Gatiss was literally the second writer whose script appeared since the revival back in the Christopher Eccleston year. “The Unquiet Dead” was one of Gatiss’ best scripts, and I’d put “Empress of Mars” in the same category.
He’ll probably leave Doctor Who television with Steven Moffat, and the two of them – lifelong friends and creative partners – have had a wonderful run on the show of a decade and a half. Gatiss, however, always had a reputation as the lesser half of that pair.
In all fairness, aesthetically that’s the case. Moffat has always been able to deliver trippy concepts, complex narratives, and detailed story arcs. Gatiss can put a solid script together, though some of them feature some unfortunate holes and problematic implications.
If Gatiss’ work has one running flaw, it’s that he’s an inescapable traditionalist. His stories are all fairly simple. There are evil aliens of some kind, and the supporting cast usually has an engaging story.
It isn’t always the existential rejuvenation of Charles Dickens, the family drama of “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Night Terrors,” or the metafictional mythmaking of “Robot of Sherwood,”* but there’s always some idea beyond the base under siege.
Because Gatiss stories are fundamentally bases under siege – locations or worlds that are disrupted by alien invasions. The Gelth, the Wire, the Daleks, the Tenza child, the Sweetville community, the Ice Warriors, the robots, and the sleep creatures all invade Victorian London, 1950s London, the council estate, Victorian Yorkshire, a Russian submarine, the metafictional Sherwood Forest, and the Le Verrier space station.
The TARDIS crew with their local allies defend the invaded space, or else figure out how the invaders and invaded can make peace. Gatiss doesn’t religiously follow the old base-under-siege format.
His more complex character dynamics put him above that tired format, for one. As well, the fact that some siege conflicts can be settled peacefully is another form of progress over the traditional. “Sleep No More” was probably his most ambitious work, using the camera itself as a deceptive narrative device. That story was his biggest creative leap.
Paint Mars Pink
“Empress of Mars” isn’t such a leap. It’s reactive, but in a good way. This is an explicitly anti-imperialist political story that subverts its own traditionalism. It’s a base under siege, but the base is the Martian cryogenic complex, and the invaders are Victorian English soldiers.
It portrays the soldiers as ordinary British people, just like Bill. But their attitudes show the violence and rage that was ordinary in British society at the time. They aren’t on Mars to explore it, but to conquer it, rob it of its mineral wealth, and subjugate its inhabitants. Just like they did throughout India, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.
The humans are the invaders, but their invasion is incompetent. They’ve been easily manipulated by Friday’s promises of precious gems on Mars. Their apparent shipwreck was entirely intentional, since the English camp was so close to the Empress’ cryo chamber.
The most the English crew could manage for mining equipment was a repurposed laser cannon. When the fighting starts, their guns are pathetically ineffective. These are the most incompetent invaders in years of Doctor Who.
Yet they’re poster boys for British greatness. The red uniforms, aggressive courage, and will to conquer is the worshipped image of the Brexit crew’s campaign to Make Britain Great Again!.
|A political persona as ridiculous as
this idiot was never supposed to win.
It isn’t a stretch to identify the same chauvinist nationalism in the leaders of Britain’s Brexit movement as in those pathetic soldiers. The motivating sentiment of Brexit is to return to an era when Britain on its own was powerful enough to conquer the world. And in the case of “Empress of Mars,” beyond.
Except Britain isn’t powerful enough to conquer the world beyond Earth. It never was. Even in this sci-fi scenario where they make it to Mars, they fail miserably. Their weapons are no match for the Ice Warriors’ sonic guns, and they seem incapable of conceiving of any tactic but standing in a line and firing their useless rifles.
They’re deluded into thinking that this millennia-old starfaring civilization is simply a bunch of walking crocodiles. We’re British! they say. We can conquer anything! British conquer and destroy!
The rhetoric of Brexit had more than one parallel to these toy soldiers. Boris Johnson’s boisterous strutting national pride, Michael Gove’s supremely dorky sense of self-superiority, Andrea Leadsom’s quaint social conservatism – they were all deluding themselves that Britain could be powerful enough to conquer Earth again if they just cut their ties to these pansy democratic institutions.
Nigel Farage is the worst of them all, an unreconstructed racist nationalist who’s offended by the mere presence of Muslims and Poles on pure, white English shores. “Empress of Mars” is a slap in all their faces – a story that depicts blatantly what an idiotic bumble chauvinist nationalism really is.
The only reason Britain was able to conquer the world was because of the contingent fact that they actually were, for the most part, technologically superior to many of their enemies. They never faced down Iraxxa.
More Than Monsters, True Alien Worlds
“Empress of Mars” also does a lot to make the Ice Warriors a unique fictional people. He got this started a little bit with his nuanced character of Grand Marshal Skaldak. But he gets the most done here.
In their original appearances during the Troughton era, the Ice Warriors were generic evil aliens invading a series of bases as part of evil schemes to conquer to Earth. But the Pertwee years saw the creatures gain some depth and complexity.
By the Peladon stories of 1972 and 1974, their characters had motivations just as complex as the others. Some were uncertain allies with their own priorities in a complicated political backdrop, and some were manipulative villains. Hulking monsters they weren’t.
The Big Finish audios, for the most part, weren’t too kind to the Ice Warriors. They basically just made them into hissing green Klingons.
In this short story, Gatiss adds a remarkable amount of nuance to Ice Warrior culture. For one thing, matriarchal values are central to their society. Iraxxa puts special weight on Bill’s assessment of the Mars-Britain standoff when she makes her decision – as a woman, Bill’s is a calm voice amid the shouts of strutting men.
|Do these guys seriously think their rifles can stand up to the sonic
weaponry of Ice Warriors? Also, "Empress of Mars" was the first
Doctor Who story that rendered the Ice Warriors' sonic weaponry
in contemporary visual effects. It looked fantastic.
The most important cultural development for “Empress of Mars” comes through Iraxxa’s contrast to the most violent of the British soldiers. Ice Warriors are creatures of war, battle, and honour. But they aren’t imperialists. Iraxxa’s values revolve around solidarity and courage, not conquest and theft.
The British are, for the most part, cruel egotists. Jackdaw is a petty thief, getting himself killed over stealing ornamental jewels from Iraxxa’s cryogenic chamber. Catchlove is the most obvious example of what the story holds in contempt. He embodies all the racism, arrogance, aggression, rage, and violence that makes him wretched filth.
The nobility of Iraxxa, Friday, Bill, and Godsacre are a contrast to that petty arrogance and cruelty. What better role models could we have?
• • •
Here are my previous reviews of Peter Capaldi's last season of Doctor Who. I won't do a formal ranking until the end of the season, after "The Doctor Falls" broadcasts and I can look into the season as a whole.
The Pilot / The Girl With the Star in Her Eye
The Pyramid at the End of the World (1)
The Pyramid at the End of the World (2)
The Lie of the Land (Screw you, Whithouse)
The Monks Trilogy