An odd notherburger of an episode after last week’s failure of a three parter leaves this season of Doctor Who in a depressing slump.
Last season’s Gatiss penned episode “Sleep No More” was the only stand alone episode of the season. At the time I joked that was because none of the others wanted to be seen with such a terrible episode. Thankfully, Gatiss’ outing this year–in the same episode 9 slot–is not nearly as bad as all that. But it’s not very good either. In fact, it’s not really much of anything.
The Doctor: Sorry, I could never resist a countdown
There was promise in the episode. For instance, this was the first time in many moons that an episode started in present day, only to launch Team TARDIS off on the monster of the week adventure. In this case The Doctor takes Bill and Nardole to NASA to see the reveal of the latest pictures beamed back from Mars….only to discover a message in the planet’s North Pole: “God Save The Queen.” How did it get there? TO THE TARDIS!
Upon arriving back in time on Mars, circa 1881, Bill and the Doctor run into Victorian era British army men. They apparently transported themselves from colonizing and exploiting the riches of South Africa to Mars, for much the same purpose. This feat was made possible by a friendly neighborhood Ice Warrior, who they saved when he crash landed near their base camp. As one might expect, they’ve claimed Mars for Britain, nicknamed their Ice Warrior “Friday”, and treat him like a servant. All the while, they mine where he tells them to, not realizing their “mining” for the promises fortunes is actually helping him un-Earth (or perhaps “un-Mars”) his Ice Queen and his people, all of whom awaken hell-bent on killing these pink things invading their planet.
The Doctor: The Ice Warriors, they build a city out of Mars’ sand then drench the skies with its blood. They could slaughter a whole civilisation then weep at the destruction of a flower.
The set up sounds good when you put it that way, but the execution lacks any sort of urgency. In fact, most of the episode seems to be more about an opportunity to make some Jules Verne-esque tableaux and costumes than plot. The brass underwater-like space suits come with thousands of little holes in their helmets, or gramophones horns for communication. Victorian era officers sit about in Martian caves, impossibly having high tea off silver serving platters and the finest china, oblivious to how obvious the Ice Warrior’s plan is, while the infantry lust after the first sign of gold.
Gatiss doesn’t seem to know what to do with Nardole, or perhaps he lacks the imagination to work outside the traditional Doctor-Companion pairing, so our poor little bald chap gets sidelined early, stuck with a TARDIS that heads home, and doesn’t want to go back to Mars to pick up the Doctor or Bill for anything. As for Bill, no one makes any reference to her skin tone, but there is quite a bit of poking fun at sexism, as one Victorian commander marvels that a woman could be a police officer, while the Ice Queen, Iraxxa, upon being wakened, decides to consult with Bill since that’s the only other woman in the room.
Iraxxa: “We are both surrounded by noisey males. I would value your opinion.”
But mostly this is just another “isn’t war dumb”? plot, with the Doctor desperately trying to get both sides to stop acting like idiots and work together. He’s thwarted on one side by the Queen, who would like stamp out these humans, even though they’re the only reason she woke up, or indeed, why Friday is still alive. Meanwhile on the Victorian side, Colonel Keshup is the nasty handsome one with the mustache, betraying anyone and everything to try to get something–anything–of value from the planet, and then get home again to live like a King. He even betrays his commanding officer, Sergeant Major Peach, who it turns out, was failed to be hanged for desertion before Friday and his trip to Mars turned up.
In the end, Peach finds his nerve and kills off Keshup. (There’s a chutney toppings joke to be made somewhere in there.) His final act, asking for an honorable death from the Ice Queen turns out to solve everything, because of course she’s mollified by such acts of selflessness and warrior attitude, or some nonsense. Everyone then gets randomly rescued by the eyed monster Alpha Centauri, who is straight out of the Third Doctor series The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon. (They even got the same actress to do the voice from the 70s.) This way no one has to head back to Earth so this can stay a secret.
The Doctor: There’s still no setting for wood. Why is there no setting for wood?
Our inconvenient Martians signal her where to land via the Doctor, Bill and Peach spelling out, you guessed it, “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” on the North Pole. Time is a flat circle, etc. Bill should ask if the Doctor’s seen that show. Apparently movie references are a thing with them now–and we should note the Doctor hasn’t seen The Terminator, or The Thing, but has watched Frozen. Disney movies for all, from ages 2 to 2000.
Thankfully, Bill and the Doctor don’t have to go off with Alpha Centauri, because the TARDIS shows back up just in time to take them home….now piloted by Missy, who Nardole let out of the vault in desperation to get back to the Doctor. After all that whining and crying about guarding the Vault, and it’s Nardole who finally let her out. Missy walks up to the Doctor, takes one look at him, and asks what he’s hiding. Oh look, something interesting finally happened… too bad the hour’s up.
Let’s hope next week’s final stand alone–penned by Rona Munro, who last wrote a Doctor Who episode in 1989 for the Seventh Doctor–pulls the show out of this nosedive and heads it towards a proper two part conclusion worthy of Capaldi’s time.