Doors Between Worlds – “The Empress of Mars” & “The Eaters of Light” Reviews

Getting to the other side of those rather odd mid-season episodes to the traditional late-season standalone episodes before the two-part finale, it suddenly occurred to me that there is quite a strong and prevalent theme of imperialism running through series 10. “Smile” introduces a group of human colonists seeking a new home, bringing their culture and civilization with them, and their dangerous interactions with the “indigenous species” of robots. “Thin Ice” and “Empress of Mars” set their stories at the peak of British imperialism, critiquing the uglier aspects of that patriotic love of crown and country. “The Eaters of Light” of course extends this historical aspect further back to a time when native Britons and Celts themselves were invaded by the current imperialist titan — the Roman Empire. “Oxygen” plays upon the imperialist tendencies of soulless, Big Corporations (or the entire capitalist system, if you like). And of course the trilogy of episodes concerning the Monks show the gradual and insidious manipulation of humanity by the Monks, demonstrating how their cultural and systemic domination comes not through brute force and warfare but by creating a situation where their power is invited, then accepted, and eventually normalized by their subjects. This is perhaps the most modern face of imperialism: how human beings willingly give up their freedoms because the alternative is worse, or because there are no other options. The Monks’ assertion that “fear is not consent” is hooey — fear is the key ingredient in this form of empire. Fear is what motivates a bunch of very modern people who fancy themselves enlightened members of democratic society to play ball with dangerous and power-hungry autocrats. Whether Moffat intentionally crafted this season as a reaction to Brexit, Trump, and the wave of nationalist fervor we can currently see sweeping the Western world it is interesting to go into the two-part finale bearing this theme in mind. After all, the Cybermen only want what ever Empire wants — to assimilate its subjects, to make them “like us.”

Empress of MarsMark Gatiss being Mark Gatiss, of course the themes of imperialism and nationalism manifest as literal Victorian soldiers in his “Empress of Mars.” Seven of his nine Doctor Who episodes have been “historicals” of some kind, and six of those seven are firmly about Britain and its history (“Cold War’s” Soviet sub being the exception). More than anything else, Gatiss writes episodes about Britain’s conception of itself and features those classic period piece archetypes — Dickens, Victorian ghost stories, the BBC, Churchill and the Blitz, the cold war, Penny Dreadfuls, Robin Hood, and Queen Victoria. It’s a natural move for Gatiss to pair Britain at the height of its imperialist phase (ruled by a long-lived and long-reigning queen) with the extremely bellicose Martian, and therefore martial, Ice Warriors (ruled by an even longer-lived and longer-reigning queen). The notion that Britain would of course wish to colonize the rest of the solar system upon finding means of interplanetary travel is both totally obvious and pretty clever, and the added touches like naming the token man-servant Ice Warrior Friday only cement the theme for those who didn’t already get it.

There’s a coherence of idea and execution here that isn’t always achieved in Gatiss’ episodes. Doctor Who does a H. Rider Haggard styled “lost world” story is trick self-evidently worth trying. I still only really love “The Crimson Horror,” and might even prefer a couple of his others, but this is a pretty smart and solid effort. Beyond that, Gatiss is gonna Gatiss and I’m not sure I have a ton to say. The theme might be well-presented but I’m not sure that it goes much deeper than that. Gatiss is a little too fond of Britain’s past to really go too far in critiquing it. Beyond interestingly contrasted images, and a theme that makes everyone nod their head and say, “Yes, you’re right, imperialism is bad,” “Empress of Mars” is mostly a fun forty-five minutes of throwback Victorian adventure fiction.

“The Eaters of Light” plays with mostly the same themes — imperialism and colonization, nationalism in both its noble and dangerous aspects, Britain’s cultural and historical legacy. But where “Empress” is straightforward, “Eaters” bristles with layered subtleties. It’s worth pointing out the return of writer Rona Munro who with this episode becomes the first and only person to have written for both the Classic and New Series (and no, I’m not counting spin-off novels, comics, or audio stories). In fact, Munro wrote the last episode of the Classic Series — the Seventh Doctor’s “Survival.” Here she returns to write for the other Scottish Doctor (Tennant was unfortunately asked to change his accent) to write perhaps the most Scottish episode of Doctor Who‘s peak Scottish era. Having Peter Capaldi and co. cracks jokes about the lack of sunlight (“death by Scotland”) in an episode written by the Scottish Munro and commissioned by the Moffat was a delight. I will miss Moffat’s self-deprecating Scottish jokes (“fry something” and “I can really complain now” also spring to mind).

eatersoflightScotland obviously plays a larger role than just as a source of jokes about the weather. The location is integral to the story. This is one of those episodes I would like to go back and incorporate into my thesis paper about Doctor Who‘s use of the fairy tale tradition. While fairy tales aren’t uniquely Celtic, there is a specific folk tradition which is very particularly flavored by the lore and myths of the native folk of the British isles. The ghostly music that accompanies the standing stones; the haunted cairns (“doors between worlds,” the Doctor explains); the time distortion once the Doctor travels through the portal (he calls it an “inter dimensional temporal rift” but you know he really means “magic door”, right?) — all evoke the Celtic Otherworld.

This, then, is the true legacy of Britain. The barbaric, pagan, and painted Picts with all their wildness, bravery, and magic versus the thoroughly modern and civilized Romans.  The Picts have nationalism in its pure and patriotic form — love for their culture and their people rather than the nation-state. The Roman soldiers might have nice toilets, but when it comes to it these soldiers flee rather than fight to the death for their Empire. And can you blame them? In the end their bravery is only sparked when the stakes become real to them and the fate of their world depends on it. They join with the Picts to fight the only way soldiers should — in defense of something rather than for gain or domination. Idealistic though it may be, Bill’s use of the TARDIS translation circuit to facilitate communication between these two cultures that are literally talking past each other makes for a really lovely moment. The only hope in times of war is for ordinary people to realize their common humanity. It’s not about one group defeating and absorbing the other. It’s about two cultures coming together in all their differences to fight for a common good.

What a positive sentiment to end on. “The Eaters of Light” functions as a capstone to what some have identified as the mythic strain of the Moffat era, a strain that is often sadly overlooked in favor of his more ostentatious structural cleverness. Ambitious as they are these episodes aren’t always the most well-regarded of his era and yet represent an important aspect of his philosophy of Doctor Who. I’ve managed to avoid most spoilers for the two-part season finale (apart from THE BIG ONE) but I have heard that it indulges Moffat’s darker tendencies. I fully expect to see Moffat’s more twisted psyche unleashed in these next couple of episodes and yet…Moffat is in essence a romantic writer. The dueling impulses of hope and bleakness should make for an interesting clash in the culmination to his era, and will not reflect our current corporate psychological conflict in any way, I’m sure.

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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