The Empire on Mars

Review of Empress of Mars
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

I heard a lot of positive chatter about The Empress of Mars online even before I had the chance to watch it myself. "Gatiss's best episode ever!" "Another great episode—S10's going to be hard to beat!" "The writing has been so good this year!" That always makes me nervous, because then there are certain expectations going in that can be difficult for an episode to live up to.

As someone who's not a big fan of either Gatiss or the Ice Warriors, I didn't have very high hopes to begin with. I was therefore not so much disappointed as resigned. The more I watched, though, the angrier I got.

Now I want to be clear that I don't dislike either creatures or writer. I liked Cold War well enough, and I loved the Easter egg references to The Curse of Peladon here. But setting a story on Mars and then adding in some Victorian soldiers ended up muddying things so much that I was constantly cringing.

One of the things I've always appreciated about Doctor Who is the way that—when it's at its best—it challenges us to stretch outside our usual point of view and consider other ways of looking at even mundane situations. That is, in fact, one of the things I like best about The Unquiet Dead. Unfortunately, although it's clear Gatiss is trying to do more of that here, he falls horribly short.

In particular, I'm talking about how once the Empress has awoken and the stakes have ramped up, the Doctor tries to talk peace. "The last thing I'm going to do is takes sides," he says, and then promptly proceeds to do so.

"Let's face it," he tells Bill in what is meant to be an insightful moment recognizing British colonialism. "In this scenario, the humans are the invaders. On the other hand, the Ice Warriors have vastly superior armaments, which will wipe the humans out. What am I supposed to do?"

How about this, Doctor? How about you allow (or better, help) the indigenous people to defend their home like you have done on so many other planets, and set history right at the same time? The Doctor has already said unequivocally that there were not humans on Mars in the Victorian era (though bless them for bringing a portrait of their Queen—in her Pauline Collins incarnation!); this would make sure that remains the case.

In fact, as recently as in Smile, the Doctor helped the (new) indigenous sapient species to uphold their rights against human colonizers. Why can't he be consistent and do the same here? Primarily, it's because the writer is a Brit, and still so steeped in the colonialist POV of the culture in which he was raised that he has a hard time even recognizing that's the ideology through which he views the world. (I've only recently begun to do so myself.)

Throughout the story, the primary villains are among the soldiers, with Iraxxa serving to a lesser degree. However, all of the sympathetic characters beyond the TARDIS crew—with the possible exception on Friday—are the humans. More to the point, they're the Brits. We're always made to feel a pang when one of the rank and file succumb to the oddly Tissue Compression Eliminator-like weapons of the Ice Warriors.

Even when the Doctor takes extreme measures, though—threatening effectively to commit genocide against the Ice Warriors—we are not meant to feel empathy for the Empress or her guards, even though they are only fighting to repel an invasive force. This, to me, is the worst of the Doctor: clearly taking sides after claiming he wouldn't, threatening to take innumerable lives in the attempt to save a few "special" (human, British) lives, and blinded by the uneven firepower to a cause he would usually champion.

Then the Colonel had to make his heartfelt "Not all humans!" plea. Completely ignoring the fact that the rest of the British Empire absolutely would come back and try to take Mars for themselves if they thought they stood half a chance, the Colonel tries to assuage his guilt at the poor treatment his group has heaped upon there Ice Warrior for their own gain. "I'm not like that! (Or at least others, who aren't as worthless as poor me, aren't.) You should totally ignore the harm done to you by a social system that's still firmly in place!"

I'm sure there are others more fully qualified to point out the ways in which this episode perpetuated colonizer attitudes than a white, British-descended woman like me, but I can't see these issues and not call them out. Having done so, it feels disingenuous to go on to discuss the smaller details that did delight me. So I guess I'll just end by saying that while there were things I loved, overall I found this episode problematic as hell, and I'm hoping for something better next week.

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Comments

Let's face it. The soldiers would never have gotten to Mars if Friday hadn't tricked them. He needed help to repair and fly his ship so he invited the soldiers to fly him home and promised them riches for their trouble. He purchased their help but he never intended to pay them. To him they were disposable dupes.

Were the soldiers greedy and imperialistic? Yes they were. But going to Mars was never their own idea.

So, Friday brought them to Mars and had them "mine" a tunnel to where his queen and people were buried. The greed of the thief caused the queen to wake up but if he hadn't messed with the sarcophagus Friday would have woken her up. Having been awakened by a stranger the queen reacted violently and killed him.

At this point, what should have happened is that Friday should have explained the situation to both sides, the queen should have offered the soldiers payment and sent them back to Earth.

I don't see the soldiers as invaders. I see them more as victims, promised payment for a service that they delivered and then attacked and killed instead of paid for their trouble.

They had a bad attitude. Being Victorians they tried to annex Mars, a dead planet with nothing to offer them, as a kind of reflex action. But their guns were completely ineffective against the Ice Warriors. The only threat they posed was because Friday had supplied them with an advanced weapon but The Doctor dealt with that easily.

My biggest beef with this episode was that one of the soldiers was black. He was a fine, young actor who did a good job with the role but there weren't any black soldiers in the Victorian army.

Well, there was one. I read an article about it. Gattis was not in favor of casting that actor but came to peace with it when he read the story of the single black man who served in Queen Victoria's army. Since this character was not meant to be that historical figure I don't see how it matters. I would have preferred historical accuracy and save that actor to hire for a different role.

I've barely mentioned The Doctor and it's because he and Bill had very little to do with the story. I can't think of any Doctor Who episode where The Doctor has been so superfluous. He just doesn't add much to the story.

I can't say I was terribly impressed by this episode. I thought it was badly written.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I had no problem with an extra Black soldier, actually. I've so often seen people of color erased from stories because of "historical accuracy" (which is most often just writers being misinformed), I'm actually delighted to see an error in the opposite direction. Besides, it's Doctor Who. Since when did it need to be accurate about history, science, or anything? (Frankly, the pseudoscience at NASA irritated me more, but that's because I'm an astronomer by training. I know other people won't care, because it made for a good story; that is, inversely, kind of my attitude about the Black soldier.)

While I will grant that Friday manipulated the soldiers, I'm still not ready to dismiss the propagation of the imperialist attitudes. I mean, once they realized there was another people already there and that they were ridiculously outgunned, did they say, "Oops! Our bad! Just show us the way out, and we'll be on our way!"? No. Maybe the Colonel was headed that direction, but he was clearly an outlier. I'm still cranky about it all.

By mrfranklin

You can't be erased from the story if you were never in the story. If The Doctor met a band of Zulu warriors or a tribe of eskimos or some other group of non caucasian people and they were played by white actors there would now be an outcry. So why is it alright to include non white characters where historically only white characters would be? Yeah, there are inaccuracies in Doctor Who, both historical and scientific. But we should try to minimize those, not encourage them. How hard could it have been to just cast a white actor in that role?

For me the bit with NASA wasn't important enough to even remember, let alone be bothered by. The Doctor needed a reason to go to Mars. So he turned up at NASA when they were looking at an impossible image from Mars' surface. Then he left. So much for NASA.

The British soldiers were so far behind in technology to the Ice Warriors that a war between them was laughable. The only ones who didn't recognize this was the soldiers, because British attitude. Since they were absolutely no threat to the Ice Warriors, the proper response should have been for the Ice Warriors to pat them on the head and send them home. Their imperialism wasn't an issue because there was no way they could enforce it. Other cultures they attacked were technologically inferior. When you have rifles and your opponent has spears you are a threat. When you have rifles and your opponent has lasers you aren't. It's that simple.

The second in command guy was not a nice person. He was perfectly content to stab anybody in the back if he saw an advantage for himself. But the fact that he was a creep who would waste his men's lives for some glory only he could perceive didn't make the soldiers any more dangerous to the Ice Warriors.

Let me point out that most of the soldiers were killed while none of the Ice Warriors were hurt.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I think you and I are focusing on two different power differentials here. I'm more focused on real-world racism, while you're focused on the dynamic between fictional factions (as I interpret our conversation).

I did not mean to imply that Black Victorian soldiers were common (there was all of one, as you pointed out), and therefore I was not arguing that they were in danger of being erased from *this* story. The difference with the scenario you suggest by way of comparison is that adding in an additional character from a diverse cultural/racial background is in no way "erasing" the white Brits (especially since they are still there, in vast majority), whereas using white actors for Zulu warriors would remove those marginalized people from the picture.

And that's the crux: adding in one character of a marginalized group does not detract from the agency or sovereignty of the (presumed default) white characters, while replacing characters of marginalized groups with white faces removes them from the narrative entirely. Thus, in the case of this episode I feel like it's a little something extra being added in to provide variety rather than something being taken away to provide a homogeneity deemed more "comfortable" for the (perhaps unconsciously) assumed white/socially empowered audience, in the name of (oft misused) Historical Accuracy. That's why I don't mind it here.

As for NASA, your comments were exactly my point. Practically nobody but me would care about the stupid gobbledygook they used as explanation. It was inaccurate, but served the story. Why not keep that attitude for casting? The actor was great in the role, and it didn't *detract* from the story, so why not shrug and move on? That was the comparison I was trying to make.

Anyway, I think this is probably something the two of us are unlikely ever to agree on. :) Thank you for engaging me with some thoughtful, respectful debate! It's great to be able to discuss two perspectives without things devolving as they so often do online. :)

By mrfranklin

I too enjoy our discussions. Doctor Who, done right, is thought provoking. So I suppose the discussion provoked by this episode means they did SOMETHING right. LOL

The historical accuracy angle detracts from the story for ME. I spent a lot of time during the episode being annoyed by it.

Don't get me wrong. I like diversity in casting. In any present day episode or any episode set in the future or in any location where there was, historically accurately, diversity, I would have loved to see that actor and appreciate his skill. But I object to adding racial diversity just for the sake of being racially diverse when depicting a time/place that was not racially diverse. A regiment of Victorian soldiers was not racially diverse. And even on Mars, interacting with aliens, it bothered me.

If it didn't bother you that's fine. If we were all irritated by the same issues it would be a duller world.

I suppose I don't know enough about the stupid gobbledygook at NASA to be annoyed by it. My take was there was a Mars probe that had some (very) anomalous readings and this motivated The Doctor to go there. I was sort of annoyed that, psychic paper or no psychic paper they seemed to have the run of the place. I presume that even invited guests would have a tour guide to keep them out of secure areas, especially during a situation where they were getting readings from an interplanetary probe. But that's The Doctor for you. Nobody tells him where not to go.

My biggest question is why the TARDIS took off without The Doctor and Bill (I suspect Missy) and what's going to happen between The Doctor and Missy now.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yes! That feels like a Significant Plot Point™, and I hope it doesn't get swept under the rug. I'm kind of holding my virtual breath; I'll be really pissed if they never address it again!

I thought the ladies on the Verity! podcast made some great points on the topic of the Black soldier, too. In particular, I liked Deb's point about Gatiss's choice to write something from this era in the first place. Her take was that it's effectively on Gatiss for deliberately setting a story in a combination of time and institution (Victorian army) in which white women and people of color were not present. If he was more mindful about his setting in the first place, color blind casting would not have presented this kind of problem as a result.

By mrfranklin

The writers are not required to set their stories in a place/time of racial diversity. It's too limiting. In the unlikely event that they write a story set in ancient Egypt or aboriginal Australia or some other setting with no white people (not unlikely because there are no good stories to be told there but logistically for the BBC) should they include, say, Chinese characters to be racially diverse?

If it's a place/time with just white people only cast white people. If it's a place/time with only south sea islanders than just cast south sea islanders. If the story is set in feudal Japan where non Japanese are forbidden to go on pain of death then just cast Japanese actors.

And I wouldn't say no to such stories. That The Doctor only hangs out in England with English people is a little far fetched.

Then again, if a black actor is ever cast as The Doctor maybe he would feel more comfortable hanging our in Kenya or South Africa. That would be an interesting angle.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Writers are absolutely *not* required to set their stories anywhere/when but what they desire—I totally agree. However, if a writer consistently chooses to write one specific time/place that is not diverse, especially knowing that the BBC has this hiring initiative in place such that there will be actors cast who aren't white male Brits, it is a failure of craft and imagination on their part. That is my opinion.

Also, I think the fact that Gatiss chose the military of this time/place amplifies the homogeneous population effect, because there were plenty of people of color in Victorian Britain—just not in the military. So I agree that in a setting like feudal Japan only Japanese actors/actors of Japanese ancestry should be used. In Victorian England... less so.

Also, this is Doctor Who. At this same time, there's a lizard woman from the dawn of time and her wife gadding about London with their potato-headed butler. I mean, if there can be Silurians and Sontarans, why not a spare black dude in the army? It's all fantastical anyway. :)

By mrfranklin

Let me point out that most of the episodes this season so far have taken place on contemporary Earth with lots of racial diversity on display. There was one in the future where there were characters of diverse races and one in the past with racial diversity. This is the first episode of the season where racial diversity wasn't appropriate.

Does diversity have to be shoehorned into EVERY episode? Even where it isn't appropriate?

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I have certainly noticed the racial diversity in (particularly) the background cast all series, and have super appreciated it.

One could just as easily ask whether whiteness had to be shoehorned into EVERY episode, even where it isn't appropriate. :) Since whiteness has been the default in media for so long, we no longer notice it, even when it isn't reflective of what we see in our everyday lives. Thus when non-white faces start appearing in our media, it can feel like overkill.

I think we've already agreed to disagree on this point, though. I wasn't bothered by the historically inaccurate extra character of color, but that discrepancy threw you out of the story. Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks. :)

By mrfranklin

I went into this with low expectations but thoroughly enjoyed it. The tie up at the end to explain where the Ice Warriors and the Galactic Federation fitted together was done well for me.

I do wonder why the current team can get away with casting the original voice actor for Alpha Centauri but JNT got castigated for his continuity references (I'm looking at you Cybercontroller!). Mind you I loved it that they did bring back the original voice.

I hadn't picked up on the Doctor siding with an invader but the only reason I can think that the Doctor acted in the way he did was because he was automatically siding with the underdog. The British soldiers would have been slaughtered unless they got to use the Gargantua against the Ice Warriors.

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

Alpha Centauri was the highlight of the episode for me. :)

I guess I have to give you and Kara the point here that of course the Doctor would side with the underdog, regardless of other factors. I still don't like it :) but it is at least in character. (I just really didn't like him threatening the Ice Warriors with genocide...)

By mrfranklin

I think The Doctor was just trying to get the Queen's attention. She had the upper hand and was about to massacre the soldiers and nothing short of total destruction was likely to make her stop. I don't think The Doctor would have done it.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

You may be right. :)

By mrfranklin

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09.17linpingping

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