army colonising the planet, red tunics against red soil, couldn't be anything other than gorgeous. Opposing the red tunics are the iridescent green carapces of the Ice Warriors, and the Empress Iraxxa, with her crimson visor. It's an array of red and green.

The Ice Warriors always were the archetypal big green monster, huge clomping lizards with pincer hands and rasping voices. They've been refined a bit since then, both in the Peladon stories of the seventies (on which, more later) which introduced the Ice Lords in their fine capes and glitter, and again in 2013's "Cold War." This is the new Ice Warrior that Gatiss introduced then, thankfully not slithering out of its carapace for a sneak around some ducts. Ice Warriors, to me, should be towering, clanking brutes, and so they are here. But that doesn't mean they can't be characters. While the bulk of the Martian cast are lumbering monsters, the main man Friday is a rather interesting character, a being who has a genuine reason to be conflicted between his ancestral ties and his current situation. The success of the character really goes to actor Richard Ashton, who gives a quiet and dignified performance as the lonely Martian. He absolutely raises the episode up above the sheer silliness it could have been, portraying the noble creature who looks sluggish and cold-blooded but is actually passionate and possessed of a delicate enough touch to catch a saucer in one chitinous pincer.

Also impressive was Adele Lynch as Iraxxa, a character that veered close to becoming a walking cliche of the "Aren't men stupid?" variety but thankfully avoided it. She actually turned out as a rather well-written antagonist, one who never let her understandably strong loyalty to her people lead her to do something stupid. It's a good thing the decision was made to allow the Martians to speak with an easily understandable voice style, instead of hoarse rasping, although for a moment I was convinced Iraxxa was played by Sarah Parish, since she sounded exactly like the Empress of the Racnoss from "The Runaway Bride." Of course, the Martians would sound better here, because this is their natural atmosphere - that was established as far back as 1969's The Seeds of Death.

The human characters are almost as important in an episode like this, and much of the running is held together by Anthony Calf's excellent performance as the "coward" Colonel Godsacre. A note perfect performance of another archetypal character, that rises above cliche by virtue of strong writing and excellent acting. Also very good is Ferdinand Kingsley as Captain Catchlove, such an out-and-out prig that you can feel how hated he is by every other character on screen, Most of the remaining soldiers get little opportunity to distinguish themselves, although Bayo Gbadamosi made young Vincey very likeable.

There are some lovely visual moments in the episode, from the "God Save the Queen" message to the stars to the sonic disruptors that kill the Martian victims in a bloodless but horrible manner. Most arresting is the Warrior reaching up slowly from beneath the ground, and although this calls back to "The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood," that episode was seven years ago, and so hardly fresh in the minds of most viewers. Although, watching the episode with a normal person (well, relatively normal), suggests that most viewers won't remember there's a difference between Ice Warriors and Silurians. They are, after all, both green, scaly humanoids whose females are surprisingly curvy for reptiles.

Gatiss has already stated that this episode was, briefly, going to be set on Peladon, and that would have pushed the very unsubtle anti-Brexit element of the story to the forefront. The Curse of Peladon was, after all, about the UK joining the European Economic Community. However, we did at least get that wonderfully fanwanky moment when an individual from Alpha Centauri answered the Martians' distress call. Not only was this a direct callback to the Peladon stories - the very first foundations of the Federation that will form two thousand years later, perhaps - but they even got the original Alpha Centauri actor Ysanne Churchman out of retirement to voice the Cyclopean alien once more. Not that it could ever be anyone but the Alpha Centaurians - they are the next star system along, after all. I'm slightly amazed the production team would even show us the bizarre creature again, although its probably for the best that they elected to only show us its head, and not the, ah, shaft.

Capaldi gets to do his best Pertwee in this episode, raging against imperialism and war for its own sake while threatening the aliens with a massive great tank. Pearl Mackie, on the other hand, gets little to do, her presence in the episode being mostly made up of pop culture references and an occasional note that she is the only other female in the main body of the story. It's Nardole's brief presence that's most baffling. While removing him and TARDIS from the story gets rid of an easy escape route for the Doctor and Bill, there is no indication of why the TARDIS suddenly shifts back to Earth. Is it down to something the Master did, and if so, how? And what are we to make of Missy's sudden concern for the Doctor? The only thing I can take from it is that the Doctor has, indeed, already begun regenerating...

Victorian attitudes: There's some questionable racial politics in this episode, or rather, there aren't any. Godsacre's only problem with Bill being a space police officer is that she's a woman, with no mention of her racial background. There's no racial politics mentioned at all, beyond "We're British, we belong anywhere!" which is distinctly odd, considering they've just come from the wars in South Africa. Then there's the casting of Vincey. Bayo Gbadamosi is great, but the idea that a black man could fight not only serve in the British army, but marry a white girl, is almost without precedent. Indeed, Gatiss protested the casting; his interview here makes an interesting point about balancing representation with historically realistic casting. In another story, it might matter less, but in a story about imperialism, it seems a strange thing to overlook.

Best line: "Sleep no more, my warriors!" Mark Gatiss namedrops his own episode.

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