“Empress of Mars” was written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Wayne Yip
Spoilers ahead for “Empress of Mars,” because hey ... it's a TV Recap.
The Short Version: The Doctor, Bill and Nardole pop up at NASA just as Mission Control is about to get transmissions from Mars from the Valkyrie probe. When the words “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” appear written across the planet's surface, the Doctor and friends are off to 1881, when the phrase first appeared. The TARDIS materializes in caves under the surface that have oxygen, and they discover British soldiers blasting through the rock looking for gems, silver and gold with the help of an Ice Warrior they call Friday. Instead of treasure, the soldiers find the Empress of Mars, who's been asleep for a long time. As she's about to unleash hundreds of Ice Warriors, can the Doctor save the day?
The Good: It's a classic! A Missy mystery! And Alpha Centauri!
If you've been waiting for a return to the days of classic Doctor Who, this episode will take you back. Not only do we have the return of Ice Warriors, but “Empress of Mars” feels like an episode that would have been great early in the show's run. It's not surprising, considering the Ice Warriors first appeared during the second Doctor's tenure in 1967.
The episode opens up in present, with the folks at NASA about to get a transmission from the Valkyrie probe on Mars, which is taking pictures of the ice caps using a different spectrum. Just before the pictures arrive, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole pop up for no particular reason other than to freak out the NASA people. Just then the transmission arrives, showing the words “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” written across Mars' surface.
Off go the Doctor and companions to 1881, when the writing first appeared on Mars. They land in tunnels below Mars' surface, where they discover oxygen, but Bill falls through a hole and the Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS to get climbing gear.
In the TARDIS, Nardole is anxiously trying to find a rope when the TARDIS is magically hijacked and sent back to the university. Unfortunately, the TARDIS isn't working properly and Nardole can't seem to get back to Mars. He asks for Missy's help through the door of the vault.
Meanwhile, back on Mars the Doctor runs into an Ice Warrior, while Bill runs into a British soldier. They are soon having tea with Victorian-era British soldiers, where they meet Colonel Godsacre, who's in charge, and Captain Catchlove, his second. The Doctor and Bill learn that Friday (the Ice Warrior who's now waiting on them like a servant) was found on Earth, and they helped him repair his ship and return to Mars with the belief there were precious metals and gems under the surface of the planet. They've been using something they call the Gargantua to create tunnels and dig through the ground looking for the treasure. But so far they've had no luck, with “supplies running as low as morale.”
Just then the Gargantua breaks through to an area with a stunning sarcophagus. While the Doctor believes Friday hasn't been telling the Colonel the truth, he tries to keep the situation from getting out of hand. However, one of the soldiers accidentally wakes up the Queen and things get tense.
The Ice Warrior arrives and tells Empress of Mars Iraxxa that they've slept for 5,000 years and in order to get back to Mars he had to use the Earth people's help. The soldiers come into the chamber, but Iraxxa's more than a little cranky. When the Doctor asks for “mercy for these primitives,” and tells her that Mars is dead, it's a nice moment when the Empress asks for Bill's opinion, which she values more than the “noisy men” around them.
Bill offers her opinion, but one of the soldiers fires off a shot that hits Iraxxa's helmet and it's war. Captain Catchlove takes command from Colonel Godsacre (great names!) after spilling a secret he kept that the Colonel was a coward and deserter in the past. The Captain orders Godsacre, the Doctor and Bill put in a cell while he determines to battle the two Ice Warriors. The problem is the Queen starts waking up her hive with its hundreds of Ice Warriors, and they go to war. The Warriors begin coming up through the ground to attack the soldiers.
Friday breaks into the cell and releases the Colonel, the Doctor and Bill, telling the Doctor that they must work together. While Bill provides a distraction, the Doctor threatens to destroy Mars' north pole and kill everyone with the Gargantua. He tells them, "We must live together or die together." Just as the Doctor is making progress toward peace, the Captain grabs the Queen and holds a knife to her throat. Then the Colonel shoots the Captain dead and pleads with the Queen to spare his men and his world and to take his life instead. She spares his life and he pledges his allegiance to her. He later tells the Doctor that he will be happy to “forge a new world.”
