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Doctor Who: Empress of Mars (Review)

Empress of Mars might be the last script that Mark Gatiss writes for Doctor Who for a long time.

Chris Chibnell has expressed an interest in putting together an American-style “writers’ room” upon taking over the series. It is entirely possible that Gatiss might continue to write for the show, to the point that he has expressed optimism at the possibility. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Chibnell would have a different dynamic with Gatiss than the other showrunners; Gatiss was the first writer to write for the revival other than Russell T. Davies, and co-created Sherlock with Steven Moffat.

Forget a Hard Brexit or a Soft Brexit.
Mars wants a Cold Brexit.

Gatiss has been a fixture of Doctor Who, dating back even beyond the start of the revival. Like Davies and Moffat, Gatiss wrote extensively for the property during the interregnum between Survival and Rose. Since the series returned to television screens, Gatiss has been a regular contributor. He has written for eight of the ten television seasons to air since the show was revived in 2005. He has written for every season overseen by Steven Moffat, making him unique among the stable of  Doctor Who recurring writers. As such, Empress of Mars represents the end of an era.

Empress of Mars might just be the best script that Mark Gatiss has ever written for Doctor Who.

For Queen and Planet.

The Crimson Horror is perhaps the stiffest competition in the category, making it an interesting point of comparison. The Crimson Horror is very much Gatiss playing to his own interests and strengths. It is one of Gatiss’ most archetypal scripts, filled with his favourite tropes and trapping. Unlike The Unquiet Dead or The Idiot’s Lantern, it is not tripped up by an unfortunate closing moral. The Crimson Horror could never be mistaken for a “vote UKIP!” commercial or a public service announcement about learning to forgive abusive husbands and fathers.

In many ways, Empress of Mars is a fitting companion piece. It is a grab bag of many of Gatiss’ pet interests. It is undoubtedly a nostalgic period piece blended with vintage science-fiction trappings, featuring a squadron of Victorian soldiers stranded underneath the surface of Mars in the style of classic pulp tales. There is celebration of Doctor Who continuity, bringing back the Ice Warriors and even Alpha Centauri. Ysanne Churchman reprised the role at the age of ninety-two, nearly a quarter of a century after retiring from acting.

Chill out, dude.

Indeed, the affectionate nostalgia of Empress of Mars might be best captured in the portrait of Queen Victoria that is clearly visible at the British encampment. It is at once an acknowledgement of the nostalgia for British history that plays through so many of Gatiss’ contributions to Doctor Who, and a sly acknowledgement of the series’ own internal history. Notably, the portrait has clearly been painted to resemble actor Pauline Collins, who played Queen Victoria in Tooth and Claw.

This is far from the only wry self-aware in-joke in the episode. Empress of Mars is the first episode of Doctor Who that Mark Gatiss has written since the departure of Jenna Louise Coleman, and the emphasis on Queen Victoria seems to be a nod to her high-profile lead role in Victoria. More than that, Empress of Mars even features a prominent supporting role for her co-star Ferdinand Kingsley as Captain Neville Catchlove. It is all very wry.

Captain Catchlove, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Mark Gatiss.

So, on the surface, Empress of Mars is a very typical script from Mark Gatiss. There are a lot of sly nods to classic pulp fiction and old-school science-fiction. The lone surviving Ice Warrior is named “Friday” and treated as a servant, a detail that the soldiers acknowledge has been cribbed from Robinson Crusoe. This, in turn, makes the adventure something akin to a play on the title of the classic sixties sci-fi feature Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

More than that, the framing device of NASA discovering a message left by literal ancient astronauts on the surface of Mars recalls the basic plot of Nigel Kneale and Jan Read’s sixties British science-fiction cult classic First Men in the Moon. That was itself an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ turn-of-the-century novel of the same name, but which used the framing device of a contemporaneous United Nations mission to the moon uncovering evidence that British explorers had visited the moon at the end of the eighteenth century and claimed it for Queen Victoria.

“You know the drill.”

