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Mark Gatiss reintroduced the Ice Warriors to Doctor Who with Season 7’s episode “Cold War,” so it’s only fitting that he tackle their second appearance in Season 10’s “Empress of Mars” – a fun standalone episode with a few hiccups here and there.
The setup of Victorian-era soldiers confronting Ice Warriors on Mars is exactly the kind of delightfully goofy scenario that makes Doctor Who such a memorable show. “Empress of Mars” embraces the silliness of it, without letting the whole thing turn into a farce. After all, The Doctor finds himself in a bit of conundrum – in this scenario, humanity are the invaders and the Ice Warriors are the indigenous species.
It’s a relatively straightforward story, or at least as straightforward as something with this kind of premise can be. There are very little surprises to be had. The title lets you know what the soldiers will discover while mining for precious jewels on Mars, it’s abundantly clear that the sneering, mustache-twirling Neville Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley) is the villain and the way the situation is resolved is hardly mind-blowing.
Still, it’s just fun to see the battle between the Victorian soldiers, fully decked out in their spiffy outfits and the outnumbered, but vastly superior Ice Warriors. There’s something morbidly amusing about the way Ice Warriors’ weapons turns humans into bouncy, rubbery cubes. Catchlove is an entertainingly corny villain and there is some tension to watching The Doctor and Bill desperately try to broker peace between the two fractions. The Empress herself is an imposing figure with a really cool design.
There are a few scenes early on that have an Ice Warrior working as a servant for the soldiers, which leads to moments eerily reminiscent of another Gatiss episode that had a Dalek wonder if you WOULD CARE FOR SOME TEA? The Ice Warrior clearing the table after the officers was certainly an amusing sight, but it also showcased the disdain and smug superiority that men like Catchlove exemplify.
It is a little frustrating that we don’t get an explanation as to why the TARDIS was “acting out,” taking Nardole away and stranding The Doctor and Bill on Mars. It’s a fairly significant plot point, not just for the episode, but also because it leads to Nardole letting Missy leave the Vault so that she can help. It’s possible and even probable that the next episode will address this, but it’s poor storytelling to leave the viewer dangling.
A couple of lines are a bit too goofy and nonsensical, such as the Empress exclaiming that Godsacre (Anthony Calf) killed Catchlove when there was no tactical advantage to do so. There were several pretty obvious tactical reasons to kill the bastard – defusing a volatile situation and reclaiming command from a mutinous officer, for instance.
‘Empress of Mars’ is full of Easter Eggs and references to both classic and new Doctor Who episodes, which is always a welcome treat for fans. The portrait of Queen Victoria was made to resemble her as she appeared in Season 2’s ‘Tooth and Claw’ – a cute little continuity nod. The ending also apparently ties this episode to the events of a few classic ones involving the Ice Warriors (have to admit to googling that bit, classic DW is a very gray area for me).
In short, “Empress of Mars” is a solid, enjoyable episode with a great premise that makes up for its few shortcomings and lack of surprises by sheer virtue of being a good time.