The TARDIS arrives aboard a Soviet nuclear submarine at the height of the Cold War just as Grand Marshal Skaldak, a legendary Ice Warrior, awakens from a 5,000-year slumber to declare war on humanity and threaten the planet with mutually assured destruction.
Haven’t we been here before?
Hair, shoulder pads, nukes … It’s the 80s: everything’s bigger.
One of the most eagerly awaited episodes of the season, this is the fifth story written by The League of Gentlemen‘s Mark Gatiss and sees the return of one of his personal favourites, the Ice Warriors. Indigenous to Mars, these tall, armour-clad, reptilian creatures were a staple foe of the Second and Third Doctors, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, but had not been seen on TV since 1974.
The setting for Gatiss’ script – a Russian submarine – immediately evokes thoughts of The Hunt for Red October or perhaps Das Boot. In reality, it bears much closer resemblance to Alien, with an out-of-armour Skaldek skulking around the sub’s ventilation shafts and crawl-spaces. And there is also a distinct echo of WarGames, a film released in the same year (1983) that this episode is set in, with its theme of mutually assured destruction and a foe who is rapidly learning and moving toward launching the first strike which will bring this scenario about.
In fact, there are plenty of other classic Who tropes at play in the episode, not least the familiar ‘base under siege’ theme with much of the action taking place in corridors and cramped rooms which create a sense of genuine claustrophobia, particularly once Skaldak moves outside of his own armour to provide a threat which is heard as much as seen. These familiar touchpoints are largely a big positive for the episode, as Gatiss balances the need to reintroduce the Ice Warriors to a modern audience with some rapid sketching in of their back-story up front with the need to drive a taut story driven more by dialogue and character interaction than by action set-pieces. The plot itself is fairly minimalist, but the submarine set design is fantastic and the realisation of the Ice Warrior itself – in both its real and armoured form – is equally impressive.
However, it is that sense of familiarity which also constrains the episode and ensures it never rises above the level of merely very good. While I’ve already compared Cold War to a number of films, closer to home perhaps the most striking similarity is with Dalek, a story for the Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston. Both episodes reboot a classic Who enemy from the original series by focussing on a single specimen of the species. Both episodes see the single Dalek/Ice Warrior awakening from a long period of dormancy. And both feature key scenes involving them being locked in a room with the Doctor’s companion (Rose Tyler in the case of Dalek.) The problem here is that Dalek is a superior story in practically every respect.
I was also not entirely convinced by the story’s ending, which centred a little too much on the conveniently timely arrival of Skaldak’s people and the Doctor and Clara both playing on his quality of mercy. It wasn’t a bad ending by any means – certainly better than last week’s and also a timely reminder that the Doctor is essentially a man of peace who doesn’t always need to defeat his enemies in battle to produce a positive outcome – but it did feel a bit pat and rushed in the context of an otherwise strong story.
There were some big positives, though. Clara runs the gamut of emotions here as she goes from tumbling out of the TARDIS expecting a good time in Las Vegas to watching first-hand as the body count steadily rises, facing off one-on-one against a formidable foe and experiencing self-doubt when that encounter doesn’t go well. As she herself says “it’s all gotten very real” as she comes to realise the less fun and glamorous side of life with the Doctor. And Skaldak’s characterisation contains many intriguing shades of grey. Here is an individual, believing himself to be the last of his kind and hurting deeply, who feels honour-bound to declare war on his ‘enemies’ and pursue a path of mutually assured destruction, only to rediscover that there is also honour in mercy. We could just as easily be describing the Doctor in the immediate aftermath of the Time War.
Overall, this was a very solid if not entirely innovative effort – arguably Gatiss’ best, marginally ahead of The Unquiet Dead for me – bolstered once again by excellent performances from the two principals and the gravitas provided by guest stars Liam Cunningham (Captain Zhukov) and David Warner (as the New Romantic-loving Professor Grisenko) – the latter in particular well-known to Star Trek aficionados for his appearances in both the sixth film, The Undiscovered Country, and the classic The Next Generation two-parter Chain of Command.
- When searched, the contents of the Doctor’s pockets include not just the sonic but also a Barbie doll and a ball of twine. Utterly frivolous, or will either or both of these gain significance in subsequent episodes?
- “I’m always serious. With days off.”
- The TARDIS translation matrix works against the Doctor and Clara for once, as their apparent ability to speak fluent Russian initially causes the sub’s crew to suspect them of being spies.
- “A soldier knows another soldier. He’ll smell it.”
- “Saved the world, then? That’s what we do.”
- The TARDIS removes itself from the story as a result of the Doctor (for once) activating its Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS), causing it to relocate itself, rather inconveniently, to the South Pole. The HADS system has only made one prior appearance on TV, in the 1968/9 story The Krotons. Gatiss is nothing if not a Who fanboy!
Finally, an observation. All three of this latest batch of episodes have featured music strongly, from the use of contemporary songs both here (Ultravox’s Vienna and Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf) and in The Bells of Saint John (The Specials’ Ghost Town) to its central role in the plot of The Rings of Akhaten. Coincidence or deliberately thematic?