Gatiss would use a similar plot device in his own 2010 adaptation of the story, setting the narrative in July 1969, making a simultaneous homage to turn-of-the-century pulp fiction and to more recent nostalgic science-fiction adaptations. Gatiss has long been a nostalgic writer, but it is fascinating to watch him careful layer his nostalgia. There is an intricacy to his work, which has arguably developed through experience. Indeed, Empress of Mars is much smarter in its pop nostalgia that much of Gatiss’ earlier (and uncritical) nostalgic writing, like League of Gentlemen.

Evidence of this layering can be found in the story of how Godsacre and his men came to be stranded on Mars. At a very basic level, the plot beat is a conscious shout-out to the work of classic pulp writer Edgar Rice Borroughs. Borroughs created the character of John Carter, who was propelled from the figurative new world of North America to the literal new world of Barsoom. However, the climactic reveal that Godsacre was a deserter recalls the revised introduction of the recent John Carter of Mars reboot, in which Carter is consciously fleeing the Civil War.

Well, they always said the Sex Pistols’ sales were out of this world.

Even the little trappings of the episode capture that old-school adventure-novel tone. The discovery of the Ice Queen’s tomb, and the waking of a primal supernatural force through colonial greed, feels lifted straight from the anxieties of the Victorian era as embodied through the myth of the Tomb of King Tutankhamun. The fact that Godsacre went from hunting diamonds in South Africa to searching for “gemstones, gold, treasures beyond [his] wildest dreams” on the red planet evokes the motivation of “fortune and glory” that underscores so many of these tales.

On a purely superficial level, Empress of Mars works very well. The Ice Warriors fit much more comfortably around the pulpy old-school trappings of Mars itself than they did on the nuclear submarine of Cold War. Even just visually, there is a wonderful “pop” from the contrast of their green armour (and red eyes) against the red planet. The action sequences are shot and there is a feeling of genuine production value. Wayne Yip does a much better job keeping Empress of Mars moving than he did with The Lie of the Land.

Nordole, knows all.

Empress of Mars genuinely feels like a throwback to a more classic and pulpy science-fiction aesthetic, even before the cameo from Alpha Centauri. Empress of Mars is almost a laundry list of retro charm: hexagonal rock prisms, red coats, a giant glowing laser, a striking gold sarcophagus, a steampunk space suit. Empress of Mars is a strikingly (and endearingly) old-school piece of production. It is very hard to dislike the episode, even as a nostalgic run-around.

Still, the beauty of Empress of Mars comes in the way that it cunningly uses (and subtly subverts) that nostalgia. One of the big tensions of this season of Doctor Who has been the need to engage with (and respond to) the chaos unfolding in the real world. After all, the ripples of the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit are still being assessed and felt. Once this season got past the opening quadtych of stories that established Bill as a character and her dynamic with the Doctor, it has grappled with what it means to write Doctor Who in the era of Trump and Brexit.

Enemy mine.

Sometimes that anxiety expressed itself through abstract reflection on the nature of Doctor Who in a world where its idealism seemed further away than ever, as in Extremis. Sometimes that uncertainty led the series to wonder what it would take for a person to use their autonomy against their own interests, as in The Pyramid at the End of the World. Sometimes that concern forced the series to revert to tried-and-tested science-fiction concepts, like Oxygen. Sometimes that crisis led to a few soundbytes and cheap shots, as in The Lie of the Land.

There is something very interesting in how Gatiss uses Empress of Mars to play with the sort of imperialist nostalgia and xenophobic panic that elected Trump and resulted in Brexit. After all, many of those who voted in favour of leaving the European Union seemed very supportive of using all means at their disposal to secure Britain’s off-shore holdings, ranked immigration as their primary concern, and were perfectly okay with an alliance between the Conservative Party and the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

The red coats are coming.
The red coats are coming.

In short, the sort of Victorian nostalgia on offer in Empress of Mars could very easily come across as a smorgasbord of imperialist fantasies, of the “civilised” British Army bringing order to a bunch of upstart war-like primitives governed by tribal concerns. This is a legitimate concern, given that Gatiss has a tendency to engage in uncritical nostalgia, indulging in classic pulpy tropes without any introspection or analysis. The Unquiet Dead was a loving homage to classic horror, but it also had decidedly xenophobic overtones.

