Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars”

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Sontarans. Invented by Robert Holmes, one of the most revered classic series writers, they were intelligent, articulate warriors so dedicated to courage in battle that they left their Achilles heel, the probic vent on the back of their necks, unprotected. A moderate blow to the vent incapacitates a Sontaran, but for such a blow to land, the Sontaran must either be off-guard or fleeing the battle. In their weakest story, the Sontarans successfully invaded Gallifrey. If any race from the classic series deserved to be fleshed out and retconned with a reputation for being noble-yet-ruthless warlords, it was these guys…or so I used to think. I’ve come to terms with the wisdom of anointing the Ice Warriors instead, for three reasons: one, the Sontaran ship had sailed by series 4 of New Who and they were irredeemable jokes by the first “Sontar ha!”; two, there was already precedent for honor among the Ice Warriors thanks to 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon”; three, appearance-wise the Sontarans are inescapably a race of Mr. Potato Heads, and the Ice Warriors, thanks to their makeover circa “Cold War,” look fantastic.

They even look fantastic after a 5000-year nap, which is one of the pros of being a reptile, I guess. Ice Warriors are big on naps; of their six stories to date, this is the third instigated by humans thawing them out and waking them up from hibernation. In terms of human chronology, it’s the earliest, and we have to imagine that when Mark Gatiss pitched this one, that must have figured heavily in its acceptance. “Okay, yes, it’s another Ice Warrior story where the Ice Warriors and the humans nearly end up in a war with each other and then back off at the last minute showing mercy and honor,” he probably admitted, “but this time, instead of Russian sailors in a sub, it’s Victorian soldiers on Mars. And there’s a queen!”

The juxtaposition is the sort of incongruous mash-up that only Doctor Who can really do, which would be justification enough, but it also makes a certain amount of sense. The soldiers don’t know it, but they’re only about 30 years away from the end of the so-called “imperial century” and the beginning of World War I. The Ice Warriors don’t know it, but their planet as they knew it is dead and the titular Empress must soon lead her people out of an era of imperial dominance into an era of intergalactic cooperation (starting with the civilization of Alpha Centauri, whose excitable representative also appeared in 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon” and is played here by the same actor). Thematically, the episode coheres.

Dramatically, it’s a little less successful. It suffers from some of the same issues that plagued “Cold War,” including a large cast of cannon fodder who have only moments to impress themselves on our memory before they’re killed off. (The “crumpleizer” weapons are new. Traditionally Ice Warrior guns are sonic disruptors, but there’s no denying that these upgrades are more visually interesting.) Some of the scenes (e.g. the tea service) seem oddly paced and lacking in energy, and Catchlove’s performance in particular is full of strange line readings. Meanwhile, the Empress is all bombast, chewing the scenery in classic Who villain fashion, though it’s hard to imagine a reading of “Rise, my Ice Warriors, rise!” that could ever be taken seriously, even without a mouthful of vicious sharp teeth. And once you get past the basic premise of the episode, there really just isn’t much to it: some soldiers are brave, some are greedy. One is a coward who redeems himself, and the Ice Warriors are green men and women from Mars. The end.

The Doctor and Bill get very little to do, and arguably don’t impact the plot in any significant way. The Doctor spends most of it pleading “don’t do this, let’s talk this out,” and is only briefly listened to. Since for some reason the humans and Ice Warriors can understand each other (sure, sure, the TARDIS and its telepathic circuits, but then how were the soldiers speaking to Friday before? and why does it work even though the TARDIS flies off with Nardole?) there’s no reason the failed negotiations couldn’t have happened anyway. Then there’s the understanding the Empress and Bill have over their gender, which could have been an interesting wrinkle if Bill’s perspective had actually been different from anyone else’s in this case. And there’s not much about the chat the Doctor, Bill, and the Colonel have in the brig (why did they build a brig, anyway? what prisoners did they expect to take?) that seems to influence the Colonel’s final course of action. In a season when the strongest moments have turned on incredible performances from Capaldi and Mackie, sidelining them from the plot seems an unusually damaging mistake.

