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Recap / Doctor Who S36 E9 "Empress of Mars"

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"You don't stand a chance against the Ice Warriors."
"It's a simple choice, Iraxxa. The oldest one in the book. We must live together. Or die together."
The Doctor
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The one where the definition of Ice Warrior expanded to Ice Warrioress.

Written by Mark Gatiss.

The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole travel to NASA to watch as a new probe manages to reveal the landscape that lies beneath the polar ice of Mars... and everyone is gobsmacked to discover the phrase "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN" written in stones there. As if that weren't surprising enough, the Doctor soon realizes that the message was actually written circa 1881 and off the trio goes to Mars to find out why.

When Bill falls down a crevasse, Nardole goes to the TARDIS to fetch rope only for the blue box to travel back to St. Luke's University. The Doctor and Bill, now stranded, soon discover a troop of British soldiers who have an Ice Warrior nicknamed Friday as their servant. His ship crashed to Earth and these soldiers struck a bargain to help repair his ship in exchange for a journey to the Red Planet to mine and claim its precious riches... and perhaps the planet and its people for Queen Victoria and The British Empire, as well. But greed and treachery among the ranks lead to a sleeping Ice Queen, Iraxxa, being awakened to ugly news: she and her entire hive have overslept, the surface world they once ruled has long been rendered a dead empire by the tides of time, and they have seemingly been invaded by the people of Earth. The Doctor and Bill have to find a way to bring these two not so dissimilar warrior races to an understanding before it's too late.

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Tropes:

  • Alien Invasion: Just coming off of Earth being temporarily conquered by the Monks in The Present Day in the preceding three-parter, the Doctor and company find Earthlings trying to conquer Mars. This proves to be more complex than it first appears, however, as they were tricked into coming to Mars under the pretence of being granted a massive fortune by the grateful Friday. Further complicating things, Catchlove is of the opinion that they have conquered Mars and that it belongs to the British Empire.
  • Arm Cannon: One assumes it's the same kind of sonic gun used to kill Arcturus in "Curse of Peladon". The results are even messier thanks to CGI.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Mars has Earthlike gravity, even though it should be a third of standard.
  • Asshole Victim: Catchlove got his much-deserved comeuppance when he was shot and killed by Godsacre for mutiny, who is a much worthier leader than he ever could have been.
  • Bait-and-Switch
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    • Godsacre looks like he's going to shoot the Ice Warrior confronting the Doctor. Turns out the one he's pointing his rifle at is the Doctor, and the Ice Warrior is his Man Friday.
    • Bill is confronted by what appears to be a multi-eyed creature in a spacesuit. Who then takes off his helmet to reveal a handsome English officer.
    • As Ice Warriors massacre those outside, another claws through the ground into the cell, but it turns out to be Friday asking for their help.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment:
    • After being shot in the head by a soldier while the Doctor pleads for mercy for them, Iraxxa declares she will grant mercy... by killing them quickly. Later in the episode, she does this again by saying that Godsacre will die with bravery and honor, which makes it sound like she's praising him just before executing him. Then she finishes with "but not today". She actually wants to recruit him into her own military.
    • When Bill and the Doctor claim to be Space Police, Godsacre bursts out laughing at the idea... that a woman is a police officer.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Averted; he doesn't even die second, thanks to Friday interrupting just as his queen is about to shoot Vincey. He does, however, die later on.
  • BFG: The Gargantua.
  • Blatant Lies:
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The Doctor points out how the Ice Warriors' standards of morality are vastly different to human ones, stating that they could slaughter thousands of people, but cry over the death of a flower. Overall they value honour, bravery, military prowess and loyalty. At the same time they see nothing wrong with slaughtering a defenceless opponent and resorting to sneaky tactics even when they have the upper hand. Bill compares this to the Vikings, using the 1958 film as a reference, and he acknowledges it as a good comparison.
  • Body Horror: The Ice Warrior weapons crunch whomever they hit into a ball.
