Friday, 16 June 2017

Empress of Mars written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Wayne Yip

This story in a nutshell:
If you’re a classic series fan who is disillusioned by the new series…this might just be the one for you!

Indefinable: Jon Pertwee is stunning in this adventure, one of his most commanding performances. What do you mean the Doctor is played by Peter Capaldi? Long term fan Capaldi has clearly seen his Peladon stories and studied Pertwee’s Doctor and he gives a terrific retro turn as the Doctor of old, trying to negotiate peace between humanity and the Ice Warriors and tearing his hair out at the stupidity of both sides. 

Funky Chick: Oh bless Mark Gatiss, it feels as though he hasn’t been watching the rest of the series at all. Because of course Bill has been dropping pop culture references all season, as though that is the latest in thing. And where was the reference to her mother? I didn’t think an episode could by without one…or did they lean on that so heavily in The Lie of the land that they thought they would take a break this week? After two weeks of Bill behaving in a very unusual fashion (surrendering the Earth and shooting the Doctor and all), it is very pleasant for her to simply play the role of the plucky companion for one week. In fact, given she wasn’t really Bill in Extremis, Oxygen was a powerful drama and Knock Knock featured her as the lead, this is her first chance to simply have some fun with the Doctor since Thin Ice. She throws herself head first into danger and is quick with a one liner or two but essentially this could be in companion in the role. And do you know what? That’s okay sometimes for a breather and that’s exactly what this is. Nothing distinctive but nothing offensive either. And let’s consider that a step up. Although I do wonder about a series that can present a character that goes through the sort of soul destroying actions that Bill has and have no fallout whatsoever. She’s back to her good old self this week. Just don’t let her think that the Doctor might side with the Martians. She might blow his head off.

Faithful Sidekick: Nardole is such a sweetie. I know people who have been quite resistant to the character, calling him just Matt Lucas in space and the like, but I think he has been handled extremely well in series 10. He’s been given dramatic moments (confronting the Doctor at the end of Oxygen, the reveal that he isn’t real in Extremis), funny moments (I loved his little scream after he threatened Bill in Extremis) and cute moments too (‘Cuddle’). I don’t think he has been overplayed but his presence has been felt (and explained well) throughout. It’s a shame that he had to be surgically excised from Empress of Mars so awkwardly because it feels as though he should never have been there in the first place. He bookends the episode, disappearing with the TARDIS (a very classic series device, cutting the Doctor off from his ship) and reappearing at the end to ask ‘what’s be going on? I did find his method of returning to them obvious but intriguing and the final scene with Missy in the control room gives the season arc a bit of a shove. Most of all I have found Lucas appealing in the role, my heart sings every time he is on the screen.

