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Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Hair. Shoulderpads. Nukes. It’s the eighties. Everything’s bigger!

– the Doctor

The theory that this fiftieth anniversary half-season is intended as an homage to Doctor Who‘s rich and varied past holds up with Cold War. If The Bells of St. John was a Pertwee-era invasion tale, and The Rings of Akhaten was a shout-out to classic Hartnell world-building, then Cold War wears its influences even more brazenly. It’s the archetypal “base under siege” story popularised in the Troughton era, to the point where it even brings back one of the era’s most iconic monsters.

Indeed, the “Troughton base under siege by classic monsters” story is the only classic Doctor Who formulation that this half-season visits twice. While Cold War is easily weaker (and less ambitious) than Nightmare in Silver, it still fills that niche remarkably well. After all, if any Doctor Who writer can channel nostalgia, it’s Mark Gatiss.

Going green...

Going green…

Mark Gatiss isn’t among the show’s strongest writers. He seems to have stumbled to the head of the “prospective show runners” category by default; he has more experience than any other candidate who could possibly replace Steven Moffat when Moffat retires, and his aesthetic would undoubtedly provide a sharp contrast to Moffat’s Doctor Who. It’s telling, though, that even with An Adventure in Time in Space, Gatiss has yet to really solidify his place as heir apparent in the same way that Moffat did during the Davies era.

I am not a huge fan of Gatiss’ contributions to the show. The writer has a particular approach to Doctor Who, and he’s quite adept at it. Gatiss writes with a certain nostalgia for the show; again, he was the writer who produced a nostalgic docu-drama about the history of the show for the fiftieth anniversary. Gatiss has a very deep love for the rich history of Doctor Who, and for cult entertainment (including horror) in general.

All under control...

All under control…

Gatiss’ strongest Doctor Who episodes – The Idiot’s LanternThe Crimson Horror and maybe The Unquiet Dead – are conscious throwbacks that take advantage of the fact that they are relatively conservative entries in the show’s canon. And it’s worth stressing that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s not overly ambitious or forward-looking, but there are other writers who play to those strengths. Gatiss has a talent that can be effective if used shrewdly.

The Unquiet Dead, as an affectionate homage to the Hinchcliffe era in general (and The Talons of Weng-Chiang in particular), was perfectly placed as an early episode of the first season. It reminded viewers of what they used to love about Doctor Who, while the production assured them that the production values would be much more impressive. It was a reminder that Davies wasn’t going to reinvent Doctor Who in his own image, and that the show would never forget its legacy or history.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

The Idiot’s Lantern came towards the end of the second season, as the show prepared to bid farewell to Billie Piper as Rose Tyler. It felt like a much better contender for Rose’s “last regular episode” than her actual last regular episode, Fear Her, turned out to be. Here, in the fiftieth anniversary season, Gatiss is tasked with writing two rather conscious throwbacks to particular eras. Cold War channels the Troughton era, a period Gatiss has a recorded fondness of, and The Crimson Horror evokes Hinchcliffe and Holmes again.

On the other hand, Gatiss seems to struggle a bit when he’s asked to do something new for the show or with modernising a classic element. Tasking Mark Gatiss with the job of updating the Daleks for the Moffat era proved to be a bit of a mistake, and Victory of the Daleks did little to restore the credibility of the genocidal pepper pots. If anything, it felt like an awkward attempt to throw the Daleks even further back. Moffat himself would eventually do a much better job of establishing the Daleks as a credible threat in Asylum of the Daleks.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

So Cold War feels like a bit of a risky proposition. On the one hand, you are asking Gatiss to write a cold war submarine thriller featuring little (or, according to Grisenko, “big”) green men from Mars. So there’s a lot to be excited about. On the other hand, you are asking Gatiss to essentially modernise the Ice Warriors and bring the monsters last seen in The Monster of Peladon into the twenty-first century. It’s a lot to ask, and a lot could go wrong.

Thankfully, Cold War is a story that feels rather consciously conservative, and so plays to Gatiss’ strengths more than Victory of the Daleks did. Gatiss wisely sticks to formula, avoiding a few potential pitfalls with the concept. You can almost check off the list of Doctor Who clichés that Gatiss works into the script – making the outline of the episode feel very much by rote. There’s not much in the way of innovation to be found here, as the script follows the “reintroducing a classic monster” rulebook to a “t.”

