Exits, Isms and Empress of Mars (2017)

empress

So, it’s 2017 and Mark Gatiss wants to write an episode with Ice Warriors and which refers back to the Pertwee era at every available opportunity. The real question is, why aren’t we on Peladon?

Surely with Brexit looming, here’s a chance to return to Doctor Who’s long tradition of commenting on current political issues. Not to mention a chance to return to leather-clad soldiers, badger wigged extras and furry subterranean beasts. There could be a Nigel Farage style villain as the inevitable high priest. It’s The Exit of Peladon (well, they surely would never call it a Pexit).C’mon, add an unconvincing fight scene for the Doctor and we’re there!

But of course, it wasn’t to be, and with good reason. For one thing, it’s just too obvious. For another, the BBC wouldn’t dare court controversy on such a hot topic with its own existence and remit so politicized at the moment. And for a third, Doctor Who can just be more subtle than that. Even though it’s not The Exit of Peladon, this story has been influenced by Brexit, and has much to say about nationalism.

In fact, there are a few different isms to navigate through here, all of them embodied in the group of Victorian-era soldiers camped out in the Martian underground for this story. Their nationalism – putting Britain’s interests (however they are interpreted) first – is inherent. It’s these characters’ starting point.

From there, they, particularly the fervent Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), also exhibit imperialism – the belief that the British empire should extend its reach through acquiring new territories. And through their treatment of Friday (Richard Ashton), they also show their colonialism, a belief in the inherent cultural superiority of a colonial race of people over an indigenous people.

(The reference to Robinson Crusoe, a book often criticised for its colonialist attitude, is clear, but it’s a shame Friday never gets to reclaim his original Martian name, a step which could have slapped down the soldiers for their enforced domestication of him. What is it about Gatiss and monsters serving tea?)

Brexit may not, at heart, be about imperialism or colonialism, but I think it’s fair to say it’s about nationalism. It’s reflecting a political swing towards right-wing nationalism around the world, whose other expressions include Trump, Le Pen and here in Australia, the resurgence of One Nation. Don’t worry, randomers, this isn’t about to get super political. But I’m saying that this is the environment that Empress of Mars was made in. And if its basic message, unsubtle as it is, is colonialism is bad, it’s underlying theme is, and so is the nationalism it springs from.

This critique of nationalism shows up in the soldiers themselves. They’re a rum lot, and that’s for sure. Godsacre (Anthony Calf) is a coward and a deserter. Catchlove, a warmongering zealot. Jackdaw (Ian Beattie), a pillager. (His thieving of a small blue crystal from the Ice Queen’s tomb is not just a call back to Metebelis, but a potent indicator of invading forces wanting to take a land’s natural resources for themselves). Fine and upstanding examples of her Majesty’s army, they are not. They fit the stereotype about Britain’s colonial forces, in that they were not always made up of the best soldiers available. As symbols of Britain’s colonial past, their personal shortcomings reflect poorly on nationalism as an idea. Greed, treachery and conflict spring from this, this story says.

It’s not all that different from Gatiss’ last Ice Warrior story, Cold War, where a bunch of Russian submariners, some good, some bad, came up against the physical and technological might of the Ice Warriors. All out war loomed, but there the Doctor convinced the Martian General to leave in peace. The two opposing forces walked away from that flashpoint.

Here, something quite different happens. As fighting breaks out, Friday undermines his own side to argue the Earth soldiers’ case. And Godsacre kills chief hawk Catchlove, and pledges allegiance to a new queen, Iraxxa (Adele Lynch). It’s another twist on the theme of “it doesn’t have to end in war” and it shows the complexity in the characters of Friday and Godsacre. But whereas the Cold War Russians are allowed to float away, pride more or less intact, here the British soliders capitulate.

It’s a funny ending. What life can those soldiers expect on Mars? A short and uncomfortable one, probably. But over and above that, it’s a repudiation of imperialism; they came as conquerers and stayed as servants.

It’s also a rejection of another ism: isolationalism. Rather than struggle against the inevitable, these men choose to interact with their interplanetary neighbours. Perhaps a partnership between the Martian and um, Earthian forces, rather than a submission to sovereignty might have been a more satisfying ending, but still the point is made. Plus, it adds a wry double meaning to the former war cry of “God save the queen,” now repurposed as a castaway’s rescue call. Reach out, this story says, rather than fight back.

Still, things might change again. In a shout out to remainers and Doctor Who fans alike, the story ends with Mars making contact with the Galactic Federation, the Pertwee era’s version of the EU. Who knows what will happen when Alpha Centauri (Ysanne Churchman) and its pals arrive? Mars is up for membership and maybe Godsacre and his men will be the freed from their allegiance to the Queen to become Earth’s first representatives at this union.

Their horizons are about to expand far wider than they ever imagined. It’s may not be The Exit of Peladon, but we know where Empress of Mars’ sympathies lie.

LINK to The Bells of St John. It features a monster from Classic Who Season 5 (which, as it happens, will work for our next story too), but why stop there? Why not include the links to The Curse of Peladon, The Monster of Peladon(mining equipment as a weapon, anyone?), Day of the Daleks (RHIP), The Green Death (Jackdaw stealing a blue crystal), The Tomb of the Cybermen, Tooth and Claw, Sleep No Moreand a line which sounds suspiciously like one from The Robots of Death. (“They could slaughter whole civilisations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower. “ cribs “It can punch a fist sized hole in six inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one”). Then there’s The Thing, Zulu, The Terminator, The Vikings, Star Wars and freakin’ Frozen. A parliament of references!

NEXT TIME: Stubborn old goat! We’re caught in The Web of Fear.

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