The Good:
· Dost my eyes deceive me or are there actual hot blooded (and cold blooded come to think of it) guest characters with personalities that hog some screen time from the regulars? One thing that series 10 has lacked in abundance is the presence of a decent guest cast in its episodes – I appreciate that this is the only season where we will get to play with this set of (generally) very strong regulars but the supporting characters add so much colour and detail to the stories too. Admittedly this bunch aren’t particularly skilfully written, there is some god awful Victorian cockney that I could barely stomach and they are painted in very broad strokes (victim/bad/coward covers the three main speaking parts) but I appreciate the effort to pad out the situation with some characters all the same. This is one of those cases where the actors chosen to play them add extra depth that isn’t there in the script and kudos to Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley and Ian Beattie for their heroic turns as Godsacre, Catchlove and Jackdaw. Despite the lack of complexity in their dialogue, I felt as though they were living, breathing people who had lives outside of this story. I haven’t felt that way about supporting characters all year. I particularly liked Catchlove, not the subtlest of villains but the way he smiles his way through every threat and insult makes him an imminently hissable one. As a poster child for British Imperialism, he’s no heart, all attack. Straightening his hair to ensure he looks his best whilst he descends into madness, I can imagine most of his problems spring from the fact that his name is Neville. He even gets the line ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’ after throwing one of his men to the slaughter.
· I’m very fond of the Ice Warriors despite the fact that they are occasionally very cumbersomely directed. How can you cumbersomely direct somebody I hear you ask…well go and watch certain scenes in The Seeds of Death and The Monster of Peladon where they look as if the heavy costumes are going to lumber over and fall on the camera at any minute. They’re actually much more effective (in the classic series) when they don’t move, with their imposing bearing and striking costumes (and unusually they look better in black and white). I love the game that Terrance Dicks plays with them in the Peladon stories, presenting them as allies (albeit ones the Doctor is suspicious of for some time) before reverting to type in the latter story and having them give the story a damn good kick up the arse by massacring as many miners as possible. They are a race that work both as characters (the original Ice Warrior featured some pleasingly individual creations, Izlyr from Curse) and as a race of menacing monsters. They were denied a reappearance in the 80s thank to the culling of the original season 23 and whilst Mission to Magnus transpired to be as camp and outrageous as people feared (and it can now be heard thanks to the efforts of Big Finish), I’m fairly certain that John Nathan-Turner would have done them proud, at least visually. It’s little wonder they featured so heavily in the spin of material in the nineties. Gatiss’ last stab at writing for them was the forgettable Cold War, which had all the hallmarks of a classic Doctor Who base under siege adventure but failed to inject much interest in the Ice Warriors. They certainly didn’t have a rush return, which seems to be the norm with the more popular monsters. They are particularly well realised in Empress, the soft light of the tunnels gleaming from their green armour. They seem to have learnt the art of picking up the pace, which leads to a very tense moment when the Doctor is confronted with Friday. The Empress is a fine addition to Ice Warrior mythology and Adele Lynch gives a wonderfully snarling performance that is worthy of a place alongside The Racnoss Empress for sheer over the toppiness. I think she’s wonderfully watchable, literally as though she has stepped out of 70s Doctor Who. Love the dreadlocks, she must go to the same hairdresser as the Movellans. I’ve heard criticism about the comic book way the Ice Warriors murder people in this story (bring back Mirrilon, declared one) but I think it’s rather grisly and ingenious. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it before and it must be agonising to have your bodied folded up into a ball in such an unnatural way.
· Victorian soldiers on Mars, now that’s a whacky idea that Doctor Who of old would brazenly try and pull off. As unlikely as it may seem, it feels as natural for the show try something this bonkers as Queen Victoria (who makes a small cameo) and werewolves. The small details of the tents and the afternoon tea on the Red Planet are just sublime.
· Trapped in the caves, firing a laser at rock, Ice Warriors dashing about and Alpha Centauri popping up…if you squint really hard you can actually turn this into The Monster of Peladon.
· Things get terribly exciting in the last third when the Ice Warriors attack and the Empress gives the order to thaw out her army. NuWho has been running short on genuinely iconic scenes of late but this must surely qualify, even if it is a riff on Tomb of the Cybermen. It might not be original, but it is visually arresting and dynamic and the release of the Warriors from their hives plugs a gap in continuity (How did the Ice Warriors become a member of the Galactic Federation?) to boot. A special mention for Wayne Yip who I was fairly dismissive of last week, he seems a lot more comfortable bringing out and out action to life and the attack scenes are given some real pace and punch. The Warriors bursting from the floor is just delicious.

The Bad:
· Where the pre-credits was just about the best thing in The Lie of the Land, in Empress it is the dead weight at the beginning of a rather fun episode. I can see why it was thought to be a neat conceit, but it reminded me too much of the HELLO SWEETIE scrawled into the side of the mountain. It’s a little too up its own arse and self-consciously British. In storytelling terms it makes perfect sense, I just didn’t think the story needed the hook. It would be perfectly serviceable without it. Plus, I found the way the Doctor and his companions so smugly wandered into NASA and took over to be an unpleasant reminder of the Matt Smith era. That witless overconfidence that grates on the nerves. It’s a big, bold notion and its very Doctor Who but it just didn’t sit well for me. I thought we were on our way to third clunker…and it took me a little while to recover from that feeling. I would have poured the money from the (impressive) NASA sets into the effect of creating Mars.
· I very much enjoyed Godsacre living up to his cowardice and running scared during the climax. His redemption a few minutes later when he saves the day left a sour taste in my mouth. This story isn’t allowed even the slightest amount of shade.
· ‘We can stand together!’ declares Bill, holding Friday’s hand. Almost as trite as Sarah’s women’s lib speech to the Queen. The Empress’ quick turnaround after Godsacre’s sacrifice of Catchlove is equally unconvincing. That’s the sacrifice you make when you squeeze an entire narrative into 45 minutes, more often than not the climax of the story is rushed and unimpressive.
The Shallow Bit: I read a comment online where a fan of this episode said he thought the Empress was a bit of alright. He’s been sectioned now, but I thought I would share the reason why.