In the deep sea, all warriors are cold warriors...

In the deep sea, all warriors are cold warriors…

Following the model established Dalek, he wisely opts to revive a single Ice Warrior. There aren’t armies of green men parading around a submarine. Instead, we simply get Skaldak, a lone survivor buried in the ice and inadvertently woken by a Soviet nuclear submarine. It’s basically The Thing meets The Hunt for Red October, which means we’re comfortably in Gatiss’ wheelhouse. Nostalgia, both in a wider pop culture context and in the context of Doctor Who.

The use of a single Ice Warrior allows Gatiss to build him as a threat, rather than relying of force of arms to take the ship. It also gives us a chance to develop Skaldak as a character and to converse with him. Again, Gatiss leans on a trope of modern Doctor Who by tricking us into believing that Skaldak is the last of his kind. That way, we get a convenient dramatic contrast between the Doctor and the Ice Warrior. There’s nothing here that is too revolutionary, right down to the “aliens arrive and remove the problem” ending that writes itself, with a little bit of the classic “alien learns some compassion” cliché for flavouring.

I Warnered you about that guy...

I Warnered you about that guy…

And it works. It works largely because Gatiss is smart enough to recognise and acknowledge his reliance on these storytelling tools and tricks. When a crew member overwhelms Skaldak using a cattle prod, the Doctor points out how awkward and silly the Ice Warriors’ armour actually is. “Bit of a design flaw,” he muses. “Always wondered why they never sorted it out.” Of course, this old-fashioned charm is perfectly at home in the Moffat era, which has been – broadly speaking – more comfortable with cheesy hokeyness than the Davies era was.

The first thing that Moffat did with the Daleks was to remove the “serious” overhaul they were given in 2005, replacing it with a conscious homage to the technicolour designs of the 1960s Dalek films. As such, it’s not a surprise that the Ice Warrior armour hasn’t been changed or overhauled in the same way that, for example, the Cybermen designs were for Rise of the Cybermen. Although the CGI on Skaldak is impressive, he still spends most of the episode looking like a bloke in a silly costume. Given the choice of a decidedly retro design aesthetic, Gatiss’ writing feels strangely appropriate.

Of Martian bondage...

Of Martian bondage…

Setting the action on a Russian submarine, Gatiss not only explains that the TARDIS translates foreign languages, but acknowledges that there are other barriers to communication beyond the mechanics of language. Calling attention to the dramatic contrivance, Gatiss has Grisenko understand Clara while explaining that communication isn’t as simply as one-for-one. “Karoake? Hen nights? You speak excellent Russian, my dear, but sometimes I just don’t understand you.” It’s a nice touch.

It also helps account for the difficulty the show is having introducing Clara as a mid-season companion. Basically, the show needs to bring her up to speed on everything the audience already knows and set up all the necessary information before the season finalé, which is a lot closer than it would be if this were a standard thirteen-episode season. So the standard companion plot beats are awkwardly woven into the episodes.

A crushing defeat?

A crushing defeat?

The Rings of Akhaten gives us back story; Cold War has the Doctor explaining the TARDIS and the dramatic rules of the historicals; Hide will have Clara confront her own mortality in the context of the TARDIS. There’s never enough time for to devote proper space to Clara’s development, given all the weight bearing down on this season, so Clara’s character development feels like it’s being awkwardly slotted in wherever Moffat can find room.

So we get obligatory scenes, like Clara proving her worth. “It wasn’t a test,” the Doctor assures her after her encounter with Skaldak, before repeatedly assuring her she did great. And we get the moment that Clara realises this isn’t just a silly running game with aliens and witty remarks, as she is thrown by the gruesome discovery of an alien body. “Seeing those bodies back there, it’s all got sort of… real,” she remarks.

"Hello, ocean's bottom!"

“Hello, ocean’s bottom!”

There’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before. This isn’t even the first time that the Doctor has found himself trapped underwater on Earth between two power blocks on the brink of nuclear war while an alien menace causes trouble. It might be a bit much to call Gatiss’ script an homage to the terrible Warriors of the Deep, but it’s clear that Cold War is cast very much in the mould of a particular style of Doctor Who. That means we get certain plot points and character beats, but Gatiss’ script, the excellent guest cast and Douglas McKinnion’s direction keep it all relatively fresh.

