Discussing Doctor Who: The Empress of Mars

Doctor Who Empress of Mars

The Doctor returns to Mars. The Ice Warriors are back. Missy is let loose. Kevin and I should love “The Empress of Mars,” right? Yeah, about that …

Kevin Harvey is the author of All You Want to Know About The Bible in Pop Culture and a fellow Whovian who enjoys watching and breaking down the latest adventures of the Doctor. You can follow him on Twitter at @PopCultureKevin.

Previously, we rebuffed “The Lie of the Land,” felt fine at “The Pyramids at the End of the World,” went to the extreme in“Extremis,” breathed in “Oxygen,” opened the door of “Knock Knock,” stepped out on “Thin Ice,” emoted about “Smile” and navigated “The Pilot” If you need a refresher on last season, here is our recap of season 9.

After the Monk trilogy ending last week, what did you think about the standalone effort of “The Empress of Mars”?

Aaron: Can exploring Mars be meh? After the stakes seemed so high the past few weeks, things were decidedly less eventful this week.

We are told, as is almost always the case in these situations, “the supplies are running low,” but there’s not much sense of real danger here for Victorian era British soldiers stranded on Mars.

Shouldn’t that be a bit easier to portray? This is an episode that will be entirely forgotten by the end of the season.

Lots of things just seemed underdeveloped this week—starting with the concept. Bringing steampunk aesthetics through the British Empire trying to invade, conquer and loot Mars is quite the heady idea.

Recasting the humans as the alien invaders could be an interesting shift of roles (though, as we’ll discuss shortly, having the true bad guy be a human is not new this season). Starting off in NASA was fun in the moment, but what point did it serve in an episode that could’ve used some more development?

We never really know why the TARDIS takes Nardole back to the vault. If it’s to guard Missy, it seems odd the only solution is to free her. Maybe Missy snuck out and did something to the TARDIS?

I did appreciate this episode drawing on Bill’s stated love of sci-fi and movies. Previous episodes had unfortunately left that thread after “Pilot.” The Doctor even got in the game by name-dropping “Frozen.”

There was also a nice callback to old Who with the Alpha Centauri cameo at the end welcoming the Ice Warriors into the Galactic Federation.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this episode is from Mark Gatiss, who also teams with Steven Moffat on Sherlock and who wrote your least favorite episode from last year.

He gave it a bit of shout out as the empress yells “Sleep no more!” to her waking warriors.

Kevin: Are you kidding me? This was from the same writer of last season’s “Sleep No More,” the worst episode of Doctor Who that I can recall in the last few years? Figures.

I actually fell asleep during “The Empress of Mars,” I was so bored. Somebody get this Gatiss guy out of the Doctor Who writing rooms!

Maybe I would be less harsh about the episode if it weren’t both Moffat’s and Capaldi’s last seasons. But as that is the case, this was just a waste of all our time.

At times I actually wondered if we were still in the Monks’ Matrix-like world because something just felt off the whole time.

As you mentioned, why in the world did the TARDIS take off? And short on supplies? Really? Everyone seemed to be having a jolly old time with their Indian and China tea.

For me, I think the biggest reason probably for the terrible episode is that there seemed an atypical abundant amount of scenes that didn’t have any of the three leads in it.

I don’t recommend going back to watch it again as I did, but if you happen to watch it next week when it’s reshown just before the new one, notice how many scenes only have British soldiers and/or ice warriors in them.

This show lives and breathes with the Doctor and his companions. Unless you’re giving us a classic episode like “Blink,” which actually required entirely unknown characters in order to pull off, we need the Doctor in most every scene.

We had a return of the Ice Warriors this week along with the most prevalent villain this season—man. What’s going on with bad guys this season?

Kevin: As you and I have both mentioned at various times this season, we so badly need to end this season with the Weeping Angels, arguably the greatest Who villain of all time.

Perhaps only that would redeem this lackluster season of villains where the villains are either mortal, unscary humans or Monks who clearly did not think through every scenario as deeply as they had previously claimed.

I was previously happy to see that Missy was trying to be good, and that perhaps we’d get a bit of a redemption story with her, but at this point, I’d be okay if she started annihilating people like she did at the beginning of “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

Would somebody who is actually dangerous and scary please start doing something evil?

Yes, man is bad—we get it. But as we saw in one of my all-time favorite scenes—the climax of Matt Smith’s first episode, “The Eleventh Hour”—the Doctor has devoted himself to protecting earth from alien invaders, not greedy businessmen and sad little boys who don’t want their mommy to die.

Aaron: Because of its track record, I give Doctor Who, more than any other show, the benefit of the doubt. I always hold out hope that something that seems annoyingly random will be an important thread later.

At the moment, I’m choosing to believe that this thread will weave something vital at the conclusion of the season.

We have so many people displaying the worst of humanity, our proclivity to surrender to evil, and even Bill showing the ability to shoot the Doctor if need be (though her cause was righteous, even if the actions were questionable).

This could be building to a very Christlike climax where the Doctor sacrifices himself for people who do not deserve it and even fought against him.

