‘Doctor Who’ recap: God save the lizard queen in ‘Empress of Mars’

After three weeks of a plotted invasion and occupation of Earth by alien monks in the dark trilogy of episodes “Extremis,” “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and “The Lie of the Land,” it’s no wonder the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) would want to take a break from the Earth entirely. This week’s episode brings them to Mars for a new adventure featuring an age-old race that traces back to the earliest years of “Doctor Who.”

Written by Emmy winner Mark Gatiss (“Sherlock”) and directed by Wayne Yip, “Empress of Mars” premiered on June 10. Read our recap below for the top five takeaways from the new episode.

God Save the Queen

“Empress” begins at NASA, where the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) observe a critical operation. “Don’t let us down, Valkyrie,” says one scientist awaiting the transmission of footage from a probe investigating the polar ice caps of Mars. The footage comes through and reveals a message spelled out on the Martian surface: “God save the queen.” How did the message get there? Did the Brits beat the Yanks to the red planet? Did American astronaut Matt Damon defect? The Doctor grins: a new adventure awaits.

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Our Lizard Man Friday

The Doctor and his companions have traced the Martian message to the year 1881, long before you’d expect to see human space travelers, let alone human travelers who have reached the fourth planet. The TARDIS travels under the surface to find a system of interconnected caves. There’s a flame burning there — like a Martian campfire — which tells them that there’s oxygen present, so they can do without the helmets of their spacesuits. So who’s the fire for? We quickly discover an Ice Warrior (Richard Ashton), one of a race of alien lizard creatures. But in the “Doctor Who” universe, that’s not the surprising part; the Ice Warriors call Mars home, and they have a long history on the series, going back all the way to 1967. No, the surprising part is the discovery of humans.

These British soldiers found an alien vessel on Earth and saved the Ice Warrior contained therein. They have nicknamed the alien Friday after the character from Daniel Defoe‘s novel “Robinson Crusoe,” and have brought him back to his home planet. In return, Friday has granted them the technological know-how to build the Gargantua, a massive excavating laser that the British are using to tunnel through Mars in pursuit of its natural resources. “He promised us gemstones, silver and gold, treasure beyond our wildest dreams,” says the arrogant Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley). But they don’t know the real reason for Friday’s generosity. Unbeknownst to them, Friday is actually using them to unearth — or unmars, as it were — something quite different.

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The Ice Queen Awakens

Iraxxa the Ice Queen (Adele Lynch) was the leader of the Ice Warriors, and the discovery of her extravagant tomb leads the British soldiers to believe they’ve finally hit the jackpot. But the Doctor warns, “These sarcophagi were sometimes part of a complex hibernation system.” Indeed, the Ice Queen is alive and well. But she and the rest of the Ice Warriors have been in hibernation longer than planned — 5,000 years to be exact — and Mars isn’t what it used to be. The atmosphere is gone, and the surface of the planet is lifeless. After she kills one of the soldiers, Catchlove is quick to start a war, but the leader of the expedition, Godscare (Anthony Calf), is more cautious and defers to the Doctor’s expertise. The humans need help to get off Mars. The Ice Warriors need help to survive on their home planet. Sounds like the recipe for a mutually beneficial alliance, but Iraxxa’s outrage and Catchlove’s bloodlust put both races on the brink of war.

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Cruelty, Cowardice, and Colonialism

The Doctor’s intergalactic adventures often show us more about human nature than about the aliens we interact with, and this week’s episode is no exception. “I dare say the British army is more than a match for a bunch of upright crocodiles,” says Catchlove of the Ice Warriors — he hasn’t known these aliens for very long, but already he has devised a racial slur for them. And so Catchlove comes to represent the cruelty, entitlement, and arrogance of not only these British soldiers, but of imperialism in general. And there’s sexism mixed in there too. At one point Iraxxa asks for Bill’s opinion as the only other woman among “noisy males,” underlining imperialism as a system of male domination. We don’t know for sure if Catchlove would show more respect for an Ice King, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that her gender plays a part in his indignation.

But then there’s Godscare. He’s also sexist, willing to accept an alien race of lizard creatures on Mars but laughing off the “fanciful notion” that Bill, a woman, claims that she’s a police officer. Bill responds, “I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes because, well, you actually are Victorian.” But Godscare is also seeking redemption because he was previously a military deserter and hanged — unsuccessfully — for cowardice. Catchlove mutinies after Godscare’s reluctance to use deadly force against the Ice Warriors, but Godscare ultimately saves the day by killing Catchlove and pleading with Iraxxa for leniency — not for himself, but for his species. “I should be happy for you to complete the work [my executioners] failed to do so long ago … Please do not judge mankind by [Catchlove’s] cruelty or indeed by my cowardice. Spare my friends and my world.” In this climactic moment “Doctor Who” demonstrates both the weaknesses and strengths of humanity: capable of violence and domination, but also penitence and self-sacrifice.

Iraxxa spares Godscare, but the Ice Warriors still need help to survive on their planet as it is now. The Doctor sends a distress signal, but a “physical marker” is needed for a rescue team to locate the Ice Warrior on Mars — perhaps some kind of large written message on the surface: “God save the queen,” perhaps? It turns out the queen in question isn’t the British monarch, but the reptilian empress of Mars.

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Missy’s Escape from the Vault

The brief battle between the humans and the Ice Warriors isn’t the scariest moment of the episode. The most tense scene is actually at the very end when the Doctor and Bill finally get off of the red planet. Earlier in the episode the Doctor had sent Nardole back to the TARDIS for supplies, but while he was inside the TARDIS activated itself and took Nardole back to Earth — as the Doctor always says, his time machine has a mind of its own. Unable to return to Mars himself, Nardole is forced to seek help from Missy (Michelle Gomez), the Time Lord who has been held captive in the vault under the university. After weeks of chiding the Doctor for going on adventures and leaving the vault unguarded, Nardole ends up letting Missy out so that she can help him retrieve the Doctor and Bill.

“This can’t happen. This is not what we agreed to,” the Doctor tells Missy, whom he’s been trying to reform. “I’m going to have to put you back in the vault, you know that.” Missy doesn’t protest, but for all we know she’s been playing a long game and plotting her escape. Megalomaniacal Time Lords are tricky like that.

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