From DWM #460, and this review, much to my surprise and pleasure, was slagged off in The Guardian.
The thing about Mark Gatiss, as evidenced by all his scripts thus far, is the man has a preternaturally firm grip on what makes for strong, unfancy Doctor Who. Cold War is another case in point.
Beautifully directed by Douglas McKinnon, this story is, of course, the adventure that thaws out the Ice Warriors following a 39-year stint in deep freeze, and borrows licks from Rob Shearman’s Dalek, which performed a similar function for the pepper pots in 2005. In both tales we find a lone proponent of an alien race portrayed as a planet-razing threat. We also see the creature in chains, communing with the Doctor’s companion and then going on to debut a hitherto unseen talent – in one, the Dalek’s swivelling midriff, in the other, the Ice Warrior’s ability to shed its armour (two features, incidentally, that should be incorporated into the next John Barrowman action-figure). Along the way the script also pilfers from the setting and pre-glasnost paranoia of The Hunt for Red October plus, in its spindly, face-grabbing nudie Martian, the Alien film franchise (“It’s in the walls!” being a particularly marked allusion). That’s not necessarily a bad thing; many of Doctor Who’s most successful productions have worn their influences on their sleeves. But it does mean that while Cold War entertains, it rarely surprises.
Even the opening gag is well-worn. We’re chucked on board a superbly realised Soviet submarine in 1983 as the captain readies to make a nuclear strike… only for us to discover it’s a training exercise. But it’s in the story’s favour the action kicks off early – very early – and then doesn’t let up. From the point the gung ho young Soviet takes a blowtorch to Skaldak’s ice tomb, dripping water becomes a constant presence in this adventure, an effective representation of the persistent danger facing everyone.
In the same way we recognise bits of the story, we’re also already familiar with Liam Cunningham’s Captain Zhukov who’s hewn from that template of a noble, conflicted Russian who doesn’t want a bar of the “sabre rattling” going on between East and West. Then there’s his plot-progressing, fiercely ambitious subordinate, Lieutenant Stepashin (Tobias Menzies, who really must speak to his agent about all the despicable bounders he’s playing of late), an old school Commie who talks – as only someone in fiction could – of “this mewling time of peace”. That he never quite completed his designated story arc by entering into a full-blown pact with the Ice Warrior only to then be killed by the creature at a moment of great bathos, is a surprising oversight. Likewise, putting a terrific actor such as David Warner in the ghost of a role that is Professor Grisenko. The prof is given a Hollywood ‘character quirk’ – his love for British synth pop – but little else. Forgive me for sticking my head up, here, between you and the TV screen, but I once interviewed Warner for his role in the 2009 Doctor Who animation Dreamland. I opened by asking him if he could tell me about his character, the alien Lord Azlok. He replied: “Yes, but he’s a cockroach, love.” Perhaps he took an equally sanguine approach to Grisenko.
So the characters are all familiar archetypes, but in this instance, it helps. At speed, we recognise who’s who and what their motivations are, meaning everyone can jump straight into a plot, which is hurtling along at a rate of knots. Like all of Gatiss’ Doctor Who stories, there’s nothing of great complication, although a little thematic fun is had with the concepts of mutually assured destruction and the Cold War. Thankfully, he doesn’t delve too deeply into the Ice Warriors’ lumpen obsession with honour, which has always been damnably dull – a far too easy way for a writer to motivate them into either aggression or peace. Yes, the story’s slightly weak resolution, wherein a spaceship that wasn’t going to arrive then arrives, does end up pivoting on the Martians seeing the “honour in mercy”, but thankfully it’s without a lot of pontificating along the way. Hooray for that.
Let’s talk about the new-look Ice Warrior, then. For my money, it’s the best reinvention so far of an old Doctor Who foe. The initial response is to declare the beastie has barely changed – but that’s the cleverness of this upgrade. It manages to capture the essence of the Ice Warriors, perhaps edging closer to how we remembered them than how they ever actually were. This thing is imposing and solid, giving the impression of real weight. Compare the new with the old side by side and you’ll see the 2013 model has been sensibly reshaped. Rather than those mighty childbearing hips, the bulk is now at the shoulders suggesting great physical power. The pincers have gone, and although they were something of a motif, the three-fingered gloves are a sensible compromise for what, in truth, was a wholly impractical feature. Plus, those tendrils are very natty and silence the usual criticism about monster paws being unable to operate heavy machinery.
Quibbles? It’s a shame to lose the tufts of hair around the joints, which conferred a pleasing organic feel upon the shell. And I’m less enamoured by the realisation of the Martian within. I wish we hadn’t gone any further than the furtive glimpses of red eyes and a cruel mouth mostly obscured behind the vapours in the submarine’s service ducts. That left something to conjure with. The unambiguous shots of the creature at the episode’s end reveal it as a not especially memorable CGI tortoise. It’s a lesson new Doctor Who seems to have forgotten – monsters are diminished when they’re brought into the light.
To see the beast out of the case might also prove controversial. I dunno. Is it breaking a taboo for the show? It does, at the very least, provide the story with two monster paradigms – the ‘lumbering’ (that’s a Doctor Who word) warrior and then the quicksilver creature who has a preference for blurring across the front of shot. It’s a very smart twist for an Ice Warrior story. The last thing we ever expected was stealth.
Much like Gatiss’ Victory of the Daleks and The Unquiet Dead before it, this episode picks up a tab that only seems to become due in a companion’s third episode. I guess the logic of that is in the first story the newbie meets the Doctor, in the second they have their initial experience of travelling in the TARDIS, so by the third it’s time to decide if this is really what they want to do with their life. As such, the lessons for Clara arrive thick and fast – how come she can suddenly speak in Russian, and why events of the past can actually be changed. Of more interest is the note of self-doubt creeping in as she feels obliged to prove herself by facing up to Skaldak, while also coming to the realisation that death is a constant in Doctor Who. “Seeing those bodies…” she confides in Grisenko. “It’s all got very real.” It’s good to give her this beat, an instance of reticence. It paints her subsequent cheering about saving the world in a markedly different shade. Clara’s under no illusions regarding what she’s getting into.
The story ends with laughter. Silly Doctor! He’s been tinkering with the Hostile Action Displacement System resulting in the TARDIS flitting to the other side of the world. How he’s going to get it back is left to hang, and I quite like this. It’s not often a current day episode chooses to bow out on levity, but it’s a mark of the confidence underpinning it. There’s a safe pair of hands at this tiller, a quality that separates Cold War from its preceding story. Mark Gatiss has Doctor Who in the blood, from his HADS to his toes. It demonstrably informs the stories he writes for the show, and that’s why he is so reliable a contributor. He knows what works, and what doesn’t. And yet perhaps he’s just a little too respectful of the text. To play devil’s advocate, is this the reason why his instalments – while mostly well enjoyed – are seldom utterly adored? At least when it comes to DWM‘s end of series polls. Because, although we do like our Doctor Who like our Doctor Who, the adventures that really sizzle are those that still manage to confound. Darlings such as Blink or Human Nature or The Waters of Mars challenge us. They simultaneously recognise and refute the conventions of the programme in a way that really excites. In stories such as those, anything can happen.
By contrast, Cold War opens up the Martian’s chest to reveal treasures within, but nothing that really sparkles. However, let’s be sensible. Not every adventure can be a diamond. Some are ice crystals. They’re lovely to behold, but subjected to any kind of heat, they’re gone.