Naturally, the Cold War itself is used as a metaphor – the notion of two competing ideologies at war, unable to take into account the simple idea that living creatures are all basically worthy of existence. There’s cultural relativism at play here, and the Doctor is clearly shown to have a great deal of respect for the values of Ice Warrior culture. Which feels just a little out of character, especially given the contempt that the Doctor has shown for Sontaran traditions and customs in The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky.

He's behind you...

He’s behind you…

This does raise some minor problems. The Doctor typically tends to apply his own morality to situations, and he avoids accepting justifications for brutality or oppression or violence. The Doctor is a man who routinely lands on alien planets and topples entire civilisations because he deems them unworthy. The fact that they can justify such actions doesn’t matter to him. In a way, that’s the biggest difference between the moral philosophies of Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Obviously, it makes sense for the Doctor to sympathise with Skaldak here, even when he’s a murderer. After all, it’s an episode set during the Cold War, so the whole point is that enemies do horrible things to one another, but that doesn’t mean that anything alien is inherently evil. It would be very hard for Cold War to work if the Doctor had immediately and repeatedly condemned Skaldak before getting all “Lonely God” on him. It just feels a little inconsistent with the portrayal of the Doctor in episodes like The Beast Below or even The Rings of Akhaten.

The King is alive...

The King is alive…

“Of course it has a name,” the Doctor insists. “And a rank. This is a soldier, and it deserves our respect.” Zhukov responds, “This is madness. That is a monster!” In theory, it’s a nice piece of writing from Gatiss. One of the biggest differences between modern Doctor Who and the classic series is the way that the modern series isn’t so quick to condemn “monsters” outright, or assume that something that looks strange mush be sinister. It’s cultural relativism at work, and Moffat himself returns to the point in The Day of the Doctor. (Also effective foreshadowing: the fact that Skaldak’s people are not actually dead.)

More than that, though, the Ice Warriors are notable as the first classic series monsters to be “redeemed.” They were introduced as hostile invaders, but The Curse of Peladon came to portray them as more complex characters – it was a massive turning point for the show, making it a shame that the Ice Warriors reverted to generic monsters in The Monster of Peladon. So there’s a precedent for the argument between the Doctor and Zhukov here.

I can see Clara now...

I can see Clara now…

At the same time, all this relativism sounds a little out of character for the Doctor, the man who is willing to bring systems of government crashing down because he disapproves of them. A society built on war? How could the Doctor respect or even admire that? “The Ice Warriors have a different creed, Clara,” the Doctor explains. “A different code. By his own standards, Skaldak is a hero. It was said his enemies honoured him so much, they’d carve his name into their own flesh before they died.”

And yet the Doctor is nonplussed (and still in a peaceful and understanding mindset) when Skaldak is perfectly willing to brutally murder the innocent population of Earth to protect his “honour”? This is a weird example of Gatiss’ trademark tone-deaf-ness. The Unquiet Dead has some unfortunately xenophobic undertones. The Idiot’s Lantern asks us to feel sorry for an abusive bully because he happens to be a blood relation. Here, we’re asked to accept the Doctor is okay with cold-blooded murder because it’s conducted according to an Ice Warrior’s code of honour.

A nuclear wessel...

A nuclear wessel…

It is worth noting that Cold War does allow Skaldak to kill in cold blood, rather than merely making him ambiguous. While it makes the Doctor’s defence of him seem a little out of character, it does add some moral complexity to the story. The dynamic between the Doctor and the Ice Warrior also allows Gatiss to foreground the Doctor’s history as a soldier, something that the Moffat era has allowed to fade into the background, but is an vital part of re-establishing the importance of the Time War in the run up to The Day of the Doctor.

There are some nice touches. In particular, the Doctor’s stern rebuke to Zhukov about the way that the crew provoked Skaldak; by standing up to him. The Doctor seems to have suggested the crew should have just let him go about his business – “He’d have forgotten you.” However, this seems a little hypocritical coming from the Doctor, and putting into a scene with Zhukov suggests that Gatiss is aware of that.

Drowning out the Doctor's advice...

