4 out of 5 stars

If this is his last appointment with the man in the blue box, then clearly writer Mark Gatiss had a field day with this week’s Doctor Who, “Empress of Mars”. Right from the pre-titles scene in NASA mission control, he’s packing in references to many of his favourite things. To begin with the Valkyrie probe’s revelation of the message ‘God Save the Queen’ beneath the Martian ice cap is a lovely nod to the framing prologue and epilogue of Nathan Juran and Ray Harryhausen’s film adaptation of H.G Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1964).

As well as Bedford receiving radio transmissions from the moon from Professor Cavor at the end of Wells’ story, more pertinently, in the film, he watches as a manned mission to the moon reveals his and Cavor’s voyage made 65 years ago, having already claimed the planet in the name of Queen Victoria and the British Empire.

This is Gatiss in ‘scientific romance’ territory, evoking not just Wells but also the writer he influenced, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs’ John Carter on Mars series is alluded to in “Empress of Mars”, and both writers emerged from a literary milieu that fused the fantasy of Gothic, the utopian and dystopian traditions, and Verne’s speculative scientific travel fantasies. Mark Rose suggests that the Wellsian scientific romance also pulls together “four logically related categories… space, time, machine, and monster”. These are obviously connected together in Gatiss’ own romance of Mars and its Ice Warriors.

doctor who - empress of mars

There is also the political subtext of Wells to consider too, from the social inequalities debated in The Time Machine to the critique of colonial expansionism found in The War of the Worlds. The First Men in the Moon continued these themes and explored colonialism and humanism where, as Robert Crossley noted in his book on Wells, even Bedford refers to the potential sharing of the moon with its indigenous inhabitants, the Selenites, as “part of the White Man’s burden”.

The Burroughs cycle of ‘John Carter on Mars’ books feature a Civil War veteran, the titular John Carter, transported to Mars right in the middle of his battle with Apaches in Arizona. These stories also offer an allegory of the race wars and white supremacy of expansionism, wherein Arizona and the battles with American Indians are transposed to the multi-ethnic society and landscapes of Mars.

When Bill (Pearl Mackie) seeks to confirm that the man she’s looking at on the walls of the NASA control room is “Neil Armstrong? First man on the moon” it’s easy to see The Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) response of “not quite the first…” as a cheeky reference to the exploits of Bedford and Cavor. However, we’re left wondering why The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole (Matt Lucas) have suddenly turned up at NASA to watch Valkyrie scan beneath the ice caps of Mars. Does The Doctor already know what the probe is likely to find?

doctor who - empress of mars

What he does find is pretty much Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) grafted onto the story, and Gatiss certainly made no bones about his original pitch for the story being “Zulu with Ice Warriors, as it were.” Based upon the TARDIS’s findings, The Doctor and his companions travel back to Mars in 1881 to uncover the origin of the message, and find the British Army encamped beneath the surface. Their campaign in the South African veldt was seemingly interrupted by the recovery of a Martian ship and its occupant. In suspended animation for 5,000 years, an Ice Warrior (Richard Ashton) has gladly accepted the help of the soldiers, led by Colonel Godsacre (Anthony Calf) and his second Neville Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), by trading in some of the riches to be found on the Red Planet.

Nardole is separated from the others when he’s sent to the TARDIS to get lifting gear and ropes, after Bill plunges down a crevice in the Martian tunnels. A hanging subplot here is why the TARDIS automatically takes off with him on board and brings him to present day Earth, despite his repeated attempts to return to Mars. When, in desperation, he seeks out Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) help and lets her out of the vault to pilot the TARDIS back, we’re left wondering whether it’s the TARDIS or Missy pulling the strings.

The Doctor, meanwhile, encounters the Ice Warrior (renamed Friday after Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), and Bill meets the zealous Catchlove. The reference to Defoe adds another layer to the themes of imperialism, the ambivalence of mastery and supremacy, and the subtext that prejudices against an ‘other’ are often the result of irrational fears.

Friday, by accepting his role as servant to the British troops, is playing a much more complex game. Despite claiming he’s old, tired, and spent, he’s used the humans to return to Mars, helped them build a drilling machine called the Gargantua (more echoes of Burrough’s Pellucidar books and At the Earth’s Core in particular), and with it has encouraged them to unearth the Martian Hives and revive the actual monarch the message was referring to: the Ice Warrior Queen, Empress Iraxxa (a rather smashing turn from Adele Lynch).

doctor who - empress of mars

As Bill and The Doctor take tea with the Colonel and Catchlove beneath the surface of Mars, this backstory unfolds to earth tremors and the thunderous sound of drilling. It’s an ironic image that evokes the colonial hi-jinks and absurdity of Carry On Up The Khyber (1968) as Catchlove explains the Gargantua’s purpose is to unearth the promised “gemstones, silver and gold” in the name of Queen Victoria (there’s a quick shot of her portrait, referencing her as played by Pauline Collins in Series 2’s “Tooth and Claw”).

Bill pointedly asks Catchlove what benefits Friday gets from this arrangement, as the Ice Warrior silently waits at table to the call of a dinner bell. “Nothing,” claims Catchlove, and, as Godsacre explains, Friday was hoping to locate his people but by oversleeping he’s returned to a dead planet. The Doctor’s unconvinced that Friday’s indeed the last of his kind and can see that the purpose of the Gargantua is not to make the troops rich but to unearth slumbering Martians. The Doctor eloquently explains the rich history of the Ice Warriors to Bill: “they could slaughter whole civilisations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower.”

