One of the tricks that contemporary Doctor Who writers like to use is to take a concept from the original series run, then re-imagine it. Hence, among other examples, Chris Eccleston made his debut in Rose, a serial that strongly mimicked the debut of Jon Pertwee 35 years previously. The Empress of Mars is very much a reimagining of the Patrick Troughton story in which the eponymous Ice Warriors made their on screen debut. The main difference is that where Troughton arrived on a future Earth to find that the humans had uncovered an Ice Warrior spacecraft, in this story the humans are brought to the Ice Warriors’ home planet of Mars.
There are some really clever touches along the way; using another tested favourite of Doctor Who (namely, alien species put into suspended animation), the team have an Ice Warrior crash land in Victorian south Africa, then bring some of the British Expeditionary Force on a jaunt to Mars. “Friday”, the Ice Warrior in question, has the cunning intent of finding his ruler, the Empress, and reviving the Ice Warrior race. Predictably where humanity and non-human species are involved, things take a turn for the worse once the species begin interacting with one another.
There’s not a huge amount to say about this episode. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minutes of science fiction, made even more enjoyable by the usual brilliance of Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie. Along the way some interesting themes are explored – not least that in this instance, it is humanity that is imposing itself upon an alien world, leaving the Doctor in a quandary as to whom he should support. The clever use of Victorian soldiers enables the production team to explore the Imperialist values of that era, while the positioning of those men on Mars means there are no sensitivities about where they are expressing those values.
If the review seems on the short side, it’s primarily because the story, while enjoyable, is also a bit forgettable. There seems to be an awful lot of talking, and not a huge amount of tension. There are a lot of familiar themes and ideas, cleverly reimagined, but very little by way of genuine inspiration. You won’t regret watching The Empress of Mars, or think afterwards “that was forty-five minutes of my life I’d like back” … but you also probably won’t think that you’d like to watch it again soon.