Empress of Mars could easily have repeated that mistake. However, Gatiss produces his best script to date. Empress of Mars is entirely aware of the potentially problematic undertones of Gatiss’ original “let’s do Zulu, but on Mars with the Ice Warriors” premise. As soon as the Ice Warrior lumbers into view, the Doctor reflects, “This could go very well, or very badly.” There is an endearing self-awareness there, with Empress of Mars very cleverly twisting and playing with that core story idea.

Empire-building.

Empress of Mars is decidedly postcolonial in its handling of this battle between the British Empire and the natives. Most obviously, Empress of Mars begins by inverting the classic Doctor Who dynamic of dangerous invaders laying siege to intransigent locals. This has been the fixture of so many classic Doctor Who stories, with so many aliens laying siege (and claim) to Earth. Stories like The Day of the Doctor, The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion are perhaps the most obvious examples, because they subvert the obvious expected ending to the tale.

Empress of Mars instead subverts the basic dynamic at play by positioning mankind as the invaders. “In this scenario, the humans are the invaders,” the Doctor helpfully explains. To be fair, this is not a radical twist of itself. Indeed, quite a few Doctor Who stories have been built around the idea of reversing that traditional dynamic by positioning mankind as the alien invaders. It is the core basis of most of the Silurian-centric stories, from … and the Silurians through to The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. So this is a clever creative decision, but not a radical one.

No love for Catchlove.

Instead, Gatiss pushes the idea even further. He uses this notion of British imperialism to point out the irony of the xenophobia and nationalism that drives so much of the politics of Brexit. The Doctor even goes so far as to throw some stock right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric at the British soldiers. “You don’t belong here,” he warns them. “The sooner you get off this planet, the better.” That logic recalls the racist fear-mongering of certain Brexit campaigners, who even went as far as to use Nazi imagery to vilify refugees seeking safe haven.

Of course, the Doctor’s observation is far more rational than such xenophobic paranoia. After all, the British soldiers are not relocating to Mars as a way of escape persecution or to make a better life for themselves, like most migrants. The British forces on Mars in Empress of Mars are explicitly a colonising force. They are a foreign army launching an invasion. As such, the Doctor’s criticism is entirely legitimate. Godsacre and Catchlove have no right to be on Mars. Their presence will only bring death and destruction.

A frosty welcome.

Catchlove embodies the sort of imperialist attitude that simmers beneath the surface of such anti-immigrant paranoia, but without any real sense of self-awareness. “Don’t belong?” he mockingly repeats. “We’re British. Mars is part of the Empire now.” This is the irony of resurgent British nationalism, perhaps best embodied in the alliance between Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. This is a movement that is at once afraid of foreigners to the point of irrationality, but blind to the legacy of its own colonial follies.

After all, the bulk of immigrants living in the United Kingdom are from the former colonies of the British Empire. Many modern refugees are fleeing from geopolitical crises rooted in international intervention by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. There is no small irony in the way that the Brexit campaign at once fetishises the British Empire and vilifies immigrants, glorifying colonialist military expansion while insisting that economic migrants and refugees stay within their own borders. The irony of fearing the alien while lauding the invader.

The Doctor has a lot on his plate.

However, Empress of Mars goes somewhat further than that in its dramatic reversal. Not only does the episode play up the intertwined paradoxes of imperialism and xenophobia, it also juxtaposes the British Empire with the Ice Warriors. The Ice Warriors are themselves cast as an allegory for these colonial impulses deep within the right-wing of British political thought. It is hardly subtle, but the title of Empress of Mars refers at once to Queen Victoria and to the Ice Queen, twin imperialist societies governed by women.

One of the biggest issues with updating classic monsters on Doctor Who is finding a way to make them relevant to contemporary culture. This has notably been an issue with the Cybermen, as demonstrated by the awkward attempts at social commentary about the use of modern technology in Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel. The Daleks tend to work a lot better, if only because they are so simple a concept that they can be retooled for any form of fanaticism or nihilism; Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways had room to rework them as religious fanatics.

A deep dive.

