Mark Gatiss take a bow.
Empress of Mars, the ninth episode of Series 10, was everything a Doctor Who episode should be.
It started pre-credits with quirk with the TARDIS crew gate-crashing a NASA mission control room as a robot probe beams back a message written in English below the ice on Mars: “God save the Queen”.
It continues, post-credits, with mystery. We’re below the surface of Mars with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas). It’s 1881 which is when, apparently, the message was written.
Soon the TARDIS trio discover an ice warrior with an encampment of pith-helmeted red coated British soldiers who call him Friday. He crashed on Earth, you see, and they joined him on his return to Mars. (Gatiss bought the classic ice warriors back in Series 7’s Cold War featuring 11th Doctor Matt Smith).
Surprise is up next, when we learn technology from Friday’s ship is helping the soldiers tunnel for treasure. It’s their reward for helping him, only it turns out that the treasure is the tomb of the Empress of Mars.
Like Gatiss’ Series 1 script, The Unquiet Dead, it turns out it’s not her tomb. The Empress and her retinue of warriors are hibernating. The Doctor warns she’s about to be woken by an army which is primitive by comparison.
Things could have been highly predictable from there, and Gatiss doesn’t disappoint with the clash of armies, but the story takes a few unexpected turns, particularly for the supposedly cowardly commander of the British expedition.
The upshot is one of the best episodes of the series, which is no mean feat this year.
Gatiss’s pedigree as a Doctor Who fan in its early days is well known, so it’s lovely to see the writer bring back the ice warriors who were first seen 50 years ago in Second Doctor Patrick Troughton story The Ice Warriors.
The surprise appearance of Alpha Centauri at episode’s end was the flashing light on top of the TARDIS, especially as this most peculiar of aliens was voiced by Ysanne Churchman. The actress played the character in two Third Doctor Jon Pertwee stories The Curse of Peladon (1972) and Monster of Peladon (1974).
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Gatiss script as good as this. I absolutely adored it.