Still, it’s not an unpleasant way to spend 43ish minutes, including the cryptic coda in which Missy appears to have sincerely helped Nardole fix a mysterious TARDIS fault (hands up if you don’t think she caused it) and seems to be genuinely concerned for the Doctor’s well-being. Michelle Gomez, at least, still gets an opportunity to steal the show in the space of maybe four or five lines total, making it all the more tantalizing that one more episode still separates us from her upcoming two-part finale. Fortunately, that one more episode, by the author of the very last episode ever of classic Who, looks like it might worth pushing the Missypocalypse out one more week.

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More”

Imagine, if you can, a monster that uses your time asleep to attack you…yes, a bit like Freddy Krueger. Imagine that this monster is so insidious that just watching a video featuring that monster will allow it to get into your eye…yes, a bit like the Angel that gets into Amy’s eye in “The Time of Angels.” Imagine that this video ends with the sinister implication that you are already doomed — that if you look carefully you’ll find that the monster is already here…yes, a bit like the end of “Blink.” Now: imagine that this video you’ve watched is so boring that even if you aren’t tired, it will put you to sleep so the monster can get you. Yes, a bit like “Sleep No More.”

Mark Gatiss’s attempt to do yet another new-to-Who horror trope, the “found footage” approach to filming the episode, should have made it more exciting, but mostly it has the opposite effect. It must have sounded great on paper, but somehow, though it’s supposed to put us into the characters’ heads, it ends up feeling less personal and immediate. And, crucially, less frightening. Because once it’s revealed its premise, this episode spends most of its time trying and failing to be thrilling and scary. It just can’t make us care about four soldiers with two-and-a-half character traits to go around, and it can’t scare us with monsters that are so poorly realized that the director risks only one point-of-view closeup.

Meanwhile, Peter Capaldi obviously realizes he’s in the weak story of the season (one had to come along sooner or later) and phones it in. At least Gatiss’s other weakest story, “Victory of the Daleks,” featured a Matt Smith new enough to the show that he gave that turkey his all, first screaming at the Daleks and then threatening them with a jammy dodger. Capaldi has only a few lines to work with — some limp jokes about the “space-” prefix and some only slightly relevant Shakespeare quotes — and is almost two seasons into his tenure, so he wisely decides to jog this lap.

Let’s try to give “Sleep No More” as much credit as possible. It’s cool how it leaves out the title sequence entirely, replacing it with a stylish word-search screen of digital characters. That ending is indeed just a tiny bit clever, perhaps the only element that improves on what it borrows from (the ending of “Blink” mainly serves to remind me how rarely I actually see statues). And there’s something potentially interesting in that premise, the question of what happens when you find a way to circumvent sleep.

But that’s the episode’s biggest weakness: declining to do anything interesting with the premise. We’re told that the evil forces of capitalism will use this technology to make us work longer and harder, and there’s no doubt that in this situation they’d try. But we’re only told this: we never see the effects of this extended workday on anyone. And isn’t there anyone who, given the option to be fully rested in a much shorter time, would be able to use the extra time for leisure? Read more books, attend more parties, spend more time with loved ones? Doctor Who is, perhaps more than any other show on television today (until they reboot The Twilight Zone, maybe), perfectly suited to explore these kinds of ideas, but it’s almost never allowed to.

Instead the big result of sleeping less turns out to be that the gunk in your eye becomes, by what appears to be total magic (“evolving,” claims the Doctor, suggesting that whatever his doctorate’s in, it isn’t biology), savage eye-dust colonies with arms and legs that want to…kill you? Absorb you? Clone you? It’s not especially clear. Even if you don’t roll your eyes and check out as soon as this is revealed — because really, this is self-parody to rival Curse of Fatal Death — you have to wonder: what are these dust guys so angry about, anyway? What’s their problem? They’re mainly composed of our own mucus and skin cells; what grudge could they possibly have against us?

Perhaps they’re annoyed that this is yet another slice of what you might think of as conservative science (for some value of “science”) fiction. It’s a pretty tired mode, having driven all sorts of “man was not meant to play god” stories (including plenty in Doctor Who) since at least Frankenstein. It’s conservative in the sense that it assumes every technological change is doomed to be destructive, to disrupt the “natural order” in a way that can only bring about harm. This attitude is so ingrained in the genre that it can be difficult to imagine doing it any other way, but anyone who likes indoor plumbing, electricity, medicine, or even cooked food should probably try.