Doctor Who: The Empress of Mars Review (or “Generic But Better Than Expected”)

June 11, 2017

I consider myself a fair-minded person.

So despite Mark Gatiss routinely delivering episodes at the poorer end of the spectrum – which would make you wonder why he keeps getting asked back to write more until you remember that he’s Steven Moffat’s bezzie mate and nepotism is rife in the world of TV writing – I sat down to watch The Empress of Mars with an open mind.

It might be good.


Doctor Who: The Empress of Mars Review – What’s This One About?

Like a lot of Mark Gatiss’s episodes – seven out of his nine episodes actually, which makes you wonder how much imagination he has – it puts aliens in a period setting.

Well…if we’re being fair it puts period humans in an alien setting, so I guess he probably though he was being clever.

Thoughts – Better Than Expected But Very Generic

Right, I’ll get this out of the way now; I liked The Empress of Mars. I know, I’m as surprised as you.

Classic Series fans around the country lose their shit at Alpha Centauri showing up voiced by the same woman…

As a standalone episode watched in isolation on a Saturday night, this did the job fine.

It had a good setting, identifiable characters and a simple plot to follow.

But – and I expect you knew there’d be a but – it still had its issues.

If I was to be overly critical I’d say that this was an episode written in the most generic of terms.

While Knock, Knock felt like it was written for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and while many of the earlier episodes of this season were penned with Bill in mind, The Empress of Mars appears to fit any Doctor and any female companion.

Hell, it could even have worked with any group of humans and any alien.

And that’s not good.

It sums up the Gatiss style. He’s good at coming up with the setting, but his characterisation is lacking.

That being said, I will repeat that I did enjoy it overall.

The Vault

I’m at the point now where I take issue with The Vault.

In the early episodes of this season when we didn’t know who or what was inside it, the writing was that Nardole did not like the idea of the Doctor leaving Earth in the TARDIS because if he went away for a while

Meanwhile the younger viewers share Bill’s expression of “It’s just an eye”.

then the planet would be in danger from its contents.

That’s fallen by the wayside.

Now that we as viewers know what’s in it, that’s been forgotten about.

Now not only do they all go off on their travels together without fear of Missy doing anything, but Nardole is happy to take her off on a jaunt in time and space.

That’s poor. It’s like when a good-natured character has shockingly been revealed to the viewer – and only the viewer – as being evil, then they start acting evil all the time. It annoys me.

But then that’s probably Moffat’s fault rather than Gatiss’s.

Random Observations

  • I imagine classic series Doctor Who fans around the world lost their shit when Alpha Centauri showed up, voice-acted by the same woman as in the Peladon stories from the Pertwee era. I thought that was kinda cool too.
  • Do you get the feeling that – much like some early episodes in this season – it was written without Nardole in mind?
  • Going back to what I was saying about it being generic, I don’t think the way Bill reacted to being in a war zone – seeing men being killed in front of her and not even raising an eyebrow – was in keeping with her established character.
  • I’m not doubting that this wasn’t researched and therefore wasn’t possible, but how could a guy who was hung for desertion be reinstated as the leader of a platoon of men? At the very most, surely if it didn’t work they’d have just sent him home?
  • Catchlove was probably the most one-note boo-hiss panto villain seen in the show for a while.
  • Certain parts of this episode felt very convenient. For example, beyond giving them a reason to go to Mars and to marry up the beginning and end of the episode, why were the Doctor and his chums in that NASA control room at the start? And why – beyond engineering a situation where Nardole wasn’t in it and Missy got out of the vault – did the TARDIS suddenly leave?
  • The timeline of the Ice Warriors really doesn’t make sense to me, but I think that’s another article for another day.
  • Also, why is there never any continuity with the Ice Warriors’ guns? Either from the 1960s would do me fine. But now they seem to have ones that disintegrate humans and tie up their clothes in a neat bundle for washing.
  • The Ice Warriors weren’t voiced by Nicholas Briggs again. I bet he’s fuming.

Doctor Who: The Empress of Mars Review – Final Thoughts

When you sit down to watch a Mark Gatiss-penned episode of Doctor Who, you expect a few things.

  1. A period piece
  2. A decent idea in principle
  3. A story written for almost any Doctor or companion
  4. Paper thin characterisation
  5. For it to be shite

We hit four of the five today, but thankfully the one we didn’t was number five.

This was actually decent enough.

So I’m as happy as I think I have any right to be.

More Doctor Who Reviews

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Doctor Who – The Seeds of Death Review (or ‘Really…how could they think that plan would work?’)

