If this was Mark Gatiss’ last episode for Doctor Who, then his parting gift was perhaps the best script he’s ever produced for the show. The man who’s brought us The Unquiet Dead, Cold War, Victory of the Daleks and Sleep No More amongst others, has certainly been a writer who’s divided opinion among fans. His episodes have been a mixed bag, but credit where it’s due, it looks like Gatiss has gone out in style.
I’m going to start with the only two issues I had with the episode, just to get them out of the way. Firstly, the TARDIS taking off of its own accord with Nardole inside, leaving the Doctor and Bill stranded on Mars was of course essential to the plot, I understand that. However, the TARDIS doesn’t exactly just fly away by itself all the time, so surely we deserved some explanation, even just a single line would’ve done, as to why the Doctor’s usually trusty ship abandoned him. Of course, if we find out later on in the season just why the TARDIS took off like that, perhaps Missy, or John Simm’s Master were behind it, then this will no longer be a problem. Secondly, the first fifteen minutes were a little slow. It didn’t mean the end of the episode was rushed at all, far from it. Perhaps more screen time could’ve been given to the Empress – who was superb – or to the scene at the very end of the episode with Missy and the Doctor which seemed to cut off rather abruptly. It just seemed to take a while to get going, and to find out how the episode was going to be shaped. But those two things I’ve just mentioned are minor criticisms, and that’s testament to what a brilliant episode it was.
There were several things that made this episode work so well. Firstly, Victorians on Mars? Seems unlikely, maybe too unlikely to work. But it was so aesthetically pleasing and the setting and characters worked perfectly together. Their costumes along with the sets gave the episode a real classic era feel, along with several nods to the past included in the script by Gatiss. The “Sleep No More” reference aside (we should be doing everything to erase that from our memories), all of the call backs fitted nicely into the story. Tooth and Claw‘s Queen Victoria being in the portrait, rather than the real Victoria, and the return of Alpha Centauri from the Peladon stories in the Jon Pertwee era were perfect. Doctor Who has always been a show that’s respected its past, and as long as the call backs continue to avoid affecting the validity of the story, then I’m all for them continuing to be included in scripts.
Doctor Who stories in general sometimes face two problems. Number one is putting planet Earth or the universe at risk unnecessarily. Number two is one dimensional alien races with no sense of individuality. The latter can be acceptable for races like Cybermen, who are obviously supposed to be the same as each other, but a lot of alien races we meet are inexplicably alike, strikingly uniform and have no sense of personality. More credit must go to Gatiss for avoiding these two, almost cliched, Doctor Who issues. The universe wasn’t under threat. The threat was just to the fleet of soldiers on Mars and to the Doctor and Bill. With the threat being so local, it felt much more real. If, for example, the Ice Warriors had claimed they were going to conquer the universe right there and then, I feel the episode would have lost some of its charm. It was a story about two races, in a tight confined space, with no real way of avoiding each other, and they just had to deal with it. The Ice Warriors themselves were written fantastically. It was really great to see Friday go against the Empress and try to convince her that there was no need to slaughter. Even when she launched her attack on the humans, he continued to oppose and sought the Doctor’s help. We don’t see enough of individuals in alien races doing their own thing. We are all different, so why shouldn’t different aliens have different feelings and opinions to their counterparts? It added a sense of realism to the episode, where a simple Ice Warriors versus humans story, with complete blind faith to their own race from both sides would’ve been predictable and probably very boring. Friday was a key character as he gave depth to the Ice Warriors as a race. His ability to think for himself, and think logically also set up the resolution for the story. Without seeing how Friday could think for himself, it may have seemed a little strange for the Empress to all of a sudden, stand her troops down after Godsacre’s request. But to see her respect an enemy fighter’s stance against one of his own soldier’s behaviour showed that the Ice Warriors are a hugely intelligent and thoughtful race, and that’s why the story worked so very well.
It wasn’t just their way of thinking that made the Ice Warriors such good characters though. They were completely ruthless, and their graphic way of killing was refreshing. Seeing as many deaths as that in a single episode is somewhat rare in Doctor Who nowadays, but to see soldier after soldier getting their bodies mangled in the blink of an eye, proved how menacing and dangerous the Ice Warriors were. They are easily my favourite monsters of the season so far.
Peter Capaldi hasn’t had a bad episode since his early days in season eight, so it almost goes without saying that he was yet again absolutely spectacular. Watching him threaten the Empress with killing everyone, including the humans and himself, was superb, as was watching him plea with Catchlove to see sense and not to fight the Ice Warriors. Pearl Mackie was terrific again as well. Bill didn’t have as much to do as she normally does, but she and Nardole’s exchanges at NASA in the pre-titles sequence were very entertaining.
So it looks like this is Mark Gatiss’ sign off to Doctor Who. He’s produced utter brilliance in the form of An Adventure of Space and Time, entertained with The Crimson Horror and The Unquiet Dead and caused despair with Victory of the Daleks and Sleep No More. Other than the said An Adventure in Space and Time, this was Gatiss’ finest hour for the show. The Ice Warriors were tremendous, and Adele Lynch portrayed the Empress to absolute perfection. Season ten is continuing to move along very nicely and with a strong conclusion, may have a claim to be the best season of the modern era. The Doctor’s look of disgust and fear as he saw Missy pilot the TARDIS has posed a few questions. Has Missy really changed? Surely not. Does the Doctor know what she’s up to? And where does John Simm’s Master come into all of this?
Episode Rating: 8/10