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Doctor Who Review: “Cold War” (Spoilers)

Cold War 1
Mark Gatiss has always been a Doctor Who writer I find interesting. He’s clearly a massive, enormous, gigantic fan of the series and has been involved in fandom for decades. When the show came back in 2005, he was one of the first batch of fanboy writers Russell T. Davies brought on board for the new regime. In fact, Gatiss’ “The Unquiet Dead” was the only non-RTD script for the first 5 weeks of the show and is easily the best of that bunch. Since then, his scripts have been some of the most varied in terms of style and content, but also in terms of quality, unfortunately. With his newest script, “Cold War,” he went back to his horror roots (if you haven’t seen his three-part documentary series about horror movies, you’re really doing yourself a disservice) and gave us an episode that is equal parts Alien and The Hunt for Red October and also sees the return of a favorite classic series enemy race. All that PLUS Duran Duran? Wowzers.

The last two episodes of Series 7b have been very sci-fi, but neither were particularly scary. “Cold War” is claustrophobic, tense, and pretty harrowing, as the Doctor and Clara somehow end up on a sinking Soviet nuclear submarine just after some idiot has thawed an Ice Warrior, one of Mars’ battle-hardened race, who happens to be a ruthless war hero who’s been frozen for 5,000 years. Gatiss does a lot of great things in this episode, not the least of which is getting the Ice Warrior out of its bulky armor so that it can scurry around the ceilings and walls of the submarine and slaughter people silently. It’s very much like Ridley Scott’s Alien, but that’s not a bad thing at all. He also creates the tension of a world on the brink of “mutually-assured destruction” which perpetually haunted those of us living in the decade.

So, while I enjoyed the horror element and the war element, I think overall the script was a bit rushed and had too much going on that wasn’t developed properly. In Gatiss’ previous story, the almost-universally derided “Victory of the Daleks,” there isn’t nearly enough time for things to play out in any real semblance of sequence. While “Cold War” isn’t that rushed, likely because there was less going on, there are interesting things that get brought up that aren’t paid off in a satisfying way. The biggest example of this is the character of Lieutenant Stepashin, who is eager to be the one to end the world, or at least heat up the Cold War a bit. He is at odds a couple of times early on with Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham), who is a much more level-headed individual. Their dynamic was set up to be adversarial throughout, and one could imagine a scenario wherein even if Skaldak decides not to blow up the Earth, Stepashin might try to do it himself. However, in the scene where Skaldak gets the drop on Stepashin, he tries to strike up an alliance with the Ice Warrior (an interesting idea), but then he’s just dead the next time we see him (or his feet). His whole storyline, if one can even call it that, existed to be the catalyst for the conflict and to be the one to inform Skaldak about the nuclear weapons on board. He is a completely unresolved character.

I also have an objection to the way Gatiss felt the need to tack on the bit with Skaldak’s daughter, which just gets the briefest of mentions initially, just so Clara could then pipe up at the climax and mention that, of the billions of people who would die because of the nuke, daughters would be among them. I feel like the Doctor was doing a pretty great job of attempting to appeal to Skaldak’s merciful side. Even Clara’s mention of him not killing the professor would have been enough, but she has to have this little speech (reminiscent of Amy’s speech in “Victory” which prevents the robot-bomb-guy from exploding) simply because Gatiss needs something for her to do in the climax. It was very lazy, I felt.

Speaking of lazy, what a weird way to introduce the leads, who think they’re going to Vegas. Just, boom, now we’re on a Russian submarine in 1983. Then, just as suddenly, the TARDIS disappears. The eventual reason for this is pretty thin. It was very clear that they just needed a reason for there not to be a TARDIS on board so that the Doctor couldn’t just leave, or even take everybody on board the sub to safety. This happens a lot, but I didn’t care for this particular interpretation of it.

