NASA finds that the icecaps of Mars have the words “God Save The Queen” written on it. The TARDIS says that it was written there in 1881, so the Doctor, Bill and Nardole get into the TARDIS and make their way to Mars in 1881.
When they get there, they find a campfire, and as there’s fire it means there must be oxygen, so they remove their space helmets. Bill falls through the ground down a deep hole, so the Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS for equipment to help Bill up. But once Nardole is in the TARDIS, it sets off back home, leaving the Doctor and Bill stranded on Mars!
Nardole has no idea how to pilot the TARDIS. When he is back at the Doctor’s office, he goes to the Vault and asks Missy for help. She says she knows exactly what to do… but it would be easier if she showed Nardole rather than told him….
Back on Mars, Bill finds an astronaut, but his suit is made using Victorian technology, giving it a sort of steampunk look. At the same time, the Doctor encounters an Ice Warrior. A Victorian soldier arrives, and says he will shoot the threat… but he’s not talking about the Ice Warrior, he’s talking about the Doctor! After establishing the Doctor isn’t a danger, it is clear that the solider and the Ice Warrior are on the same side.
The Doctor and Bill are reunited, and they have tea with the soldiers. They tell the Doctor and Bill that they discovered the spaceship while in South Africa. The Ice Warrior was on board in suspended animation. They managed to revive him, and they gave him the name Friday (after Man Friday in Robinson Cruesoe). Friday (Richard Ashton) asked them to help repair his spaceship, as he wanted to go home. In return, he helped them build the Gargantua using the more advanced Martian technology. The Gargantua is a big laser cannon which the soldiers intended to use for mining. Friday told them there would be gold, silver and gems on Mars, so the soldiers went with him on his spaceship to loot Mars and claim it for Queen Victoria and the British Empire.
But when they got to Mars, the ship crash landed, and they found no treasure. In fact, they found very little of anything. Friday was just as shocked as they were too, he had hoped to be reunited with his people, but had slept for much longer than he expected.
However, the Gargantua manages to break into an ancient temple with a jewelled sarcophagus of an Ice Queen. The Doctor warns that this might not be a tomb, but a kind of hibernation system.
The Doctor doesn’t want to take sides, but the humans are technically alien invaders here. On the other hand, the Ice Warriors have superior technology, so the humans could end up being slaughtered.
A solider, Jackdaw (Ian Beattie) wants to get the jewels from the sarcophagus for himself. He cuts some of them off, which wakes up the Ice Queen, Iraxxa (Adele Lynch). Iraxxa kills Jackdaw. Another soldier comes in and tries to shoot her, so she zaps him, and he ends up mangled like a cube, similar to a car that’s been through a crusher.
Friday tells Iraxxa they slept much longer than they intended to. They have been asleep for 5,000 years.
More humans come in. Captain Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley) wants the army to shoot at Iraxxa, Colonel Godsacre (Anthony Calf) thinks they should let the Doctor try to speak to Iraxxa.
The Doctor tells Iraxxa that Mars is dead, there is nothing for anyone there anymore. Iraxxa asks Bill what she thinks. Iraxxa says “We are both surrounded by noisy males”, so she’d value the opinion of a fellow female. Bill replies that there’s no need for any more deaths. The humans saved Friday’s life. Iraxxa, though, feels that they treated him like a pet. The Doctor says that the Ice Warriors should be fighting “for the future, not a dead past”.
Another soldier shoots Iraxxa, which bounces off her helmet. Iraxxa says she will show the humans mercy… by which she means they will die quickly. She kills the shooter, and the soldiers retreat.
Catchlove use the Gargantua to shoot at the temple. It brings down some stones which seals up the entrance. Iraxxa begins to wake up her army.
Catchlove says he’s taking over commands, and he knows Godsacre’s dark secret: he was hung for desertion, but it went wrong so it didn’t kill him. Catchlove orders Godsacre, the Doctor and Bill to be locked in the brig. There, Godsacre confides to the Doctor and Bill that it is true, he ran away from the army and survived the attempt to execute him. Catchlove found out, and has been blackmailing him ever since.
The Ice Warriors get out of the temple by tunneling underground. The human soldiers retreat again, and it is a massacre. Friday tunnels into the brig and says he wants the Doctor and Bill’s help.
Friday and Bill go to Iraxxa. Bill says again there’s no need to go to war, but Iraxxa very much disagrees. The Doctor however has got the Gargantua and says he will shoot at where the Martian North Pole is, meaning everyone will be buried under ice.
Catchlove gets hold of Iraxxa and threatens her with a knife. He intends to take her with him in a spaceship, blow up the escape route with dynamite and leave everyone else trapped. But Godsacre is behind him, and shoots him dead.