  • Breather Episode: Aside from making incremental process in the Vault arc, this rather whimsical story and the similarly-plotted (if darker) "The Eaters of Light" serve as a break between the intense Monks Trilogy and one of the grimmer Who Season Finales.
  • Bullet Dancing: One of the Victorian soldiers fires a shot at the Doctor's feet, causing him to jump from Friday.
  • Call-Back: For the second episode in a row, Missy's help is needed by the heroes — this time to get the TARDIS back to Mars after it mysteriously returns to St. Luke's with only Nardole inside — and she obliges without expecting anything in return this time. Is this a sign of her getting ready to make a Heel–Face Turn, or is she faking it?
  • The Cameo: Alpha Centauri shows up towards the end, as the second species (after humanity) to make contact with the resurrected Ice Warriors. It even has its original voice actress, Ysanne Churchman, doing a Role Reprisal; at 92, she is now the oldest performer to have played a part in the revival of Doctor Who.
  • Character Development: Despite hating soldiers and saluting, the Doctor uses the Ice Warrior salute, and is reluctantly ready to admit he's a warrior as well.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The alien who bids the Ice Warriors "Welcome to the Universe" at the end is one of the hermaphrodite hexapods of Alpha Centauri seen in "The Curse of Peladon" and "The Monster of Peladon", two stories set in a future where Earth, the Ice Warriors, and Alpha Centauri are part of The Federation together.
    • The picture of Queen Victoria shows her as portrayed by Pauline Collins in "Tooth and Claw".
    • As shown several times during the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors' tenure, the sonic screwdriver doesn't work on wood.
    • The last time the TARDIS dematerialised and stranded the Doctor and his companion was in "Cold War" — another Ice Warriors story written by Mark Gatiss. In that case, this was because the HADS system had activated; in this case, no explanation is given.
      • In addition, mention is made of a war that happened 5,000 years ago, likely the same one that Skaldak was fighting in before he got frozen.
    • In the opening scene of "Robot of Sherwood", the Twelfth Doctor suggested that he and Clara visit "the Ice Warrior hives" on Mars rather than seek out Robin Hood as she wanted. He gets to visit Mars and the hives at last here. (Mark Gatiss wrote both episodes.)
    • This is the second Twelfth Doctor story in which he is tasked with stopping a war between humanity and a Classic Series alien race after "The Zygon Invasion"/"The Zygon Inversion". In addition, the leader of the aliens is female in both stories (Bonnie the Zygon then, Queen Iraxxa here).
    • While reviving the Ice Warriors, Iraxxa tells them to "sleep no more", likely a reference to writer Mark Gatiss's previous story for the show.
    • The Doctor's lack of familiarity with Earth's science-fiction classics has come up before in Twelve's run, specifically this joke from "Last Christmas": "There's a horror movie called Alien? That's really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you." The Doctor is, on the other hand, familiar with animated Disney musicals.
    • Bill once again compares their role to that of the police, as she did in "Smile".
    • The Doctor still doesn't like being reminded that he's a warrior, though he now admits they're Not So Different.
    • The Doctor tries to keep the peace between human soldiers and an ancient reptilian race. At least it works out better than the last time.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: When some Victorian soldiers get shot by the Ice Warriors' wrist weapons, they are compressed and folded into themselves.
  • Cute Monster Girl: Averted with the titular Iraxxa, the first female Ice Warrior depicted in the franchise. She is recognizable as the female of her species in terms of her body shape, but that's about all; she is no less mighty and fearsome than the men.
  • Death by Materialism: Jackdaw's attempt to rob the empress' "tomb" woke her up and got him instantly killed.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The battalion of Victorian soldiers and their dedication to expanding the Empire is not portrayed even remotely positively. Lampshaded by Bill when she calls herself and the Doctor the Space Police and Godsacre laughs at the idea of a female police officer; she says she'll forgive his Victorian attitude because he actually is Victorian.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: For reasons that go unexplained, the TARDIS takes herself and Nardole back to Earth when he's sent to retrieve climbing gear, and while previous appearances confirmed that he can pilot the TARDIS in the Doctor's absence, this time he cannot. This forces the Doctor to solve the local problem while Nardole has to enlist Missy's aid to get back.
  • Dirty Coward: Catchlove. The moment it becomes clear that they can't fight the Ice Warriors, he abandons the others. He thus forms a nice foil to Colonel Godsacre, who starts as the Lovable Coward and grows into The So-Called Coward.
  • Driving Question: How did the phrase "God save the Queen" appear scratched into the surface of Mars, as revealed by a NASA photograph in The Present Day that the Doctor and his friends learn of? And from there, how did explorers of the 19th century make it to the Red Planet?
  • Eye Motifs: The stranded Ice Warrior lost an eye, which Bill realizes too late when she's discussing The Vikings with the Doctor. The soldiers also attempt to justify attacking Iraxxa with "an eye for an eye" after she slays one of their men.
  • Failed Attempt at Drama:
    • The countdown at NASA headquarters is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of our heroes.
    • The Doctor declares that he'll take the risk of removing his helmet first, only to find that Nardole has already done so.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Played remarkably straight with Vincey showing off a photograph of his girlfriend and talking about his plans to marry her, shortly before Catchlove throws him under the bus.
  • A Father to His Men: In the end, Godsacre is ready to let Iraxxa kill him, if she will let his surviving men live. This is what convinces her to spare them.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Neville Catchlove is ultimately the most evil person on either side of the brewing Martian-Earthling conflict.
  • Fold Spindle Mutilation: In a hole-free variant, the Ice Warriors' weapons cause their targets' bodies to collapse upon themselves into suitcase-sized bundles of crushed flesh and clothes.
  • Genre Blind: Taken Up to Eleven with Vincey, though at least he has the excuse of never having seen a horror movie. First, he talks about how their current adventures are something to tell their children; then, talks of how he's going to marry his loved one as soon as he gets back; then shows Sergeant Peach her photograph, before talking of the green fields of England and how he never wants to see red again. Being cubified will solve that problem, son.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Subverted with Queen Iraxxa, who is menacing and not above killing her enemies, but has the same sense of honor and duty as any other Ice Warrior. Moreover, she is trying to protect her people from hostile Earthlings. In the end, the message left on the surface of Mars really refers to her rather than Queen Victoria!
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Neither the Ice Warriors nor the humans are portrayed as unambiguously good. The humans are mostly decent people, who are only on Mars because they were lied to about vast riches which they would be given by the grateful Friday. However, they are still invading the Ice Warriors' home and trying to claim Mars for the British Empire. The Ice Warriors, meanwhile, are technically defending what is theirs, but they are perfectly happy to massacre the humans even when it's clear they don't stand a chance of fighting back. The resolution of the plot involves members of both sides agreeing to make peace.
  • The High Queen: Iraxxa, the Queen Empress of Mars. While ruthless and arrogant, she does want what's best for her people, and is clearly very popular with her fellow Ice Warriors, having hundreds of unquestioning followers.
  • History Repeats: Once again, the Ice Warriors get medieval on humans because somebody had an itchy trigger finger. This is probably one of the reasons the Doctor hates soldiers so much — they shoot first and ask questions never by nature. This makes them an often guaranteed bollock to his attempts at pacifism.
  • Honor Before Reason: One of the reasons Iraxxa is so quick to want to kill the humans is because they made one of her warriors their servant, even declaring "Ice Warriors do not serve". This is despite the fact that, as Friday points out, it was a necessary arrangement to free her, and overall he himself doesn't seem to care.
