‘Cold War’, written by Mark Gatiss, sees the welcome return of the Ice Warriors to Doctor Who (onscreen anyway). It brings with it the feel of a tradition ‘base under siege’ coupled with a homage to Alien.
It is an engaging story with a claustrophobic environment and some genuine scares.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN!
While I have enjoyed Mark Gatiss’s other work I’ve always found his stories for Doctor Who rather lackluster. Until this episode the best was ‘The Unquiet Dead’. What is undeniable is that he is a big fan of the series and it really shows in ‘Cold War’.
Not only does it have the return of a Classic monster but it has the feel of a 2nd Doctor story, right down to the reintroduction of the HADs system. This is a perfect match for the 11th Doctor as Matt Smith has always portrayed the character much in the vein of Patrick Troughton’s performance.
The opening sequence is great, a sweeping shot that establishes we are in the Antarctic in the 1980s where a Soviet submarine is running military exercises. We are introduced to Captain Zhukov, who believes that the exercise is mere sabre rattling, his first officer Stepashin, who believes that the aggression of the US must be countered, and Professor Grisenko, who disrupts the drill and has a love of Ultravox.
This quickly establishes the characters, their relationship to each other and the themes of the episode. Right from the start I was impressed by this level of deft writing.
The only thing that initially confused me was the British accents, which with the mention of exercises, made me think for a moment that this was British submarine pretending to be a Soviet submarine in a war game.
It makes sense that they were being translated for our convenience but the presence of an accent can be helpful to establish country of origin. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a good example of this.
The first reveal of the Ice Warrior, initially trapped in a block of ice, is also effective. While it strains credibility that anyone would mistake it for a Mammoth or that a sailor would defrost it before they returned to Russia it made for a great end to the trailer, the Ice Warriors arm thrusting out of the ice to throttle his first victim.
The Doctor and Clara’s arrival, having intended to land in Las Vegas, amidst chaos was well done. Nothing like throwing the Doctor and his companion into the deep end. A sinking sub, water flooding in, the TARDIS dematerialising and surrounded by angry Russian sailors.
This level of tension set the bar for the rest of the story. We are constantly reminded of the danger everyone is in. Not only from the alien within but the unforgiving environment outside.
Another factor that makes this feel more like Classic Who than New Who (if that distinction has any merit at all) is the way that the Doctor is upfront about his nature to Captain Zhukov. He makes a point of saying that he isn’t using his psychic paper and the story can only benefit from the shedding of this overused plot device.
With the Ice Warrior free it isn’t long before he confronts the humans (and Time Lord). Introduced as Skaldak the design of the costume is a successful update, retaining the recognisable form while making it acceptable to the eyes of modern day viewer.
The Doctor’s apprehension, coupled with the imposing design of the Ice Warrior, communicates why Skaldak should be feared. Even though he is soon restrained there is a suitable level of menace.
Appropriately for a story set during the cold war this is the Doctor trying to avoid a diplomatic incident that could end all life on Earth. This has often been the Doctor’s approach, particularly with 3rd Doctor stories but he rarely meets with success.
With the Ice Warrior escaping the confines of its suit we are tantalised with our first glimpse of their natural form. While I can certainly appreciate the intention this does feel like an effort to leave a mark on the Ice Warriors, to further define them in a way that really didn’t need to be.
The episode is reminiscent of ‘Alien’ with the Skaldak showing an amazing capacity to pop up from unexpected directions and dispatch people in a most grizzly manner. It is refreshing to see the show not shy away from the horror aspect of the series, even if Clara’s reaction to seeing someone dismembered is underwhelming.
The stakes get even higher when Skaldak learns about the nuclear weapons onboard from Stepashin. This leads into the central theme of the episode, the idea of mutually assured destruction. Two sides who could kill the other at the cost of their own lives. Who will blink first?
This story could have been told in any time period and still be relevant but by setting it during the 1980s, when humanity was faced with such a decision, makes the theme so much stronger. An excellent example of a writer making use of the time travel aspect of the show to set the story in an appropriate period.
The final scenes with the Doctor pointing out that a nuclear weapon, which kills indiscriminately, is not a warriors weapon was very reminiscent of similar scenes in ‘Battlefield’. In both cases they show that humanity is capable of creating things that even the ‘bad guys’ balk at.
I enjoyed how there wasn’t an easy solution. It depended entirely on faith in how the other side would behave. Skaldak had almost launched nuclear weapons because he was alone, only for his people to save him and the Doctor almost killed everyone on the submarine because he thought that Skaldak might not release control of the nukes.
Both waited, both held on to hope long enough that they were saved from killing others. That test of nerve is exactly why the cold war never turned hot.
Hopefully we’ll see the Ice Warriors return now they’ve been reintroduced and they have at least one costume they can use in the future. There is also plenty of room here for future novels and audio plays detailing the Doctor and Clara’s journey from the North to the South Pole.
I have mixed feelings about the reveal of what was under the Ice Warrior armour. Its claws were suitably scary, especially when caressing the heads of his victims, but the CGI was hit and miss. This was particularly evident when it was lurking in the shadows. It was better when it had its helmet off and, while still not perfect, was preferable to the too human look of the new Silurians.
Having said that the special effects and set design was really good. In a story where the setting and environment are essential to the adventure this really added my overall enjoyment.
The guest stars this week were very good. David Warner, another actor who has played the Doctor in the audios, was nice as the quirky professor although his insistence that Clara sing seemed odd, almost as if there was a deeper significance (is ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’ supposed to remind us of ‘Bad Wolf’?)
Liam Cunningham was an imposing presence, a soldier placed in a difficult situation and not sure who to trust. Tobias Menzies was suitably villainous, at one point urging Skaldak to initiate nuclear war.
Nicolas Briggs did an excellent job bringing character to Skaldak. His deep, rumbling voice and hissing crafted clear identity for the Ice Warrior, distinct from his work on the Daleks and Cybermen.
Clara is probably the weakest point. As mentioned previously she is curiously unaffected by events on the submarine, other than to comment that things have gotten ‘real’. On a positive note she once again shows a capacity for empathy that allows her to bond with others.
This really felt like a refocusing of Doctor Who, capturing the magic of the earlier series. This is entirely appropriate as we move towards the 50th Anniversary.