Result: ‘Welcome to the universe!’ Total hokum really, but massively entertaining for the most part and it serves to plug a big gap in continuity. The action was well staged and dynamic, the Ice Warriors looked better than ever (and the Empress was spectacularly realised) and the guest characters provided some reasonable support. I thought the setting was quite vivid too and whilst there was nothing particularly standout in their characterisation, the Doctor and Bill were engagingly handled. Like a said about The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witches Familiar and Hell Bent, this is Doctor Who aimed squarely at the fans. The pleasing touches throughout; the painting of Queen Victoria, RHIP, Victorian values (a follow up on Sarah Jane Smith’s ‘You’re still living in the Middle Ages!’) and Alpha Centauri all tickled me too but I have to wonder what a not-we would have thought about this. My friend texted me immediately afterwards and said she just wasn’t feeling it and I wonder with its leaning towards continuity the show has lost a portion of the audience that enjoyed the more open-door storytelling of the shows first four years. I’m pleased to hear in a recent interview that the show will be veering dramatically away from that and embracing the regular audience again, so I’ll take these massive kisses to the past whilst they are here. I’m sure there are fans out there declaring this the greatest episode since the show returned because they have been paid lip service but for me this story has a slight plot, shallow characters and a weak resolution. It looks great and I got really caught up in the action and the Ice Warrior porn. It’s is a nice story for Gatiss to go out on, like the best of his work elsewhere it has some really fun ideas and more than a touch of nostalgia (The Unquiet Dead, The Crimson Horror) whilst avoiding the clichés and blandness of his lesser episodes (Victory of the Daleks, Cold War, Sleep No More). He got to write a real love letter to the Pertwee era and Moffat indulged him. Somehow as a breather before things get turned up to ten again that feels entirely appropriate. I would take the stompy Ice Warriors over the Monks any day of the week: 7/10


Tango said...

Or maybe your friend expected to see the Flood again since the episode is set on Mars and a cameo by Rose Tyler and Tennant since that's the only thing that interests the regular audience. If anything we have learned from modern Big Finish and remakes movies is that everyone loves continuity and nostalgia. I think the real problem is that many are still living in RTD's past and reject anything new, no wonder they are all excited about John Simms' return, and those phrases "Bring back Rose" is poison in the fandom. Series 10, like Series 5 and Series 7 part 1 is very "open-door storytelling", the only nostalgic here was the Movellans and Ice Warriors and soon the original Cybermen"

Chris Chibnall will be criticized for do something new, different, experimental and total ignore the previous era, like Series 5. The regular audience just wants to see Rose and Tennant kiss again.

Anonymous said...

A fun enough outing and nice tip of the hat to classic Who. I suspect on rewatch the rosy glow of nostalgia won't lift this one above just ok, but in a series which I have found mostly uninvolving this was a nice distraction. It was heartfelt and nice to see the often derided Mark Gatiss get to write about something he loves. You can see how heartfelt the whole thing was. Compare this to the truly awful Extremis which felt like Steven Moffat doing his rote 'confusing is profound for complex people' guff.

The story was perfunctory but lots of Gatiss speciality steampunk, Victoriana and classic Who homagery (is that a word?). Also nicely paced and filmed. Good to see the actors, particularly the Empress, took notes on campery. All done on purpose and loads of fun. How nice to have some actual fun after three weeks of the boredom of the Monks of Pretension, interspersed with flashes of brilliance and what-might-have-been.

I bit I hated and I mean *hated* in this episode was the introductory segment with the 'God we are cool and ironic, yeah' Moffaty post modern bantz between the leads which felt completely out of place and made me want to punch the screen and the message from Mars which made me break out in Hello Sweetie sweat in case She Who Shall Not Be Named was back yet again. It's the most uncomfortable Capaldi has looked since forced to do the bantz in Robot of Sherwood. Some things from the Matt Smith era should stay in the Matt Smith era. Capaldi is great but hip bantz written by middle aged men is not his strong suit.

Looking forward to tonight's as I have found the stand alones this year much better than those in series 9. I am in the tiny minority who don't find this series to be some kind of golden era of the modern show, but unlike series 6, 7 and 8, I have dutifully watched live or near live each week. Fingers crossed that the Gomez and Simm pairing is as juicy as it should be. If Steven Moffat lands the final two episodes without resorting to bathos or an overdose of timey wimey shenanigans or surprise reveals about parentage or Gallifreyan childhood romps or a tired use of his bag'o'tricks, I think I will find myself pretty happy with this series overall. As with the later Smith era, the sincerity of the acting from the leads elevates and hides some pretty poor writing.

Thanks for your reviews. I don't always agree but always a considered and balanced read.

In two minds about Chibbers. His track record as a writer for Who is hardly great (but neither is it the disaster being painted so frequently) and Broadchurch was a success as much for the acting from the female leads, the camera work, directimg and music, not the writing itself, BUT the fact that the moving parts of the production he oversaw were all top class gives me some hope.

Liam said...

Are you not excited to see Simm back? Personally I can't wait to see two Masters on screen at the same time (we had it on Audio last year).

I do agree with you about BF though, often their dullest stories involve bringing back a monster for no reason.

David Kelly said...

What?! No Shallow bit for Ferdinand Kingsley.He was so cute with that mustache, despite the fact that he was a villain.

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David Pirtle said...

I loved this episode for all the reasons you state. I wouldn't want it to be the show, but it's nice to give us one episode that is full of fan-serving fun. It's nice to see Capaldi getting a Pertwee-type episode, given where his hair has been heading.