Let’s play The Doctor Who Writers’ Game! Write down 6 classic Who villains, 6 planets, 6 themes that are all highly relevant to The Real World, and 6 eras from history. Choose one of each by rolling a dice. Sprinkle liberally with meta sci-fi, Classic Who and New Who references. For special occasions, add a glimpse of Missy. And voilà, you have a pitch for a high-concept episode.
I’m not saying that’s exactly what’s happened here, but Mark Gatiss threw a lot at this episode. There were nods galore to the wider Whoniverse, complete with a knowing, meta tone throughout. I think a lot of Classic Who viewers were excited to see Alpha Centauri pop up over intergalactic FaceTime (SpaceTime? Maybe?) towards the end. My favourite little touch for New Who fans was the portrait of the show’s version of Queen Victoria, as played by Pauline Collins in ‘Tooth and Claw’.
It’s tough to balance nods to the past with originality, and that was one of my issues with the episode, to be honest. For all the bonkers combinations in the concept, hasn’t the theme of this episode been done already? Even this year, we’ve had Regency Capitalism in ‘Thin Ice’, Future Space Colonialism in ‘Smile’, and now Victorian Colonialism on Mars. WE GET IT! Humans = bad. Rich, white, British, male humans, to be precise. Or, to use the words of Iraxxa, “Pink Things.” Beware the Pink Things.
But on with the show. In an opening riffing hard on ‘Hello Sweetie’, the gang leave NASA and their Valkyrie project to investigate how ‘God Save The Queen’ came to be spelled out in rocks on Mars. The TARDIS is fine with taking them there, but then has a wiggins for some reason, leaving the Doctor and Bill to have a cuppa on Mars with British army officers from 1881. As you do. If that wasn’t weird enough, they are keeping an Ice Warrior as a servant. (Totally different to that time when Winston Churchill kept Daleks as servants, of course.) And, because they are pompous and colonial and stuff, they give him a racist nickname. Meanwhile, Jackdaw fails to live up to his name and instead acts like a magpie, going after the shiny jewels in a Martian version of Tutankhamun’s tomb. That never goes well.
Our Man Friday serves the humans and bides his time, before turning on his ‘saviours’ and declaring his ongoing loyalty to Queen Iraxxa, who has woken up from the Ultimate Nap and yet is still a bit on the crabby side. Before you know it, there’s a standoff between the natives and the Brits, who have well and truly stuck their flag in Mars and won’t go without a fight. There’s an awful lot of mustachioed ‘tally ho, chaps’ accents, and clearly, Gatiss is having a lot of fun. Jackdaw’s not the only amusing name; my favourite one was Catchlove, which sounds like a euphemism for an STI. (The first time I heard it, I thought it was ‘Ketchup’ though, which undermined his pomposity even more.)
As it was a special occasion, we got to see some more of Missy, this time (allegedly) helping out, and (allegedly) happy to go back to the vault once they get safely back to Earth. She’s already told us that she could get out of the vault if she wanted to; was the TARDIS playing up because she’d rigged it? Or was she genuinely trying to help? In an episode with some feminist bonding between Iraxxa and Bill, Missy’s presence upped the girl power stakes even further. Their power comes from their status and their weaponry (Iraxxa), their intelligence (Missy) and their compassion (Bill), and this was something that got the thumbs up from me. However, Missy was promised early on and didn’t show up again until the end. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who spent the whole episode waiting for Missy to charge in and save the day, right?
Alas, there wasn’t much Missy, but there was a power battle, a rumination on the nature of war, and some moral wrangling over honour and duty. It was all very clever and moral and everything, but it was also rather smug. Was the tone of this a bit too knowing for its own good? When Godsacre tried to be all heartfelt and sacrificial, and Iraxxa pardoned him and adopted him as a token human in her army of Ice Warriors, I think I was meant to be moved. And I wasn’t. (To put that into context, I cry at Christmas adverts.) I’ve seen some other reviews from people who seemed to enjoy it a lot more than me, but they were mainly listing all of the references to Who past and present. I think an episode has to do a bit more than that. It has to stand on its own merit too. It has to work as drama in its own right, not just be a postmodern intertextual festival of smugness. Maybe I’m being too harsh, in which case, tell me what you loved about it in the comments!
Next week: ‘The Eaters of Light’ tackles the infamous disappearance of the Ninth Legion in Roman Britain.