February 7, 2012

At the end of last year I wrote an article about the relative price and availability of visual media now compared to the 80s and 90s. You can read it here

One thing I said was that back in the day, we had far less media available to us and therefore the few videos we did have, we watched over and over again.

Well that is certainly true of the next story on my run-through of Doctor Who – The Seeds of Death.

No, this isn’t the return of the Sensorites – that guy was just born that way

Released in 1985 and then again in 1987 on VHS, The Seeds of Death was one of the first Dr Who stories I ever saw, was the first black and white story released on video and was the only Patrick Troughton story available to the public for a full 5 years. Videos cost a lot back then, we didn’t have very many of them and so I have watched this story more times than I could count. Along with the Five Doctors, it’s probably the story that cemented my love of the show.

So – spoiler alert – I do like this story and rate it highly, but sentimentality aside, how does it hold up now and compared to the stories around it?

Doctor Who – The Seeds of Death Review: What’s This One About?

Ice Warriors invade the Moon in an attempt to take over T-Mat, a teleportation system run from the moon and responsible for food distribution around the world (although considering it appears to be run using booths the size of telephone boxes, I’m not sure how). They plan to send seed pods to various cities around the globe that will burst and lower the oxygen level of the planet, making Earth and ideal atmosphere for them to invade and conquer. They are aided by Fewsham, a man who is very much in the minority in the Doctor Who universe in that he doesn’t want to help them, but has no choice because he doesn’t want to die.

Simple plots are often the best.

Thoughts – The Ice Warriors

To most, The Seeds of Death is probably the definitive Ice Warrior story. In my earlier review of their first appearance, I discussed how Bernard Bresslaw did a very good job of bringing them to life and

Slaar’s costume is very well realised – it’s just a pity from this one angle we can see Alan Bennion’s neck

carrying the acting, despite the restriction of the costumes. In this story though, the master stroke is by having the lead Ice Warrior (or as fandom would put it – Ice Lord) Slaar being a smaller, more mobile and less costume-restricted character.

For me, Alan Bennion is The Ice Warriors. His subtle whispering delivery, the way he manages to shout with that whisper and his almost slithering motion are terrific, and the simple device of having the leader being a far weaker looking type than his soldiers is also a nice bit of writing.

The costume design is also good, as they have gotten rid of the budget, big-headed Warrior extras from the previous story, and they do a great job of Slaar’s mouth and jaw (it’s a simple case of covering the actor’s face with a sort of Rice Krispie type substance and changing its colour).

And that’s really what works best about the whole thing – it’s in Black & White. When the Ice Warriors come back in the Pertwee era, we see them as a garish green colour which jars a little bit on screen. In black & white, the Ice Warriors look a lot better. Indeed, the whole story works better in black & white than it possibly could have in the faded early colour of the Pertwee years.

The Plot – Space Travel & Fewsham

As far as the plot goes, this is very much a story of its time, but that’s not a bad thing. Broadcast in early 1969, this story was made when the whole world was keeping an eye on rocket travel and stuff related

G-Force on a BBC Budget

to the moon. But with that said, what surprised me was how little the makers of the show (and possibly the public in general) knew about rocket travel. In this story, mere months before the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, there was a belief that rocket travel could be done without any gravity issues, any protective clothing, using a full oxygen supply and with G-force that basically involved the actors sitting down and pulling their faces. Also, the rocket itself doesn’t jettison any part of itself on takeoff or in space, which is also quite elementary.

What’s strange about that is that the Tenth Planet seemed to have this rather basic understanding down. Maybe it’s that because the Seeds of Death occurs in the future that they’ve overcome such things. If I was being kind I’d say that.

It’s not just about rockets though or even T-Mat – a teleportation system that the world depends upon yet only has one person who really understands how it works (you could argue that the world deserves everything it gets then) – but also about something that I’ve always found quite interesting in Dr Who – the urge to live.

So often in Doctor Who and in TV & Film in general, people are willing to throw their lives away for some noble cause, some greater good. It’s something that always bugs me, because it’s just not realistic. I don’t want to die – do you?

Now that’s anxious acting if ever I saw it

The Seeds of Death deals with this in the form of Fewsham – an engineer who helps The Ice Warriors under duress for the simple reason that he wants to live. As a character, he’s considered as being weak for not throwing his life away with the sort of ‘Come on then’ type attitude his superior – Osgood – did.

