Series 10- The Empress of Mars & The Eaters of Light

The Empress of Mars reviewed by John Connors.

Funny how things turn out. There we were getting excited about the return of the Ice Warriors when what Mark Gatiss’ lively episode does even better is the return of the supporting characters. It’s been a while. One of the aspects of the Steven Moffat era has been relatively brief appearances by cast members outside of the regular or returning cast. Once in a while someone pops up who gets more to do- David Suchet being a recent example- but generally those additional characters are just there to flesh out the plot. Delightfully in this episode Gatiss gives at least five of the guest cast significant chunks of material so that you feel as if you know them a bit. Makes a welcome change.
Naturally the Ice Warriors are great. Shot here to further accentuate their size, these green armoured behemoths were my favourite Doctor Who aliens as a child- and this was when we got lots of globby aliens – so it’s fantastic to see them back and in numbers of more than two. Enjoyable though it was I never quite came to terms with `Cold War`s’ depiction of the unclad Ice Warrior as a Xenomorph- like tube scrambler; I kept imagining Ssorg or Sskel doing this and spending an hour getting out of their armour! Thankfully this behaviour has been quietly dropped. None of this episode’s Ice Warriors remove anything instead displaying a trick much more in keeping with their bulk as they push up through the red sand. That I can imagine Sskel doing!

 The other innovation was the Empress Iraxxa, played with appropriate relish by Irene Lynch whose cry of “Rise my Ice Warriors, Rise!” will no doubt become a convention bar favourite for those fans who love to repeat lines from the series. The idea of the lone Ice Warrior whose discovery on Earth brought the Victorians to Mars (yes we were all wondering how that happened) becoming a servant does seem similar to those tea serving Daleks and even Staxx but plays out differently.

The initial information about this episode suggested Edgar Rice Burroughs with its bold Martians vs Victorians concept and some of this has remained. The Victorians’ huge digging machine (Vega Nexos would love one of them!) built with Ice Warrior help and their insistence on a table cloth on a wooden table on Mars is just perfect. Yet Gatiss eschews a full on fantasy romp instead going for more of a Zulu approach as we see the situation from different viewpoints.

Anthony Calf’s Godsacre who is revealed as a coward who’d escaped execution is particularly effective drawing on the actor’s usual type then taking it elsewhere unexpectedly. Ferdinand Kingsley’s Catchlove is no less a bloodthirsty leader than Iraxxa but lacks her cunning and acts out of self- preservation proving in the end to be more of a coward than Godsacre. Jackdaw played by Ian Beattie is a sneakier operator, out for what he can get and I was surprised (in a good way) that he is despatched so early. As for Bayo Gbadamosi’s Vincey, wasn’t he just the one person you thought would survive till the end and Gatiss kills him. How could you?

I’m amazed reviewers have been critical of these characters but it may be because they’re not used to this amount of material being given over to others apart from the Doctor and co in recent series. I personally would like to see more of this sort of thing because we will remember these people and it adds to the depth of the episode. What I also liked was the way Iraxxa and Bill have a sort of connection amidst the “noisy males” and how Bill and Friday became best mates. Throughout the episode did a great job in developing the scenario given the obvious limitations. I suppose we would like to have seen the whole Ice Warrior hive awaken but maybe someone will be able to do that one day.

A word about that rather shocking development of the Ice Warrior weapon. I loved the old distorted mirror reflection effect they used back in the day and it’s great that this new look references that but goes further and leaves each victim as something like an inflatable! I suppose it's easier to tidy up at the end of a long battle! And for a tiny percentage of the audience (ie us fans) there was Alpha Centauri on tv in 2017!! It’s the most unexpected revival since the Macra showed up in `Gridlock` but even better (the now 92 year old) Yssane Churchman is back, Back, BACK to do the voice.

Of course I’m aware that people who are not uber fans may not have got quite the same level of excitement from this episode as we did. Seeing more than two Ice Warriors, those new guns, a Martian Empress, Alpha Centauri- these are things we love and there was even the “rank has its privileges” phrase heard in `Day of the Daleks`. Yet I feel the episode is still a tremendous amount of fun even if you don’t get the significance of these references. Sometimes you wonder if Gatiss is deliberately echoing the actual structure of classic stories by putting the Doctor and Bill in a cell and writing those supporting characters.

Visually the oranges and reds plus the big old drilling machine and the appeal of the green “upright crocodiles” against the Victorian uniforms really added much to the production. The detail was impressive especially in those wonderful steampunk spacesuits the Victorians had. This careful approach also spilled into the script which even included a real 19th century song and lots of genuine expressions like “my old love” and “right as ninepence”. Oh and there was an Ice Warrior collecting crockery and though we didn’t see it I suspect he does the dishes.

`Empress of Mars` is a delight, packed with incident and re-establishing the Ice Warriors as a more interesting antagonist than the better known Daleks or Cybermen. Let’s hope this is not – as he has hinted it could be – Mark Gatiss’ last episode because Doctor Who needs his rich, spirited stories.

