Doctor Who Series 7 Episode 9 review: Cold War

Posted: 24 April 2013 in entertainment, television
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After an absence of nearly 40 years the Ice Warriors make a triumphant return to Doctor Who as Cold War pays homage to the base-under-siege stories so prevalent in the Patrick Troughton era.

Cold War

It’s an Ice Warrior. A native of the planet Mars. And we go way back…WAY back.

In the pantheon of Doctor Who monsters the Ice Warriors rank alongside the Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans and Weeping Angels in terms of popularity. Yet, inexplicably the reptilian Martians had been absent from televised Doctor Who since 1974’s The Monster of Peladon, the penultimate outing for Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. With their lumbering gait and supposedly barely audible utterances of dialogue current showrunner Steven Moffat viewed the Ice Warriors as the epitome of the archetypal naff Doctor Who monster and was reluctant to resurrect them for a 21st century audience. In fact for naff Doctor Who monsters examine the likes of the Mandrals from Nightmare of Eden, the Tetraps from Time and the Rani and the Slitheen from Aliens of London/World War Three. Inept lumbering creations and cautionary tales in not how to design monsters.

Thankfully Moffat’s friend and fellow Sherlock writer Mark Gatiss felt differently and across several years fought tooth and claw for the return of the Ice Warriors. With Cold War Gatiss not only succeeded in bringing the Ice Warriors back in style but has also restored them to glory in the same way that 2005’s Dalek made the creations of Terry Nation a cultural icon once more.

After all the convolutions of “Doctor who?”, lots of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff with River Song and a so-far-not-so-interesting mystery related to Clara’s heritage, Cold War is a welcome return to basics for Doctor Who with the tried and tested formula of group of humans trapped in a confined space with escape impossible and at the mercy of a relentless monster. This “base-under-siege” scenario was a popular hallmark of the 5th Season of classic Doctor Who (the second for Patrick Troughton’s Doctor) and produced such classics as The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Web of Fear and The Ice Warriors, the debut outing for the reptilian Martians.

At the heart of Cold War lay Grand Marshal Skaldak, the Ice Warrior who is “sovereign of the Tharsisian Caste” and “vanquisher of the Phobos Heresy”. Physically portrayed by Spencer Wilding and voiced by Nicholas Briggs (who is also responsible for the vocalisation of the Daleks and Cybermen, and also regularly voices Ice Warriors for various Big Finish productions) Skaldak was characterised along the lines established by Ice Warrior creator Brian Hayles in the 1960s and 1970s, namely as an honourable but ruthless when required warrior.

A key innovation of Cold War, and one that probably helped convince Moffat to finally bring back the Ice Warriors, were the scenes where Skaldak shed his cybernetic armour and began to eliminate submariners in scenes that referenced Alien. A trait of the revived Doctor Who has been the ability to give the classic monsters innovative twists when they are resurrected. The introduction of the unarmoured three-fingered hands of an Ice Warrior was likely a homage to the protrusions of the Martians from the 1953 film adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Both sides are capable of completely obliterating the other. It’s a state we call mutually assured destruction.

The Cold War was a period of sustained political and military tension lasting from 1947 to 1991 between the powers of the Western Bloc, dominated by the United States together with the forces of NATO, and the powers of the Eastern Bloc, dominated by the Soviet Union and the forces of the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War effectively ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 but for over four decades the power blocs existed in a state of nuclear brinksmanship. Each side possessed nuclear arsenals capable of obliterating their enemies but were afraid to use them as they knew to do so would rain down Armageddon upon themselves.

Doctor Who previously tackled the subject of the Cold War in another submerged adventure, but as an analogy. Filmed in 1983, the year in which Cold War is set, Warriors of the Deep opened Peter Davison’s final season as the Doctor and featured the Silurians and the Sea Devils combining forces in an attempt to initiate a nuclear war between the forces of humanity occupying the surface of the Earth in an attempt to reclaim the planet as their own. Scriptwriter Johnny Byrne had envisaged the setting of Sea Base 4 as being akin to a claustrophobic rusting submarine with poor lighting but was disappointed with the finished production as it appeared to be have been light with floodlights and just off production line. Thankfully the look of Cold War is far more dank, confined and realistic than that of Warriors of the Deep.

