A step up again, if not exactly a triumph.
Mark Gatiss — he of Sherlock writing and acting fame – returns to the Whovian fold once again for his fourth adventure, and also ticking off our “return of a classic Who monster” episode for this series.
In “Cold War”, the Doctor and Clara find themselves accidentally landing on a Russian submarine during the heady times of the Cold War — a submarine that has recently picked up a frozen, but still intact, Ice Warrior. Clara and the Doctor manage to ingratiate themselves with the Captain, but are caught between a rock and a hard place — the immediacy of the Ice Warrior and the less Whovian threat of nuclear annihilation. Oh, 6.30 on a Saturday evening.
There is an immediate likeability to this episode, ticking many boxes that set me up for enjoying an episode. Much like classic episodes “Midnight” and “The God Complex”, we are mostly confined to one location — and this location has an infinite number of possibilities. The terror and seriousness is tempered by a humour (this time directed at the 80s in general), and the nature of the threat they face changes at a relative mid-point: when the Ice Warrior escapes from his “shellsuit” to run rough-shod across the crew in his natural, more slithery, form.
These constituent elements also make for some beautiful set work, great use of water, strong alien design (especially in what they choose not to show) and… oh no, I’ve found myself talking about the lighting at the top of the review again. This can’t be good.
“Cold War” is not a particularly flawed episode, but it never really clicked for me in the way that I wanted it to. Part of this is down to the amount of ideas and plot points that were really at play here. The Russians, the submarine, the nukes, the monster — four strong points to build from. But did they really build?
The Russians were immediately trustworthy, and when the Ice Warrior escaped its suit it still represented the same type of threat, albeit more nimble. And the idea of the nukes and nuclear war never really gelled — it became the final threat, rather than something building along the way. A second submarine would have been a perfect introduction at the mid-point, leaving Clara and the Doctor to negotiate with an alien and a set of American soldiers at the same time. Mutually assured indeed.
But, no, things proceeded pretty much as one would have expected, with crew members being picked off one by one. The characters were also surface-level interesting, but never quite dug any deeper. The Captain was refreshing in his trust of the Doctor, but we never got a personal moment to really get into his head, while the same goes for the Professor. In fact, the episode could have used another character to beef things up, perhaps expanding one of the cannon fodder deckhands to a more prominent position.
This may seem like an odd criticism to level at the episode considering my review of “The Rings Of Akhaten” criticised Neil Cross for piling on too much information to actually let the story breathe. But strong writing is about having a deep bench of character and plot information, but only using what is necessary — tip of the iceberg style — to keep things moving at an intelligible and thrilling pace. Here we had a set of characters who rarely became more than they appeared to be, and an alien monster who was much the same. In fact, the most character development we got was from Ice Warrior Skaldak, who was swayed away from revenge by Clara’s appeals to his humanity — and memories of his daughter.
Word has it that Mark Gatiss had to twist Moffatt’s arm to bring the Ice Warriors back, as apparently His Majesty has never been a fan of their clunky, icy ways. One can imagine the conversation dragging on, and then Gatiss saying “but the suit is EMPTY” and Moffatt’s eyes lighting up. As a returning villain, this was a strong showing, pointing to a more nuanced version of the Ice Warriors than had been previously presented. But perhaps it was a little trapped by history, a little hesitant to change too much, a little too reverent. With Skaldak out of his shell, I was expecting that it would lead to some other revelation — about the nature of the suit, the true physiology and background of these soldiers, or even a deeper understanding of just how Skaldak came to be buried at the North Pole in the first place.
In the end, though, we got something gorgeous and rich in visuals, thrilling in places, and with a slightly new twist on an old villain – but no great moment that will live in memory. Which is a shame, really, because I love confinement episodes.
A step up, though. A step up.
– Was the Professor gay? His “It’s worth a try” after the Doctor threatened to kiss him seemed to suggest so.
– I didn’t mention Clara much above because, while she played a part in the story, it was very much “what’s expected of the Companion”. She brought the humanity to proceedings, which saved the day. It was interesting that, once again, her core emotional turn — discussing Skaldak’s daughter — was related to absent or deceased parents. Am I clutching at themes?
– The TARDIS once again went mental and disappeared altogether, but the Doctor explained it away as his experimentation with how it reacts to attacks — by getting the fuck out of dodge, namely. It’s a shame, because I was hoping the TARDIS malfunctioning was a running theme, as embodied by its mis-trust of Clara.
– Also on the TARDIS, how in God’s name are Clara and the Doctor supposed to get to the South Pole? Is there going to be a “Clara and Eleven – The Missing Years” sitcom where they’re trapped living in a two-up two-down Moscovian townhouse? Their landlady is played by the late, great Eartha Kitt.
– Some have complained that the Doctor and Clara never get into accidental adventures any more, but this and last week’s episode have proved them wrong. I for one don’t mind if there’s an ulterior motive — see “The Rebel Flesh” / “The Almost People” – if it doesn’t get in the way of the episode’s story.
– Everyone was wet.
– The more I write about this episode the more it’s becoming “The Episode That Could Have Been” in my head. I’m now re-imagining it as The Thing aboard a sub — the released Ice Warrior is a tiny parasite that infects crew members.