But there's one last problem to solve. The Ice Warriors need some help, so with the Doctor's they contact hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri of the Galactic Federation (voiced by 92-year-old Ysanne Churchman, who voiced the character decades earlier). For anyone who ever wondered about the Ice Warriors and how they went from villains in the 1960s with the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, to good guys with the Federation in the 1970s with the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, here you go. Was it worth the wait?
So the Ice Warriors can be located, the Colonel, the Doctor and Bill use rocks to put a message on Mars ... “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.”
The TARDIS reappears and the Doctor and Bill greet Nardole. Inside the TARDIS is Missy, who shares a tense moment with the Doctor. He tells her he's going to have to put her back in the vault. She agrees, but then asks, “Are you all right?”
The Bad: That villainous Captain! Bill! And Nardole!
You just know that when this story was pitched the hook was "What if NASA saw 'GOD SAVE THE QUEEN' on the surface of Mars?" As happens occasionally on Doctor Who episodes, the hook ends up being not at all important to the actual story, a story which would have been stronger without an unnecessary visit to NASA. While the Ice Queen Empress was a nifty character and it was good to see the Ice Warriors again, time with NASA took away from time that could have better been spent exploring Iraxxa.
The other annoyance in this episode comes in the form of Captain Catchlove, who turns out to be a stock villainous character without any depth who happens to have a cool name. Fortunately, Colonel Godsacre ends up with depth to spare when we learn that he was hanged for deserting but somehow survived. The Doctor doesn't save the day this time, Godsacre does, which is also a nice twist. A lot of what happens in the story would have happened regardless of whether the Doctor was there.
As for the Bill and Nardole of it all, Nardole is relegated to scenery for the most part, and Bill isn't given much to do other than to give the Queen an opinion she never gets to use. Shaving the NASA stuff could have also given Bill a little more to do.
Lingering Questions: That TARDIS-jacking!
While the general questions about Missy (like is she still evil?) and the vault continue, who or what magically returned the TARDIS to the university with Nardole conveniently aboard? He's the only one who would release Missy, and he does to get her help in returning the TARDIS to Mars. Missy is likely behind the TARDIS-jacking, but how she pulled it off ... well, that's another story we'll hopefully find out about. And why is Missy worried about the Doctor's health?
Other than that, how did Colonel Godsacre become a colonel after being hanged as a coward? Why did the Ice Warriors oversleep by 5,000 years? If the Doctor can contact Alpha Centauri, why can't he come up with a better beacon to find the Ice Warriors than a rock message on the planet? Does anyone really believe the Queen couldn't have taken Captain Catchlove when he held a knife to her throat? Weren't their weapons awesome and weird? How cool is it that Ysanne Churchman is still around at 92 and willing to voice Alpha Centauri after over 40 years?
Lines of the Night:
“So this could go very well or very badly.” - The Doctor
“The indigenous species, an ancient reptilian race that built themselves a sort of biomechanical armor for protection. The creature within is at one with its carapace. The Ice Warriors, 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.” - The Doctor
“I daresay the British Army is more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles!” - Captain Catchlove
“There's not a setting for wood. Why is there still no setting for wood?” - The Doctor regarding his sonic screwdriver after being unable to escape a wooden cell
“Listen, I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes because … well, you actually are Victorian.” - Bill
"It's just such a fanciful notion, a woman in the police force." - Colonel Godsacre after Bill tells him they are sort of the police
Best Line of the Night:
“You've changed the mindset of a very stubborn Martian monarch, and one day even though the ice cap may obscure it, someone's going to notice that.” - The Doctor to Colonel Godsacre about the “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” message
What did you think of the episode?
Here's the trailer for next week's episode, “The Eaters of Light,” written by Rona Munro: