Doctor Who kicked off the final episodes of season 10 with a tale of classic monsters – but where do we go from here? Let’s try and figure that out.
It’s a little bit hard to believe, but we’re over two-thirds of the way through Doctor Who season 10. For the most part, this has been a fairly strong season – especially if you ignore the disappointing Monks trilogy in the middle of it. It’s generally been a return to simpler, more basic stories and they’ve served Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie well. (It also helps that they’re a pretty stellar duo together.)
But now that we’re edging toward the end of the season, it’s time to start thinking about a couple of things. One, how we’ll ever manage to say goodbye to Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor when all of this is over. (He’s just been phenomenal this season.) And two, how (and if) this season will tie together its various outstanding story arcs into some sort of final adventure.
And after the rather disappointing Monks trilogy, “Empress of Mars” was a rather entertaining return to form. A throwback-ish adventure with a distinctly old school feel and the reappearance of one of Who’s most iconic monsters, it was all around a pretty great time. And even though it was technically a standalone story, the episode still left us with plenty to think about.
There’s Something About Missy
The big questions of season 10 have centered around the vault the Doctor and Nardole have been guarding. And, subsequently, around Missy, the prisoner in said box. She has only made physical appearances in three episodes so far – and one of those was a flashback. However, her presence has hung over the entire season, indicating that she must have some kind of significant role to play in its end. In “Empress of Mars,” Missy literally rides to the Doctor’s rescue, once again raising questions about how sincere her turn to the side of good may or may not be.
At the moment? It seems legit. Missy, to her credit, didn’t try to run away or fight Twelve’s proclamation that she had to go back in her prison cell ASAP. And the Doctor, for his part, seems utterly confounded by this new side to her. Whether that’s because Twelve doubts her sincerity or just really wants her transformation to be real is unclear. But their uneasy confrontation at the episode’s end certainly hints at interesting things to come. (In fact, this new dynamic between them is so much fun to watch, I almost wish I didn’t know it’s going to get inevitably ruined by John Simm’s return in the finale. Harumph.)
It’s also unfortunate that we didn’t get to see Missy and Nardole running around in the TARDIS together, even for a moment. That would have obviously been television for the ages. But, since it’s unclear whether or not Twelve is actually going to return her to her quantum-fold prison, perhaps we’ll get our chance next time.
The Past Returns Again
In a season that’s been positively full of callbacks to previous episodes and bits of Doctor Who lore, “Empress of Mars” might be the most nostalgic of all. The Ice Warriors themselves are classic villains, of course, but the episode also includes blink-and-you’ll-miss-them shoutouts to several earlier installments. (My favorite is the inclusion of a painting of Queen Victoria, but as played by the actress from season 2’s “Tooth and Claw”.)
Season 10 has, for reasons that are as yet unknown, had something of an obsession with the past. We’ve seen references to multiple classic episodes, such as “The Ark in Space”. Mentions of classic characters abound, including Susan and River. A new character even showed up who had a connection to former classic companion, Harry Sullivan. (Even though that was actually left out of the final version of the episode.)
The best classic shoutout this week was probably the inclusion of the alien Alpha Centauri. This strange-looking androgynous creature that offers the Ice Warriors a new home is a classic Doctor Who alien. It appeared in two John Pertwee stories, 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon” and 1974’s “The Monster of Peladon.” They even got the same actress – the now 92-year old Ysanne Churchman – to voice the creature.
Perhaps this is something that just naturally happens when your outgoing showrunner is as big a Who fanboy as Steven Moffat. (Or when you let writer Mark Gatiss pen an adventure – again – featuring his very favorite monsters.) But maybe it means something larger? There certainly seems to be a trend.
What’s Up with the TARDIS?
One of the major plot twists in “Empress of Mars” is that the TARDIS up and vanishes with Nardole inside. Twelve and Bill are left stranded on the Red Planet with a bunch of Victorian British guys and some increasingly angry Ice Warriors. Why does this happen? Well, we don’t know.
Perhaps this is one of those things that we just fixate on as viewers. Because we all well know that this show could turn it into a thing later on. Maybe we’re overly obsessed with it for no reason. Maybe Gatiss just forgot to address it. But, “Empress of Mars” never officially explained what went wrong with the TARDIS. Or why it took Nardole back to present day London. Missy is a Time Lord, so her being able to fly it makes sense. And Nardole’s desperation to get back to his friends on a Victorian era Mars base is understandable. Of course he’d turn to the one person who could feasibly be able to help him do that.
But, was it an accident? It seems almost too convenient to assume that this must be part of a larger story. It’s possible that Matt Lucas just wasn’t available to film most of this episode. But it’s equally possible that it ties in to the season’s inevitable Master-filled story involving Simm and his return.
Doctor Who season 10 continues Saturday, June 17 on BBC One and BBC America.