First reactions to popular media can tell us a lot about what the work is trying to do, and also, if we can look beyond them, whether it succeeds.
Which is a pretentious way of saying: I liked Empress of Mars. In fact, my first thought after the closing credits was: “That worked!”
This episode is the much-anticipated One With The Ice Warriors. Briefly: when present-day NASA discovers that someone has written “God Save The Queen” on Mars, despite the fact that to their knowledge no human has been there yet, the Doctor and Bill go back to 1888 to investigate. They discover that an Ice Warrior awaking on Earth has persuaded a unit of the British Army – which, in true colonialist style, has called him Friday and made him a kind of pet servant – to travel to Mars in an Ice Warrior rocket, under the pretence that there are unfathomable riches there. In fact, Friday has returned to Mars to wake his Empress from a five-thousand-year sleep. This is, unsurprisingly, bad news for the British Army, who haven’t yet worked out how to get back to Earth, and moreover are disinclined to back down, having claimed Mars for Queen Victoria.
In other words, Empress of Mars is old-school Who, to go with its old-school monsters: a scenario with more than a whiff of the ridiculous about it; an old-fashioned science fantasy mystery; a stand-off in which the Doctor must intercede to avoid violence. It’s neatly plotted, with a finely-adjusted mix of sentimentalism and plausibility. It has characters we can root for, or at least understand, on various sides of the conflict. It works.
We should be cautious, when something works as well as this does; because a lot of narratives that feel like they just work at a fundamental level feel like that because they’re based on familiar, nostalgic narrative structures. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just something we need to be aware of in encountering these texts; because it means that popular media can lie to us quite efficiently, looking superficially benign, neutral, even progressive, when in fact the assumptions of the underlying structure are deeply suspect.
So: Mark Gatiss* has given us an episode that feels very Victorian, ideologically as well as aesthetically and thematically. It’s tempting to make comparisons with Thin Ice, the other historical episode of the season; but Thin Ice did not actually feel very Regency, and was moreover actually aware of the unfairnesses inherent in the class system in a way that Empress of Mars emphatically is not. The emotional meat of Gatiss’ story is the power struggle between commanding officer Colonel Godsacre, a sensible man who nevertheless turns out to have been a deserter, and the technically loyal but hotheaded Captain Catchlove. Godsacre is outed as a deserter, and Catchlove takes control; it surprises no-one that Godsacre turns out to save the day.
It’s a predictable story, but then most Doctor Who episodes are when it comes down to it. What’s interesting about Empress of Mars is the way that it makes Doctor Who – a show that’s usually deeply mistrustful of traditional authority, especially military authority – co-opt the colonialist military values of the late Victorian period. The superior officer turns out to be morally superior, while the lower ranks are busy endangering the unit by trying to steal gems from the Ice Queen’s hive: officers are intrinsically worthy of command, soldiers intrinsically need to be commanded. Moreover, the episode is pointedly silent on the issue of Godsacre’s previous desertion, and in fact rewards him for symbolically undoing it – offering his life to the Ice Queen for the sake of his men in a gesture which turns out to be the key to the whole situation. By its silence, the episode supports the Victorian concept of desertion as a capital crime – a concept unquestioned even by Bill, who has developed over the course of this season into the progressive voice of the twenty-first century. Note: we have no details of exactly what Godsacre did. Did his troops die for his cowardice? Presumably the episode would have mentioned it if he had. And yet we’re supposed to make a moral judgement of him based only on the label “deserter” – a moral judgement that’s specifically Victorian.
I don’t think this necessarily has to spoil the episode for us. It is, after all, a non-trivial achievement to write something that so thoroughly enacts the mores of the time period it’s about; and it is a very well-structured episode of Doctor Who. But this season in particular seems to be feeling its way towards a more progressive vision for the show than I think we’ve seen yet in Moffat’s run, and I think it’s worth looking closely at where that works well, and where that throws up structural inconsistencies.
Next week: more historical high jinks, in what looks like Roman Britain. Hurrah!
*I just looked up the writer of the episode, and it surprises me that it’s Gatiss; his episodes are usually not so…coherent.