Bill’s pop cultural references, of which there are many in this episode, turns to Richard Fleischer’s epic The Vikings (1958) and its eye-gouging scene. Yes, she’s spot on about the call back to Brian Hayles’ original idea in ‘The Ice Warriors”, based on contemporary stories about the recovery of prehistoric mammoths, that the warrior Varga discovered in the ice was Viking because his helmet was mistaken for its ancient equivalent. However, the eye-gouging is, she realises, rather insensitive when Friday lumbers up to her and she see the same damage inflicted upon him. And do check out Mario Nascimbene’s music for The Vikings because, as Bill says, “the theme tune is amazing.” Gatiss transferring his cultural touchstones to Bill, me thinks.

doctor who - empress of mars

Friday’s intentions soon become clear. When the slumbering Empress is uncovered and revived, the tables are turned because, as The Doctor warns, “these sarcophagi were sometimes part of a complex hibernation system” and they’ve probably opened an Ice Warrior Hive. The struggle for power between Godscacre and Catchlove boils over and we learn that Godsacre was almost hanged for desertion. Catchlove retains the line that “We’re British! Mars is part of the Empire now” but few realise the Empress is on course to revive her own Martian equivalent. The Doctor’s caught in the middle, seeing the arguments from both sides, and is reluctant to take anyone’s side: “The humans are the invaders. On the other hand, the Ice Warriors have vastly superior armaments which will wipe the humans out.” So, essentially it becomes the Battle of Rorke’s Drift from Zulu.

Through the avarice of soldier Jackdaw (Ian Beattie), robbing the tomb for his own greedy gain, the Empress is revived and she sets out to stamp her own authority on the situation. However, five millennia is a long time in politics, galactic affairs have since moved on, and The Doctor brings her up to speed: “the world you knew is dead… you must cooperate if you are to survive.” Even Bill assures her that the Mars she once ruled has gone and “there’s no need for anyone else to die today.” The Doctor suggest she fights for the future rather than a long dead past.

Once can’t help feel there are resonances here with Hayles’ own work on ‘The Curse of Peladon”, itself a subtext for Britain joining the EU, and the chaotic situation we face today as we prepare to leave in the vain and regressive hope of creating an Empire 2.0. Gatiss’s script toys with our fanciful vision of Britain’s future being based on a distorted misremembering of the past. He’s intimating that it’s a delusion that will only lead to very poor decisions. Hello, Brexit.

doctor who - empress of mars

This diplomacy doesn’t immediately solve the problem. After a trigger happy soldier fires a round at the Empress, she decides to show mercy by killing all of them. Catchlove turns to the power of the Gargantua to wipe out the Ice Warriors but only manages to temporarily seal them in the tomb. He exposes Godsacre’s cowardice and takes control of the troops. Again, The Doctor warns him the Ice Warriors will defend themselves and, with the Hive active, the British will be outnumbered. Catchlove is on a determined trajectory that will ultimately lead to his demise and, for perpetuating the imperialist fantasy that the British Army is “more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles”, his comeuppance offers us some satisfaction in the end.

Godsacre’s desertion is briefly explored but, like many of the supporting characters in the story, he’s defined in broad brush strokes, and like the others we get brief glimpses of attitudes, convictions, and hopes. As Vincey (Bayo Gbadamosi) chats with Sergeant Peach (Glenn Speers) about his future life with Alice, the revived Ice Warriors emerge from the red dust of Mars and ambush the troops. A battle ensues and Catchlove turns tail to save himself while The Doctor manages to use the Gargantua in a game of brinkmanship with the Empress. As Bill and Friday attempt to dissuade her from war, The Doctor threatens to blast the ice cap and trap Iraxxa and her troops in, to quote Frozen (2013), an “eternal winter”. It’s a simple case of either living or dying together.

doctor who - empress of mars

Typically, Catchlove throws a spanner in the works by bringing a knife to Iraxxa’s throat, but good old Godsacre reasserts his command and shoots the blighter. He offers his own life to Iraxxa willingly and this of course is seen as a suitably honourable gesture by the Ice Warrior Queen. “Please, do not judge mankind by his cruelty or indeed by my cowardice,” he offers. As he prepares for his execution, Iraxxa has a different idea and expects him to die in battle after pledging his warrior’s allegiance to her and to Mars. The Doctor knew this would be the outcome because he too recognises he has a warrior’s aspect.

The Doctor’s round-robin e-mail to bring other intelligent space faring races out there to Mars affords us another delight. The familiar tones of 92-year old Ysanne Churchman ring out as the hermaphrodite hexapod ambassador from Alpha Centauri replies “welcome to the Universe” and ushers in the beginning of the Martian Golden Age. It’s such a lovely sweetener to the episode to see the character from Hayles’ Peladon stories again. And so the message of ‘God Save the Queen’ becomes a marker placed on the Martian surface to enable Alpha Centauri to land.

A good, solid episode, refreshingly so in the wake of the rather dour and heavy-going Monk trilogy, that provides food for thought and plenty of visual delight in the Hives of Mars production design, spliced together with the incongruous sight of steampunk Victoriana and the Ice Warrior costumes and make-up. But we end on a strange note. Missy and Nardole finally arrive in the TARDIS and she seems very concerned about The Doctor. Her insistent “are you alright?” suggests there’s more going on with The Doctor than we’re currently aware of.