The following review contains spoilers for this week’s episode of Doctor Who.
And we’re back! After three weeks farting around with fake news and weird Monk thingies, this series of Doctor Who is back to the sort of fun ‘Monster of the Week’ tales that made the early part of the run so entertaining. This time, it’s seasoned Who scribe Mark Gatiss who steps up to the plate with ‘Empress of Mars’, in which he returns to a classic monster he has a real penchant for – the Ice Warriors.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) are at NASA, when they discover the words ‘God Save the Queen’ written on Mars. Intrigued, the duo trace the writing to the Victorian era and, with Nardole (Matt Lucas) in tow, head to the Red Planet to investigate. Soon, Nardole and the TARDIS are separated from the group, and the Doctor finds himself face to face with an Ice Warrior. The creature is seemingly working for a Victorian team who are mining on the planet. When the rest of the Ice Warriors on the planet are awakened, conflict beckons – particularly given the influence of warmongering toff Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley).
‘Empress of Mars’ won’t go down as one of the best episodes in this series, but it is a hugely enjoyable one. The Martian setting is nicely realised by director Wayne Yip and the Ice Warriors are a very strong creation. There’s a nice touch in the shape of Ice Queen Iraxxa, who proves to be a cold and calculating leader. It’s interesting that she respects Bill’s opinion more than any of the men and this is perhaps something that should have been explored further as the episode moved to its conclusion. In fact, the final stages of the episode proves that she values the honour of a soldier even more, which is less interesting.
This episode proves a bizarre one when it comes to drawing upon the relationship of the TARDIS crew. Nardole is sidelined for almost the entire story and there’s a huge period of time where the Doctor and Bill are also separate. Given the bonding experience of last week’s self-sacrifice on the part of Bill, it would have been interesting to focus on their relationship a little more. Nonetheless, this is another strong week for both performers, with Mackie especially showing real acting chops once again.
There are elements of rushing to the story, which builds patiently before culminating in a rather hurried finale. Gatiss finds time for plenty of diplomatic wrangling between Iraxxa and the humans, which is compelling, but the resolution doesn’t feel like it arrives with the same sort of measured pacing. This is a perennial problem with Doctor Who, though, and it doesn’t hurt the intriguing story that builds up in the background throughout.
Less welcome is the addition of Michelle Gomez as Missy, in a series of scenes designed just to remove her from the vault and lay the table for what is to come in the final few episodes. She is kept thankfully absent from the actual plotting here, but that also makes it all the more frustrating that she is included at all. It’s a traditional Steven Moffat touch that, while intriguing, pulls attention away from the conclusion of the story at hand. That said, I may have to eat those words in a few weeks’ time if Moffat is able to craft a truly impressive finale for this series.
Next week: We’ve gone from the Victorians to the Romans with an episode that looks set to take on the real life mystery of a missing legion, with added tentacle monsters.
Doctor Who is airing on Saturday nights on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
Do you agree with this review? What did you think of the latest episode of Doctor Who? Let us know in the comments section.