  • Hostage Situation: Captain Catchlove manages to pull a sword on Iraxxa and tries to use her to get the ship repaired while leaving everyone else behind. Godsacre cuts off his escape in the elevator and shoots him, earning her respect.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played With. The true antagonist of the episode, and clearly worst person on either side, is the very much human Catchlove. However, all the other humans are portrayed sympathetically and even heroically. Likewise, while the Ice Warriors are defending their home, the Doctor outright points out that they are perfectly happy to slaughter the humans even though they know they don't stand a chance of fighting back. Iraxxa herself comes across as quite stubborn, ruthless and arrogant, but she is nevertheless only interested in doing what she believes is best for her people. She's also impressed by the Ice Warrior values she sees in Godsacre (bravery, duty, loyalty).
  • Human Shield: Catchlove uses poor Vincey as one to protect himself from the Ice Warriors' cubifier.
  • Hypocrite: After Catchlove outs Colonel Godsacre as a deserter and coward, he runs just like the colonel.
  • Immune to Bullets: Ice Warrior armor is immune to Victorian-era rifles. Their skin presumably isn't, but the soldiers aren't terribly good shots.
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: Catchlove rips opens the colonel's uniform to expose his hanging scar; Godsacre is then divested of his weapons and thrown in the brig.
  • I Owe You My Life:
    • While Friday was mostly playing servant to the humans as part of his plan to find and free Iraxxa, he overall shows no ill will towards them, and defends them to his queen when she brings this up, pointing out they saved his life. He even defies her orders at the end and helps the Doctor create a peaceful solution between the races. We've already seen how much a blood debt means to an Ice Warrior.
    • While not outright stated, it's clear that Colonel Godsacre saving Iraxxa from Captain Catchlove plays a large part in her deciding to call off the war with the humans.
  • Ironic Echo: "This could have been a fresh start for all of us." The first time it's a general comment on how the expedition to Mars hasn't paid off the way they'd hoped. The second time it's Godsacre specifically speaking a eulogy for his hope of escaping his past.
  • It's Quiet... Too Quiet: Just before the Ice Warriors attack, the Doctor remarks that things are quiet, then immediately lampshades it by adding that tradition requires him to add "too quiet".
  • Jerkass: Catchlove is a blustering, incompetent, power hungry, opportunistic coward.
  • Lady Land: It is implied that the Ice Warriors, or at least this particular hive, are a matriarchy. They are ruled by a solo queen, who seeks and values Bill's opinion solely because she is the only other female in a room of "noisy males".
  • The Man They Couldn't Hang: Godsacre was hanged for desertion in the face of the enemy; he survived, but his neck bears the scar.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Captain Catchlove is so sure of his ability to defeat the Ice Warriors that he mutinies against the colonel, but runs as soon as the battle begins.
  • Moral Dilemma: The Doctor outright lampshades that while the humans are technically invading, the Ice Warriors' technology is so much more advanced that if it comes to arms, they will be slaughtered by the native Martians. If he helps the humans they will steal the planet from the Ice Warriors, but if he doesn't the Ice Warriors will massacre them.
  • Motifs: Series 10-specific:
    • "Villains" who aren't actually evil: The Ice Warriors are menacing and have been antagonists in their other appearances, but in this episode their world is the one unjustly "invaded" by humans.
    • Exploitation: The Victorian exploration party has an Ice Warrior as their servant and wants to conquer the planet for the glory of the British Empire and personal enrichment.
    • Imprisonment/Release: The Ice Warriors are awakened from their too-long slumber and emerge from their cells. Nardole is forced to let Missy out of the Vault so she can pilot the TARDIS back to Mars to rescue the Doctor and Bill. At the end, the Doctor says he will have to return her to the Vault, and surprisingly she doesn't protest.
    • Promises: The Doctor tells Missy that her leaving the Vault, even to help Nardole rescue him and Bill, violates an unspoken agreement they made. She does not protest when he tells her she will have to return to it.
    • Hidden threats: Jackdaw tries prying away gems from what appears to be an Ice Queen's tomb...but that's the real Queen lying atop it, not an effigy of same.
