Guys, I just can't do it this week. I really tried, but I'm sorry: I just don't have it in me.
Part of the problem, of course, is that I have recently burdened myself with a bit of a project, and so I'm feeling a little hurried and harried at the moment. But the larger problem is that there is literally nothing I can say about a Mark Gatiss episode of Doctor Who that I have not said before about other Mark Gatiss episodes of Doctor Who. (In fact, looking back at my reviews of previous Gatiss episodes—"Night Terrors," "Cold War," "The Crimson Horror," "Robot of Sherwood," and "Sleep No More"—I am kind of appalled at how repetitive they are.)
I just can't express all the same gripes again this week. While I dearly hope this is the last time I'm faced with this problem, it occurred to me that I could review any Gatiss episode simply by stealing boilerplate text from my previous reviews.
So, with apologies, that's what I've done. What follows is a cut-and-paste review of "Empress of Mars," composed entirely of things I've already written that are also completely applicable to this episode:
Okay, let me say at the start: this isn't going to be pleasant for any of us. I really don't enjoy being this guy: just as there's nothing I love more than analyzing and raving (at obscene length) about an episode of Doctor Who that rises to the considerable heights of which this show is capable, there is nothing I hate more than trying to squeeze out even a few hundred words about the infrequent and unfortunate lows. [From my review of "The Crimson Horror"]
I have great respect for Mark Gatiss, but dear lord, do I dislike his approach to Doctor Who. A few of the episodes he's written have been passable ("The Unquiet Dead" and "Night Terrors"), and a few more were fairly ghastly ("The Idiot's Lantern" and "Victory of the Daleks")—but what they've all been is utterly forgettable. They all feel as if they'd been dropped into their respective seasons, and as if they could be pulled out just as easily, without losing much of anything. None of them has any larger meaning or emotional importance: it's as if Gatiss has a drawer full of generic, formulaic Doctor Who scenarios he can brush off whenever Steven Moffat has a hole in a season. (Honestly: if you put the Ninth Doctor and Rose in "Victory of the Daleks," or Eleven and Amy in ["Empress of Mars"], would it make one bit of difference? And isn't that a problem?) [From my review of "Cold War"]
All of which probably suggests that I was predisposed to dislike ["Empress of Mars"], and—let's face it—I was. But I really do go into these things with as open a mind as possible. Gatiss, after all, has written some very good episodes of Sherlock, the fantastic series he co-created with Who showrunner Stephen Moffat. I would be neither terribly surprised, nor at all disappointed, to discover he had penned a truly excellent episode of Doctor Who. [From my review of "Sleep No More"]
Unfortunately, while his tone and tricks may have changed, Gatiss remains the same. ["Empress of Mars" is yet another one of] the painfully tongue-in-cheek, fatally unfunny historical romps that comprise the bulk of Gatiss's output. [From my review of "Sleep No More"]
Under Gatiss's pen, Doctor Who becomes what people who don't really watch Doctor Who imagine it to be: a silly sci-fi romp. It becomes a monster-of-the-week show. It becomes Scooby Who. [From my review of "Cold War"]
I come to Doctor Who for any number of things: original ideas, clever storytelling, emotional resonance, thrilling adventure, quirky comedy, etc. A great hour of Doctor Who has many of these things at once, while a decent hour of Doctor Who may only reward the viewer with one or two of these elements to enjoy. To make me really dislike an episode, however, you have to leave ALL these things out, and that's what happened here [in "Empress of Mars"]. [From my review of "Cold War"]
I'm not even going to get into the plot, which barely deserves that designation. [From my review of "Robot of Sherwood"]
There's just no point to any of it, and very little reward… [From my review of "Cold War"]
Look, I know Doctor Who is, first and foremost, for children. (I defended Gatiss's 2011 story "Night Terrors" on exactly those grounds.) But Doctor Who has always assumed that children can process sophisticated ideas and genuine emotional content, and that they deserve something better than shallow, brain-dead runarounds. Moffat certainly knows that. Russell Davies knew that. Most of the new Who writers seem to know that. But Mark Gatiss just doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. ["Empress of Mars"]—like his [previous] efforts—is just bad writing: appallingly, lazily, offensively bad writing, with one-dimensional characters, preposterously clunky storytelling, and absolutely no emotional or thematic content of any kind. I know Gatiss claims to be a tremendous fan of the series, but his scripts read like they are written by someone who has little respect for the intelligence of the audience—young or old—and only the lowest standards for what an episode of the show needs to be. [From my review of "Robot of Sherwood"]
And this is where I have to get specific about my problems with Mark Gatiss again, because, at its core, this failing seems endemic to his approach to Doctor Who. By which I mean, I honestly believe there was no point, other than being shallowly enamored with the idea of [having Victorian soldiers on Mars]. […] Gatiss seems to think he can serve up any nonsense, and it doesn't need to make sense, even internally. ["Mind you, there's a lot about this that doesn't make sense,"] the Doctor says here, in a smug moment of authorial self-awareness. [From my review of "Sleep No More"]
It is the creeping element of disdain that I feel in Gatiss's scripts that causes me to be so hard on him. God knows, he is far from alone in writing insultingly awful episodes of Doctor Who […] But Gatiss's scripts offend me on a different level than the others, because I don't believe Gatiss thinks Doctor Who needs to be anything better. He seems to think as long as the show delivers a few laughs, or a few scares, then it's done its job. Leaving aside the fact that I think Gatiss is adept at delivering neither laughs nor scares, I happen to think Doctor Who is a more valuable property than that, capable of greatness and worthy of respect. It's a grand old theater that Gatiss rents out for cheap vaudeville acts and kiddie birthday parties. [From my review of "Sleep No More"]
At its frequent best, Doctor Who is capable of delivering truth, and beauty, and wonder, and mind-blowing ideas: it is for children the way the Narnia books are for children, or the way Madeleine L'Engle's books are for children. At its worst—which seems to be whenever Gatiss is writing it—Doctor Who becomes Goosebumps: a disposable bit of pop-culture fluff without substance or meaning or the expectation of quality. [From my review of "Sleep No More"]
It doesn't matter, as long as we watch. None of it matters. None of it is supposed to matter, because Gatiss doesn't think Doctor Who matters. ["Empress of Mars"] is a throwaway episode of Doctor Who. [From my review of "Sleep No More"]
This was an episode of a show that, if it were always like this, I wouldn't even watch. [From my review of "The Crimson Horror"]
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- OK, with that out the way—all of which I stand by 100 percent—I'll make a few specific observations.
