There’s a pair of fascinating ideas at the core of “Empress Of Mars.” The first is more philosophical: As the Doctor puts it, whose side is he on when the humans are the invading aliens? (And, while it’s never so much as hinted at, the obvious corollary to that is whether his loyalties and perspective would differ from those of a human like Bill.) This is such an obvious moral dilemma to build a Doctor Who story around that it’s a little shocking it’s taken so long for the new series to go there. And even if the series didn’t want to tease a heady concept such as that, there’s still the other aspect of tonight’s episode, which is the deliriously anachronistic sight of Victorian soldiers tromping about Mars. This isn’t quite Doctor Who embracing steampunk—as ways of playing out this scenario go, having the soldiers happen upon an Ice Warrior spaceship that Friday then uses to get them back to Mars is relatively, well, realistic isn’t the right word, but it involves the least divergence from history as we know it to get Brits on Mars. The episode plays like Doctor Who by way of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories, with a title that evokes The Princess Of Mars.

Those are both tremendous building blocks for a story, so it’s frustrating that the episode ends up doing little with them. “Empress Of Mars” is the epitome of an undercooked outing. Mark Gatiss’ script does almost nothing with the supposed moral dilemma beyond define what it is. Otherwise, there’s little sense that his decision-making is challenged or altered in any substantial way by the role reversal. He’s the Doctor, he tries to keep everyone alive, he attempts diplomacy where the humans and the Ice Warriors would just start fighting. This is business as usual. There’s none of the politics or the nuanced morality that was on display in last season’s “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” or even in a less accomplished effort like the Silurian two-parter “The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood.” Tonight’s episode could have just been a fun romp with Ice Warriors and Victorians, but it explicitly set up a deeper conflict that it then shows no particular interest in.

Some of the problem could be that one theoretical strength of the episode cancels the other out. The stated dilemma of the Doctor being forced to side with the aliens against the invading humans isn’t really compelling if the latter present no threat, and a bunch of 19th century soldiers aren’t about to pose much danger to a bunch of cybernetic reptiles. Even here there’s an opportunity for “Empress Of Mars” to dig deeper, as Catchlove makes a couple references to his unshakeable belief that the military might of the British empire can take care of any challenge. This season of Doctor Who already demonstrated a willingness to interrogate the crimes of imperialism in “Thin Ice,” but—at least in the context of writing for this show—Mark Gatiss doesn’t display the kind of intellectual curiosity that Sarah Dollard does. The hubris of a would-be conqueror could have given “Empress Of Mars” something meaty to focus on, but again this all just happens in passing, underdeveloped mentions.

Gatiss has written more episodes of new Doctor Who than anyone who hasn’t served as showrunner, with “The Unquiet Dead,” “The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Victory Of The Daleks,” “Night Terrors,” “Cold War,” “The Crimson Horror,” “Robot Of Sherwood,” “Sleep No More,” and now this to his name. I’d say his record is a bit better than his reputation would suggest, with “Night Terrors” and “Sleep No More” the only truly bad outings in that corpus, and the remaining seven stories suggest a trend: Gatiss is fond of setting his stories in the past, but only rare does he explore, let alone interrogate what that past really means. Some of those other episodes worked because they threw aside realism or depth in favor of a more comedic touch, playing more upon the larger-than-life stereotypes of an era than the reality. Since “Empress Of Mars” gives us Victorian soldiers in their most distinctively imperial uniform, the potential is there to bust out everyone’s most plummy accents, have the “topping” and the “wot” flow freely, and just generally make the whole thing a caricature of Britain’s glorious past being completely outgunned by the Ice Warriors.

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Instead, the soldiers’ stories largely focus on the two officers, the villainous Catchlove, played by Ben Kingsley’s son Ferdinand, and Anthony Calf’s broken, rather feckless Godsacre. Neither turns in a bad performance, but when this season has consistently elevated itself on the strength of its supporting turns, neither makes much of an impression. Neither pitches their portrayals big enough to work as archetypes of the Victorian mindset, nor do they offer the kind of lived-in performances that might unlock the story’s hidden depths. Compare this with Mark Gatiss’ one absolutely classic outing, “Cold War,” which has at its heart three brilliant, nuanced guest turns from Game Of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham, Outlander’s Tobias Menzies, and seemingly everything’s David Warner. The settings also make a difference: A claustrophobic Russian submarine just looks a hell of a lot better than the Martian caves, which make the episode look set-bound in a way new Doctor Who rarely does. I don’t even know whether “Cold War” necessarily reads on the page as being wildly better than “Empress Of Mars,” but that’s why the BBC doesn’t just post a copy of the script in the latest Radio Times and call it a day. (Which, in fairness, would only probably have been a slight budget savings over the cost of taping during certain points of the classic series.)