Cold War 2

Maybe I sound harsh on Mark Gatiss’ writing, but I think it’s because I like him as a dude so much. I find him endlessly fascinating to listen to on retrospectives of the show, and I think he’s the perfect choice to write the upcoming docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, but his work on the series since “The Unquiet Dead” has been very hit and miss, usually within the same episode. In Series 2, he wrote “The Idiot’s Lantern,” which took place in 1953 and concerns TVs which remove people’s minds and faces. It was all right, but very hokey. His next script was the aforementioned “Victory of the Daleks,” which should have been amazing, given its inclusion of Daleks and Winston Churchill, but suffered from the reasons listed above. His script in Series 6, “Night Terrors,” was mostly good, but suffered from another hokey, heart-stringy ending. And now this one, which should have been his best one yet. I’d say it’s probably tied with “Night Terrors” for a very low number two. He has another script coming up this year, the Hammer-inspired story, “The Crimson Terror,” about which I know nothing. But given his love of Hammer and of period drama and horror, I’m hoping it’s a return to his “Unquiet” form.

The cast did fine. I didn’t love either Clara or the Doctor in this one, though it had nothing to do with the performances. Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones) and David Warner (of many things, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze) are both great, though I wasn’t really sure why the professor behaved the way he did. He’s an old guy who likes music. Were there old Russian guys who were that laid back? I have no idea. Part of me wonders if the professor wasn’t written to be a younger man, but when they found out they could get David Warner, they jumped on it.

If the episode works at all, and I think I did ultimately enjoy myself, it’s due to Douglas Mackinnon’s excellent direction. He stole the show completely. It’s very difficult to work in such tight quarters and still make it cinematic. I thought this was handled incredibly well, especially with the water and the lack of light and the low ceiling and all the rest of it. The design of the Ice Warrior itself was quite lovely. The updated look of the battle armor was new enough to make sense but samey enough to remind us who the Ice Warriors were in their ’60s and ’70s appearances. The look of the out-of-armor Ice Warrior was interesting. I’d have liked to see a shot of his whole body as his arms were very thin, but his head was about the size of something that would fit in the helmet. Cool idea, overall.

So, in the end, masterful direction with a great monster help solid but uninspired performances in an interesting but ultimately troubled script. Mild “like” from me. It’s an episode I’ll definitely watch again.

Next week’s episode, “Hide,” written by Neil Cross and directed by Jamie Payne, looks pretty terrifying. If “Cold War” represents the time-tested approach to the show, “Hide” looks like a complete departure. Very excited for it.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-SN09lw3yU&w=615&h=346]

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23 comments

  • workmanlike. Everything was competent-though I’m still iffy on the whole Tardis proximity question, which, btw, might have been Clara’s first question up in the space pyramid-there’s just not enough data points to compare this Clara/Doctor to the best Who out there. Nothing in 7 has grabbed me by the lapels and said, “This is going to be a helluva ride,” but I’ve felt that before and been surprised.

  • I was not in love with any part of this episode – a first for me since the first ep of season 1. I don’t like it when the Doctor gets all tense and dark and yell screamy at people. It didn’t really feel like him at all.

    I mean, there have been flashes of it in previous episode, but this whole ep he was like that. I can’t imagine I’ll be watching it again.

    And I loved Victory of the Daleks. :)

  • Cut it out with the “Bad Wolf” crap, Whovians. You’re dreaming.

    This episode blew the previous one out of the water, but is still on par with the mediocrity of Series 7 in general.

  • I think they just avoided russian accents to avoid giving it a stereotypical Russian bad guy vibe. Maybe they thought English accents would help the viewer relate to them more, dropping the constant reminder that they are supposed to be the enemy and give you more empathy for them.

    or its just cheaper and quicker than giving actors vocal coaching.

