Timestamp #279: Empress of Mars

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Doctor Who: Empress of Mars
(1 episode, s10e09, 2017)

Timestamp 279 Empress of Mars

Long live the ice queen.

In 2017, the controllers at NASA are watching with bated breath as the space probe Valkyrie approaches Mars. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole appear in Mission Control as the countdown ends and the first images return. Everyone is perplexed when the first sight of Mars is a message: “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.”

The Doctor tracks the message’s origins to 1881 and takes the TARDIS to Mars to find out how it happened. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole explore the Martian underground and discover a campfire. Where there’s fire, there’s typically oxygen, so the trio removes their helmets. Bill accidentally falls down a hole to a lower level so the Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS for climbing gear, but the TARDIS inexplicably dematerializes with him onboard.

As the Doctor rushes toward the sound of the departing TARDIS, Bill encounters a man in a primitive spacesuit and the Doctor encounters an Ice Warrior. The Doctor tries a ritual greeting – which seems to work – but is interrupted by a Victorian-era soldier who threatens the Doctor and calls the Ice Warrior Friday. The Doctor and Bill are treated to tea with Colonel Godsacre, Mr. Catchlove, and Friday. There they learn that the humans found the Ice Warrior’s ship in South Africa where they exchanged help in repairing Friday’s ship for rare gems. the Ice Warrior is named in honor of Robinson Crusoe, in which the title character rescues a native man who takes the name and becomes his servant.

The soldiers are mining with a Martian laser, but their efforts have borne no fruit. After tea, the Doctor relates his knowledge of the Ice Warriors to Bill – “They could build a city under the sand, yet drench the snows of Mars with innocent blood. They could slaughter whole civilizations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower.” – and Friday breaks his silence by telling them that he is old and wishes to die in peace. His statement is contrasted by his dexterity as he catches a falling plate with ease.

Nardole tries to pilot the TARDIS back to Mars, but the capsule refuses to budge. Reluctantly, Nardole releases Missy from the vault to help.

The mining crew bickers amongst themselves before finally breaking through to an ornate chamber. Inside lies the tomb of an Ice Warrior queen, and even though the Doctor wants to investigate, the soldiers are blinded by the riches within. They consider Mars part of the British Empire but the Doctor points out that they are the invaders here.

Sure enough, the sentries standing watch at the tomb are assaulted by the queen after they try to plunder the tomb. When they attack her, she dispatches them with ease. Friday arrives as a soldier named Vincey flees, and the Ice Warrior servant reveals that his people have slumbered too long. Mars is dead.

Vincey sounds the alarm and the troops rush into the tomb. The Doctor asks to speak, and Godsacre allows it despite Catchlove’s protests. The Doctor backs Friday’s claims as Queen Iraxxa asks Bill for her opinion. She and the Doctor explain how the humans saved Friday’s life, and even though she wants to fight for honor, the Doctor requests mercy. When one of the soldiers accidentally fires his rifle, the queen says that she’ll show mercy by way of their swift deaths.

The soldiers flee to the Ice Warrior superlaser that they used for mining, but only after Bill’s intervention does a fatal shot end up merely collapsing the tomb entrance. Catchlove takes command from Godsacre, revealing that the colonel suffered a failed execution for desertion and ordering Godsacre, the Doctor, and Bill to be imprisoned in the brig.

While the Doctor and Bill plan their escape from the brig, they obliquely explain themselves to Godsacre. Meanwhile, Catchlove plots an attack but is routed after the Ice Warriors emerge from the soil behind them. Catchlove uses Vincey as a human shield to escape. Friday burrows into the brig and asks the Doctor for help in ending Iraxxa’s madness as she awakens the sleeping warriors at her command.

Now free from the brig, Bill requests to speak to the queen as a distraction while the Doctor implements a plan. Bill pleads with the queen to stay her hand, but Iraxxa refuses. The Doctor aims the superlaser cannon at the cavern roof and threatens to entomb them all in the polar ice above. Catchlove interferes by taking the queen hostage so he can escape the planet. His cowardice is ended by Godsacre when the colonel shoots him.

Godsacre relates his story to the queen and is willing to sacrifice himself to save everyone else. She decides that he will die with honor in battle, but only at her side should he swear allegiance to Mars until his final days. When he does, the battle is done.

The Doctor hotwires the communication system to send a distress call to evacuate the Ice Warriors to a new planet. He is surprised to see that his old friend Alpha Centauri responds to help. The Doctor, Bill, and Godsacre return to the surface and leave the message on the Martian surface as a beacon for the incoming fleet. After that, the Doctor and Bill find the TARDIS as it materializes.

The Doctor is stunned to find Missy and Nardole inside. He’s even more stunned when Missy is compliant instead of defiant.

With the return of the Ice Warriors and the debut of the first female Ice Warrior on screen, we get far more connective tissue to the classic era than we did in Cold War. For one, the Doctor declares that he is an Honorary Guardian of the Tythonian Hive. For another, the Doctor finds yet another group of British explorers on Mars. Finally, we get the return of Alpha Centauri.

The amazing part about this very short character reprisal is that the producers were able to get Ysanne Churchman to voice her again. At the age of 92, she became the oldest actor to appear in the revival era, and her return was kept a secret until the episode’s premiere. In the age of the internet and fans who seek out filming locations to spoil casting and plot elements, I love it when Doctor Who can still keep secrets.

The story itself is a pretty standard exercise in the follies of imperialism and the stereotypical military mindset, both being mainstays of the franchise over the years. It’s not surprising considering that Mark Gatiss wrote this story as well as Victory of the Daleks and Cold War. This marks his final script (to date) for the franchise, but not his final appearance. The episode carries itself well with tense drama and excellent performances. It is a joy to watch.

I’m still curious about the TARDIS and her recent bout of autonomy. I wonder what she’s up to.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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