The Doctor and Bill battle monsters in a bygone era. Aliens interfering in Earth history again? Not this time…
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
A fun hour of Who that ticks all the right boxes, even if it doesn't turn out to be quite as groundbreaking as the premise implies. Also, there's a surprise appearance from a character who wasn't supposed to show up this week. Definitely recommended viewing.
I love Mars. Any sci-fi having to do with Mars instantly intrigues me. There's just something about the red planet that's inherently cool, in my opinion. I've read a lot of takes on Martians over the years, and the deep mythology Doctor Who has created for them is one of my favorites. So Mark Gatiss automatically gets points from me for bringing the Ice Warriors into the modern era without ruining them. In fact, I'd say he's done a very good job so far. “Cold War” wasn't perfect, but it was solid. The same can be said for “Empress of Mars.”
Gatiss has done his best to turn the typical formula of a Doctor Who episode on its head in this story. The result is not a new classic, but it's definitely a refreshing and enjoyable take on familiar concepts. It's more complex than the concept of humans being the invaders rather than the aliens. There are shades of gray here, with heroes and villains on both sides. The Doctor is caught in the middle of it all, unable to provide a quick and easy fix for the situation. The resolution is very satisfying, which is more than can be said for a lot of Doctor Who episodes which get off to a promising start (looking at you, The Lie of the Land).
Also, Missy's brief return was a pleasant surprise, as she wasn't credited in the synopsis for “Empress.” And the circumstances of her appearance raise some interesting questions about the season arc. After the disappointing Monk Trilogy, I'm reluctant to get my hopes up for a satisfying finale, but the early hints of some big Doctor/Missy showdown are encouraging.
This is one of those episodes that would really have benefited from being a two-parter. The supporting characters are somewhat weak, mainly because there isn't enough time to flesh them out. And while the conflict gets a satisfying wrap-up, it does come a little too quickly. The impressive special effects and the intriguing mythology of the Ice Warriors leave the viewer wanting more. Given Gatiss' fondness for the “upright crocodiles” and his knack for using them in stories, I'd like him to be given more opportunities to write Mars episodes in the future. He's done a good job with “Empress of Mars.” I don't really have any other major criticisms besides the rushed pacing. I would just like to see an Ice Warrior story on a truly epic scale someday.
The Final Word
This is another success for Series 10, if not an overwhelming one. If nothing else, it's an opportunity to see Capaldi in a more relaxed, unambitious one-off story before the intensity of the big finale sets in. The Ice Warriors fit the modern era surprisingly well, and I hope we see more of them before too long.
One more stand-alone episode, and then the big two-part conclusion. I'm not sure I'm ready…