I really love Mark Gatiss. Most of his Who scripts are lovely, and his Sherlock scripts are superb. I think the Ice Warriors are a pretty cool villain from the classic series. But I’m sort of at a loss to understand what I was supposed to get out of “Cold War” this week. Am I the only one?
The pacing of this episode is just plain sloppy. We’re thrust into the middle of a dilemma that we’re given seconds to adjust to, regardless of the title card giving us place and time—and frankly, if you need to start the episode by giving that information, that may be a clue that you’ve given the shorthand just a little too much. How often do Doctor Who episodes begin with a text introduction to the locale? Um... never? Because this is a show about time travel where the main character is a time traveler and it’s his job to key us in. Because it makes for good storytelling.
So little happens in “Cold War” that you find yourself waiting for the episode to justify its premise. I’m all for closed sets, and everyone looking wet and uncomfortable was admittedly impressive, but let’s see, the plot was essentially: Doctor and Clara end up on a Soviet submarine in 1983. The Soviets found an Ice Warrior and made him mad by attacking him. Ice Warrior is furious and lonely. He tries to kill everyone in the world. Doctor sort of convinces him not to, but mostly his own Ice Warrior people come and pick him up. The End. (Of the Cold War. Not really.)
That’s it. That is literally all that happens. Tobias Menzias (who is known elsewhere for playing amazing characters like, oh, Brutus on Rome) is cast as a traitor whose treacherousness leads to nothing but the Ice Warrior knowing where to find a nuke, so no interesting development there. Liam Cunningham has been on practically everything for the past decade plus, and can currently be found on Game of Thrones as Davos Seaworth, but he does nothing in this episode besides be non-offensive and level-headed. David Warner is surprisingly adorable as a crew member who is really into pop music and loves Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Good choice, David Warner. What are you doing here?
It was nice to see the Russians painted as something other than Awful Commie Villain #1 here, but X-Men: First Class did practically the exact same thing in their film using only five minutes of footage. If you’ve got 45 minutes to tell that side of the story, it would be great to go more in-depth with the entire crew of characters that you’ve bothered to create, instead of allowing a short-sighted alien to be their stand-in for the whole episode.
The CGI for Ice Warrior Skaldak is goofy no matter how you cut it, but bad special effects aside, his story doesn’t play. If some kind of metaphor is being chipped away at here (he’s an Ice Warrior in the middle of a Cold War after all, and is considering pressing the button that all of humanity was holding their breath about at the time), it can’t change the fact that the Skaldak fails to be either empathetic or practically interesting as a foe. He’s displaced out of time, but we only get the briefest monologue on how he feels about that, and he immediately jumps to conclusions because his people don’t pick him up the instant he sends his distress signal. After five thousand years. Real together guy, totally the sort you would expect everyone to be terrified of. His killing spree doesn’t really make him more scary or sympathy-garnering, and he doesn’t have the same historical weight attached to him that that the Daleks or Cybermen have earned, so there’s nothing to get excited about.
Clara’s character development is nil on this one. We see her speak up when it counts, but other than that, it’s your standard “brave companion” schtick. She talks to the big bad warrior, but she actually allows the Doctor to tell her what to say. As my viewing buddy noted, that’s something a Davies companion would have never stood for. Heck, I’m sure Amy Pond would have had something to say about it, too. Sure, Clara is learning the ropes, but we don’t know her that well yet. Instead of personality flashing through, what we received was a conversation where she literally asks David Warner if she fulfilled her episodic function well enough. ‘I did what the Doctor asked and that was helpful, right? I’m earning my keep on this show?’
Even the Doctor himself fails to be interesting. After last week’s emotional tour-de-force, we’re left with him giving muddied explanations at the last minute and shrugging his shoulders when things don’t go to plan. Matt Smith seems bored to act the part here—he doesn’t come off as more than vaguely worried at any point in the episode. When the Doctor is stuck in these claustrophobic situations, most of the drama usually comes from people either keeping secrets, or fighting against him, but that doesn’t happen here. He’s got nothing to work with. I found myself longing for an closed set tale more like“Midnight” or even “42”—there was true immediacy there, some solid humor, and a good sci-fi concept.
Honestly, when “Cold War” completed, I literally shouted at my TV screen, “That’s it?!” And I think that sums up the experience quite eloquently.
On the list of possible clues/cool shout outs:
- David Warner’s character bringing up Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” makes me think Bad Wolf. Since we know Rose is back for the 50th anniversary, is Bad Wolf cropping up again? Was she the woman in the flower shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s number? Because I can think of no other reason to have Clara singing the song, even if it is out of nervousness.
- The screwdriver has a red setting! This is the first we’ve seen of the infamous red glow that shows up on River’s screwdriver in Season 4’s “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead.” So that’s awesome.
- The TARDIS’ Hostile Action Displacement System is a cute shout out to a 2nd Doctor serial called “The Krotons.” The suggestion has been that each of these episodes leading up the the 50th anniversary is meant to embody a classic doctor type of adventure—“The Rings of Akhaten” reminds us of the First Doctor when Eleven brings up his granddaughter Susan and fights a god called “grandfather,” and this episode features the Ice Warriors, which were created in Troughton’s era. Which means that next week’s episode should please Third Doctor fans... fingers crossed on that one, for sure.