Mark Gatiss takes over as writer on this week’s episode and his unique brand of playfulness does not let down. Even if it feels almost completely out of place after last week’s more somber Monk saga finale. Gatiss goes way back to Christopher Eccleston’s Doc and was responsible for a couple of fan favorites along the way, so his involvement after taking time away is welcome and one I was looking forward to.
“Empress of Mars” takes the Doctor, Bill and Nardole to Mars’ underground during the 1800s. Turns out some British soldiers helped a crashed Ice Warrior fix his ship in return for a ride to Mars. While digging for the goods, they find the tomb of an Ice Warrior Queen. When the Queen is awakened, she unleashes all kinds of hellish shenanigans on everyone unlucky enough to be on Mars.
Most times, the T.A.R.D.I.S is sort of a safety net for the Doc. I really like episodes, like this one, that takes that net out of the equation. Early on, the T.A.R.D.I.S suddenly decides to travel back to the Doctor’s university office in present day. That leaves the Doctor and Bill stranded on Mars with the Ice Warriors. These sorts of episodes really raise the stakes and make the Doctor more vulnerable.
I also really liked that Bill reveals herself to be a bit of a cinephile in this episode. She constantly compares situations to Terminator, The Thing and The Vikings, officially making Bill one of us while upping an already high cool point score. I also loved that the Doctor’s only movie reference was one for Frozen, not having seen very many movies due to always having to save the universe and all.
The return of the Ice Warriors gives the episode a classic Doctor Who feel. These classic Who dudes go all the way back to the late '60s and it's really great seeing them back again. You would think that these guys would be the primary big bad for this week, but Gatiss does something really interesting in making the real bad guys the humans. It has been a while since humans stubbornly stood in the way of the Doctor but these jerks fight him every step of the way. The whole thing has a Day of the Dead quality to it, in that the military guys are huge pains in the butt and that they are worst than the primary monsters. Not only are they jerks but ultimately, they are racist jerks. They go so far as naming their Ice Warrior servant Man Friday, after the character from Robinson Crusoe. Jerks, right?
The Ice Warrior’s weapons are no joke, you guys. Their blasts cause some Cronenbergian body horror deaths. These suckers crumple your body into a basketball size. The sounds add to the whole disturbing effect. They nailed the bone crumpling sound and the thud the crumpled man-ball makes when it hits the ground. The complete effect is real nightmare fuel and is now officially the last way I would wanna bite the bullet.
I was a fan of Doctor Who revising and proving the bootstrap paradox again. The very message “God Save the Queen,” written on Mars’s surface, is inevitably what calls the Doc to Mars in the first place. Pretty cool that the message that calls him out was essentially written by the Doctor himself. That pesky paradox makes my grey matter itch. It isn’t the first time that Doctor Who has touched on the subject and I’m sure it won’t be the last.