The Eaters of Light reviewed by Sean Alexander.

“Time to grow up…Time to fight your fight.”

Irrespective of the wide range of screen, stage and TV credits that have subsequently been added to her name (most with great acclaim), for Doctor Who fans the name Rona Munro will always mean one thing: the last Doctor Who story for seven years, and the final episode of a Doctor Who series for sixteen.  ‘Survival’ came at the end of what, for many, signalled a continuing rise in the show’s creativity and freshness first instigated by script editor Andrew Cartmel on his arrival in 1987.  But for mainstream viewers – and more importantly, BBC executives Jonathan Powell and Peter Cregeen – the die was already cast.  By the time Cartmel would pen a hurriedly written coda to Munro’s story, Doctor Who’s fate as an ongoing BBC production was sealed.  And it would be a long time before any smoke-filled people or song-blessed cities would go out under its banner again.

Fast track almost thirty years and Rona Munro becomes the first writer to be credited on Who both old and new.  Quite why it’s taken twelve years (and ten series) of the revived show to cherry-pick one if its authors from the past is perhaps a story yet to be told.  But the chances of it being Munro who got the call must have been pretty strong from the moment she last put words in the mouths of the show’s icons.  Since then Munro has built a career as diverse as it is revered, ranging from down’n’dirty Ken Loach social commentary to World War II period piece.  Her name had clearly been on the minds of modern Doctor Who’s two showrunners, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, as readers of Doctor Who Magazine may recall a particularly gushing ‘Production Notes’ of a decade or so ago.  Given modern Who’s penchant for social relevance and a more character-led storytelling dynamic, it’s only a surprise that this most selective and particular of modern dramatists didn’t received the summons back even earlier.

Which brings us to ‘The Eaters of Light’, and while it’s tempting to think this may have been Munro’s original follow-up to ‘Survival’ had the powers that Beeb not removed the show forthwith in the dying weeks of the 1980s, ‘The Eaters of Light’ is a very different beast.  Principally it’s one of modern Who’s closest attempts to a traditional ‘historical’ last seen in the (appropriately also Scottish-set) ‘The Highlanders’ way back at the start of Patrick Troughton’s tenure.  Yes, the so-called ‘celebrity historical’ has been an almost annual staple of the show since its rebirth in 2005, but here there’s a singular lack of any celebrity; instead cherishing the ordinary men and women (actually barely more than boys and girls) who fought, died and mysteriously disappeared on what was later to become Aberdeen in second-century AD.

The Lost Legion of the Ninth may well be a history lesson that many of us were spared in our comprehensive schooling, but it’s clearly one close to Munro’s heart and heritage.  The pillaging and plundering of the neo-Celtic Pict tribes by the Roman Army predates the similarly empiric colonising of Scotland’s lands by the English some twelve centuries later.  But Munro’s script injects an added degree of pathos by depicting its antagonists as barely old enough to shave or have babies (the surviving Roman soldier left alive after the Pict slaughter of his troupe is dubbed ‘Grandad’ by his remaining men, despite being only eighteen).  Indeed ‘The Eaters of Light’ forces home the subtext that this was a time (and not for the last) when child leaders would be required to step up to the plate and take command.  With barbarians of a very different sort now at the gate, the Doctor’s gentle ribbing of Pict leader Kar will of course result in her making the Big Decision of standing tall and proud when push comes to shove.  It’s just a shame that, only a week after a group of Victorian soldiers had called truce with some Martian warriors, that again we have a resolving scenario where disparate and warring clans come together for the greater good.  Still, Andrew Cartmel’s own stewardship of Doctor Who back in the 80s wasn’t shy of reusing plot devices and resolutions from a story or two hence, and with Munro once again on scripting duties it seems this is very much a case of plus ca change

Where ‘The Eaters of Light’ suffers is twofold: first, are we really meant to accept that a relative handful of mere mortals can keep back these ‘light-eating locusts’ for all eternity, especially when the Doctor himself has pointed out how brief and transient each of their sacrifices will be?  Oh well, I guess it’s the thought – not to mention the sentiment - that counts.  Secondly, these events are all wrapped up just a little too quickly (and conveniently) for this viewer.  Was something lost in the edit, especially given the post-coda scenes of Missy and team TARDIS essentially riffing on the now familiar theme of the former Master’s moral retribution?  If so it’s something of a shame that one of this country’s finest playwrights – and notable Doctor Who fans – was left short-changed just to squeeze in Michelle Gomez’s now weekly cameo before the inevitable grandstanding to come in the two-part finale.

Still, with Rona Munro’s name now twice on the show’s credits, albeit some twenty-eight years apart, it’s to be hoped that this isn’t the last we’ve heard from her and her uniquely Celtic voice.  Doctor Who is still sorely deprived of female writers; perhaps this season and seasons to come will go some way toward arresting that oversight.

No comments:

Post a Comment