We’re catching up on our Doctor Who reviews this week, ahead of the Series 7 finale. Today, James Willets dives deep into ‘Cold War’…
‘Cold War’ is the first episode so far this season, and probably the first Mark Gatiss episode ever, that I can overwhelmingly say I loved. I think it’s hard not to like an episode that doesn’t overcomplicate the horror movie concept at its heart and is content to be story about a monster in the dark.
There are a couple of neat twists that stop this from being a totally generic episode, although there is plenty here that we have seen before.
The first is the setting – submarines are essentially historical spaceships, so it makes sense that sooner or later we would get an episode based around one, but the realistic concerns and pressures of being underwater are handled well and add an extra dimension of tension to the plot.
The second is the villain – Ice Warriors are straight up awesome, I love everything about them. When we did the fantasy film draft for Doctor Who a while back on Impossible Podcasts I chose these as the villains I would most like to see in action! They’re goofy, sure, but the look is one which works really well. There’s an old adage that a superhero or villain has a strong design if they can be identified in silhouette – think the ‘ears’ on Batman’s cowl, Superman’s cape and power stance, or Wolverine’s claws.
There is nothing that looks like the Ice Warriors. Like the Daleks and Cybermen their profile is a pretty easy one to pick out. It’s a decent redesign for them here, although I wasn’t too fussed about showing the actual warrior beneath the armour, but removing the clamps was for the best. Still, nothing was done to mess up the overall aesthetic of their design, something which is an immense positive after the Dalek fiasco.
But it was also a brilliant look at an interesting period of history. The cold war, even without the influence of aliens, is a weird time, especially considering how recent it is. Gatiss seems fascinated by these flashpoints in modern history and this is another one where Doctor Who can show a lot with very little.
It’s especially great that we got to see this from the side of the Soviets, a refreshing alternative to the Doctor appearing in America and Britain. For a time traveller with an unpredictable mode of transportation he seems to find himself on the ‘correct’ side of the historical narrative an awful lot, so it’s great to see him teaming up with the people who in other situations would be the ‘baddies’.
The obviously evil First Mate is quickly dispatched, and whilst I was hoping that there would be more exploration of his role within the crew, I enjoyed the fact that his attempt at teaming up with Skaldak was so summarily dimissed.
Skaldak is an excellent bad guy. He felt like a fully fleshed out character, rather than a pawn of the plot, cast as the antagonist because every story needs a villain. His revival, the attack on him and his subsequent honour-bound war against the Soviets were all clearly signposted, and fit with what we know of both sides.
Small niggles like why he didn’t just break out of the chains binding his armour at once and go on the rampage, rather than exposing himself and sneaking around the craft, can’t detract from the fun of him tearing through the sailors, especially when it’s explained exactly why he’s ripping them apart. There’s also the fact that despite the disapparition of the TARDIS, Clara continued to speak perfect Russian – something which it might have been nice to have more than a handwave about.
And, finally, after weeks of not being able to stand her, Clara finally seems to be coming good. Gatiss seems to have found a sweet spot between her being a curious adventurer and an annoying plot contrivance. Her interrogation scene with Skaldak and her conversations with the music obsessed Professor were highlights of the episode, as was her eventual realisation that Skaldak could be stopped only by appealing to his own losses, and reminding him of his daughter.
All in all, a cracking episode. I expect to see Skaldak and the Ice Warriors a lot more, and he’s a perfect potential ally/enemy for future seasons!