Saturday, June 10, 2017

Doctor Who: Space 1889!

The Doctor breaking into NASA is starting to become a habit. He really does play the best pranks on them.

You may be wondering about the title of the review, given that the episode's name is actually Empress of Mars. Or you may not, given the audience. Space: 1889 was a tabletop RPG that had a Victorian Era English Empire exploring and colonizing various planets, but since I'm really not one for tabletop RPGs, I found it through an audio drama series produced by Noise Monster (run by an associate of Big Finish, who do the officially licensed Doctor Who audio dramas). So when I saw, in last week's preview, Victorian Era British uniforms and Ice Warriors, I was pumped. Does the episode live up to my hype?

I approached it with some trepidation, as the writer Mark Gatiss wrote one of the best episodes of the first season, the worst of the second, one of the better of season 5 and the lesser of season 6, two good ones in season 7, and two bad ones in seasons 8 and 9 (including one of my absolute worst, the eye-booger monster episode).
NASA really should have seen this coming by now.
So after using the same baggy orange spacesuits for the last 8 seasons, the Doctor has finally raided the wardrobe for some flattering sleek black suits for he and Bill, which I must say accentuate his trim figure while still being functional and giving a much more imposing presence. (They don't look so bad on Bill, either.)

I have very few problems with this episode -- chief among them being Bill surviving a fall early on that looks as if it really should have shattered her face -- but I can forgive that given it forces Nibble to exit the episode around this point in order to fetch Missy for a rescue, thus ensuring Michelle Gomez gets precious more screen-time. It's also odd that the TARDIS exited when it did; the last time the HADS went off was in Cold War, also in the proximity of an Ice Warrior. You'd think that the Doctor would have remembered to turn it off at some point.

There are already websites reviewing this episode as "Socially Conscious" (which I guess is a fancy way of saying "woke" now that "woke" is quickly falling out of favour amongst their crowd). I will rebut this: It is no more "woke" than any other episode.

  • The British Empire was very imperialistic, thus statements like "We're British, Mars is part of the Empire now" wouldn't have been out of place had this happened. 
  • Bill's response to the Colonel's disbelief that a woman would serve in the police is the exact opposite that a "woke" episode would have had. A "woke" episode would have had her give a lecture on woman power and equity and privilege imbalances etc, etc, but Bill simply says "I'll make allowances for your Victorian attitude... well, because you are Victorian" and leaves it at that. 
  • Couple that with Twelve's poetic words about how vicious and yet how sensitive the Ice Warriors are, and Bill's comparison to Vikings, and you simply have an episode that is recognizing the differences and similarities between different people,  allwhile portraying historically-based characters accurately.

Finally! After 5000 years I'm free! It's time to conquer Earth!
Speaking of the Ice Warriors, it's good to see them again. They frequently top the "best classic bad guys" lists, despite not actually being that adversarial to the Doctor. The last time we met them was just a single soldier (albeit a very dangerous one). This time we see much more, even if they do their best to trick us visually by rarely if ever showing more than three on-screen at a time (a classic series budget-saving technique).

The exception to this, of course, being Empress Iraxxa, the titular Empress of Mars, who has a very striking visual design and a very imposing presence. When she first spoke, I could swear I'd heard her voice before, but the IMDB page for the actress, Adele Lynch, shows only this and a few episodes of The Bill. Quite an impressive performance on her part for someone with such a short CV! I have a feeling she's done her time on stage prior to this.

I would also like to mention that Ice Warrior weaponry, despite being completely bloodless, is horrifyingly brutal. That looks like an extremely unpleasant way to die.

If you know your Who history, and are paying attention, this episode loops back to a Third Doctor episode, with the Ice Warriors making contact with a familiar face... or eye, at least. Alpha Centauri of the Galactic Federation appears in two classic serials alongside the Ice Warriors (presumably taking place after this episode) and is voiced by none other than the original voice actor, Ysanne Churchman (who is now 92 years old!).

All in all, a very good episode. Not quite as good as Extremis, but as good as The Lie of the Land, I would say, and the second best this year. This season seems to be providing a lot of historical episodes: The Frost Fair, The British Empire, and next week we seem to be visiting the Romans and possibly dabbling in explaining some mythology (with aliens, I hope). But don't miss Empress of Mars. It's definitely worth a watch.

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