Doctor Who reviews: Cold War

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

“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.

Doctor Who reviews: The Children of Seth

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I enjoy the Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish.  I actually reviewed a few of them on Associated Content a couple of years ago, but until now I’ve yet to discuss them in any detail on this blog.

As I wrote in my review of the serial “Kinda,” some of the earliest Doctor Who stories I saw, when I was eight or nine years old, were the Peter Davison ones.  So it’s always a pleasure to listen to one of the Big Finish audios starring him.  Each time, it feels a little bit like it did on those weekday evenings at 6 PM, tuning in to WLIW Channel 21, to catch the next episode of the show.

In the last few years, Big Finish has been adopting for the audio format a number of “lost stories,” i.e. Doctor Who scripts that made it to various stages of completion but, for one reason or another, were never actually filmed.  The obvious choice to start off that range was Colin Baker’s lost season, which would have featured such serials as “The Nightmare Fair.”  Now, having completed a number of these with Baker & Nicola Bryant, Big Finish has turned its attention to Lost Stories from other eras of the show.

“The Children of Seth” was an unproduced script by Christopher Bailey, who also wrote “Kinda” and “Snakedance.”  As readers of this blog may recall, “Kinda” is a favorite of mine, so when I first heard about “The Children of Seth,” I was understandably curious.  I finally had an opportunity to purchase a copy of the story at the New York Comic Con, from the Doctor Who Store.  Peter Davison was a guest at the convention, so of course I had him autograph it.

In addition to its authorship and it featuring the Fifth Doctor, another reason why I decided to get “The Children of Seth” was that it stars Honor Blackman and David Warner, two very good, distinguished actors.  As well as that, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton reprise their roles as Tegan and Nyssa.  I always felt that the three person team of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa was a very strong one, and regrettably that particular line-up only appeared in a handful of stories (sorry, any Adric fans out there, but I think the TARDIS was too crowded with four people, and Matthew Waterhouse was given some really bad material to work with in Season 19).

Doctor Who: The Children of Seth

In “The Children of Seth,” the Doctor receives a cryptic message from the Archipelago of Sirius, a city located inside an immense hollowed-out asteroid.  Arriving in the TARDIS, the Doctor encounters an old acquaintance of his he first met in a previous regeneration, Anahita, the consort to Sirius, Autarch of the Empire.  Anahita has learned that the ambitious Lord Byzan, who has gradually been usurping power from the now-elderly Sirius, is about to propel the Empire into war, a crusade against the mysterious Seth, Prince of the Dark.  Foreseeing the immense loss of innocent life and the potential ruin of the Empire, Anahita, who has been exiled from the court, is desperate to reach Sirius and convince him to intercede.  And she hopes that the Doctor will aid her in thwarting Byzan’s ever-growing web of influence.

“The Children of Seth” is very much a political thriller, with plots and counterplots, schemes and betrayals, machinations and manipulations.  If this story had actually been produced in the 1980s, I’m uncertain if my young self would have actually enjoyed it.  Back then, one of my main reasons for watching Doctor Who was the monsters, and aside from the mantis-like security drones, “The Children of Seth” is extremely notable for the absence of any aliens or strange creatures.

Of course, as an adult, I absolutely loved it!  The characters are all very well developed, and there is a great deal of moral ambiguity to everyone.  Honor Blackman does a superb job portraying Anahita, a well-intentioned but occasionally ruthless figure.  Her reputation as “Mistress of the Poisons” will undoubtedly tell you that she doesn’t always walk the straight & narrow path.  Blackman is just majestic as this at-times inscrutable figure.

Adrian Lukis also is excellent as Byzan, imbuing him with a mix of runaway ambition, megalomania, and paranoia.  It’s interesting that Byzan will crush dissent by gleefully dispatching political prisoners to be mind-wiped & exiled to the mysterious Level 14, and he’s ready to plunge the Empire into a pointless war, but he actually draws the line at cold blooded mass murder.  Having a villain with the slightest of scruples can be much more interesting, and realistic, than having a one-dimensional black-hearted fiend.

Finally, David Warner portrays Sirius, the now doddering figurehead ruler of the Empire.  This was a relatively small part for someone of Warner’s stature, but he gives it his all, bringing to life a once-great man now crippled by nostalgia, the onset of dementia, and an unwillingness to perceive the political corruption taking place around him.  However, once his people are actually threatened, this aged ruler is ready to stand on the front lines again.  And despite his acrimonious relationship with Anahita, when faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Sirius is despondent.

Janet Fielding is given a substancial portion of the action in “The Children of Seth.”  In many ways I think Tegan was almost a prototype for Catherine Tate’s character Donna Noble.  The difference is that too often Tegan was scripted as overly aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive.  One of the few writers on Doctor Who to do the character justice and give Fielding good material to work with was, of course, Christopher Bailey.  So it’s no surprise that Tegan in “The Children of Seth” is an interesting, engaging character, rather than a mouth on legs.  Fielding does an excellent job, especially in the scenes where she is paired with Honor Blackman.

Unfortunately, the character of Nyssa is sidelined for much of the story.  So I felt that Sarah Sutton wasn’t given much to do.  That said, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have been featured traveling without Tegan in quite a few of the earlier Big Finish stories, so Sutton has already gotten the spotlight in several of those stories.  Given those circumstances, I enjoyed Tegan featuring in a large portion of “The Children of Seth” instead.

And what about Peter Davison himself?  Well, to a degree the Doctor is also pushed to the sides for a bit, in favor of Tegan and Anahita.  But then Davison is really given an opportunity to give it his all in the final episode of “The Children of Seth,” and he makes the most of it.

From the behind-the-scenes interviews on the CDs, as well as info from Doctor Who Magazine, I gather that Bailey’s scripts for “The Children of Seth” were in the early draft stage when the decision was made to drop the story.  Marc Platt, himself a good writer who has done extensive work for Big Finish, was recruited to transform these into something that could be recorded as an audio play.  Happily, instead of merely dusting off Bailey’s old scripts and finishing them on his own, Platt met in person with him, and they discussed the best way to resolve the various plot problems, as well as come up with an ending to the story.  I don’t know where Bailey’s work ends and Platt’s begins.  Whatever the case, “The Children of Seth” is an excellent story.

One last thing… I would have to say that “The Children of Seth” is not a casual listen.  I was not expecting it to be, though, given that “Kinda” has to be one of the most complicated Doctor Who stories ever made.  I knew what I was in for, that I’d really have to pay careful attention to the audio play to keep track of the characters and plotlines.  It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth the effort.

That said, in one respect the audio format is undoubtedly a strength.  It enabled me to envision the Archipelago of Sirius as a vast city with crowds of people, instead of merely a bunch of corridors occupied by a handful of extras, which is probably how in would have appeared if the story had actually been filmed in the early 1980s on a shoestring budget.

In any case, given its complexity, at some point I intend to sit down again to re-listen to “The Children of Seth.”  It’ll be interesting to see what I get out of it a second time.