Empress of Mars

TARDISI had to go Googling for gender-neutral pronouns for this one, settling on the one that seemed to be most commonly accepted. But, how nice, to be writing about Alpha Centuri.

Another from DWM #514.

A continuity slide. The top horizontal quarter has a black background. Over that runs the ‘=BBC1=’ logo. Directly beneath, in thin white text: ‘DOCTOR WHO’. The lower three-quarters is filled with an obtusely unrepresentative episodic image from Empress of Mars. There’s a faint clunk, the bleed in of studio atmos, and a slightly airy voice comes through: “Bank Holiday entertainment continues on BBC1 shortly, and there’s an old enemy in store for…” Slight pause, and then with a downward intonation: “Doctor Who!”

This, I venture, would be the ideal serving suggestion for Mark Gatiss’ nostalgic offering. Potentially his swan song too. If it is so (he says Chris Chibnall is bringing in ‘new people’), it’s a marvellous parting shot. Hewn from the teatimes of his childhood, the tale is undeniably thin, but exquisitely upholstered. As Gatiss himself has declared, he’s given us a Bank Holiday rerun of Doctor Who. This is the series as it lives in his memory – fruity, fun, warm, scary. It’s the antonym, in fact, of his last effort, 2015’s progressive and uncomfortable Sleep No More, which is still a good decade away from fan rediscovery and elevation to ‘classic’. Although it’s already become the Ice Queen’s wake-up call to her drones.

The Mars adventure is more instantly agreeable, and, although there are in-jokes stitched into its seams, there is no barrier to entry. The set-ups are immediately understandable, so that even when they’re subverted – such as the British army becoming the bad news – it’s still about binaries. The visuals pop with green aliens, red soldiers, a red planet and an electric-blue sci-fi mortar.  For the dads and granddads who haven’t watched since their day, it’ll seem just how they left it, from the companion falling down a hole, to the Time Lord’s disregarded counsel of, “You don’t stand a chance!”. And the monsters? The monsters lumber.

Sinking further into the eiderdown of Doctor Who, the story is eventually revealed as a Peladon prequel, complete with Alpha Centauri as voiced by – yes! – Ysanne Churchman. It’s a beautiful surprise. Ysanne Churchman! Say it again: Ysanne Churchman. Her name is an incantation, summoning the latent magic of TC4, Ealing film sequences and mirrorlon (about which, more presently).

While it’s satisfyingly sentimental to have the hermaphroditic hexapod extend one of eir six arms of friendship, it also works as a punchline to a story that’s in turn a bookend to the politics of the 1972 original. Where that presaged Britain’s entry into the EEC, Gatiss’ offering is ruing our imminent departure. A line from the shooting script – but not in the final episode – makes it plain. Explaining to Bill how the Martians will progress from here, the Doctor says: “They’ll have their ups and downs like everyone else. And when the planet Peladon pulls out of the Federation to ‘take back control’ – oh dear.” Even without that, there’s enough: Catchlove’s colonial superiority complex (“Don’t belong? We’re British! Mars is part of the empire now!”) and the Doctor’s call for integration (“You cannot survive on Mars without help!”).

The script is less focussed in its look at gender politics. “We are both surrounded by noisy males!” roars Iraxxa, and specifically asks for Bill’s input… but seems to do nothing with it. Towards the end, it happens again. There’s the implication they share a viewpoint, but it’s also unresolved. I felt the same about the brief exchange with Godsacre and his “Victorian values”. All of these, just the start of an argument, tailing off…

And so, let’s talk about the monsters! The ‘crumpling’ of victims by their death ray is a superb resolution to the intention of the original 1960s wibbly-mirror effect. Their hive? It’s fine. Possibly undersold by its reveal on screen, which could have been punched through with an epic pullback. As for the notion of it, and the Martians’ having a queen, again, you know, fine. There’s nothing radical in that concept, and it fits. I’ve confessed before in these pages, the Ice Warriors aren’t a personal favourite and so it’s probable I’m not invested in any new elements of backstory. But Gatiss handles it with love, and it’s interesting the Doctor’s description of them – “They could slaughter whole civilizations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower” – echoes something offered on diverse occasions by Colin Baker (the one I’m picking here is from BBC2’s Doctor Who Night in 1999) who said of the Time Lord himself: “He might cry at the death of a butterfly while he’s stepping over the bodies of 17 people.”

I’ve told you I like this yarn very much. Have I made it plain why? High adventure aside, its comes down to the fantastically plummy characterisation. The opposition between ruthless usurper Catchlove and the ‘coward’ Godsacre is nicely realised, and there’s enough to signal a rich history between the two. The lower ranks also get their moment, young Vincey dreaming of the little church with the twisted spire. But it’s the language that really lands it. The turns of phrase prove Gatiss as good a magpie as Robert Holmes when it comes to gaudy gems of old vernacular. Says Jackdaw: “What old Friday promised, it was a load of gammon!” Meanwhile at table, Catchlove is passingly calling the Doctor “old love”. And let me make this clear, I don’t care to look into the impracticalities of bringing china, two types of tea and the doings for a Victoria sponge all the way to Mars – because it says so much about a misplaced sense of proprietary.

Not that I’d make those allowances every week. Furthermore, I’d go so far as to say it would be unhealthy for Doctor Who to be this self-reverential on a regular basis. But this could be the last time for Mark Gatiss, and R.H.I.P.

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