When the Ice Warriors were reintroduced in Cold War, it seemed like they were included for no other reason that to have a classic monster make a return during the fiftieth anniversary season. Most of the “big” names like the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, and even the Autons had made their return, so bringing back the Ice Warriors felt almost obligatory. It was either that of the Sea Devils and the Myrka. Indeed, their return was so perfunctory that they were overshadowed by the reappearance of the Great Intelligence.

Empress of Mars uses the Ice Warriors in a very clever way. It plays on the iconography of the aliens, their literal association with ice and thaw. They are aliens that exist very much in contrast with what most people associate with the Martian landscape, the lifeless red desert sands. However, just because they do not seem to belong there, it does not mean that they are not present. Like the Silurians hide beneath the surface of the Earth, the Ice Warriors lie in wait beneath the surface of Mars. They are literal cold warriors, buried in the ice and largely forgotten.

United front.

Cold War played on this idea for a clever pun. However, Empress of Mars plays on the iconography to tie them back to the modern status quo. The Ice Warriors are a race of imperial conquerors who have slipped into history, buried beneath the surface of a world to which they no longer belong. They are forgotten, and ignored. However, once they awake, they cause chaos. The Ice Warriors feel like an expression of the slumbering British imperialist tendencies that were awoken through the Brexit referendum, a monstrous beast long though subdued and faded.

It is a striking metaphor, one that makes the Ice Warriors more relevant than they seemed in Cold War. In keeping with Gatiss’ fixation on continuity and nostalgia, it is also an approach reasonably consistent with their earlier appearances. The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon positioned the Ice Warriors as the empire that came in from the cold, a once-imperial power coming to terms with their place in a postcolonial world. In some ways, Empress of Mars plays out that same story from the perspective of the Ice Warriors themselves.

They’re keeping her on ice.

Empress of Mars was clearly written long before Theresa May even called her disastrous election, one that may have completely undercut her authority and position. The way in which Gatiss consciously shunts Nardole into a subplot with Missy and the TARDIS recalls the way in which early season episodes like The PilotSmile and Thin Ice would sideline the character, suggesting that it was largely written before Matt Lucas was confirmed as a regular and that he was retroactively inserted into the episode’s plot in such a way as to avoid disrupting the primary story flow.

Still, even allowing for these practical realities, Empress of Mars was very clearly written in the shadow of Brexit. The episode was clearly intended to have a great deal of political relevance when it was written and produced, but it seems even more overtly political in light of the events that occurred since it was written and filmed. In fact, while it would have worked at any point in the season, its original broadcast date could not have been more perfect.

The honour is to serve.

It would always have been easy to draw parallels between Theresa May and the Ice Queen. Both are stubborn isolationist ruler who refused to compromise in pursuit of a mutually beneficial outcome; May’s defining characteristic seems to have been her insistence on “going it alone” to the point of threatening existing intelligence-sharing agreements with foreign governments and running the Conservative Party through her own private advisors more than through elected party figures.

Empress of Mars is explicitly a story about the folly of such isolationism, with a very particular eye on Brexit. In particular, there’s a recurring suggestion that the romanticised imperial trappings are no longer fit for purpose on either side of this divide. At the climax of Empress of Mars, Catchlove exposes Godsacre as a fraud to his men, his red jacket just a facade hiding a dark secret. “He’s a paper tiger,” Catchlove insists, exposing the head of the British Army on Mars as a fraud.

Caving to pressure.

The Doctor makes a similar appeal to the Ice Queen, warning her that she cannot hope to recapture the prestige that she held at Mars’ imperial zenith. Much like those Brexit voters seeking to recapture the glory of the British Empire, and who ironically only succeeded at destablising the Union, the Ice Queen must come to terms with the fact that Mars is no longer a major galactic power. “The Mars you rule is dead,” the Doctor urges. “Let the dead pass.”

In this respect, the conclusion to Empress of Mars is quite pointed. The Ice Queen learns to accept the way things are, that her isolationism and imperialism will only lead to chaos and panic. The Ice Queen must learn to accept other perspectives, to compromise and embrace diversity. That is reflected in a number of different ways, but most obviously in her reaction to the surrender of Godsacre. Godsacre is welcomed into Ice Warrior society, an immigrant who finds a home that enriches both his own life and his his host nation.