  • @Scott S: We also have to keep in mind that the silurians, sontarans, and even the other the time lords have English accents, so I’m thinking the TARDIS converts accents into American or English, depending on which one is closer. (But not dialects, which, to me, in this are ways of speaking that are too different from just accents themselves; Take the daleks and cybermen, for example,)

  • All the Russians speaking English, with an English accent, talking about growing American aggression, just started the episode on the wrong foot for me. I guess it’s better that they all have the same accent, instead of some having a Russian accent, and some not, but when they sound the same as our heores, who sound like Russia’s enemies, and act British most of the time, it really put me out of it, pedantically.

  • Did anyone else notice the cyrillic russian writing on tanks in the sub later on in the episode (when the professor and clara first start talking about “Hungry like the Wolf” and when Skaldak grabs Clara later on)? If the TARDIS is translating spoken Russian, isn’t it supposed to translate written Russian, too?

  • I think there are things the Doctor suspects about Clara that we aren’t being shown yet. He keeps finding ways of getting rid of the TARDIS when she is around and the TARDIS doesn’t like Clara. I agree that most things point to Clara having some connection with Rose. Either she spread her through the universe to test/take care of the Doctor or she’s the daughter of Rose and Meta-Ten in the other universe….

  • Clara’s introduction was so intriguing in Asylum of the Daleks and the Snowmen. I feel it’s dropped off a bit. I want to be curious about her but I’m losing interest. She seems to be a weaker version of the 2 previous versions of Clara.

    I want to see more character development and relationship building. As a fan of Classic Who, I appreciate the Easter Eggs and throwbacks to the previous adventures. I just hope this series is more than that. So far, it’s not.

    But, Moff is a devious, skilled story-teller, so I’m hopeful. Plus, an episode from Neil Gaiman…fingers crossed.

  • Me again. So Bad Wolf was created by Rose absorbing energy from the heart of the TARDIS. The Doctor has tinkered with a relocation device should the TARDIS come under attack.

    sooo….the TARDIS is currently weak and somewhat vulnerable, its hungry like the wolf….

    Theres a theory in there somewhere.

    Maybe i like this series more than i thought, its got me thinking at least.

  • ^ i declare my question void. Thinking about it, the South Pole is extemely close in terms of what the TARDIS is capable of, and presumably the relocation device that the Doctor tinkered with wouldn’t place it somewhere completely out of reach unless the situation was completely dire, although his tinkering often leads to mishaps.

  • Genuine question about something i thought was odd. What is the range of the TARDIS translation thingy? I just thought it odd that they had the conversation about being able to speak Russian after the TARDIS had disappeared. I’m sure its covered somewhere.

    This series hasn’t got me gripped yet, I’m not sure what its missing for me. Obviously we don’t know Clara that well yet, I think i just need something to get me emotionally invested with her story. Its not love at first sight for me.

    Its probably me being impatient. I usually wait for the DVD and watch it in a bit of a marathon.

  • In the past would this episode have been considered a two parter? It cries out as a base under siege ep. To develop a handful of characters and have them killed off in interesting ways, and in between these deaths, plot development. Fang Rock style. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time to do the story justice. The last problem I had was the CGI. I would of much preferred a practical mask for the Ice Warrior’s head shots. But all in all I did enjoy the episode

  • I liked the episode, I just thought it was going to be better. I still love how Jenna-Loise Coleman plays Clara. I think if they had more time to develop some of the characters. The episode would have been much better.
    Great review always always Kyle. Looking forward to next weeks review.

  • @Scott, I doubt it’s the case and is probably my own imagination running wild with possibilities I wish were true, but I had a thought that perhaps Clara might have been something else that Rose “spread” throughout space and time to help the Doctor during the times that would test him the most.

  • @James Well knowing Tenant and rose are in the 50th anniversary episode i think sir, you have a golden nugget of something…..could Oswin be a product somehow of The doctor and rose?

  • Dammit James, I think you’re on to something.

    As far as companions go. Clara is quickly becoming my favourite.

    I really enjoyed this episode from an entertainment point of view. From a critical POV it was a little underwhelming though.