It’s taken me a while to write this review, mostly because I’m sort of baffled by “Empress of Mars”. I’m not entirely sure what the point of it was and finding words to express that confusion has been . . . oh I don’t know. I was a weird episode.
The thing that’s weird about it, one of the many things that was weird about it, was how small it was. On paper, it sounds like a massive, epic tale – Victorian regiment finds spaceship and are transported to Mars, an Ice Warrior is found in hibernation who becomes their friend/slave and teaches them how to use Martian technology to mine for jewels. Except they don’t find any. Instead, the Ice Warrior is duping them to work at finding the titular Empress of Mars and resurrect a hive of other Warriors. Throw in betrayal, cowardice, redemption, and anachronous message and the return of another classic alien and it should have been immense!
But somehow, it was all happening off screen. Almost everything that happened that would have been interesting was done via exposition. There was no ‘expanse’, little drama and mostly people just stood around and talked at each other. In what I assume was an attempt at claustrophobia – it was all underground in mining tunnels and caves – there was a feeling of cheapness as it took place mostly on just two sets: the main living cave and the Empress’ Chamber. The Tardis made an appearance, although it’s bad behaviour seemed just like a clumsy attempt to get Missy involved, and obviously mission control in the pre-titles sequence, but the bulk was just those two sets.
The big problem was that the sets were too large and over lit. This in itself could be nod to the 1970s Pertwee era but if some effort had gone into making the sets smaller with more tunnels, crawl space and shadow, this would have been a lot more effective and creepy. Breaking into a large and well-lit chamber would have made for a good dramatic contrast, too but it was all depressingly one-note.
Flashback to the 70’s – had this been a 70’s story, there would have been the Empress and two Warriors tops, half the number of soldiers (no point paying for actors who don’t do or say anything) and we would have been more invested with characters. This episode seem to homage the limitations of the tiny budgets of the original series, provide none of the positives and despite the potentially huge story, came across as a cheap filler episode.
Considering the damage that a single Ice Warrior did in the last episode they featured in, this one seems quite inept. The Empress came across like The Empress of Racnoss with the same vocal mannerisms and OTT performance and yet all she really did was wake up and stand around hissing. Another example of bringing in a ‘leader’ that takes away the mystique of the monsters. And there was so much standing around from everyone else, too. This is especially odd as there was a great hoo-hah made in the press for the last Ice Warriors episode about how the costumes had been made much sleeker and ‘far more mobile’. It was such a static episode. With so much promise, to have practically none of it realised was unforgiveable.
On the plus side, the conversation between the Empress and the traitor seeking redemption was a joy despite a number of peculiarities about the character. For example, his desertion was acceptable but how did someone who had deserted manage to get back into a position of leadership? How, when he had been hanged (failed, obvs) were people not aware of who he was? It didn’t seem to make much sense.
The return of Alpha Centauri filled me with glee, although I really wanted to see more than just the eye. Nice touch to have the original actress do the voice, too.
I raised an eyebrow at the term ‘The Martian Hives’ which is straight out of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ and I can’t help but feel that that was a deliberate homage bearing in mind Gatiss has written a chapter for ‘We Are The Martians’, a book celebrating Quatermass.
The absolute mood killer for me though, was the effect of the weaponry. In an earlier post, I talk about how the effect of the Ice Warriors guns in the early stories had caused nightmares on this young and impressionable mind for decades. The effect of the guns in this episode was ludicrous. I could just about cope with the flesh and cloth melding, but the bouncing and plastic look essentially turned them into comedy weapons. Any attempt at dramatic tension evaporated when the bodies bounced past.
The most curious thing is that that both Ice Warrior episodes in New Who have come across as a ‘part one’ to larger stories that have never materialised, leaving me even more confused and frustrated.
Even Bill and The Doctor weren’t especially sparkling and there was a pregnant pause when they found out that Ice Warrior was named “Friday”. It looked like they were going to launch into an anti-slavery thread that was left hanging.
In a recent interview with Mark Gatiss, he tells us “I said to Steven, ‘Can I just do the story I’ve always wanted to do – the Ice Warriors on Mars?’ And he said, ‘Yes’. I didn’t have a story, that’s all I had!”
And that’s all we got.
When this episode ended, I felt short changed and just wanted the rest of the story.
I don’t think I’m going to get it.
From what started as an absolutely killer series, the quality is rapidly spiralling.
I fear for the rest of the series.