Doctor Who #910: Cold War

"Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It's the Eighties. Everything's bigger."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.13 2013.

IN THIS ONE... There's an Ice Warrior aboard a Russian submarine.

REVIEW: When I was told how to decode Mark Gatiss episodes by About Time, it sort of ruined them for me. Gatiss usually builds his stories by referencing others, in this case, 80s culture, submarine movies, Alien-style trapped-with-a-monster movies, and older Ice Warriors episodes. Thankfully, those elements are more disparate than, say, The Unquiet Dead's Dickens movies or The Idiot Lantern's 50s nostalgia. I could still do without the Russian scientist who loves 80s bands, but overall, Cold War is an effective claustrophobic thriller that successfully brings the Ice Warriors into the new series. A lot of this is down to the direction, which more or less does Warriors of the Deep as it was meant to be made, in close quarters with water leaking everywhere and the lights going out. Director Douglas Mackinnon also gives us a cool opening sequence, flying over the North Pole before plunging into its cold waters.

I was pleasantly surprised at how the idea of the Cold War was converted from the pun that apparently inspired the premise to resonating theme. The Doctor's confrontation with the Ice Warrior is brought to the brink of mutually-assured destruction just like the West and the U.S.S.R. are. Unfortunately, the plotting could have done with another draft. It keeps falling short of greatness. For example, we're treated to Clara faced with her first dead bodies (and in a gorier state than what companions are usually exposed to). After that, she's distracted, unfocused, in shock, and Professor Grisenko keenly notices and tries to make her laugh and take her mind off things. Except he's not so keen because Gatiss makes Clara talk about it; it's a most unwitty and obvious moment. And so it goes. All the jerks aboard the submarine are the ones to die, all of them two-dimensional men. The sailor who thaws out the Ice Warrior simply can't wait for the boat to reach a port to see what's inside the ice, unreasonable mutiny if there ever was such a thing. Stepashin, played by Rome's Tobias Menzies, is one of those guys who sees spies everywhere and wants the Cold War to grow hot because that's what Cold War villains want. The Captain is more reasonable, so he survives. The Professor is kind of sweet and silly, so he survives (I can't help but think this shabby loon is a bit of a waste of David Warner's gravitas though). It all ends with a deus ex machina as a slick Ice Warrior ship arrives to tug the sub out of the water, transmat the antagonist out of there, and fixes the fatalistic Ice Warrior's dilemma. Oh, somehow Skaldak still needs coaxing not to destroy the Earth, which forces us to believe the Doctor can't stop the missiles from firing with a buzz from his sonic screwdriver. Come on now.

The reintroduction of the Ice Warriors is a success, I think, though classic Who fans may think it derivative. A lot of The Ice Warriors, with bits from Warriors of the Deep and Battlefield. The big attraction, of course, is that we get to see what's under the biomechanical armor, and the production wisely makes us wait for it, adding a certain frisson to the episode. I'm not entirely in love with the CG used to make Skaldak speak, mind you, but in the suit, he moves with a lot more speed and power than was ever achieved in the old days (and they are old, the Martians hadn't been seen since 1974). Cold War makes Skaldak a threat, but also a great hero in relation to his people, someone who could indeed make the choice he does at the end, and who gets the Doctor's respect throughout. The exterior look hasn't changed a lot, but the martial culture and heroism described in the dialog is perhaps the greater redesign, closer to what's been established in the extracanon than in the Ice Warriors' original stories. It's my hope they will appear again in the future, and that we might get to visit Mars in its heyday. Skaldak's portrayal of the race as sharp, passionate and honor-bound makes them deserve additional outings.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Nice to see the Ice Warriors again, and the direction is excellent, but the plotting is rather hackneyed.


Brian said...

"I could still do without the Russian scientist who loves 80s bands..."

Screw that noise, I vote for ALL the characters -- in ALL the episodes -- loving 80s bands! It's a show about time travel, it's totally doable!


Andrew Gilbertson said...

This was my favorite new monster reintroduction, partly because it was the most accurate. Daleks tweaked things, Cybermen did its own thing (Ugh), Sontarrans matched the description their first episode in the 70s gave but their subsequent appearences drifted from, Silurians just screwed everything up... but this played it completely straight. It just gave us the same Ice Warriors with more detail. I like that- no need to tinker with what already works.


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