She Missy-ed him something terrible.

This is arguably another illustration of just how much Gatiss has grown as a writer. In Cold Warrior, one of the more awkward plot beats was the way in which the Doctor seemed so comfortable with the violence and brutality of Ice Warrior culture, a moral relativism at odds with his tendency to intervene and meddle. At the climax of Empress of Mars, it seems like Gatiss might repeat this mistake, that the Doctor might allow the Ice Queen to execute Godsacre as an expression of her cultural norms.

Certainly, Bill objects rather vocally and pointedly to the Doctor’s passive compliance with all this, understanding that Godsacre has surrendered his life to protect that of his men. The Doctor repeatedly silences Bill, allowing events to play out in a manner that recalls his deference to Skaldak in Cold War. However, the Ice Queen decides to spare Godsacre. It is suggested that the only reason that the Doctor allowed the drama to play out was because he knew how it would end. “You knew that would happen?” Bill asks. It is much more in keeping with his character.

The Way of the Ice Warrior.

However, the biggest and most overt Brexit-related commentary in Empress of Mars arrives in the closing minutes, with the cameo of Alpha Centauri. In many ways, this short cameo from Alpha Centauri is the perfect illustration of how skillfully Gatiss employs his nostalgia in Empress of Mars. The cameo is obviously an homage to one the weirder aliens ever to appear in Doctor Who, a recurring character from the Pertwee era who appeared in two of the more memorable serials of Barry Letts’ tenure, The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon.

However, its inclusion in Empress of Mars is quite striking. The Peladon stories were quite explicitly about Britain’s relationship with the European Economic Community during the seventies. The Curse of Peladon was a story very much in favour of British membership of the bloc, while The Monster of Peladon was much more cynical as it heaped allegories about the miners’ strike on top of its commentary about Europe. However one might cut it, Alpha Centauri arrives with that baggage. Alpha Centauri is coded as an allegorical symbol for Britain’s involvement in Europe.

“All right, let’s get cracking.”

In particular, Alpha Centauri shows up at the end of Empress of Mars to welcome the Ice Warriors into the Galactic Federation. In short, Empress of Mars positions itself as the moment of transition between the imperialist and monstrous Ice Warriors who appeared in Troughton era serials like The Ice Warriors and Seeds of Death and the more peaceful and friendly Ice Warriors who appeared in The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon. It is, in short, the story about a formerly imperialist power that redeems itself through international engagement.

It is, essentially, a story about how Britain cannot (and should not) hope to resurrect the British Empire, but that it can take pride of place within the European Union. It is a story about a once-major power coming to terms with the fact that it could never be the power broker that it hopes to be on its own terms, but that it can play an important part in ensuring peace and stability on a larger scale. It is a story that pointed rejects the narrative of Brexit proposed by those in favour of departure, instead arguing firmly for Britain’s place within the European Union.

We’ll have this war over in time for supper.

In some ways, Empress of Mars is a great example of the shifting in context that can take place between the production of an episode and the broadcast of that episode. Empress of Mars would have been a fascinating episode airing at any point after the Brexit. However, it would have seemed quite mournful against the backdrop of Theresa May’s pursuit of a hardcore no-compromises Brexit. Instead, broadcast at a point where it seems like there might be a softer Brexitor, even more remotely, a reversal of BrexitEmpress of Mars seems positively optimistic.

If Empress of Mars is to be the last Mark Gatiss episode for a while, or even just acknowledging its place as the last Gatiss episode of the Moffat era, there is a fitting symmetry to it. It demonstrates how much Gatiss has grown as a writer over the past twelve years, how much he has learned about constructing his stories and tempering the awkward implications of his nostalgic tendencies. It feels like Gatiss has completed something of an arc since he began writing for the series, over a decade ago.

She is awake.
And you will worship her.

The Unquiet Dead was an affectionate throwback that had a decidedly anti-immigrant subtext. Empress of Mars is a nostalgic romp that still finds time for some optimistic Brexit commentary. It feels like a fitting bookend.

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