I’m being hard on “Empress Of Mars,” as it’s the kind of story where it’s far easier to identify its rather concrete flaws than tease out its more elusive strengths. Much as I’m underwhelmed by how little Gatiss’ script does with Victorians on Mars, that’s still so bonkers a premise that the episode can’t help but derive some energy from that. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are as reliably great as ever, though they stay on the sidelines here far more than most of this season’s episodes. Capaldi excels at playing the Doctor as diplomat, with his invocations of Ice Warrior culture and history ringing with impressive authenticity. Bill’s renewed love of pop culture plays like something other episodes were meant to seize on after her professed sci-fi fandom in “The Pilot” but only Gatiss remembered to. It’s a bit out of place with the rest of the season, but her string of references make for some good gags, and it fits well with Mackie’s fun performance. Bill’s willingness to act as decoy and her ability to parlay with the empress as a fellow woman both suggest a companion coming into her own, a logical progression from her development over the course of the season. Doctor Who should be more than just a hangout show with the Doctor and his companion, but when the main pair are this good, it’s hard for any episode with them in it to be genuinely bad.

Besides, if there’s one thing this episode does show a real love for, it’s the Ice Warriors. As Gatiss pointed out in a recent interview, he has now written a third of their TV stories, and he’s had the chance to fill in some blanks surrounding their culture. The single best moment of tonight’s episode comes when the Doctor summarizes the complex duality of this martial culture, crediting them with great beauty and destructive wrath. (Bill suggests they are like the Vikings, when a more provocative, thematically rich episode would have gone with the comparison staring everyone in the face and connected them with the great “civilizing” force known as the British empire, but oh well.) The conflicted loyalties of the Ice Warrior known as Friday represent the episode at its most complex, and the episode actually pulls out a decently good climax as Godsacre sacrifices himself to save his men. These moments are too isolated to gel into something deeper, but they are indicative of the deeper levels Gatiss can reach when he engages with the Ice Warriors, the same kinds he attained in “Cold War.”

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Plus, in a move that I have no doubt left even some hardcore fans a bit confused, Doctor Who went and got 92-year-old Ysanne Churchman to voice the androgynous alien Alpha Centauri, thus directly linking “Empress Of Mars” with the Ice Warriors’ two appearances in the Peladon stories of the Jon Pertwee era. If that’s how Gatiss is bowing out as a Doctor Who writer—he’s said he’s not sure if Chris Chibnall will ask him to write for the show, though I suspect Gatiss will be back—it’s hard to imagine something that could simultaneously be so delightful and so perfectly illustrative of his repeated struggle to move beyond what Doctor Who has been and create something new and unique.

Stray observations

  • I’m not sure we ever get a proper explanation for why the TARDIS runs off like that, though I suppose it’s possible it could tie into whatever Master(s) plan awaits us in the finale. As for Missy’s appearance here, it sure feels like Michelle Gomez had only a few hours to spare to shoot her scenes, as otherwise I’m more than a little cross we didn’t get to see Missy and Nardole as the demented TARDIS team we all deserve.
  • The opening at NASA is fun, even if I’m not entirely sure why the episode needed it. The mystery of “God save the Queen” written out in the rocks is fine for what it is, and I suppose the show has to at least pay lip service to the idea the Doctor and Bill aren’t just traveling in the TARDIS whenever the mood strikes them, so they need some reason to head to Mars in the 19th century. It’s just another little disappointment that the show doesn’t use that mystery as anything more than a perfunctory bookend for the story instead of building something more interesting with it.
  • I’ll say this though about Gatiss: I seriously underrated “Robot Of Sherwood” when I first saw it. That episode is damn good, with some real depth to its exploration of what it means to become a legend. It probably says a lot about the averageness of tonight’s episode that I’m wrapping up by praising a completely different episode, but there it is.

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