  • My Greatest Failure: Godsacre is so ashamed of deserting his post that he sees a Heroic Sacrifice to save his subordinates (in the form of an execution no less) as My Greatest Second Chance. When Iraxxa says how brave and honorable this death is, he looks relieved and happy (and also scared but he's managing that better than last time).
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Following Catchlove exposing the Colonel's cowardliness and taking over the platoon, the Sergeant Major and the other soldiers reluctantly follow his orders. The Sergeant Major even discusses with Vincey that he quite liked the Colonel, but as soldiers they have to follow whoever is in charge.
  • Mythology Gag: "What, all two of them?" is likely a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Economy Cast of several underfunded episodes of the Classic Who era.
  • Noble Bigot: Colonel Godsacre is very much a Victorian man. He openly laughs at the idea of a female police officer, and is perfectly happy to claim Mars in the name of the British Empire, and steal its treasures. However, he is presented as a decent, kind and honourable gentleman, who never once makes a comment about Bill's skin, and implied he was only willing to take the treasure because he believed Mars was dead so it wouldn't hurt anyone. He's also perfectly happy to serve a non-human queen.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Colonel Godsacre is an honourable, courteous and polite man, who strives for a peaceful solution and is very protective of his men. Captain Catchlove tries to present himself as the same, but he's truthfully a greedy, disloyal, imperialistic jerkass.
  • Once-Green Mars: The Ice Warriors are survivors in suspended animation from a time when Mars had life and an atmosphere.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Friday's real name is not revealed. Iraxxa, though she recognizes him, addresses him as "my sentinel" instead of by name.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The Doctor is distressed upon realizing that Missy, upon being let out of the Vault by Nardole to help him get the TARDIS back to Mars to pick up his friends, is not only in his TARDIS but is actually behaving. On top of that, she seems legitimately concerned for his well-being.
  • Percussive Maintenance: The Doctor, towards the end of the episode, attempts to send out a distress signal, and the screen starts going hazy. He whaps it alongside the monitor, and then casually leans on the console to pretend it was his intention for it to go as smoothly as intended.
  • Pitiful Worms: On seeing her first human the queen asks, "What manner of fleshy worm are you?"
  • Politically Correct History: Mark Gatiss was concerned that it was unrealistic to show a black soldier serving in Queen Victoria's army, until he found a single documented case (who even married a white woman, as Vincey's Fatal Family Photo shows he is going to do).
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The point at which Catchlove goes from deeply unlikable to completely irredeemable is marked by him getting Token Minority Vincey killed as a distraction for his own escape.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure:
    • Throughout the episode, the Doctor shocks Bill with his lack of film knowledge.
    • For her part, Bill doesn't recognize the name Robinson Crusoe.
  • Prequel: Details how the Ice Warriors ended up a part of the Galactic Federation — complete with another appearance by Alpha Centauri!
  • Prevent the War: The Doctor and Bill are attempting to stop conflict between the native Ice Warriors and the technically-invading Imperial British soldiers.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Godsacre, who has already survived hanging for desertion, expects Iraxxa to kill him for Catchlove's actions. Averted, as she now sees him as both a worthy adversary and potentially valuable ally.
  • Right in Front of Me: Bill is enthusing about the scene in The Vikings where someone loses an eye, only to shut up when Friday appears (missing eye and all).
  • Rip Van Winkle: The queen has slept five thousand years, much longer than she intended.
  • Rise from Your Grave: Well the Hive, at least, but they have the classic hand clawing through the earth shots.
  • Running Gag:
    • The sonic screwdriver still doesn't work on wood. The Doctor lampshades how he really should have fixed this by now.
    • The Doctor doesn't know movies like The Terminator or The Thing that sci-fi loving Bill name drops and discusses. In the climax, he suddenly realizes that if he goes through with his threat to bury everyone including himself in the snows of the Martian ice cap, they will be "Frozen. That's a movie..."
