(Gallifreyan Ramblings has an all new look! Read this on my blog!)
There’s a show from the 1970s called Ripping Yarns. It’s one of my favourite comedies, one of the many produced by the BBC around that time, written by and starring Monty Python alumni Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Over nine episodes, each with different settings and characters, it parodied the early 20th Century “boys own adventure” stories targeted at the strapping, wholesome young boys of Imperial Britain. It ventured to such exotic settings as a German WWI prisoner of war camp, the Andes, the British Raj and Cornwall, always following some exciting and pseudo-heroic adventure.
Empress of Mars felt a bit like Doctor Who if it were made into a Ripping Yarns episode. Like Ripping Yarns, this episode is consciously parodying “boys own adventure” type stories of the early 20th Century, which often featured hardy and romantic Victorian soldiers camped out in some far-flung frontier of the Empire. Just substitute Mars for Burma and an Ice Warrior carrying a serving tray for native servants and you’ve got yourself a Doctor Who story, with material for trite political commentary to boot. Actually the political commentary, such as it was, was fairly superficial, which makes this episode a deviation from the norm for this series. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think Gatiss really had his heart in pushing a political message in this episode. He really just wanted to make an Ice Warrior serve the Doctor and a couple of Victorian British Army officers tea in a cave on Mars. Which is absolutely fine.
But it’s also indulgent because it’s got Gatiss’s favourite era and Gatiss’s favourite monsters. It looks like Gatiss asked Steven Moffat to have his Christmas and his Birthday presents on the same day. In that sense it looks a lot like a parting gift to Gatiss from Moffat, and I wouldn’t be surprised, and I think Gatiss wouldn’t be surprised, if this were the last we saw of him. This wasn’t as good an Ice Warrior story as Gatiss’s previous one, Cold War. That was an exciting, atmospheric base-under-siege which managed to do something novel and interesting with a monster which was always going to take a bold writer to extract from the 1960s, in all its bulky, slow-moving, hissy-voiced beauty. The Ice Warriors weren’t really that interesting in this one. They had a new gun, the latest in Doctor Who’s growing catalogue of Interesting Alien Weapons, following the Zygons’ electric tumbleweed from last series. They also had a queen, the Ice Empress Iraxxa. I’m interested by the idea of an Ice Empress, but I found it difficult to take Iraxxa seriously when she seemed to be played for self-conscious pantomime up until the last two minutes of the episode. The screechy, comical voice that sounded too much like the Empress of the Racnoss didn’t help either.
It’s worth noting that Mark Gatiss is actually tremendously funny (he wrote Robot of Sherwood, after all, one of the all-time funniest Doctor Who episodes), and seems to have a very similar sense of humour to the Monty Python troupe. Empress of Mars unfortunately doesn’t feature the overtly silly public-schoolboy humour of Monty Python and Ripping Yarns, but there’s definitely a cheekiness and a mirth in the way it makes the quasi-comical Victorian soldiers throw dash-its and tally-hoes and old-boys back and forth, and the way it makes the British look terrifically and resolutely domesticated, not to mention hopelessly class-conscious, even marooned on Mars. It felt like Mark Gatiss was having fun when he wrote this, and it was fun.
It’s worth saying where I might put Empress of Mars in a ranking of Gatiss’s episodes. Of the nine episodes Gatiss has written for Doctor Who since 2005, I think I’d put it somewhere on the bottom end of that list, probably between Victory of the Daleks and The Idiot’s Lantern, making it seventh out of nine. The delightfully funny and fun Robot of Sherwood would go at the top. It’s worth comparing it to other Gatiss episodes because Gatiss’s scripts have always been a bit different from other present-day Doctor Whos. Gatiss doesn’t shoot straight down the middle. His scripts are offbeat, a bit quirky, a bit left-of-field. Carnivorous sentient televisions, animate dollhouses, robot occupations of 13th Century Nottinghamshire, and Victorian soldiers on the Red Planet. Imagine Mark Gatiss as showrunner. It’d be weird and unpredictable. Probably more shit more often than Doctor Who is now, but at least it wouldn’t be boring.
For all the glorious unconventionality of the idea of putting Victorian soldiers in an Ice Warrior hive on Mars and making them fight each other, this episode actually holds back on the quirkiness and weirdness that usually characterises Gatiss episodes. It’s actually a fairly conventional narrative when you compare it to the rest of Gatiss’s playlist on Doctor Who, and fairly conventional Doctor Who, at that. And I’m not sure that it really worked. There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with it – it’s enjoyable enough. But it was, as the kids say, just ‘meh’. Gatiss’s episodes are weird. That’s what Gatiss does, and does well. I basically regard Sleep No More as peak Gatiss—it was the weirdest Gatiss has ever gone, and it was a triumph, a flawed triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. Admittedly plenty of people didn’t like it. But the one thing no one can dispute about that one is that it was memorable—you’re never going to forget it. You can’t really say the same about Empress of Mars. And that’s its problem. Gatiss compromised on doing what he does best in order to get all his favourite characters onscreen at the same time, and ended up producing a story that was indulgent and high-concept, but just a bit boring. It felt conspicuously like a filler episode, something every filler episode should want to avoid.