Who Goes There: A Review of Doctor Who's "Empress Of Mars"
In short, he’s a hero, and he (thus) behaves heroically. While I might not be able to anticipate his every move, there’s a fair share of his actions and reactions I can, and I would imagine that there are plenty of Whovians who think likewise.
Still, it isn’t that often that he’s scared, much less terrified, and – for my two cents – it’s grown increasingly unlikely as of late to see the Doctor legitimately “terrified” of events unfolding; and that’s what makes Empress Of Mars particularly satisfying. He’s aware of the threat to humanity, and he’s equally aware of the danger he places himself in while trying to broker whatever peaceful outcome he can for this circumstance.
As for the story …
A trip to NASA for the unveiling of new photographs from Mars delivers a shocking development for the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole: a series of rocks spelling out ‘God Save The Queen’ puts them back into the TARDIS and on their own trip to the Red Planet. Once there, they find a battalion of British soldiers working alongside the sole surviving Ice Warrior to uncover a civilization’s lost riches … but the surprising awakening of the Ice Queen might spell doom for one and all unless the Doctor and Bill can convince the female leader to give peace a chance.
Who scribe Mark Gatiss proves once again to have “the right stuff” in returning the Ice Warriors to the modern era: certainly the British redcoats are no match for the alien fighters, not when they’ve proven to be the stuff of even the Doctor’s nightmares. TV veteran Wayne Yip directs, giving Empress the feel of a comfortable throwback to the days of simpler, less-heady tales – the inevitable clash of nationalist cultures both bent on colonial expansion.
Pearl Mackie’s Bill spends a bit too much time gawking bug-eyed from the sidelines, a role she’s started to obviously feel a bit more comfortable in. (It’s probably never easy to play second fiddle in any Science Fiction universe, especially one as wondrous as Who’s.) Once she realizes the responsibility of saving the day has fallen to her, she rises to the occasion much in the way a Companion of stories of old would: speaking exactly the way the Doctor has raised her to believe. Nardole eventually returns with the TARDIS, but he’s not without help – a last second development that’s a mild cliffhanger for what’s likely to come as the tenth season nears completion.
And while I’m on the subject of performances, let me add that Adele Lynch’s turn as Queen Iraxxa was downright evil: she ably chewed scenery as the lady awakened from her slumber for the purpose of returning her empire to its former glory. I’ve been assured that make-up often makes the job easier, but kudos to the actress for giving malevolence such a delicious face.
I realize I may end up being alone in my high praise of Empress. (Trust me, that’s a position I tend to occupy more and more the older I get.) But the hour worked wonderfully for me because it completely ignored some of the heavier themes of the last few seasons and stuck to one self-contained story. Even though it felt like a throwback, I think remembering where any franchise has come from and doing it well is never a bad thing, even when that past is largely men-in-suits playing monsters and an elderly traveler preaching about how life is precious.
Where I live, those things rarely go out of style, and Who’s Empress was a welcome diversion, especially when I know a regeneration is right around the corner.