  • Self-Plagiarism: A NASA expedition to another planetary body leads to the telling of how they were beaten to it by a group of Victorian Brits — this is also the premise of Gatiss's 2010 adaptation of The First Men in the Moon.
  • Sequel Hook: Missy once again helps the heroes, even being let out of the Vault by Nardole to do so — and she is perfectly willing to return to said Vault afterward. The Doctor is deeply distressed — and she seems to sense something wrong with him that Bill and Nardole do not. Also, the TARDIS acting up in the first place by returning to Earth and not allowing Nardole to pilot it back to Mars himself (when he had no major problems piloting it before) may be related to this. Is some other force controlling it, or is it acting of its own accord? It's been established that the TARDIS takes the Doctor and its friends where they need to go, after all.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Slipping a Mickey: Jackdaw drugs the Sergeant-Major's drink so that he can rob what he thinks is a tomb.
  • The So-Called Coward: Godsacre was hung for deserting due to cowardice, but ended up willing to give his life to stop a war with humanity.
  • Spot of Tea: Of course! India or China?
  • Stable Time Loop: The Doctor goes back in time to find out who wrote GOD SAVE THE QUEEN on the Martian North Pole. He ends up helping write it out.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole just show up in the NASA control centre without anyone noticing them enter.
  • Steam Punk: That glorious leather-and-brass spacesuit, complete with miniature ear-trumpet on the multi-portholed helmet.
  • Stock Quotes: The Doctor uses "I've got a bad feeling about this" on realising they're in the tomb of a Martian queen. Despite his earlier Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure, we know the Doctor is at least familiar with the Star Wars films, given that Eleven compared himself to Yoda in the second "Meanwhile in the TARDIS" short.
  • Stompy Mooks: Ice Warriors, as usual. When they want to be stealthy, they burrow through the ground.
  • Stunned Silence: The Doctor is shocked and/or frightened into this upon seeing Missy — whom Nardole let out of the Vault in order to rescue him and Bill — in the TARDIS. Missy notices and asks him "What's wrong?" but he doesn't answer.
  • Swiss Cheese Security: The NASA workers are taken aback to see the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole in their control room. When the Doctor uses the psychic paper to fake all-access authority, they accept it and nothing more is said.
  • Taking You with Me: The Doctor threatens to use the laser drill to collapse the ice layer above the cavern, freezing the Ice Warriors and everyone else forever. Iraxxa doesn't back down, but the distraction allows Catchlove to get the drop on her.
  • Tempting Fate: Captain Catchlove tells his men that they can handle three Ice Warriors. Ignoring the fact that Iraxxa has already woken six plus Friday, the very next shot is of her reviving the entire hive.
  • The "The" Title Confusion: The episode's title was first announced as "The Empress of Mars", but there's no "The" in the title card.
  • Token Minority: The British troops have one black soldier, Vincey, amongst their ranks.
  • The Triple: Why did explorers on Mars write GOD SAVE THE QUEEN on the surface?
    The Doctor: State visit? Patriotic fervour? Rogue graffiti artist?
  • Underestimating Badassery: Captain Catchlove boasts that a few Ice Warriors are no match for soldiers of Britain, ignoring the fact that he's already witnessed bullets bounce off their armor and they have guns which compact people into balls.
  • We Need a Distraction: Said by the Doctor to Bill during the Empress' attack. Bill steps up without hesitation.
  • Whole Plot Reference:
  • The X of Y: "Empress of Mars". This is the third televised Who story with "Mars" in its title, and the other two use this trope as well: "Pyramids of Mars" and "The Waters of Mars". Oddly, all three stories involve a different alien race (the Osirans in "Pyramids", the Flood in "Waters", the Ice Warriors here) and crisis.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Godsacre swears service to the Martian queen, as there's only disgrace back in England anyway. Apparently his soldiers have to or choose to stay, too, as they don't accompany our heroes back to Earth in the TARDIS.

Alternative Title(s): Doctor Who S 36 E 9 The Empress Of Mars

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