Or … this could all be a waste of time with little resolution. I hoping it’s the former, but I’m increasingly worried it’s the latter.

The Doctor seemed fairly passive in this episode, allowing most things to play themselves out without his active intervention. Why do you think that was the case? 

Aaron: The episode seemed to want to wrestle with the idea of just where the Doctor’s loyalties lie. Does he defend the Earth (and England) at every turn or does he always defer to the individuals on the planet? Is he always against the invaders even when they are vastly outmanned and outgunned?

So I suppose it was intended as him running through those moral complications, but it came across as unengaged. Even Bill stayed on the sidelines more than usual. (That’s not even mentioning Nardole being gone the entire time.)

I was honestly surprised the Doctor allowed someone to be shot and killed. If more care had been placed on the episode’s other moral quandaries and the character had not been so irredeemable, I would question whether the death was meant as a critique of passivism.

In that, staying on the sidelines will not always work. Sometimes, others pay the price for our passivity.

But, the ironically named Catchlove clearly deserved his punishment after displaying both irrational bravado and unflinching cowardice.

Kevin: Honestly, to try and think too deeply on this episode, specifically about the passivity of the Doctor, goes against everything telling me to just forget about this pointless episode, other than the fact that it was used to free Missy.

That’s a good point you made about the Doctor defending Earth versus defending humans. However, the ice warriors never had anything to fear concerning the invasion of the British, so defending the planet being “invaded” really wasn’t even necessary.

This week the Doctor reminded me of just a curious little boy who found himself involved in a much bigger mess than he had planned and didn’t know what to do with himself.

In the opening scene at NASA, which I very much loved, his smile at seeing the message “God Save the Queen” on Mars was wonderful. He was genuinely excited to go there and solve the mystery of how the message got there.

But once everything began playing itself out with the soldiers and the ice warriors, I got the impression that he really just wanted to hightail it out of there, but of course he couldn’t because apparently the TARDIS decided to take itself out for a spin.

Missy’s loose and, hopefully, things are about to pick up. What did she mean when she asked the Doctor if he was all right?

Kevin: Just as was the case last year with Clara, the foreshadowing has been there all season regarding the eventual outcome of the Doctor this year. But unlike with Clara, does the Doctor actually know something is up?

Again, I go back to the strange question in the back of my mind while watching this episode: Were they still in the fake world of the Monks’?

I don’t honestly believe that, but so much does feel off lately, and Moffat is too good of a showrunner to have just gotten lazy. Is there some kind of intentionality going on here?

So is the Doctor all right? Definitely not. But I don’t know what is wrong yet. But no one knows the Doctor better than his childhood friend, so hopefully having Missy tagging along with the Doctor will involve her probing around and figuring out what we’re all asking ourselves.

Aaron: If we could out the middle 40 minutes of this episode, we’d all be better for it. The opening was fun and this ending was absolutely intriguing.

The Doctor doesn’t just look shocked that Missy is on the TARDIS. He seems terrified. He moves toward her in equal parts approaching a suicidal person on the edge of a cliff and seeing a murderous person coming toward you.

Let’s just hope her freedom will bring some excitement to the last episode next week before the two-part season finale.

Favorite quotes or one-liners?

Aaron: “Always been my problem, thinking like a warrior.” — the Doctor

“Why is there still no setting for wood?!” — the Doctor. Yep. After all these years, he’s going to have to find a way for the sonic screwdriver to work on wood doors.

Kevin:

“You mean he wasn’t the first man on the moon?” —Bill
“That is such a human-centric question.” —the Doctor

“The Terminator?” —the Doctor
“It’s a movie. You haven’t seen it?” —Bill
“I’m a very busy man.” —the Doctor
“You’d like it. It’s got killer robots.” —Bill
“Ooh, I’ll put it on the list.” —the Doctor

What some spiritual takeaways from this episode?

Kevin: This can be a tough question sometimes for weaker episodes, but thank goodness for the British soldier Godsacre (as in “God’s sacrifice”?).

In the end, he wasn’t merely sacrificing himself to save others, but he said, “I expect my life to be taken, and I give it willingly.” That is exactly what Jesus said when he left his throne in heaven and lived as a man on earth.

What makes Jesus’ sacrifice the salvific beauty it is, is that he wasn’t just an innocent man who wandered into a death he didn’t deserve but couldn’t finagle himself out of.

He came to earth expecting his life to be taken, and he gave it willingly. Anything less would not have led to the salvation he desired to give us.

Aaron: That’s a great observation and I don’t really have anything else to add. It was an all-around weak episode and to pull anything else out would just be reading into something beyond what is there.

3 Comments

  1. Remember that the Tardis is sentient. She seems to always knows what’s best since she is aware of past present and future all at once. Also, be glad that this wasn’t the sequel of “Sleep no More” that it was suppose to be. I did like the call back to Classic Who with Alpha Centuri.

  2. Brian roden Reply

    The use of the bootstrap paradox (often known as the “Moffat loop” in Whovian circles) is getting a little worn. The Doctor sees something or receives a message that leads him to a place in the past, where it turns out he is involved in creating the message that brings him there in the first place.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.