Godsacre says he doesn’t expect Iraxxa to spare him for that, if anything he doesn’t mind her finishing the job his executions didn’t manage. He only asks that Iraxxa doesn’t judge mankind by his cowardice or Catchlove’s cruelty.
Iraxxa tells him “You will die with honour, with bravery and in the service of those you have sworn to protect…. but not today. In battle, soldier”. She wants him to join her army.
The Doctor sends a transmission out for a fleet to pick up the Ice Warriors so they can find a better home. They get a reply from Alpha Centuri, who says “Welcome to the universe!”.
The “God save the Queen” writing is explained as a marker for the fleets to see.
The TARDIS arrives with Nardole, the Doctor and Bill go in… and see Missy! The Doctor is shocked. He says she will have to go back in the Vault. Missy doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, but she wonders if the Doctor is alright.
It is strange how creepy Missy comes across, just how sweet, compliant and concerned she is, it’s so weird to see her like that.
The make-up for the Ice Warriors was great, the lizard skin and sharp teeth, as were the costumes, the armour had an effect of resembling both scaly reptilian skin and a hand grenade.
While the Ice Warriors are visually based on reptiles, their society in this episode seems more eusocial. They have a queen, and soldiers, and live in a hive. It is most common with bees, wasps, ants and termites, and has been known to exist in mammals too, with the naked mole rat for example, but not reptiles interestingly. Not that I’m suggesting this is a flaw in the episode at all, it makes it intriguing that they combined elements from different species.
One way the Ice Warriors and the humans are not so different is that they are both armies fighting on behalf of a queen, for the human soldiers it is Queen Victoria, who was also known as the Empress of India, while Iraxxa has the title Empress of Mars.
The Doctor says of the Ice Warriors “They could build a city under the sand, yet drench the snows of Mars with innocent blood” and “They could slaughter whole civilisations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower”. Bill thinks they sound like the Vikings, thought she’s thinking of the Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis film.
Bill is quite the movie buff in this episode, referencing The Terminator and The Thing.
To get my own film reference in, I thought Iraxxa looked a bit like the Predator.
If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I have a few TV references too. Iraxxa also reminded me of Illyria in season five of Angel, an ancient goddess awoken to the modern world, who finds that her once mighty army are now nothing but dust. There was also the Futurama episode ‘Where The Buggalo Roam’, where at the end the Native Martians decide that Mars is a dump, and leave to find somewhere else.
As random as it might look at first, there is a connection between Martians and the Victorian era, as that time saw a lot of fiction about Martians, it became a bit of a craze. A notable example is The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells.
The episode’s writer, Mark Gatiss, is obviously a big fan of the Victorian period, but it was the Victorian characters which were the worst part of ‘Empress Of Mars’. Jackdaw was such a clichéd music hall Cockney. When Vincey (Bayo Gbadamosi) starts talking about his fiancée, having kids, getting married at the church with a twisted spire down by the river and how he misses all the green, green grass and trees of home… for one thing, it’s extremely saccharine, but for another, what an obvious, enormous signpost that was that he was doomed. But even worse was how he met his death, used as a human shield and pushed into the line of fire by complete bastard Catchlove. Catchlove in general was so cartoonishly villainous, the only way he could have been more so was if he started twirling his moustache.
Mark Gatiss also wrote the previous Ice Warrior episode ‘Cold War’ from series seven. This isn’t a sequel to that (indeed, chronologically speaking, ‘Cold War’ was set in the 1980s, so it takes place over 100 years after the events of this episode). But at some point ‘Empress Of Mars’ was intended to be a sequel to another one of Mark Gatiss’ episodes, ‘Sleep No More’ from series 9. It was also set on Peladon, a fictional planet in the classical series, so it looks like this script went through quite a few changes along the way.
Alpha Centauri appeared in some episodes set on Peladon, and in this episode is played by same voice actress, Ysanne Churchman.
Iraxxa kind of made me think of the Empress Of The Racnoss, seen in ‘The Runaway Bride’. Other than both being alien empresses, they didn’t have much in common. The former is reptilian and the latter is a giant spider. I think it was the way Iraxxa refered to humans as things like “fleshy worms”.
I also felt similar with this episode with how I felt about ‘Thin Ice’, that the historical characters were corny and one dimensional, but the alien creatures were handled better.
On the whole, I quite enjoyed ‘Empress Of Mars’, but it was just an OK episode. It could definitely have been better. I might have preferred it if it was astronauts in the future, maybe trying to terraform Mars. But I liked how the Ice Warriors were used, Adele Lynch in particular was very compelling as Iraxxa.