August 16: "Empress of Mars"

(Who, working at BBC America, thought it was a good idea to put scenes -- not trailers, actual scenes -- that haven't actually aired in the episode yet as mid-commercial teases?  What on Earth is this even for, other than to potentially spoil the episode for the viewers?)

This opens with a frankly pointless scene at NASA (and that shot of the building is very cheap-looking) to establish that there were humans on Mars in 1881 -- rather than just having the TARDIS show up on Mars in 1881.  This leads to a story involving British troops on Mars, dealing with Ice Warriors who've been hibernating.  In theory this should be a bit daft but also exciting, the sort of juxtaposition that Doctor Who is fond of doing.  But it just never really gels.

Iraxxa in front of her hibernation device. ("Empress of Mars") ©BBC
Part of the problem is that it's a pretty shallow script that Mark Gatiss has given us.  On its surface level, "Empress of Mars" is admittedly a lot of fun.  We get Ice Warriors actually on Mars, for the first time ever on TV, and we get an entertaining clash with Victorian troops, with Victorian ideals (although, somewhat surprisingly, we also get a black soldier -- something even Gatiss commented on, although it seems there were a couple).  The new way the Ice Warriors kill people, by basically crushing them into small, twisted balls, is suitably horrific.  There's a noble leader in Godsacre and a slimy one in Catchlove, and since this is the Ice Warriors we're dealing with, the script takes some pains to establish that even though they're currently killing soldiers, they're not an evil species, not really.  (And they do get provoked by the incredibly stupid Catchlove, so their aggressive response is sort of justified.)  We even get a brand-new Martian design, in the form of the Ice Queen Iraxxa.  (Not sure about the hair-like tendrils though.)  And Alpha Centauri!  And Ysanne Churchman doing its voice again, even! That's a genuinely thrilling moment for any old-school fans.

So the initial, undemanding watch of "Empress of Mars" works, just about.  But that's the only level on which this works; there's no substance behind this story, no themes you can grapple with -- not even straightforward ones like "imperialism is bad", or "jingoistic arrogance only leads to destruction" (which is right there to take up, with Catchlove's comments about up-right crocodiles, but is cheerfully ignored), or even a token effort to compare Victorian and Martian philosophies, which seems like it would have been a pretty easy scene to do.  The closest the story gets is the way Iraxxa spares Godsacre's love, but that's only because of the Martian code of honor, rather than because any characters have experienced any real growth.

Actually, that's another problem with "Empress of Mars".  Gatiss hasn't provided us with characters, but rather with caricatures.  Everyone's defined by a broad stroke or two and nothing more: Catchlove is impulsive, Godascre is a noble coward, Iraxxa is imperious, Jackdaw is your standard conniving selfish soldier, Vincey is a bit scared and misses his girl and home...  None of these characters have any hidden depth to them.  And not even the regulars are spared; they'd mentioned in interviews before the series began that Bill might be more into pop culture than other companions, and so that's pretty much her only defining characteristic here, while the Doctor is just your standard Doctor, rather than anything that marks him out as the twelfth Doctor.  (Although, admirably, Peter Capaldi does a good job of playing against this somewhat; I particularly like the moment where he tosses off the "too quiet" line with a quick little grin, undercutting what could have been a rather groan-inducing line.)  And Nardole gets shunted off into the TARDIS, which is misbehaving for reasons that are never explained, other than that Gatiss doesn't want to deal with a third companion.  (Actually, given that Nardole wasn't initially intended to be a regular, this could just be Gatiss's way of handling suddenly having a third TARDIS person to worry about.)  All this means that it's difficult to really get a grasp on any of the characters beyond those broad strokes, and so it's subsequently hard to care about their fate -- certainly the deaths of some of them don't really elicit any reactions from the audience.

So by the bare minimum standards, this works: it looks gorgeous, it's exciting if undemanding fare, and if you just let it all wash past you the story's all right.  As a pastiche of silly B-movie SF fare with some Mummy archetypes thrown in, this is OK.  But the minute you try to sink your teeth any deeper into "Empress of Mars", the whole thing collapses like spun sugar: pretty to look at, but ultimately unsatisfying.

(And what the hell is going on with the ending?  Why does Missy ask the Doctor if he's all right with such gravity, given that what's he's just experienced is pretty much a walk in the park by his standards?  If she's referring to something deeper (which is probably what we're meant to think) we never find out, as this is never brought up again.  It's heavy foreshadowing for something nonexistent, which is really weird.)