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Doctor Who’s “The Empress of Mars” was OK Until Mark Gatiss Opened His Mouth

Doctor Who’s “The Empress of Mars” was OK Until Mark Gatiss Opened His Mouth

We’re getting close to the end of this season of Doctor Who and I’m clinging to Capaldi and Mackie like a 5-year-old just told she has to surrender her favorite dolls. “But you’re going to get new dolls,” they tell me. I don’t want the new ones. I want these ones.

This week’s episode takes place on Mars, one of the most beloved locations for science fiction. Before we get there, however, let me set the scene. British troops stationed in 1888 South Africa discover an alien ship. They end up saving its inhabitant and name him Friday after the character in Robinson Crusoe. Much has been written about the general racist nature of that book, racism was really en vogue then. By naming the alien Friday, these troops feed into that narrative of the British being colonizers who care little for the ways of indigenous life and don’t even see them as people worthy of respect. They named him after a thing that is specific to the English speaking world, a world they largely created through imposing their will over several countries. I say all that to say that I knew these people were jerks the minute I heard the name and I knew where this episode was going.

Photo Credit: BBC America/Simon Ridgway/Stuart Crouch

Back to the present. Friday uses the promise of treasure to get the soldiers to help him back to his home, Mars. The soldiers, of course, go with him and make their camp on the planet, which apparently supports human life. Meanwhile, years in the future, the Doctor and Bill are randomly watching a NASA launch when they all see a message written on the sands of Mars: God Save the Queen. The Doctor smiles in glee and they’re off to Mars.

The main plot of this episode involved the British soldiers, who wanted to leave Mars richer than they arrived, interacting with what was left of the inhabitants of Mars — the Ice Warriors. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Friday’s reason for returning to Mars was to be with his Empress. She lies on a gold and jewel encrusted tomb. One of the soldiers, unable to resist his greed, drugs a fellow soldier in order to get the chance to steal from the tomb. The Empress awakens and kills him causing chaos in the camp. As the now massed soldiers aim their guns at the Empress, the Doctor puts himself in the middle, begging her to spare them. The soldiers, now led by a man named Catchlove (which is ironic because all he did was throw hate), are having none of this. Let’s look at an interaction between the Doctor and Catchlove:

Photo Credit: BBC America/Jon Hall

The Doctor: The simple fact is you don’t belong here. The sooner you get off this planet, the better.
Catchlove: “Don’t belong here”? We’re British! Mars is part of the Empire now!

Are you getting what kind of person this is? Later in the episode, he sacrifices the only black soldier to save himself. Yeah, he’s a keeper. Occasionally, I’ll have a visceral reaction to British Imperialism. Watching soldiers basking in their entitlement to basically anywhere they go and anything they touch fed into that. Watching them act as patronizing masters or violent oppressors to the indigenous life definitely fed into that. So basically the soldiers and their mission rubbed me the wrong way. Despite that, I ended the episode feeling mostly positive about the episode, though it wasn’t one that I would call memorable. The Empress was interesting. The Doctor struggling to keep the peace between 2 groups with ideologically opposing views has been a common theme this season and I’ve enjoyed seeing each instance. A coward found redemption. My only criticism would have been that Bill was underutilized. I like what she did, but I would have preferred more.

Photo Credit: BBC America/Jon Hall

However, the post-ep press surrounding the episode changed how I felt about it. In an interview, Mark Gatiss, who penned the episode, indicated that he felt troubled by the casting of a black soldier because: “there weren’t any black soldiers in Victoria’s army.” He then went on to tell a story about how he researched an actual black Victorian soldier, thereby proving his initial assessment wrong (pro-tip: next time trying doing the research before being loud and wrong about history). He became inspired by a story of a regiment rescuing a young black boy and dragging him around with them. “And they made him their mascot,” Gatiss said of the boy, who they named Jimmy Durham after the man who cared for him and the name of the regiment. He was so inspired that he incorporated pieces of Durham’s story into the episode.

Photo Credit: BBC America/Simon Ridgway

I read this and thought of the soldiers in the episode rescuing Friday, naming him without any thought to him already having a name and then using him as a servant. I thought of that and replaced the giant, strong alien with a small, black boy. I thought of that and how Gatiss felt entitled enough to make his initial statement and share it without wondering if he was wrong first. I thought of all of that and even Bill’s beautiful smile and jealousy-inducing high pony couldn’t save this episode for me.

The next episode of Doctor Who will air Saturday at 8 PM EST on BBC America. Join me for the livetweet over at @BlackGirlGeeks.

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