[Review] - Doctor Who, Series 7 Episode 9, "Cold War"

Courtesy of the BBC
Since this is the 50th anniversary year, and since the programme is intent on revisiting as much of the show's history as it can (and bloody well should), before we begin I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the nature of reintroduction. Since the show was revived, many classic villains have returned with, and all of these require reintroduction, to the audience of the young, the uninformed, and the Americans. The majority of these were given big, flashy two parters: Age of Steel for the Cybermen, The Hungry Earth for the Silurians, The Sontaran Strategem for the Sontarans. And for the most part, these episodes were crap. They were too concerned with building up the intended reputation of the creatures in question, resulting in the Doctor spending most of one episode being properly frightened by some ominous shadow from out of time, and another overcoming a disappointingly mediocre reality.

The best reintroduction the show has done was in the magnificent Dalek, the first episode of the revival that felt wholly and properly Who, that introduced a new generation to the pepper-pot psychopaths, and made it immediately obvious why "hide behind the sofa" is part of the British vernacular. Oh, if only the Daleks had been used as sparingly and as effectively in those early days, or ever really. It was the menace at their best. The obvious success of Dalek is clearly where Mark Gatiss was working from when he brought us Cold War, and the return of the Ice Warriors, and the first end-to-end good episode of Series 7b.

Hit the jump to read the review, which contains spoilers which are also pale and spindly when out of their armour.


But first, the references. And considering that this episode was responsible for returning to our screens one of the more classic, and most requested villains from the catalogue (second, I suspect, only to the Zygons, and well this year must be Christmas), it was short on alternate calls backs. Those that were here were mostly to the Martians themselves, the most obvious being the Doctor's proclamation that "Mars will rise again," a reference to the Peladon serials, and the Ice Warriors place as one of the most important and powerful nations in the Galactic Federation. There were plenty of general nudges towards the original introduction episode, The Ice Warriors, but the only other blindly obvious (and I use obvious in entirely the wrong sense here) is the TARDIS HADS procedure, which only ever appeared in the Second Doctor serial The Krotons, in 1968.

As for the episode itself, and continuing what I believe (read: hope, as it suggests a plan rather then lack of imagination) is the modus operandi of this series: remaking previous failures. And while Cold War owes a lot to Dalek (especially the scene at the end between (Skaldak and Clara), that wasn't a failed episode. Instead, I'm pinning this one on 1984's Warriors of the Deep, the last appearance of the Silurians until a few years ago, and to date the last appearance of the Sea Devils. For the unfamiliar, the Fifth Doctor lands in a undersea base in 2084, while the Earth is gripped by a Cold War that threatens to destroy the entire planet. Awakening some Silurians, the creatures take over the base with the intention of launching an attack that would systematically wipe out all human life, allowing the reptiles to retake it. The episode was made at the worst point in the actual Cold War, and played the metaphor pretty non subtly.

This episode places the action in 1983, on board a Russian sub captained by the Irish and magnificently bearded Davos Seawor... I mean, Liam Cunningham, in an obvious shout out to the similarly bearded Sean Connery in Hunt for Red October (still the best submarine movie ever made, and don't give me any of that Das Boot nonsense). The episode has some heavier lifting then normal in an reintroduction story, as the Ice Warriors haven't been seen since 1974's Monster of Peladon, and thus not only unfamiliar to all the youths watching today, but to many of their parents who watched the show originally. In an hour, it has to tell a coherent story, while also explaining the cultural lore of an entire species to us, through Clara and a sinking boat full of Queen's English Soviets.

Doctor Who is to Britain what Star Trek is the US, in terms of long running, definitive science fiction. So, before the revival, and even after and up to today, when asked by North Americans about Doctor Who, if I can draw a connection to Trek, I find it eases the understanding. So, in the last few weeks, I've found myself making this statement a lot: Ice Warriors are Klingons. And the comparison is apt. Both are proud warrior species whose militarism and single mindedness towards destruction and conquest often both put them at odds with the heroes, and are the cause of their undoing. And like Klingons in the NextGen framework, the Ice Warriors eventually outgrew their aggressive origins, and became allies of their once bitter foe. It was a bold step for Who to take in the early seventies, as up until then, the bad guys were bad, the good guys were good, and always won out. A show that created a literal moustache curling villain to plague the Doctor for a whole year was not always big on subtly. So, it was very forward thinking of them to take a species that had been created to replace the Daleks, and show a little cultural evolution. I highly recommend checking out the Peladon serials, if only to see the basis for the Silurians arc since their revival: taking a tacky third tier villain and turning them into a complex, evolving ally that is quickly becoming a staple of the series. Except, for the Ice Warriors, evolution meant extinction. Until now.

I understand the reasoning behind Skaldak being the bad guy here, and Gatiss found a way to structure it so that within the confines of the episode, the Ice Warriors return with grave intent. However, I hope that when they return (and let us as fans demand that it is a when, and not an if) they return with a more emotionally complex motivation then just a walking tank. No matter how excellent it is to see that tank rip its way through a sub. And it is always nice to see the Doctor's list of allies actually grow.

Submarine movies are, as benefits the surroundings, tight, tense suspense thrillers. And while that is certainly what Gatiss used a jumping off point, the episode never felt that intimate. This sub seemed to have very spacious corridors and plenty of roomy work areas. And I was alright with that, because I felt the weakest parts of the episode were the glimpses of Skaldak shimming through the duct works Aliens style. I am a bigger fan of when the Doctor talks his way out of a conflict rather then explodes his way out (which is why, despite my inference above that Hungry Earth wasn't that good, I'm a big fan of those episodes, as it shows the Doctor at his most diplomatic, and Matt Smith is always at his best when talking), so I was glad to see most of the episode take place over, shall we say, aggressive negotiations.

The biggest failing of the episode wasn't the episodes fault, it was a failure of CG. All the more stark because of last week's amazing use of prosthetics, and how fantastic the Ice Warrior suit (and obvious actor inside) looked when barrelling down the corridors. But the long, spindle-like hands were lifeless, clasped around the heads of the cast, and the CG revealing what the Warriors look like under all that bulk was frustratingly weak. I liked the design, really liked it, but the effect seemed about ten years old, and really, really detracted from the moment. So, what's say unless we can bring that sort of thing up to snuff, the Martians keep their hats on for the time being, yeah?

The episode was simple, as I was saying last week makes for better episodes, and you can see all the bits where there might have been unnecessary detail added in (certainly the bits that would have been padded out to make the episode a two parter, had it come along only a couple years ago). Stuff like the sub falling off the sea shelf, or the first mate and the Ice Warrior working together. And what made the episode work was that it ignored all the temptations to fill in the padding. It recognised the need not to do those things, and focus on what is always important: the characters, and also the giant lizard thing. Second rule of writing: never forget to focus on the giant lizard thing (first rule of writing: don't overuse commas).

The episode also featured David Warner in a somewhat against type role. I say that because I'm used to him playing roles like Gorkon in Star Trek VI, and Dillinger in TRON. When his casting was announced, I assumed he'd be playing a tyrannical king of some kind. And when it was revealed this was the episode he'd be in, I thought perhaps he'd be the voice of the Ice Warrior. Instead, he's a kindly old professor with an obsession over Western pop music of the 1980's. And he was brilliant, if a little under used. Same is true of Liam Cunningham, and it has been a fault of the show for some time now. In this series alone it has underused Ben Browder, Ian McKellen (villainously so), Richard E. Grant, Bill Bailey, and Rupert Graves. Makes me worry some about Dame Diana Riggs in a few weeks.

Best thing about this episode though? Cunningham's pronunciation of the word "mammoth."
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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