‘Doctor Who’ Regeneration Review: ‘The Empress Of Mars’ Helps Bill Stand Out From All The Men

The Doctor Who Regeneration Review is a weekly column cataloging all the times Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor nearly regenerates, or dies, in the latest episode of BBC America’s popular science fiction show. Since this is the Scottish “cross” character’s final season — a fact the showrunners have enjoyed teasing in the promos — we decided to tease back. Most items are serious, some silly, and all measured with the Doctor’s ?.

Toward the end of Matt Smith’s final season as the 11th Doctor, writer Mark Gatiss reintroduced Doctor Who fans to a classic villain whose presence hadn’t made itself known for decades. An Ice Warrior aboard a Cold War-era submarine in the aptly named “Cold War” paid homage to the Martian reptilian species’ somewhat corny appearance, but not at the expense of the warmongering race’s penchant for violence. The well-armored killing machine didn’t disappoint despite Smith’s repeated attempts to intervene, and considering the episode’s popularity, the baddie’s presence was sure to garner a sequel of sorts.

Sure enough, the Gatiss-written “The Empress of Mars” (which, like “Cold War,” is its season’s ninth episode) transports the 12th Doctor, Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) to the Ice Warriors’ home planet during the Victorian era. “Victorian,” of course, because a quick visit to what appears to be NASA in the modern day reveals the phrase “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” scrawled across the surface of Mars in really big rocks — prompting an immediate T.A.R.D.I.S. trip and investigation. After the Doctor’s trusty ship unexpectedly absconds with Nardole back to earth, however, the Doctor and Bill find themselves at the mercy of a British regimen of soldiers and a somewhat dilapidated Ice Warrior nicknamed “Friday” (Richard Ashton).

With a fearsome antagonist like the Ice Warriors, “The Empress of Mars” is rife with plenty of near-death experiences for the Doctor. Yet what Gatiss and director Wayne Yip, who helmed last week’s “The Lie of the Land,” accomplish here is more than just regurgitating an older part of the Doctor Who rogues gallery. As the writer notes, “there’s a new kind of Ice Warrior,” the Ice Warrior Queen Iraxxa (Adele Lynch). What’s more, a stirring moment between her and Bill amends the previous episodes’ somewhat flippant use (or lack thereof) of the Doctor’s human companion in a manner not unlike “Oxygen” and, to a lesser extent, “Thin Ice.”

“Basic death” (?)

After NASA discovers “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” scrawled across the Martian surface, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole immediately speed over to the planet after pinpointing the marker’s creation in or around the year 1881. They immediately come across a burning fire deep within a series of underground caverns, leading Bill to exclaims, “If there’s fire, there’s got to be oxygen!” “Let’s not be rash,” the Doctor exclaims. “I’ll go first.” At which point Nardole removes his helmet while noting how obvious the presence of oxygen is considering the flickering flames. “Basic physics, isn’t it?” “Could have been basic death,” the Doctor retorts.

“I wasn’t talking to you” (????)

Luckily for everyone involved, removing their helmets didn’t result in death — basic or otherwise. However, the Doctor’s subsequent discovery of a lone Ice Warrior certainly upped the stakes in terms of his eventual regeneration. Especially when the two come face to face, resulting in the Time Lord’s quick references to his past (and more peaceful) experience with the native Martian population. That’s when a human British soldier turns up. “Don’t move! I’ll sort this bugger out,” the Victorian exclaims. When the Doctor interjects on the Ice Warrior’s behalf, the soldier corrects him with a warning shot. “I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Who the devil is this?” (?????)

All things considered, the soldier’s warning shot was one of the humans’ best throughout the entire episode. For when a greedy, older member of the guard can’t keep his hands of the golden, bejeweled tomb of Iraxxa, he inadvertently awakens the Ice Warrior Queen and her hive. Pretty much every shot fired after this point ricochets off the Ice Warriors’ armor, while the blasts from their arm cannons collapse the human targets into crunched-up balls of broken bones and mangled flesh. Despite all the mayhem, however, Iraxxa’s introduction amplifies Bill’s place in all of this when the queen interrupts the Doctor and the soldiers to ask for her opinion. “We are both surrounded by noisy males,” she hisses. “I would value your opinion.”

“We must live together or die together” (??????)

Despite the startling elevation of Bill above her fellow (albeit male) humans and the male (for now) Doctor, a nervous soldier’s misfire ultimately pits Iraxxa’s Ice Warriors against the whole lot of them. The latter present a united front against the British invaders, despite Friday’s eventual alliance with Bill and the Doctor in order to secure a peaceful resolution, while the Victorians generally fall into disarray. All of which leaves the Doctor no choice but to commandeer the drilling weapon devised by Friday in the hopes of threatening Iraxxa and her forces into a truce. The gamble thankfully works.

“Are you all right?” (????)

Before the Doctor’s first encounter with Friday, Nardole seemingly left him and Bill behind after taking off in the T.A.R.D.I.S. We know he wasn’t the one responsible for the ship’s disappearance, as literally no one was moving the controls when it blasted back into the future. This minor subplot found Nardole unable to command the ship back to Mars 1881, resulting in his seeking Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) advice, which morphed into his letting her out of the vault. “This can’t happen. This is not what we agreed to,” a stone-faced Doctor tells her. “I’m going to have to put you back in the vault.” “That’s fine,” she says before approaching him. “Are you all right?” Needless to say, their close proximity is nerve-wracking.

New episodes of Doctor Who air Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.