Despite an awkward start that had cuts flash past my eyes quickly enough to give me a confused feeling halfway between motion sickness and bewilderment, Empress of Mars turns out to be a stoic and dependable episode - yet one that missed the chance to add an extra dimension to its characters. More’s the pity, as the unlikely alliance between 19th-Century soldiers and an alien race is ripe ground for some novel character arcs, but it’s slightly ignored in favour of the usual slaughter of humans who think bullets can beat alien armour. The fools.
Winding its way into the conversation between the Doctor and Bill are references which, however subtle, make you truly believe that this could happen. What form do they take, I hear you ask? Sci-fi movies. Comparing Mars’ underground tunnels to the Terminator and The Thing, Bill comes out with the same quips that anyone would, selling her as the most realistic companion to trip out of the TARDIS since Rose. Pearl Mackie doesn’t get quite as much screen time this episode, but all her lines are beautifully delivered with the kind of nonchalant, shoulder-shrugging intelligence that characterises Bill. However, even though I’m enamoured with her I can’t help but being a bit taken aback by the Doctor’s reaction when she takes a fall down a hole. Seeing the Time Lord leap into hollering distress feels odd. Launching himself towards her with the kind of yelling that would come with someone being thrown off a cliff, Capaldi ramps it up from 0 to 100 way too quickly. A look of initial confusion with his eyebrows furrowed would be more Capaldi’s style. She doesn’t even call out for his name once she gets up, meaning you end up wanting to pat the Doctor on the back in reassurance that Bill’s probably ok.
Thankfully this strange overreaction isn’t a trend for the entire episode, though. Allying Victorian soldiers with a lone Ice Warrior is a delightful concept, and the Brits redcoats’ acting is spiffing. Their cockney accents manage not to be jarring, and some of the phrases they come out with sell you on the idea that they belong somewhere with horse-drawn carriages and portraits of Queen Victoria. Plus hearing them bark “Yes Sah!” (translation: “yes Sir!”) never gets old. Like the way the Ice Warriors are described as a race who would crush a nation but mourn the death of a flower, these soldiers must have seen a lot and yet none of that is reflected in their characters. Nothing about the horrors of war, even for the disgraced Captain, is brought up. Nor do we see the softer side of the Ice Warriors. It’s a missed chance to give them a tad of nuance. Imagine if the soldiers had found jewels or relics; seeing the Ice Warriors strive to protect them above all else would give them an extra dimension. Instead they’re the formidable Bad Guys, who give no real reason for wanting to crush the soldiers except because they can. Mind you, sometimes humans burn ants with a magnifying glass, so I guess we might just be as bad as each other.
As the episode descends into the predictable fight between humans and extraterrestrials, the fellow in charge, Godsacre (Anthony Calf), ends it with a shining performance. Throughout the episode he and his deputy Catchglove (Ferdinand Kingsley) have been convincing, patriotic soldiers without descending into pantomime accents, with Kingsley doing an excellent job at turning from a charming officer into a slimily-ambitious cad (excuse my language). Calf’s delivery of the speech that he hopes will save his regiment is a heartfelt, brave plea for his life in exchange for his regiment’s. After escaping the being hanged for desertion, admitting that he wants to be executed by the Ice Queen to redeem his honour is incredibly honest, or a masterful calculation to take advantage of the Queen’s code of battle. Either way, it takes Calf’s assertive delivery to pull off addressing the Queen as a commanding officer without appearing grovelling. He does a damn fine job.
Having the chirruping Alpha Centauri from the classic series appear onscreen is a fun reference sure to delight many longstanding fans. Even though I’d like to, I’m unsure whether ‘delight’ is the right word to use when it comes to the ending though, as the fact that Missy is out of the vault (and what’s more suspicious, asking the Doctor if he’s alright) is a disturbing development. Can she be trusted? Goodness might have blossomed in her two hearts, but she could be playing the long game and feigning benevolence to fool the Doctor. I’d love to see her be truly Good (capital letter very much intended), and possibly even sacrifice herself as the ultimate proof that she’s turned over a new leaf. Although there’s no guarantee that her regeneration would remain virtuous...