Drowning out the Doctor’s advice…

The Doctor is hardly in any position to lecture anybody about just going with the flow. He tends to insert himself into a situation and tries to take charge, rubbing the authority figure the wrong way. Much like he does with Zhukov here. Ironically, the only Doctor who seemed capable of passively going with the flow was the version played by Peter Davison, who starred in Warriors of the Deep. So the similarities between episodes become quite striking.

Repeatedly throughout the episode, we’re reminded that the Ice Warriors consider an attack on one of them to be an attack on all of them. “Harm one of us,” Skaldak warns, “and you harm us all.” It seems like Gatiss is being quite wry here, making a sly reference to the motto used by the Industrial Workers of the World (“an injury to one is an injury to all”), acknowledging the labour movement subtext of the last two Ice Warrior appearances in The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon.

(The surnames of Gatiss’ two leading Russian characters are also the names of two Russian characters played by British actors in GoldenEye, while we’re spotting Gatiss’ references to British popular culture.)

This will take all the Doctor's Cunning(ham)...

This will take all the Doctor’s Cunning(ham)…

Gatiss also makes some nice mirroring of the human and Ice Warrior characters. “Song” seems to be something of a minor theme of the season, in keeping with the season’s fascination with narrative and storytelling. Song was vitally important in The Rings of Akhaten as a way of communicating story. Here, Grisenko suggests using song to help ward away fear – perhaps the best use of Hungry Like the Wolf anybody has ever offered. The Doctor also notes that Skaldak used “the song of the Ice Warriors” to summon his armour, as if to underscore the suggestion that the two people are not as different as they might think.

It’s also worth noting that the guest cast in Cold War is pretty great. Liam Cunningham is typically impressive. Again, Zhukov seems to exist as a walking reference to The Hunt for Red October (a bearded Soviet submarine commander with a Celtic countenance), but Cunningham has a natural gravitas that works well. More interesting is the casting of David Warner. Warner is a wonderful actor who can never get enough work.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

Between the use of Richard E. Grant as the season’s recurring menace and a guest appearance from Arabella Weir in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, Moffat seems to be collecting “alternate Doctors” for this anniversary season. It’s a shame Jacobi already appeared in Utopia. Here, Gatiss seems to make a bit of a joke at the expense of the fans who desperately want an older and more mature Doctor by having Warner’s Grisenko moan, “Oh, it’s a young man’s game, all this dashing about.” Coming from a pseudo-Doctor, it’s quite a barb.

Nicholas Briggs adds another voice to his repertoire here. Briggs is really an unsung hero of modern Doctor Who, and his ability to make his voices seem subtly distinct from one another is absolutely integral to the success of so many of these monsters. Skaldak actual works surprisingly well, and he’s given more dialogue, emotion and motivation than most of Briggs’ characters, and the voice actor handles himself well.

There's a leak!

There’s a leak!

All in all, Cold War is a solid piece of Doctor Who. It’s not bold or brilliant, but it is more than merely functional. It’s fun and exciting, a loving homage to past Doctor Who stories, but also to genre productions in general. Gatiss plays to his strengths here, offering a nice slice of nostalgia.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

Note: To celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, I’m doing weekly reviews of the show (past and present.) The last one published was the return of another classic monster in Resurrection of the Daleks, so feel free to check it out.

DOCTOR: It’s an Ice Warrior. A native of the planet Mars. And we go way back. Way back.

The rules. (History’s in flux. It can be changed. Re-written.)

David Warner. (GRISENKO: )

4 Responses

  1. I can’t agree with you more, this season pails in comparison to season six. In each new episode problems are resolved too easily, usually within that last three minutes. Most of the scifi grit has been replaced by cutesy glances, and poorly thought out puns. I wish they’d brink back the dinosaur spaceship from season 7, now that’s great fantasy.

    • I have to confess, I’m not made about Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. I though Hide was pretty great this week, but I think that Moffat’s “blockbuster” season is missing those quieter more intimate moments that his first two seasons did so well. It feels more like a giant homage to past stories than anything that is ingenious on its own terms.

  2. Thought it was quite enjoyable in a ‘Hunt for Red October- Alien’ kind of way. Story was OK,some good bon mots from the Doctor and a nice bit of action. David Warner superb. The Ice Warrior costume was pretty amazing too.

    • I really liked the Ice Warrior design. But it was a very simple Doctor Who template, nothing too revolutionary or ingenious.

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