Doctor Who: Torpid Adventure Reveals Descent into Stagnation
I think it’s pretty telling about the season as a whole when an episode like Empress of Mars, this week’s outing, is one of the best of the series.
Which is not to say that this is a terrible episode or anything. In fact, in some ways, it was a lot of goofy fun; following the Doctor and Bill as they wound up chilling with a bunch of Victorian British soldiers who’d been stranded on Mars after hitching a lift with a stray Ice Warrior (Mark Gatiss, who wrote this episode, seems determined to make them A Thing again – he also wrote season seven’s Cold War). For the first time in a while, the episode actually attempted to give some side characters some real, uh, character – from the relative nuance and grim humour of an officer hiding a desrter’s past to the dull simplicity of A Guy who had A Fiancee and thus Was Sympathetic, there was an attempt to make people feel less completely disposable, which was cool. The setting, all circular corridors and techno-meets-Victorian aesthetic, I also liked and felt traditionally Gatissian (I’m coining it, get on board). And while I don’t particularly care for them, lots of people like the Ice Warriors so bully for that audience share, I guess?
Peter Capaldi seemed to make a return to form this episode, thank God, and I continue to desperately want more from Bill – not from Pearl Mackie, who I still really enjoy, but just from the character. And I’m not talking about the mawkishly big moments like her one last week – I mean the little ones, like her speech about compassion in Thin Ice or her goodbye to her crush in The Pilot. I don’t need enormous moments to make her a good character, I need little ones that fill in the lines of her as a person. I have this doomed feeling Bill will be gone after this season, and that’s a shame because I don’t think the four more episodes we’ve got are enough to make her into the great character she could well be. There was a moment in Empress of Mars where one of the soldiers made a snide comment about the thought of her being a police officer, and she stormed towards him and it looked like she was going to get a chance to chew him out and reveal a little more about herself and where she saw her place in the world, but the episode tilted towards his story instead and it was forgotten.
Ah, I’m trying to find stuff to like about this episode, because it was certainly an improvement on the last couple of weeks of real, relentless pish, but it wasn’t like Empress of Mars was a real break from the mediocrity of this season. If it had come before the Extremis three–parter, I’d have written it off as an extension of the meh-ness the season up until that point; coming afterwards, it feels initially like a relief of averageness and then edges towards “this plate of 6/10 nachos I made for dinner are substantially more interesting than this episode is”.
Yes, I like Doctor Who when it leans into the crappy B-movie thing, but it needs to back it up with a a plot that’s interesting beyond the premise – past the VICTORIANS…ON MARS! basis, the episode struggled to come up with anything super-interesting as the Doctor darted about between sides trying to stop the conflict while the Ice Warriors shot at people with Final Destination 5 guns (don’t watch that clip, but also do. NB: gory). The special effects were almost pointedly awful, as though it was attempting to make up for the lack of swashbuckling fun with wobbly production values, as if that’s what makes B-movies so entertaining. I assume Murray Gold has locked himself, an orchestra, and a bucket full of Adderall in the music production suite, because his score continues to bellow cheerily and irritatingly over every bloody plot point and force me to realize that I’ve never actually hated a composer before this. There were a few period-accurate details tossed in (songs, slang) that felt more pointed than a sincere attempt at providing the world with some depth, and the thread-tying at the end was just a way to round out the story and deliver some form of satisfying ending without having to provide a real emotional arc with a logical climax. The Ice Warriors plot ended with the Ice Empress patting the disgraced captain on the head and going “nah, you’re alright I guess”, and the episode finished up with Missy kicking about the Tardis and not even getting to deliver one deadly one-liner that made me spit out my tea.
So, yeah, more bad than good – but more good than the last few weeks, and that’s something. But this show is swiftly stagnating, with even the better episodes of the season average at best. The finest outing this season was Extremis, and that was…not great, honestly. I thought last season was the worst the show had gotten, but at least there were a few decent episodes, ones that raised above a thorough “meh”. We’re two-thirds into this series, and I just can’t figure out how this took an extra six months to produce it. It’s utterly, utterly nothing – no great stories, no truly interesting ideas, no fantastically memorable moments. I’m not sure what it would take for the show to turn itself around (John Simm’s Master, perhaps, and he is on his way), but I feel like every week I’m ending on the same sentiment: even if a new showrunner and new vision can bring Doctor Who back to form, Chris Chibnall is going to be coming from a difficult place when he steps in. Because I’m struggling to find reasons to keep coming back to this show.
Also, thought I wouldn’t notice you sneaking back on to the dread Kill the Moon sets to shoot this episode? I’ll have you yet, Moffat.
If you like these reviews and would like to see more stuff like this, please consider supporting me on Patreon!