After the intense three-parter that wrapped up last week, we have a fun single-episode story. I had mentioned previously that the tenth series of the reboot run had really reminded me of the tenth season of the classic series which ran from 1972 – 1973. Back then, Jon Pertwee played the Third Doctor. One of the baddies that appeared on the show during #3’s reign was the Ice Warriors from Mars. Only appearing six times on the show from 1967 to today, they’re remembered for being fierce, deadly fighters. (If the name of your people includes the title Warrior, yeah, you’re a badass.) They are also known for not being hell-bent on destroying everything that lives like the Daleks or Cybermen. The two times they appeared with the Third Doctor, they were not the villains of the piece (even though they still would kill you if you looked at them funny,) they had actually helped to catch the guilty party. The Doctor has even worked alongside them in the novel Legacy by Gary Russel. The Empress of Mars makes another huge connection to the classic series that I’m going to save for the end.
We start off at NASA headquarters where the Doctor, for reasons that can be best described as ‘shits and giggles,’ has decided to take Bill for a visit. NASA has made a major discovery and the Doctor wants to take a peek. What’s all the fuss about? They have discovered the words ‘GOD SAVE THE QUEEN’ written into the Martian ice caps. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole travel back to when the writing first appeared, the year 1881, which makes the mystery even stranger.
They find their way down into a series of tunnels. Obviously, the Doctor knows who lives down here but is a little surprised to find a fire burning in a corner of one of the tunnels. Thankfully, the narrative doesn’t dwell too long on where the oxygen is coming from, but it gives Bill a chance to take her space helmet off and wander around for a bit, only to fall down a hole. She’s too far down for the Doctor to save without help, so he sends Nardole back to the TARDIS for supplies to help rescue her. For some unknown reason, the TARDIS decides to take off all by itself. Nardole can’t get it back on course and is only able to land it back in the Doctor’s office at the university in the modern-day. Even though no one has said as much, this can somehow be blamed on Missy, who is doing whatever one does when locked up in a vault when Nardole knocks on the door and asks her for help.
The Doctor encounters a lone Ice Warrior. He is nicknamed Friday by the platoon of Victorian era soldiers marooned on Mars. (One of the things I have always loved about Doctor Who is that it can take unbelievable situations, like that previous sentence, and make them sound absolutely ordinary.) As the Doctor and Bill sit and have tea with the soldiers who are lead by Captain Catchglove and Colonel Godsacre, they tell of how they were on a mission in Africa and found the Ice Warrior’s spaceship. Friday offered to bring them back to Mars, promised them jewels and riches, and they agreed. Now that I think about it, it sounds an awful lot like a Sci-Fi version of the ‘Free Candy’ van.
Ice Warrior Friday and the soldiers have built The Gargantuan, a large mining laser, and they’re using it to mine jewels. That’s what Friday told the soldiers, anyway. The soldiers start blasting it off and they uncover the Ice Warrior hive where Friday’s large and extensive family are sleeping. They can’t still be alive, can they? When the soldiers found the Ice Warrior in Africa, he had been asleep for five-thousand years, but they think the rest of them are all dead. The soldiers decided that with the rest of Friday’s people too dead to care, it would be no problem to steal their jewels, hijack the spaceship, and abscond back to Earth. Obviously, this plan is doomed to fly like a lead balloon, all thanks to Private Jackdaw who has the brilliant idea of prying a blue sapphire from the sarcophagus of the Ice Queen Iraxxa. Now if you are foolish enough to think a monarch, even a space monarch, would sleep without putting some kind of alarm on her priceless artifacts, your name must be Private Jackdaw.
The Queen wakes up rather annoyed if you don’t mind me putting it mildly. The soldiers aim their rifles at her as one of them loses his cool and accidentally fires. The bullet harmlessly bounces off the queen’s helmet, but the damage is still done, and now she is properly pissed off. She fires her own weapon at the soldier. The effect of getting shot with this gun is having your body crushed and twisted, pretzel-like, into a grotesque cube. The effect is accompanied by a subtle yet painful sound that amplifies your sense of how much it hurt to die like that, but if some YouTuber ever overdubs it with a cartoon ‘Boing!’ it might be closer to what went through my head when I first saw it. It’s funny until you think how nasty it really is.
Before any more killing is done, Colonel Godsacre steps in and tries to stop the fighting. He immediately has his powers usurped by Captain Catchglove who is full of that old British colonial spirit. That means he claims Mars belongs the British Empire pretty much because he says so, and he would rather fight Ice Warriors because he must not have been paying attention when the major imbalance regarding the effectiveness of each side’s weaponry was displayed. Catchglove tells everyone that Colonel Godsacre is nothing more than a deserter who survived hanging and this would be a good time to strip him of his power. Godsacre is disgraced and Catchglove takes command.
Now fed up with all the bickering from the men in the room, Queen Iraxxa asks Bill for her opinion on local events. Bill asks the Queen why they can’t have peace? The queen tells her that it is too late, it is time to fight. The Doctor and Bill plead with her to not kill the humans. And as soon as we see that glimmer of hope, just when we think the queen will have a change of heart and work things out diplomatically, here comes Captain Catchglove to prove that humans will always screw things up. He succeeds in putting a knife up to the queen’s neck and demanding he has things his way.
Catchglove drags the queen towards the nearest elevator and when the door opens, we find Colonel Godsacre saving the day by shooting Catchglove dead. Problem solved, everyone involved can relax once more, and the true bad guy of the piece has got his comeuppance. The coward-turned-hero is rewarded and given a chance to regain his honor by staying on Mars and serving the Queen while the rest of the men are brought back to Earth.
Now here’s the bit I mentioned I didn’t want to giveaway until now. The Doctor sends off a message to the Galactic Federation informing them of the Ice Warrior’s need for assistance. The message is answered by a creature named Alpha-Centauri who represented the Federation in the two Third Doctor stories The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon. (Those being the two Ice Warrior stories from that era.) At that point, Mars had long been part of the Federation, so this makes the Empress of Mars a prequel to the Peladon stories.
The TARDIS finally returns to pick up the Doctor and Bill. Nardole confesses he let Missy out of the vault to fix the TARDIS. The Doctor, being a little upset, tells Missy she’s going to have to go back in her box. She agrees, her good streak still going and at this point, the Doctor might be wondering if he could actually trust her a little more.
Oh, and it was the Doctor who spelled ‘GOD SAVE THE QUEEN’ in rock on Mars’ surface.
This episode was a wonderful throwback to the classic series and a better return for the Ice Warriors than when the Eleventh Doctor encountered one in Cold War. It makes me wonder what else Moffat has in store for us? We only have one more regular story before the beginning of the finale, and the quality of the shows this season have been excellent. Even if Empress wasn’t perfect with a few over-the-top characters and minor plotholes here and there, I really am liking the direction they’re going in with this season, and as much as I’m going to hate to see Peter Capaldi leave the role, I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen.
Now I have two treats for you. I did a quick YouTube search and found two clips for your perusal. The first one is a scene from The Monster of Peladon where the Ice Warrior commander takes control of a situation with a deadly promise. This clip also has Alpha-Centauri, even though she does not speak in this scene.
The second one is of their first appearance in the Second Doctor story, The Ice Warriors.