'The Empress of Mars' is far from Doctor Who royalty, but it's a solid adventure after a troubled few weeks.
After three weeks of the convoluted Monks trilogy, ‘The Empress of Mars’ is a return to the self-contained stories that earned the first half of the series such high praise. While the episode still falls flat in a few places, it’s nice to get back to standard adventuring.
In a Jules Verne inspired adventure, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) discover a platoon of Victorian soldiers mining on Mars. They’ve come to claim the planet for the British Empire after discovering a damaged spaceship and a comatose Ice Warrior back on Earth. However, Colonel Godsacre (Anthony Calf) quickly realises they’ve gone too far when they accidentally awaken the vengeful Empress of Mars (Adele Lynch).
While an interesting premise, the episode’s execution feels incredibly similar to the 2013 episode ‘Cold War’. Both penned by Mark Gatiss and featuring the Ice Warriors, the two episodes are near identical. Despite the obvious difference in setting, both ‘Cold War’ and ‘The Empress of Mars’ feature the Doctor trying to negotiate a peace between the proud Ice Warriors and an aggressive band of historically significant human soldiers. Even the dynamic between Colonel Godsacre and his aggressive second-in command (Ferdinand Kingsley) is lifted straight from the 2013 episode.
However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. ‘Cold War’ is undeniably one of best episodes penned by Mark Gatiss, the majority of his other efforts below par. Even though the Ice Queen doesn’t stray too far from what we already know of the Ice Warriors, their obsession with honour helps separate them from the more traditionally evil Daleks and Cybermen. It would have been nice to get a new spin of the creatures, but this is much better than a return to the dreadful ‘Sleep No More’ or the dull ‘Robot of Sherwood’.
The biggest problem with ‘The Empress of Mars’ is its lacklustre supporting cast. Doctor Who often thrives with a small cast of well-developed secondary characters trapped in an enclosed environment. This is done beautifully in episodes like ‘Midnight’ and ‘The Waters of Mars’, but it seems like Mark Gatiss may have missed the memo. While he gets the claustrophobic setting right, not a single character is even slightly engaging. Captain Catchlove is nothing more than a comically evil pantomime villain, the supposedly courageous soldier happy to leave all his troops to die at the drop of a hat. The only soldier with any real depth is the cowardly Colonel Godsacre, but even he is undermined by his inconsistent characterisation and an incredibly rushed redemption arc in the last five minutes of the episode.
In lieu of any interesting supporting characters, the relationship between the Doctor and Bill continues to steal the show. Unlike the last few episodes, ‘The Empress of Mars’ removes Nardole (Matt Lucas) from the equation and returns to the single companion dynamic of Bill’s earlier episodes. While Nardole has been surprisingly tolerable, it’s a refreshing change of pace to see Bill and the Doctor alone again. The ongoing joke that the Doctor hasn’t seen famous films gets a bit tired, but Bill continues to impress as we reach the tail end of her first series.
‘The Empress of Mars’ isn’t revolutionary in any sense of the word. However, it’s a refreshing change of pace after the over-complicated Monks trilogy. It works well as a self-contained – if slightly forgettable – adventure for the Doctor and Bill.
The Doctor is back next Saturday at 7:15 on BBC One. Want to find out what’s next for the Time Lord? Check out our series guide!