10.9 The Empress of Mars
The Empress of Mars provides a one-sided view of colonialism and empire state building. On the one hand it rightfully critiques old school colonialism as practiced by the major western powers until the 1960s. On the other hand, its stark and blunt portrayals of old school colonialism masks the dangers of neo-colonialism which often uses the language of self-defense and humanitarian intervention to disguise its true selfish purpose. It is easy to see how antiqued and horrible the Victorian soldiers’ attitude towards Mars is. But it is important to remember that modern actions are not above reproach. The fact of the matter is that we try to hide the horrific actions perpetrated by western military intervention throughout the world.
In the Empress of Mars, the Doctor, Nardole, and Bill come across a handful of Victorian British soldiers…on Mars. And needless to say their attitude is a bit…well dated. This is most vividly and humorously expressed when the soldiers scoff at the notion of a female police officer.
BILL: Well, we’re sort of police.
DOCTOR: Speak for yourself.
BILL: What, you can deal with big green Martians and, and, and rocket ships, but you can’t deal with us being the police?
GODSACRE: No, no, no, no, no. It’s just such a fanciful notion. A woman in the police force.
BILL: Listen, yeah? I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes because, well, you actually are Victorian.
But their dated attitudes are also expressed in their frequent references to the British Empire. Tied with notions of empire are of course individual greed.
One striking aspect of this conversation is how blunt and nonchalant Catchlove is. He freely admits that their purpose is to gain personal wealth and to expand the British Empire. Today, while you might hear such candid discussions in leaked government memos or conversations, “empire building” is now often discussed in terms of self-defense or humanitarian intervention. This is not to suggest that old-school colonialism also did not pretend to adhere some higher humanitarian or divine mission, but they were also pretty clear that they believed it was their divine mission to conquer and tame “savage” civilizations. Today the conversation centers around notions of self-defense and helping the marginalized, even though modern western military action often endangers both national security and the very marginalized groups it claims to save.
In this episode, it becomes clear early on that Catchlove is the villain of the story. And for many of us today, we can clearly point to how devastating and awful European colonialism was. Acknowledging the awfulness of the past and making reparations to those who suffered is a must, but at the same time, such an attitude makes it easy to pretend that our modern day actions are not as horrific as those committed in the past.
For instance, the war in Iraq was based around false notions of self-defense. The US claimed it needed to attack Iraq because Saddam Hussein was tied to al Qaeda and had weapons of mass destruction. The nation was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration attempted to exploit the nation’s renewed thirst for military violence and the wider world’s sympathy for America’s pain in order to ram through their military and political objectives. Of course, as it became increasingly clear Saddam Hussein had no ties to al Qaeda. (Shough he did support other terrorist organizations at some points during his reign. See Trump’s Saddam.)
When it became clear that the there were no weapons of mass destruction or evidence of Saddam Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda, justifications quickly took on a humanitarian tone. Conversation shifted to how horrible Saddam Hussein was. Of course it was true. Hussein was a vicious dictator and as a dictator the rights, freedoms, and even lives of his citizens mattered little. His concern was with political power. However, if that were truly the impetus behind the 2003 war in Iraq then Saddam Hussein should have been removed a long time ago. And if concern for human rights really is the basis of American military intervention, then allies such as Israel and Egypt would be at the receiving end of our military might rather than beneficiaries via money and arms. The discourse on human rights often serves to legitimize unjust western action regardless of the consequences.
In addition to claiming that the only reason they helped this ice warrior that they decided to name Friday (see how colonialism has no qualms about renaming the people and lands they have conquered) they have turned him into little more than a glorified butler/slave. Though of course, as it becomes clear, the belief that Catchlove and the soldiers have control over “Friday” backfires spectacularly. A key part of European colonialism was turning the portion of the population that survived disease and slaughter, into slaves. Modern western intervention, often depicted as fighting for the rights of marginalized groups, of course rejects enslaving the population. Yet westerners seek to control the population in other ways including by enforcing their notion of democracy which is less about human rights and more about capitalism. This form of capitalism seeks to place western and private interests over the needs and desires of non-western nations.
In this case, the Doctor is warning Catchlove and the other British soldiers to leave. Mainly for their benefit since the Doctor recognizes that Friday was tricking the British. But Catchlove stubbornly refuses to leave because Mars is now the property of the British Empire. Plus, of course they belong. The British have a mandate from their empire and from God to conquer. They belong everywhere. One may be tempted to say, “well, there. Today, such a notion of owning another country is completely off base. At least for westerners.” (SARCASM ALERT: Because westerners are supposedly the most enlightened of people who are above petty political squabbles revolving around “owning” others.).
But while western powers may not claim to “own” other people or their countries, there is a continued presumption of the right to use their land at will. For instance, the United States continues to build bases throughout the world, in developed and in developing countries. While the bases need to be built with the support of the hosting nation, American imperialism thinks nothing of building/maintaining thousands of bases throughout the world-something it would loathe to allow other nations to do. Moreover, because the US is such a power house, it can threaten to withhold much needed aid to any country that refuses to give in to US demands.
In The Empress of Mars, the critique of British colonialism is obvious. Catchlove in particular is portrayed as selfish, egotistical, and greedy. He does not even pretend to hide the fact that he and the other British soldiers arrived on Mars to gain riches nor does he gloss over his belief that Mars rightfully belongs to the Empire. Yet this bluntness also hides the nefarious character of modern day western action throughout the world. Whether or not recent foreign interventions such as the war in Iraq can technically be called colonialism is up to debate, (though I personally view it as a form of colonialism) western action continues to devastate and is often based on the notion that western countries have a right and duty to intervene in other countries affairs or to topple governments. The language used to disguise such misadventures reference self defense and human rights, but the aftermath is filled with death and destruction. In other words, modern western countries have more in common with the likes of Catchlove then they would like to admit.