Alpha Centauri lives: The story behind that eye-opening cameo in Doctor Who’s Empress of Mars

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Blink, and you’ll miss it. (Don’t blink.)

Last weekend’s episode of Doctor Who, “Empress of Mars,” had something for everyone, from fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom tales and Victorian machismo in general to classic “bug-eyed monsters” and foundations of futuristic federations.

But snuck in at the end is a character with Doctor Who television roots as long as its droopy … tentacles? The ultimate BEM, as it were.

The squeaky-voiced Alpha Centauri, introduced at the end of the new episode, has met the Doctor before. He/She/It is an alien delegate of the Galactic Federation, and it’s in that context we usually see it (let’s just call it an “it”) interacting with the Ice Warriors, ancient Martians displaced by their planet’s demise, in that context. (The Ice Warriors are one of the great Doctor Who “monsters” who are more complicated than simple villains — warlike but honorable, like Klingons with better table manners.)

The behind-the-scenes feature above, released by the BBC, goes into the background of the hysterical “hermaphroditic hexapod” known as Alpha Centauri. Episode writer Mark Gatiss, who promised “Empress” would be a different kind of Ice Warriors story, nearly cackles with glee in the video that he got away with bringing the character back.

It’s really, in retrospect, one of those things we should have seen coming. If only we’d kept one eye open …

Alpha Centauri forever!

Actress Ysanne Churchman, who played Alpha Centauri in 1972’s “Curse of Peladon” and ’74’s “Monster of Peladon” when Jon Pertwee pretended to control the TARDIS, actually reprised the role for “Empress of Mars”; she’s 92 years old now. As current series star Peter Capaldi notes in the video feature, casting consistency wasn’t exactly compulsory here — but it sure is nice! (The character of Alpha Centauri also returned in a 2008 Big Finish Productions audio drama, “The Bride of Paladon,” but the voice was performed by frequent Big Finish character actor Jane Goddard instead. I was saddened to hear that, but it’s well worth a listen anyway.)

Alpha Centauri: the NSFW BEM?

While the character’s defining feature is a giant eye, and sometimes a grape in profile or from behind, many (including Who insiders of the past, ironically one named Terrance Dicks) have noted its resemblance to aspects of human male anatomy — something a genderless alien would probably find amusing at best, if not completely befuddling and barbaric. But that’s how Alpha Centauri always viewed Earth people …

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Jayson Peters

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