Doctor Who – S10 E9: Empress of Mars – Reviewed

"So that's what Iron Man would look like in the
lizard-people universe from the Super Mario Bros movie!"
After a rare three-part story, series 10 takes a break from its overarching narratives for an old-school monster-of-the-week episode – and the results are a lot of fun. The bulk of this season has been so serious, and so driven by darker and heavier themes, that it actually feels like a pleasant change of pace to just have The Doctor and Bill go on a one-off adventure and fight some monsters. One of the things that is most fun about Doctor Who, after all, is its variety, and the balance of serious and fun that that variety provides. Empress of Mars feels quite a bit like a classic-series story in its back-to-basics narrative approach, as well as its themes of aliens being complex people in their own right, rather than villains. Plus, it also provides a welcome return to the screen for some fan-favorite original series creatures. Old-school Doctor Who fans should certainly be very happy with this one.

As fans of the series will surmise from the title, Empress of Mars brings us the return of those Martian reptile soldiers, the Ice Warriors. While the Ice Warriors never quite reached the iconic status of the Daleks, the Cybermen, or the Master, they were among the most popular second-tier villains in the classic series, appearing in four well-liked story arcs during the Second and Third Doctor eras. After several failed attempts to resurrect them (starting as far back as the Sixth Doctor era) they finally made a long-awaited comeback in the show's 50th Anniversary season, in the excellent, claustrophobic alien-on-a-submarine thriller Cold War. Now the show finds them back on their own turf – with a twist. This Mars is somehow inexplicably inhabited by British soldiers from the Victorian era, and they're about to start a war with the Ice Warriors.


It is somewhat ironic that, despite the Ice Warriors famously being Martians, this is actually the first story with them to be set on Mars itself. The planet is realized with some pretty impressive sets: a network of pretty convincing caves, and some well-designed Martian architecture. The parts we get to see of the Ice Warrior city are particularly cool, striking a nice balance between ancient ruins and futuristic alien-ness. The design of the titular Empress is likewise quite impressive. Since the show is firmly committed to being faithful to the original designs of classic-series creatures, the standard Ice Warrior soldiers are decidedly vintage (though still pretty cool), keeping true to their mid-1960s origins. But the Empress is something new, and gives the designers a chance to make a fresh take on the Ice Warrior, with very cool results.

In keeping with the Ice Warriors being a throwback to the early years of the classic series, the story in general has a pretty old-school Doctor Who feel: for the first time in a while this season, we have an episode that doesn't really further a larger arc, and doesn't have the philosophical weightiness of much of the Capaldi era, but is just a straightforward sci-fi tale. The episode does this very well, with a briskly-paced adventure-serial feel, and a dynamic between the Doctor and the crew of Victorian soldiers which is pure classic-Who. What helps it to work so well is that it isn't a straightforward case of heroes and villains: both the human and Ice Warrior armies are complicated people, with good and bad on both sides, with The Doctor and Bill in the middle trying to find a diplomatic way out of the situation.

"You can't have this carnival rocket-ship
ride - it's ours!"
The result of all of this is a solid one-off adventure that feels like a welcome change of pace from the previous arc (and whatever overarching story is building), but one that nonetheless has enough dramatic weight to be compelling on its own. With how easily and comfortably the Peter Capaldi era does something like this that feels very much like original-series Doctor Who, this episode also provides a reminder that no matter what changes it goes through, this show does an excellent job of maintaining its identity, and its sense of continuity. It has been fifty years since we first met the Ice Warriors in the Patrick Troughton-era serial of the same name, but even after all that time, and after ten new Doctors and nearly as many new showrunners, Doctor Who is still very distinctly Doctor Who.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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