I was really looking forward to Saturday night’s new Doctor Who episode “Cold War,” which featured the long-awaited return of the Ice Warriors. Yeah, I’m not really spoiling anything by giving that away, because if you are a Doctor Who fan with an internet connection, odds are you’ve known for weeks now that the Ice Warriors were returning. That’s the thing about the spread of info on the World Wide Web. You go onto Facebook to look at photos of cute cats, and next thing you know you’ve unwittingly found out such tidbits as Neil Gaiman is writing an upcoming Cybermen episode, David Tennant, Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave & the Zygons are all appearing in the show’s 50th Anniversary special, and Gumby & Pokey are going to become the Doctor’s new companions in the TARDIS. Okay, I made that last one up, but you get what I’m talking about.
First introduced back in 1967, the militaristic Ice Warriors are Doctor Who’s version of Martians. They made a quartet of appearances during the Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee years, last showing up in the 1974 serial “The Monster of Peladon.” Since then, even though they were absent from television screens (narrowly missing out on returning a couple of times in the mid-1980s) they’ve appeared in various novels, comic books, and audio plays. The Doctor also gave them a shout-out in “The Waters of Mars.”
A major factor in the Ice Warriors’ appeal is that sometimes they were enemies of the Doctor, sometimes allies, and sometimes something in between those two extremes. Unlike such out-and-out baddies as the Daleks or Cybermen, you never know quite what you’re going to get when the denizens of Mars pop up.
Writer Mark Gatiss does a superb job reintroducing the Ice Warriors in “Cold War.” The set-up is an excellent one. The year is 1983, and a Soviet submarine is patrolling the waters of the North Pole. In command is the pragmatic Captain Zhukov who is constantly clashing with his second in command, the saber-rattling Lieutenant Stepashin, who believes war between Russia and America is inevitable. Also aboard the sub is Professor Grisenko, an eccentric scientist with a fondness for Western pop music (his favorite song is Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf”). Grisenko has located some sort of creature frozen in the Arctic ice, and the sub is transporting it to Moscow for examination. Unfortunately, a bored, impatient crewmember decides to melt the ice. And out emerges a very grumpy Ice Warrior.
As the defrosted Martian goes on a rampage, and the sub begins to sink, the TARDIS materializes aboard. The Doctor and Clara were on their way to Las Vegas, but they are obviously waaaay off course. The Doctor, communicating with the Ice Warrior, learns this is the famed Martian hero Grand Marshall Skaldak. Discovering that he has been in suspended animation for five thousand years, Skaldak realizes that everyone he ever knew is long dead. Unable to make contact with any other Martian forces, and having been attacked by Zhukov’s crew, the mournful Skaldak decides to launch the sub’s nuclear arsenal and trigger World War III, wiping out humanity. The Doctor desperately hopes he can find some sort of peaceful resolution to the conflict, recognizing that Skaldak isn’t truly evil, merely belligerent & misguided.
“Cold War” is a tense, atmospheric tale, with almost all of the action confined to the narrow, dark corridors of the submarine. It really brought to mind the “base under siege” formula seen in the old Troughton serials of the late Sixties. This is quite appropriate, as that was the era which saw the debut of the Ice Warriors. I thought Douglas Mackinnon did a fine job directing this story.
I liked how the Ice Warriors were presented. They were slightly redesigned, giving them a more streamlined look, but they’re still obviously the same beings. They also move a lot faster now (in their old appearances they lumbered along at something like five MPH) and their voices are much easier to understand.
The contrast between “Cold War” and last week’s episode, “The Rings of Akhaten,” is interesting. That episode did an amazing job at creating this vast alien world populated by all manner of otherworldly beings, yet I felt the actual story never really came together in a satisfying manner, resulting in a merely average entry. In comparison, “Cold War” is a rather more modest production, yet it is one of the strongest episodes of Series Seven. This goes back to one of the strengths of Doctor Who from its original incarnation, when the shoestring budgets meant that the effects were primitive and the sets quite limited. Given those restrictions, the production teams had to rely on their inventiveness, and on the strengths of the writers and actors, to create compelling episodes. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for episodes such as “The Rings of Akhaten.” Rather, the lesson is that amazing special effects should complement good storytelling, not replace it.
Another reason why I was looking forward to “Cold War” was the guest appearance by the great David Warner. He has previously acted in a number of the Big Finish audios, including “The Children of Seth.” He even portrayed an alternate reality version of the Doctor in a pair of stories. And he lent his voice talents to the animated special “Dreamland.” So it was a pleasure to finally see Warner appear in a live action Doctor Who episode. Professor Grisenko was a great role for him to play. It is a performance that is both humorous and poignant.
Regarding the regulars, Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman both do good work. Smith’s Doctor is an oddball with a steely determination beneath the babbling and flippancy. I really enjoy that he tries to think his way out of a crisis, using either logic to outwit his foes or emotion to appeal to them, only using violence as a last resort. “Cold War” showed off this quality very well, as the Doctor earnestly strives to get Skaldak and the Russians to see each other’s point of view, and to convince the Ice Warrior that his race is not dead, that the future has possibilities.
As for Coleman, now portraying the third incarnation of Clara (a mystery for another time), she has definitely growing on me. We see a more vulnerable side to her character her in “Cold War.” Before now, traveling with the Doctor has been a grand adventure, and she’s come across as the super-confident, almost infallible figure. But seeing the submarine crew violently killed by Skaldak drives home to Clara that it isn’t all fun & games. And that leads into a lovely moment between Coleman and Warner, as Grisenko take on a protective, almost grandfatherly role towards Clara.
“Cold War” was a very satisfying view. It is definitely some of Gatiss’ best work on the show. His script gives both the regulars and the guest cast solid material to work with. I think the reason why it works well is because it so successfully blends the strengths of classic Doctor Who and the new series. Intelligent writing, behind-the-sofa moments, great acting, and real character development are all present.