Doctor Who - Episode 10.09 - Empress of Mars - Review

I'll be honest right up front - I am not a big fan of Mark Gatiss's episodes of Doctor Who. He has written 9 of them, and I have only really liked 3 of them. However, every time he writes a new one I hope to like it. I enjoyed the Ice Warriors in Classic Who, but didn't like the last episode Gatiss wrote with them ("Cold War"). So I didn't know what to expect going in, but wanted to like it.

That is why I was so disappointed. The entire episode felt off. There was no reason for this episode to exist. There was no real story to tell. I understand that people liked this episode, but the way Gatiss tells a story just isn't for me.

The episodes spends its opening sequence showing how the Doctor discovers the mystery on Mars. It should have been spent fleshing out the weak, stereotypical supporting characters. There are a lot of episodes where the TARDIS just shows up at a place and there is a line of exposition as to why they are there; or sometimes it goes there by mistake and the characters discover the story with the audience. Both ways are fine, and it is a clever way to use precious minutes to tell a deeper story. It was a misuse of time and one that definitely took away from supporting characters who could have desperately used the development.

When the Doctor gets there, the TARDIS has problems that are never explained (even just sci-fi nonsense would have worked). That is for a payoff later, but that feels like something Steven Moffat wanted in the episode. It was also the way to get Matt Lucas's Nardole to sit out for the majority of the story.

Not that it mattered - most of it was filler. Two different sides stuck in a bunker with unclear motivations. They talk for about 30 minutes, then a cameo (albeit a cool one) happened and it was over. It didn't take it's time when it needed to, and when it could rush (which is perfectly normal in a 45 minute television episode) it didn't. But that part might just be me - Gatiss writes slow and steady all the time, and sometimes it works for me and does justice to the story (like in "The Crimson Horror" and "Robot of Sherwood") and sometimes (like the abysmal "Sleep No More" and this episode) it doesn't.

All of the main cast - Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, and Michelle Gomez gave solid performances, but that is nearly always the case. It is the guest cast that can make or break an episode, and all of the characters were bland archetypes you'd see in a "How To Write Characters" book. There was one exception - I liked Godsacre (played by Anthony Calf) and his arc very much. But he was the only character written with any sort of depth.

I did like this iteration of the Ice Warriors better than Gatiss's last attempt. I adored the cameo and what it meant to Gatiss and Moffat and how it came together. I was also very intrigued by the end exchange between Missy and The Doctor. There were pieces of this episode that had potential and were quite good. It is a shame that couldn't have been sprinkled through every part of this episode.

Gatiss is fascinated with history as one can tell, since most of his episodes take place in the past during some sort of important event. Maybe he should change up the formula a bit and try something during the present or future and see if it lends to more interesting scripts.

Speaking of interesting, next week is a first. Rona Munro is a Classic Who writer who wrote for Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor and is the first person from the Classic Era to return to pen a new episode.

Her episode, "The Eaters of Light" is the last one before the two-part finale starts. It airs next week at 9/8C on BBC America.


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