The Ice Warriors have an unusual position on Doctor Who. Pretty much any list of iconic Doctor Who monsters will include the Ice Warriors on it, generally around position four (after the Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans), yet the Ice Warriors haven’t actually appeared in all that many stories—only four in the original series (the last of which was “The Monster of Peladon” in 1974) and one in the new series (“Cold War” in Series 7). It’s pretty telling that a group that has had so few appearances has made such an impact. And I think it’s with good reason. In my review of “Cold War” a few years ago, I briefly explained why they are one of my favourite Doctor Who monsters, the primary reason being that they have more depth than most of the show’s aliens.
It was pretty much inevitable that the Ice Warriors would eventually return to Doctor Who again, especially since they are also one of the favourite monsters of Mark Gatiss, who has written and continues to write many Doctor Who stories, including “Cold War”. In “Empress of Mars” (again by Gatiss), the Ice Warriors are encountered on their home planet of Mars for the first time (all previous Ice Warrior stories have been on Earth or Peladon), and this time, the humans are the invaders.
Truth be told, “Empress of Mars” is not an incredible episode, but it is a decent one. It has all the elements that go into making a good Doctor Who story, but doesn’t really take any risks that might elevate it to the level of a great Doctor Who story. Nevertheless, it’s fun, entertaining, and an enjoyable way to spend 45 minutes.
Mark Gatiss tends not to be much of a risk taker in his Doctor Who scripts, preferring to stick to tried-and-true formulas, and “Empress of Mars” is no exception. The plot is predictable and the characters (while reasonably well-developed and presented) fit into fairly stereotypical roles. Friday has pretty straight-forward ulterior motives. Colonel Godsacre is well meaning, but a coward who triumphantly redeems himself at the end. Captain Catchlove is hot-headed and ultimately traitorous. There’s a grizzled sergeant-major, a young, somewhat naïve soldier, and the soldier whose greed awakens Iraxxa and gets himself killed. It’s very much Doctor-Who-by-numbers.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean the episode passes up several opportunities to do something truly interesting or new. Frustratingly, there are several moments when it seems like the episode will take a risk, but then doesn’t follow through. For example, the script is clearly cognizant of the issues of colonialism, yet never explores the issue or makes any substantive comment on it. The Doctor acknowledges at one point that the humans are the invaders in this instance, but because the Ice Warriors can easily wipe them out, he has to defend them. Yet the story never really presents the humans as in the wrong, instead encapsulating all the “wrong” in Catchlove’s villainy. I’m not saying that all the humans should be depicted as despicable villains—that wouldn’t work either—but a bit more engagement with the problem would have been nice. Bill does briefly call out Godsacre’s misogyny, but it’s just as quickly dropped. Admittedly, it’s a funny moment (“I’m gonna make allowances for your Victorian attitude because...well, you actually are Victorian”), but again, it could have been so much more.
The biggest missed opportunity, though, was the chance to develop Ice Warrior society in a way that has never been done before. This is the first story to actually take place on Mars. It could have been a golden opportunity. Yet beyond the introduction of an Ice Queen (and also the first ever female Ice Warrior seen on screen), the episode does nothing new with the Ice Warriors at all. “Cold War” developed Ice Warrior society with its lone Ice Warrior far better than this episode does. Iraxxa awakens, decides to kill all the humans, then changes her mind when one of them acts nobly. It works reasonably well enough, but again, there could have been more. It would have been nice to see more interaction between Friday and Iraxxa, or more clearly distinguished Ice Warrior characters. Either route could have allowed for a better understanding of the Ice Warriors as a whole.
All that said though, “Empress of Mars” still works as an enjoyable episode. As I said before, while the characters aren’t very original, they are reasonably well-developed, and the performances throughout are good. I particularly like the visual realisation of Iraxxa. Her armour is a logical extrapolation of the armour we’ve seen Ice Lords wear in past episodes and it is refreshingly not sexualised. There’s no “boob armour” here; rather, it’s entirely practical.
Of course, there’s also the appearance of Alpha Centauri! The moment is very much one of nostalgia for fans familiar with the Peladon stories. Indeed, it straddles the border of what could be confusing for newer viewers, but thankfully never crosses over. Viewers unfamiliar with Alpha Centauri will just see the Ice Warriors contacting another alien species, but other fans get the joy of a cameo of a character from long ago. To fill in any who need it, Alpha Centauri appeared in both “The Curse of Peladon” and “The Monster of Peladon”, two third Doctor stories involving the Ice Warriors. Alpha Centauri was a representative of the Galactic Federation, an organization the Ice Warriors are already a part of in those stories. The implication with this new scene is that we are seeing the beginnings of how the Ice Warriors became a part of the Galactic Federation. Perhaps most exciting of all is that Alpha Centauri is voiced by original voice actor Ysanne Churchman, who came out of retirement at age 92 to record the part!
The episode does leave some questions hanging, such as, why are the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole at NASA at the beginning? It’s a minor point overall, but one that does bug me, and one I don’t expect to see answered. There’s also the question of what goes wrong with the TARDIS, but this one seems intended to be an ongoing mystery, one whose explanation will hopefully come in a later episode, as it clearly ties into the series arc surrounding Missy.
Back in my review of “Knock Knock”, I expressed some concerns regarding consistency in the development of Bill. So far, I’m glad to say these concerns have not come to light regarding Bill. However, they are starting to show up in Nardole and the ongoing series arc. In previous episodes, Nardole has reacted very negatively to the Doctor leaving Earth for anything other than an emergency. Now, he seems to have no problem with a trip to Mars. Of course, he may well have simply resigned himself to the fact that the Doctor is going to keep leaving Earth regardless, but there really should have been a moment (either this episode or before it) acknowledging this.
Of course, this fits in with the exact conditions of the Doctor’s vow being rather inconsistent all series. Early on, his vow included not having any more companions and not leaving Earth, yet the vow we see him make in “Extremis” is only to watch over Missy for a thousand years with no mention of travel restrictions or anything else. Indeed, ever since the reveal that Missy is the one in the vault, the seriousness of the vault seems to have reduced. In “Oxygen”, Nardole expresses concern that if the vault’s occupant ever discovered an absence or weakness of the Doctor, then total disaster would result. In this episode, he is completely willing to trust Missy (probably a very unwise decision on his part) enough to let her out so she can repair the TARDIS.
“Empress of Mars” works well as a “filler” episode. While it has a little bit about Missy, for the most part it stands alone, disconnected from the wider arc of Series 10, and doesn’t really develop the stories of any of the regular characters, like Bill or Nardole. Its lack of risk-taking means it doesn’t rise to any great heights, but also helps prevent it from falling flat as well. All in all, it’s a decent episode. Not a classic, but enjoyable.