The Empress of Mars.

TV Good evening ladies and other genders, I give you my favourite episode of the series so far. No purportedly clever opening paragraph here, no wandering off into some personal blogging cul-de-sac in an attempt to put off the inevitable shrugs and sighs, The Empress of Mars is a winner, baby, and that's the truth (that's the truth).  Woo-hoo.  If this is Mark Gatiss's last episode for the television series (not that there's any indication of that), it's a pretty good summation of his favourite tropes and ideas, a televisual Last of the Gaderine so authentically Who that it demonstrates once again  that for all Steven Moffat's reliance on showrunners nervously turning out a first Who script which in the end feels like the work of someone who only thinks they know the franchise, it's no replacement for someone who has it running through their creative veins and written more stories about the Doctor than anyone else this series.

When reviewing Gatiss stories in the past, it's always been customary for me to stick up for the writer early and so here we are again.  Apart from Sleep No More, which I thought was a misstep but Graham Kibble-White adored enough in the friends publication that I'm looking forward to re-evaluating when I finally get around to a binge through the Capaldi era after Christmas (I've only ever rewatched about the first five episodes of series 8), there are few of the writer's stories I haven't at least admired and have indeed thought better of in retrospect (notably The Idiot's Lantern and Night Terrors) even taking into account how much of them are filtered through a show runner rewrite or whatever an actor decides to improvise on set.  Of everyone I hoped would take over when Moffat leaves, he was at the top of the list, but it's understandable he's reneged on attempting to tame this all consuming monster with so many of other creative vices available.

What makes The Empress of Mars so special?  Simplistically but resolutely because it feels like "real" Doctor Who, which is paradoxical given how much of the past few episodes have attracted my dismay at their derivativeness.  Except there's a big difference between pastiche and appreciating the core elements of a series, and simply lifting wholesale from previous stories.   An unfavourable review might point to how we're watching a group of humans blunder into defrosting another tomb full of monsters having seen that process before with Cybermen and Silurians with the Doctor mediating at the centre, or relying on some less xenophobic element of humanity to do some such.  That Gatiss recycles his notion from Victory of the Daleks of humanity arrogantly putting an alien race into servitude even though in reality they're the ones serving their captive visitor in some other cause.

Yet as the preview in this month's fan circular demonstrates, all of this is a feature rather than a bug, from a writer who had the bug to feature all of his great interests in one script.  He says he wanted to do "Tomb of the Ice Warriors", to finally show the "monsters" on their native planet even if it isn't at the height of their empire (still too expensive) and to have them facing up against a Victorian opposition in a homage to the film adaptations of Wells and Burroughs.  To somewhat repeat the point, it's someone writing from a position of knowledge about what's gone before and doing more of that rather than assuming they're creating something new which has actually been done before but for some reason no one's bothered to tell them because they probably haven't noticed.  Or they have but just don't care, forgetting that viewers can actually watch old episodes again.

But perhaps the biggest difference in The Empress of Mars is that Gatiss isn't trying to put some "modern" spin on all of this; he's gone out of his way to produce a script which would work just as well in any era.  Again from DWM, something which would pass the "Dad" test of being simple enough for anyone to follow.  There's a version of this story which fits just as snugly into an old school four or six episode structure with the Doctor and Bill spending a whole episode in the cell and Friday's reveal as the first episode cliffhanger.  Second episode cliffhanger is the reveal of the Tomb.  Third the Empress.  Fourth the opening of the tomb.  Fifth the Doctor standing between the humans and Ice Warriors guns pointed at one another.  You'd have to have some other story strands but yes, that would work a treat.

Dialogue wise too, with the exception of the film references, the Doctor and Bill are in full on generic Time Lord and companion mode and with a few tweaks, Tenth and Rose or Tom and Sarah could easily be slotted in almost as a homage to Sir Terrance's dictum that the Doctor himself doesn't change, it's about the actor's interpretation.  Capaldi has the opportunity to be the benevolent alien and Pearl an exposition sponge and in a week of uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic, there's something rather comforting about that.  When the Doctor runs after Bill as she falls down the hole in the ground, I don't remember seeing Twelfth treat the moment with such irrevocable terror.  For some reason, the Doctor's likeability rating always goes up when he seems to care about the well being of his friends and Capaldi's charming here.  Imagine if he'd been like this all along.  Imagine, imagine.

Unlike most episodes this series, we're also greeted by a supporting characters with relatable back stories who we care about when they die.  Deliberately referencing Zulu, Gatiss offers a mix of naive young officers, grizzled old hands, villainous racists and shaky commanding officer.  What I especially enjoyed about these red coats is that that they're actual Victorians on Mars in Victorian times, not the results of a times coop or Autons or some other replica.  If only there'd been the budget for a flashback to their voyage aboard Friday's ship, the juxtaposition of these moustacheode fellows and interstellar technology recalling the crew of the R101 roaring against the Triskele Uncreators in Storm Warning (yes, I know they were Edwardians but go with it).  Look everyone, I'm referencing old Eighth Doctor spin-offs.  That's how energised I am with the episode.

The Ice Warriors too are brilliantly realised, developing what we've seen before rather than wiping away ala the Silurians.  Perhaps noticing that the CGI unsuited version in Cold War wasn't quite as good as it could be, this lot remain in armour and although I miss original destructive imagery and sound from the 60s, the new flesh compactor is just horrible.  The simplistic leadership of Iraxxa the eponymous contrasts well with the simple minded buffoonery on the human side of the argument.  Thank goodness we're witnessing a Moffat loop - without the Doctor, these two would slaughtered one another.  Iraxxa actress Adele Lynch only has to tv credits, this and a couple of episode of The Bill in the 90s.  Her Spotlight entry indicates she's mainly worked on stage and that she's a capable dancer, which is ironic considering the most actors playing Ice Warriors can do is stomp around a lot.  I wonder how she ended up here.

All this and a couple of moments of pure unadulterated squee.  Does the BBC have to get permission for Pauline Collins to reprise her role as Queen Victoria in pictorial form?  On top of that, Alpha Centuri with Ysanne Churchman reprising the role from the Peladon stories she last played forty odd years ago,  having last appeared on television as "Woman in Street" on Alan Bleasdale's Oliver Twist adaptation for ITV in '99 (along with half of Christendom) and better known as ill-fated Grace Archer.  Even Big Finish recast her.  Gatiss almost set this on Peladon itself and this whole business leads naturally to wanting a sequel set there with all the usual attributes of an uncertain ruler, intergalactic saboteurs, human miners and a cameo from Ageddor.  The story's also set in 1881, the year of The Gunfighters and I like to think that the Last Chance Salloon is being hammered out down on Earth while all this going on.

Even the Nardole scenes didn't grate too much this week, even if as usual they only seem to exist so that Matt Lucas can be in ever episode because they like working with with him.  One of these weeks I long for his "and" in the opening titles to be replaced with one of Mark Strong's "but"s.  Perhaps its because it is a classic Who move to have the TARDIS unavailable in a tricky situation and we now have the added mystery of why she decided to fly off without them, refusing to land until Missy became involved.  Incidentally Michelle Gomez's version of the character has quietly passed the Rubicon into absolutely haunting.  There are numerous ways she could have played those final lines and in choosing honest concern, backed up by Murray's glorious Ligeti-tinged vocal cue, we're left in pieces in a way which demonstrates that evil is always more potent when it's entombed, waiting to be uncovered.

No comments: