This post contains spoilers for the recent Doctor Who episode “Cold War”. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, don’t read on.
I may be jumping the gun slightly here, as last week’s episode of Doctor Who took a repeat watch before I realised just how much I enjoyed it, despite the niggling little issues I had with it. Tonight’s episode, Cold War, was one I was looking forward to, due to the high regard in which it’s been held by previewers, however I must admit I wasn’t as satisfied with the finished product as I’d been hoping.
Firstly though, I’ll concentrate on the positives. This episode was the first one in a while which genuinely felt like a ‘classic’ episode of Doctor Who. Aside from the return of an old enemy, the Ice Warriors, the close-quarters nature of the submarine in which the action was set meant that we could enjoy a largely CGI-free 45 minutes. Such is the epic and grand scale of much of current Doctor Who that CGI is used frequently (albeit to wonderful effect). Cold War, conversely, gave us scale models and real sets, showing that hi-tech wizardry isn’t always required to provide the audience with a visual feast. The direction of the episode was outstanding, giving us a real tangible feeling of suspense, especially once the Ice Warrior himself discarded his protective suit and started to hunt the crew, in a style similar to James Cameron’s Alien.
It seems we have seen the Doctor’s first sonic screwdriver with a ‘red’ setting, first hinted at when we saw River Song’s screwdriver in Silence in the Library a few years ago. It seems therefore that we’re heading toward the moment the Doctor gives River that screwdriver, which I’m willing to bet happens in the final episode of this series, or perhaps the 50th Anniversary special. More importantly though, I was chuffed to see Mark Gatiss writing in a situation where the Doctor was separated from his sonic as well as the TARDIS, something I’d been hoping for in a previous blog entry. On this subject, I note that the TARDIS now has a restored Hostile Action Displacement System (H.A.D.S.), which in the classic series was created to remove the TARDIS from dangerous or violent situations. I will return to this shortly.
I enjoyed some of the performances in Cold War, not least David Warner as Professor Grisenko, the resident scientist on the submarine, and Tobias Menzies as Lieutenant Stepashin harked back to the classic days of Who – the turncoat who tries to partner up with the key antagonist of the episode a la Tekker in Timelash. And of course the return of the Ice Warriors provided the costuming department with the unenviable task of creating a new, credible look for the Martians which had the feel of the classic monster without looking hackneyed or out of date. Grand Marshall Skaldak (for that is his name) was realised very well indeed, and casting a 6’7″ actor in Spencer Wilding was an excellent move.
In general however, Cold War didn’t quite hit me like some previous episodes have. It didn’t feel like an episode which was part of a “series” – in that it could have been put in anywhere and didn’t link to anything we’d seen earlier – and the Doctor and Clara being there in the first place just didn’t seem to make any sense. According to the Doctor, they were heading for Las Vegas and clearly totally got the time and destination absolutely wrong, despite the previous episode suggesting that the Doctor had just got the hang of his aim and skill at piloting the TARDIS. What happened to the days of the Doctor checking where they were after he landed before opening the police box doors? I appreciate that Neil Gaiman established in The Doctor’s Wife that the TARDIS regularly goes where the Doctor NEEDS to go rather than where he WANTS to go, but I still feel that their presence on a Russian submarine in 1983 was a little contrived.
The opening sequence too puzzled me. The Ice Warrior was sealed in thick ice from the outset. We hear from one of the crew guarding the creature that Professor Grisenko wanted to wait to return to his laboratory before releasing the beast from its icy prison, however that same crew member decides (for no apparent reason except for mere curiosity) to blatantly disobey orders and takes a blowtorch to the frozen block, allowing Skaldak his escape.
Shortly after the Doctor and Clara arrive, and are captured by the Russians (and for some reason not immediately shot) the H.A.D.S. kicks in and removes the TARDIS from trouble. I very much hope that the Doctor disables this device as soon as he returns to his craft, as this is a far too simple way for future writers to remove the TARDIS from the Doctor’s reach. We have seen a good example of how this can be done effectively in The Almost People/The Rebel Flesh, where we see the ship sucked into the ground early in the first episode, only to be rediscovered at the end of the second. Simple, but effective, and an excellent way to make things more difficult for the Doctor and his companions.
Something about Clara bugged me throughout Cold War. Assuming this episode is set after The Rings of Akhaten, we know that Clara has already been uploaded into a Wi-fi cloud and directly battled a sun-sized parasitic creature in space. I would have thought then that she would now be on the way to fully-fledged ‘companion’, especially given that they were supposed to be on their way to a jolly in Las Vegas. I sensed much more doubt in her this week, which surprised me, as she certainly didn’t seem full of self-doubt last week as she flung herself across space on a moped to save the universe from a planet-scoffing alien sun, armed with just a leaf.
I found the majority of this episode mostly forgettable, sadly. I never really believed that we were on a Russian submarine – surely an accent of some sort from the cast might have helped there – but for me Cold War was a little….dare I say it….dull. The middle 30 minutes tended to just trudge along, with a few stops for conversation, in which we learned precious little about the characters, culminating in the final showdown in which the Doctor threatens to destroy the sub rather than allow Skaldak to fire the nuclear missiles on board. The trouble with this scene was that I just didn’t believe that the Doctor would have carried out his threat, and as such it seemed far too obvious that in the end, Skaldak wouldn’t press the button. For the second week in a row, Clara stepped in to defeat the enemy where the Doctor failed, with a callback to an earlier throwaway conversation with the Martian about his daughter. It was during this scene we were shown Skaldak’s face without his helmet, which, compared to some of the special effects we’ve seen in recent years, was terribly unconvincing.
I felt that we’d seen the basic premise of this episode before. The lonely monster, the last of its kind, captured on Earth – all factors explored in the Eccleston episode “Dalek”. It’s a clever way to reintroduce a species we haven’t seen in the Whoniverse for around 40 years, granted, but it was all a little bit of a rehash. It worked in “Dalek”, as there was an obvious comparison between said Dalek and that incarnation of the Doctor, who was also the last of his kind due to his recent actions in the unseen Time War. It didn’t have the same impact here.
The ending of the episode was all a little ‘E.T. Phone Home’, featuring the inevitable return of the rest of Skaldak’s species who came to pick him up in their pretty cheaply rendered CGI spaceship. At this point we learn that the TARDIS has relocated itself at the South Pole, and not the North Pole, where the episode is set. Most amusing indeed, but it all felt a little sitcom-y. I can only guess that the Doctor has an override system built into his sonic screwdriver, because I’m not sure that he or Clara would get very far travelling on foot, given that Clara is only wearing a wet evening dress and the Doctor’s jacket doesn’t look like it will keep much of the cold out.
I have a feeling that Cold War will be one of those episodes which will be popular with a great many people, as the things it does well, it does very well. And I’m sure we’ll see Skaldak and the rest of the Ice Warriors in the future, and I must state that I’m not against this generally. It is refreshing to encounter a Doctor Who monster who actually can be reasoned with, unlike the Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels et al. But the episode itself, I feel is somewhat of a let down after the building up of the return of the Ice Warriors.