Imagine ordering Empress of Mars, a colonialist, capitalist and slavery themed episode of Doctor Who that demonstrates 19th century military and mercantile values and not realising it was accomplished earlier, with more nuance and to a more satisfying degree in the episode Thin Ice? As if to make up for this, some fetching steam punk garb is added in, as are call backs to previous series. And I mean way back. Think not only to Tooth and Claw in 2006 but to 1974’s Monster of Peladon. And so, if we didn’t realise before now, these Who arcana indicate the authorship of Mark Gatiss.
As a war story, Red Coats of Mars would have been a better title, because it was mainly about these soldiers, what they wanted, and what they did to get it, and how they left the planet. The subplot about the Colonel was interesting and entirely in keeping, a little like Captain Quell of the Mummy on the Orient Express – a former soldier seeking a quiet life. At this point I feel like I’m outside the Matrix looking in, all I see are types and archetypes (the green code) where others see people. Ah, (pointing to the code) there’s the soldier about to die, because he mentioned returning to his fiance. Look, (again pointing to the code) the catalyst in the form of a soldier after the loot.
Perhaps the Red Coats, with their camp, military hierarchy, industry, and social mores, were the most convincing part of the entire shenanigans. Because, once off the ice, the titular character barely got time to apprehend what was going on, decide on a plan, and order an attack, before being taken hostage like she was a mere human queen beholden to a werewolf, and not actually the fabled Ice Warrior leader herself. Carapace instead of character development, methinks.
Yes, it was all old-fashioned jolly fun I suppose. As per usual Peter Capaldi did his best, with his Doctor placed, once more in a position to attempt to negotiate understanding between humans and ‘the other‘. Yet perhaps the stakes weren’t high enough, nor his arguments that convincing given the faith of the Reds and the zeal of the Ice Warriors. It took ‘Friday’ and the ‘Colonel’ – to actually get different outcome.
Again Michelle Gomez’s Missy was under used, given she would have been an interesting contrast in power to the Empress. Meanwhile Pearl Mackie’s Bill did things and said things when asked, or challenged to. I forget what they were, mainly, but she had one good joke.
Perhaps I’m being a little mean. This was not the worst Gatiss episode of Doctor Who (that award goes to Victory of the Daleks from 2010). Nor was it the best (The Crimson Horror, The Idiot’s Lantern, and The Unquiet Dead). It was middling, with interesting ideas, but no room to fully explore them, nor lead them to a hearty resolution. Don’t get me wrong. I just wanted more of consequence from this. More cross-examination of Catchlove, and more for Iraxxa to do, and yes, something more for Bill beyond offer an opinion as the literally the only other woman on an entire planet.