By no means does he want to help them, and he pleads with them not to make him do things like eject the Doctor out into space, but when he’s forced to choose between his life and that of another guy he’s never met, he chooses his own. I think that’s perfectly understandable and yet so rare in TV & Film. Only when he is faced with the choice of risking his own life to help save the entire human race does he act against the Ice Warriors.

Fewsham is quite a complex character and is certainly the MVP of this story, and a hell of a lot of credit must go to actor Terry Scully for his portrayal, and also to the director for casting him. He just looks like a pathetic, weak and forlorn man, even though in many ways he is the average person. Maybe that’s the point.

The Ice Warriors Plan

If there’s one thing that stands out as being stupid about this story it’s that the Ice Warriors plan to take over Earth with seed pods that are destroyed with water. Surely they could have foreseen issues with that? Sending one Ice Warrior down to earth to freeze one weather control machine will not stop it from raining.

I actually think this is a classic case of someone writing themselves into a corner and looking for a quick way to bring the story to its conclusion. Water? I mean…come on?

A staple of the Troughton Era – The Two Way TV Set

But then the Ice Warriors – for all their effective menace – do appear to be quite stupid. How many times can they go into a room to look for someone and just not bother to look anywhere but straight ahead? Why is it that none of them notice that their compatriots seem to go missing when they are sent to look for the humans? And also, they don’t seem interested in killing anyone of value – just extras. They are presented with the opportunity to kill The Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, Gia Kelly, Commander Radnor and Professor Eldred and just don’t bother (or in the case of the Doctor decide to kill him in an extravagant way rather than just simply shooting him). With Eldred & Radnor, the Ice Warrior just stands there, gawping at them before wandering off.

Really, if they are going to be that careless then they deserve for their plan to fail.

Random Observations

  • The Seeds of Death and Tenth Planet (along with the Moonbase and probably a few other stories) share one little bit of science that I just cannot understand, and don’t believe to be true. Apparently, the moment you go even slightly off course between the Earth & the Moon, you are trapped in the unbreakable gravitational pull of the Sun. If that is the case, how do aliens manage to get to Earth or the Moon to invade in the first place?
  • I’ve already mentioned my issues with T-Mat, but I’ll do so again for clarity. How are those T-Mat booths able to control the world’s food supply, and what is the point of having such a vital system that is only understood by one woman? What happens if she gets hit by a bus?
  • Professor Eldred is quite the handy inventor if he’s able to build a full size, operational space rocket in his house. And he’s also surprised to realise that someone knows about it.
  • There seems to be an early form of SIRI in this story, with the well spoken-yet-solemn AI that is capable to follow Commander Radnor everywhere he goes.
  • The music in this story is unique, but I think it’s quite incongruous. Sometimes it works really well with what it going on on-screen, but other times it doesn’t suit it at all.
  • Let’s all bid a fond farewell to the staple of the Troughton-era – The Foam Machine. They certainly got their use out of it in this story.
  • I mentioned in my review of the Mind Robber that the Doctor manages to cut his hair between the end of the Dominators and the start of that. In the Seeds of Death he manages to grow some hefty sideburns while lying down unconscious on a table.
  • I’m not quite sure how Zoe manages to know what Slaar’s name is, since I don’t think he ever introduces himself to her or anyone else. Also, for someone with an eidetic memory, Zoe manages to forget the route to the solar energy room a bit too conveniently (and yet despite making an issue about how they were lost, in the next scene they had found it anyway)
  • Old Prop Alert – I’m fairly sure an artefact in Eldred’s Rocket Museum is the First Doctor’s Astral Map.
  • I have to mention the fantastic Ice Warrior gun effect. It’s one of my favourite Dr Who effects as it’s so simple yet wonderfully effective.
  • This story features one of the staples of the era, The Two Way Television Set.
  • For those of you who got the BBC Video of this in the 80s, you’ll probably remember the iconic BBC Ident jingle they played at the start and end of their early VHS releases. I have that as a text alert.

Doctor Who – The Seeds of Death Review: Final Thoughts

Without question, The Seeds of Death has a few issues with its plot, in terms of the way it was wrapped up and the convenient way in which the Ice Warriors failed to kill any of the main characters and yet were happy enough to kill as many extras as they could. It also has some pretty basic errors when it comes to space travel, which is surprising considering it was in vogue at the time.

But despite this, it’s still a very good story. The Ice Warriors look great and are perfect for black & white TV, and the overall feel of the story is excellent.

Terry Scully steals the show as Fewsham, a fantastic and genuine human character played in a wonderful style.

As I said earlier, for many this will be an iconic story, and niggles aside, it does deserve to be.

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