Monday, 12 June 2017
Doctor Who: The Empress of Mars (Episode Review)
So, last time left me asking for just a good episode. Something to erase the last trilogy and fully focus upon what Doctor Who was good at - Science fiction. Well, thankfully, we actually got it. Sort of. While certainly not a modern classic, Empress of Mars is a definite step in the right direction, and at least captures some of the old charm. It's willing to expand upon existing ideas, experiment with old tropes and play around with time travel however it needs to.
In this particular case, the image of "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN" carved miles high under the surface of Mars is enough to get the Doctor's attention. Somehow a Victorian expedition managed to reach the red planet long before anyone from modern earth, and mark it no less. However, the Doctor eventually finds that the humans are not alone. There is an Ice Warrior among them, having survived the fall of his people and guided them to the world to reclaim what remains of his civilisation, and any who might still endure there...
While the Ice Warriors returned to the small screen a few series back in Cold War, the episode itself was rather lackluster unfortunately. Suffering from many of the problems with plagued the Eleventh's run, it was an insane gibbering mess of a story which seemed to think the first act was a mere formality it shouldn't be held to. If anything, it's probably best remembered for focusing upon the odd morality of the Martians and the much needed revamp of the old design. Here though, there seems to be more of a push to address more of their general nature. The Doctor's speech describing them is simply beautiful and spot-on for the sort of potentially villainous race they're known for, and what little we see of the species' hive works extremely well in their favour. They're far more alien than their humanoid bodies would suggest, and in that regard I also personally appreciated the costume design of the Queen herself. It's slightly more slender to be sure, but there are fewer definite physical differences between the males and females than most would normally push for with such designs.
The actual story itself is direct and certainly extremely pulpy in an H.G. Wells style, but it there's a definite sign of trying to work that in its favour. The old concept of colonial take-overs on Mars and invasions is one with a very striking image, and almost an archaic one by today's standards, but it's one which Doctor Who can still get away with. Most beyond this would feel the need to alter, update or even abandon the concept entirely, but with Who's generally flexible nature, it's easy to pull off. In fact, if anything, the show here proves that it can do so without breaking continuity, as the finale has heavy ties to later (earlier) tales from the Classic series.
The actual developments and conflict here between humans and Ice Warriors might have been rapid, but you could see why it would take place and how it would play out. This was always going to be a one-sided affair, and given how the two groups were at loggerheads there was little you could really do in terms of political shenanigans. So, instead the episode focused upon being relatively fast paced and executing its ideas just as well as it could, at least in terms of thematic. It does sadly once again veer headlong into political commentary for some bizarre reason, but the fact it ties in well to the classic stories means it's somewhat easier to overlook. This is the rare example of a race which went from genocidal conquerors to galactic peacekeepers after all, and even the simple indication of how that might have started is a nice thing to have.
The actual core cinematography is well handled given the limited nature of the environment. Shooting around a great many red tunnels is always going to be a difficult job, but there's enough close-ups, special effects and interesting costumes to work around that. The script at least justifies this largely being focused in a single place, and adds in a few colourful elements to distract from how it is all focusing upon a relatively limited set. Plus, the battle scene itself is entertaining for a few key reasons. It's the first time we have seen a sonic cannon (it's what they were called in the old series and i'm sticking with it) in action since Jon Pertwee's run, and the updated crushing effect is surprisingly effective in displaying the horror of being hit with an advanced weapon. Furthermore, a few moments such as the Ice Warriors tunneling their way around the enemy camp was an interesting twist given their nature as upright tanks, and doing more than just walking through enemy gunfire.
Unfortunately, while there are positives, dear lord do we have a lot of flaws to work through as well.
Many elements and ideas set up here are just instantly tossed out the window. Despite being a longtime Doctor Who fan, Mark Gatiss seems to have ignored many points surrounding the TARDIS' operation, the way it picks out people and even a few earlier points from the series like how it creates a bubble of oxygen for those just outside of it. Even with that being said though, he also manages to get primary school science wrong. Mars suddenly has the same gravity as Earth for example, without even the benefit of some technobabel written into the tale. Right after the script also cites how the Ice Warriors are brilliant engineers.
The side characters and secondary dialogue here also ranges from amusing to downright abysmal, especially in regards to some of the more openly political elements. Some of it you can put down to simply - once again - playing upon the old sub-genre of Victorian space travel, and a few of the cockney rhyming slang terms weren't bad. Then, however, you have the use of British superiority showing up and used in a face-palming manner, and characters who are openly cannon fodder being given three odd lines, some bizarre importance to the story, and then are abruptly killed off again. It honestly seemed as if the tale had no idea what it wanted to do with them, and while there are one or two genuinely good moments which serves the plot well, the rest is often horribly bungled.
Things are only weakened further thanks to the forced inclusion of Missy into the tale, which seems like something added via editorial mandate over something to fit the story itself. The TARDIS could have easily been separated from the main characters in one of a dozen ways, even just being trapped near the surface would have been fine, but instead it abruptly flies off and Missy is needed to bring it back. If her role is supposed to be the show's ongoing overarching story, it's definitely not a positive one to be sure, and it seems that half the time she's just being thrown into the tale over actually being adapted into the tale as a whole. A damnable shame as, if they had just gone the full mile and added her into the story, it could have worked extremely well. After all, advanced aliens who can be easily manipulated into wiping out humanity is Missy/the Master's whole shtick, so it would have been a chance to have her tested on the road to redemption. It would have certainly been something to show over just having her locked away and broken out as needed, at any rate.
Yet, more so than anything else, where Empress of Mars fails the most is in terms of its villains. Well, at least at a few key points. The introduction of the Ice Warriors is solid, the battle is great and the Empress herself is certainly interesting enough to give a good deal of presence to an otherwise minor role. Unfortunately, the story promptly abandons their competence and bullet proof nature as Captain Catchlove (yes, that is apparently his name) can take one hostage with a knife. This is a moment so stupid that you'd be forgiven for simply giving up on the story there and then, and it utterly undermines the previous scene of them running through the British army without slowing down. How so? Because apparently their armour can shrug off bullets, explosives and all the rest, but their exposed throat can be cut with a knife. Anyone who complains that the eyestalk is too obvious a weakness for the Daleks? Yeah, you have no idea how good you have had it compared to this.
The other problem is Catchlove himself, who is such a staggering caricature of British Imperialism that he's almost impossible to take seriously. Some of this might be down to the actor himself, unfortunately, due to his gleeful expressions while doing evil, but even without that the dialogue he is given is quite horrific at times. It might not have even been so bad were this not such a blatantly black-white situation with Colonel Godsacre (and again, yes, that's his actual name) as a positive example. The idea is good as it's present to show the best and worst of the British Empire, but the lack of subtlety and limited execution harms the final moments of the tale.
While I will personally admit to enjoying this one, you still have to give it a massive amount of leeway to fully have some fun. It's vastly more entertaining if you have fond memories of the Ice Warriors or classic stories like Tomb of the Cybermen, or even just fondness of Victorians colonizing Mars. After all, Redcoats raiding an alien tomb is hard not to make awesome with a good villain. If you can overlook the more obvious political commentary at work and the dumber moments then give it a watch, but otherwise skip it until next week.