Put an ancient warrior race of crocodile-like beings on Mars with a Victorian-era army, a mummified queen about to wake, a Doctor, two companions, and a Tardis and what do you get? Turns out, surprisingly an underwhelming episode of television. Thankfully, underwhelming Who is still more entertaining than that of other shows but alas I was left wanting so much more. It’s no secret that writer Mark Gatiss is a long-time Whovian, and no doubt this episode pays homage to classic Who things, but ultimately it’s not much more than that.
And thus, we cross to the negative side of the fine line that balances old and new. Doctor Who is great, and perhaps at its best, when it finds the right balance of past and present. I love a good classic villain story, even though I don’t have any other basis for them than the modern series. It just needs to show me something new, fresh, or at least relevant. Empress of Mars almost does, but Gatiss and Moffatt seem a bit too preoccupied with the oddball scenario they’ve cooked up here to follow through.
“Always been my problem, thinking like a warrior.” – The Doctor
I don’t often find the set ups of Mark Gatiss episodes to completely work, but he sure knows the Doctor, and it’s gem lines like this one that prove it. There’s a timely message in this episode regarding who really invades who when it comes to war, with nods to the colonialist mindset still pervasive and a brief but blatant illustration of patriarchal sexism, all good points with a perfect scenario to explore them, none of which happens. Instead, we sort of linger around the idea of militarism. Call me crazy but I think the fact that the nearly-hanged-for-desertion Godsacre just ends up pledging his life to the Empress’s military undoes the point entirely. So, again, not much there.
However, the Doctor admitting to his warrior mindset is an astute observation. When I think of the Doctor as warrior I conjure the image of the Tenth Doctor vengefully drowning the Racnoss in the episode The Runaway Bride. He is, after all, the guy that once blew up his own planet to end a war (undone because of timey wimey stuff, of course). It is the entire reason his name exists to remind him that he is supposed to help people, when it seems that his nature wants to seek vengeance. He fights for kindness but occasionally gives into anger. Sounds familiar.
The Doctor often gets attributed as a Christ-like, savior figure. The parallels can certainly be drawn there, but I think he works far better as a parallel to us. His dual natures are constantly warring. He is time lord yet defender of humans. He is deadly yet sacrificial. He even has two hearts. He is fallible, breakable, imperfect. And the best and most interesting thing is that he knows it. That’s where his strength comes from. As he sees in both Ice Warriors and humans, they are not defined by an aspect of their identity and shouldn’t be condemned for it either.
Too bad the episode is not the least bit interested in doing more than touching on this. A conversation between the Doctor and the radical Catchlove about who should be condemned and for what could have been memorable. But I’m not here to rewrite episodes. Though, as I compare this season to last, I’m starting to believe Doctor Who is a better set up for two-part episodes than one-offs. Unless the single episodes are really thorough ideas with time to cook, the show needs more time to breath in order to explore the many great questions that it poses and leave us with new questions we hadn’t thought of. Instead, I’m left with the wrong kinds of questions, like what on earth was the point of them visiting NASA? We’ll never know, and likely won’t remember to ask. The Doctor may forget that he is not a warrior sometimes, but he really shouldn’t be forgettable.
Next Time on Who-ology:
Speaking of forgettable, I have nearly forgotten what is coming next week. Because it looked that good. I hate to be a downer, but if at this point you can tell me the overarching storyline for this season you deserve a medal. Twelve’s run has 3 episodes left and he’s looking to flatline a bit sooner than expected. As always, I’m hoping for the best.