- One of the (additional) things that annoys me about Gatiss is that he seems to acknowledge that a Doctor Who story is supposed to say something, so he just waves at a theme without ever bothering to develop it. In "Robot of Sherwood," for example, he pretended it was an episode about the difference between the man and the legend. (It wasn't.) Here, he pretends this one is saying something about colonization. (It isn't.) He invokes real themes—the Ice Warriors are the Zulus, I guess?—but does nothing with them that's even intelligent, let alone provocative.
- Since this episode aired, Gatiss has landed in hot water for awkward comments he made about objecting to the historical accuracy of having a black actor (Bayo Gbadamosi) play one of the Victorian soldiers. Of this I'll say just two things. First, it is absolutely shocking to me to discover that Gatiss even has a concept of "historical accuracy." (There is certainly nothing in his previous Doctor Who work to suggest that was ever a priority.) Second, it is just indicative of Gatiss's complete unwillingness or inability to really explore the themes at which he feints. There were black soldiers in Victoria's army, and Gatiss himself mentions the story of Jimmy Durham, "a Sudanese boy who was rescued from the River Nile in 1886 and brought up by soldiers of The Durham Light Infantry regiment." Instead of being "colour-blind" casting, the presence of Gbadamosi's Vincey here could have been an opportunity to explore parallels with the character of "Friday," named for a racist black literary embodiment of British colonization, and turned into a "pet" by the white soldiers. Tweaking the script with a scene—or even a line or two—to acknowledge Vincey's parallels with Friday could have added a level of significance to both their stories. But Gatiss just doesn't think on that level when he writes Doctor Who.
- The bizarre arc of Colonel Godsacre (Anthony Calf) is another ethical and thematic trainwreck. He was hanged for desertion—how did he survive, exactly?—and allegedly redeems himself by…deserting? And how is this a good thing? I know the Ice Warriors are supposed to be some kind of "noble" race, but there's no evidence of it here: the Empress to whom Godsacre pledges his service, life, and soul just seems kind of arbitrarily murderous, and not noble at all. (And, with a knife to her throat, she isn't willing to make the same sacrifice she admires him for making. Was that the point? Who the hell knows.)
- Twice, Gatiss goes out of his way to give Bill opportunities to offer her unique, feminine perspective to change the course of events. And, twice, he can think of absolutely nothing for her to offer but to parrot what the Doctor has already said. (Just super writing of female characters, Mark.) As I complained above, Gatiss has no feel for the individuality of characters: any of his scripts would work equally well—or, more to the point, equally poorly—with any generic companion slotted in. (Here, he seizes on Bill's shallowly defining characteristic as "movie references," even though we haven't heard her make any since "The Pilot." And all that accomplished was to make me think less of the Doctor, who hasn't seen The Terminator or The Thing, but has seen Frozen.)
- The Empress (Adele Lynch) tell her hibernating Ice Warriors to "sleep no more." See what Gatiss did there? (Name-dropping one of your own stories—which happened to be possibly the worst story in the history of Doctor Who— is not the way to endear me to your latest disposable episode, Mark.)
- It was nice that they brought back 92-year-old Ysanne Churchman to play the penis-shaped Alpha Centauri, I guess, though I'm not entirely sure what the point was beyond fan-wank.
- And I guess the Ice Warriors' guns were cool? Sort of? They're basically car-crushers for people. Seems a little arbitrary, but I suppose it's as good a way as any for the show to callously murder a bunch of nameless characters without a lot of bloodshed.
- As I'm getting tired of saying, Missy was the best part of this episode.
- I've written several times this season about the similarities between the Twelfth Doctor/Bill relationship and the Seventh Doctor/Ace relationship. Next week, we come full circle, with an episode written by Rona Munro, the woman who penned the last Doctor/Ace tale in 1989's "Survival." I'm already looking forward to it, as I've already completely forgotten "Empress of Mars."
NEXT: Episode 10×10 – "The Eaters of Light"
PREVIOUS: Episode 10×08 – "The Lie of the Land"
Read all my Doctor Who reviews here.