Cold War owes much to the film version of The Hunt for Red October with the action being set aboard a Soviet submarine bearing nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War and it doesn’t hang around with the type of ponderous openings that plagued The Bells of Saint John and The Rings of Akhaten. Within eight minutes a massive and extremely pissed-off Ice Warrior was on the rampage after being rudely awakened from a 5000 year slumber in the polar ice, the submarine is sinking rather rapidly and the Doctor and Clara had lost the TARDIS after accidentally arriving on board whilst en route to Las Vegas.

At times Cold War felt like a compressed version of a four parter from the classic era of Doctor Who as every 10 minutes or so there came a story beat that would have led into a cliffhanger in the old days. The decision to forgo multi-part adventures from Series 7b will hopefully be reversed with Series 8 and beyond as the tension caused by having to wait a week for a resolution to a life or death situation is part and parcel of what has made Doctor Who such a success over the decades.

Cold War - the Doctor and Skaldak

Seeing those bodies back there…it’s all got very…real.

After so-so performances in her three episodes to date Jenna-Louise Coleman finally gets to be slightly less annoying as Clara, although she’s still not in the same league as the likes of Elisabeth Sladen, Billie Piper or Karen Gillan. The discovery of the slaughtered Soviet submariner dissected by Skaldak in order to gain knowledge about humans was an eye-opening moment for Clara as she realised that time travel is not all fun and games, not all running around being flashy, not all flirting with and being cheeky to the Doctor.

Matt Smith has yet to give a bad performance as the Doctor and in Cold War he’s on fine form, especially in the scene where everyone else in the control room is transfixed by the presence of the Ice Warrior behind the Doctor and the Time Lord is blithely attempting to discern if there is a gas leak somewhere. The attire of the Eleventh Doctor, particularly the bow tie, owes much to Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor (Matt Smith having been influenced by The Tomb of the Cybermen) and it’s apt that this Doctor should face a monster that debuted against his illustrious previous incarnation.

Ultravox, do they split up?

A strength of Cold War that had been missing from so many episodes of 21st century Doctor Who was the presence of strong supporting characters portrayed by guest actors clearly up to the task. Given his status as a legend of horror, science-fiction and fantasy in the likes of The Omen, Time Bandits and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country it’s remarkable that it’s taken nearly 50 years for David Warner to appear in televised Doctor Who (though he has appeared in many audio adventures as a frequent visitor to the studios of Big Finish and is a great advocate of their productions). In Cold War Warner is simply wonderful as the New Romantic music-loving Professor Grisenko and a highlight of the series, old or new, comes with his desperate plea to Clara to learn if Ultravox split up in future.

The other big guest star is Liam Cunningham and he shines as the honourable, courageous and humane Captain Zhukov who could easily be a relative of Sean Connery’s Ramius from The Hunt for Red October, though the latter never had to deal with an errant Time Lord or Ice Warrior. Known for roles in Dog Soldiers, Clash of the Titans and Game of Thrones, Cunningham’s initial contact with Doctor Who came in the mid-1990s when he auditioned for the role of the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 TV Movie, but lost out to Paul McGann.

The quality of Gatiss’ script and the acting abilities and chemistry of Warner and Cunningham make it easy to believe that Zhukov and Grisenko possess pasts and futures outside of Cold War and their return in another adventure would be welcome.

Martian Law decrees that the people of this planet are forfeit. I now have all the information I require. It will only take one missile to begin the process. To end this…Cold War.

With numerous references to the illustrious past of the series (including the Hostile Action Displacement System from The Krotons) and an impressive return for a much-loved monster Cold War once again demonstrated Mark Gatiss’ firm grasp of what makes for good Doctor Who. Russell T Davies ran the series for around five years from 2004 before stepping down and if Steven Moffat uses that duration of tenure as a yardstick then his time will be coming to an end in 2014. What odds Mark Gatiss as showrunner of Doctor Who come 2015?

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