Cold War Review

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Clint Hassell reviews the return of the Ice Warriors.

Written by life-long Who fan Mark Gatiss, “Cold War” is, ultimately, a forgettable filler episode that fails to captivate, as each of the episode’s strengths is meted by a point where it fails to achieve.

The redesigned Ice Warrior armor includes the monster’s iconic aspects, while ditching the excess, and is near-perfect (though I will admit to kinda missing the Lego-style claw hands).  However, I question the choice to update the monster’s voice as depicted in The Curse of Peladon (lower and gruff, with a constant background hiss), rather than the original high-pitched sibilant whisper from The Ice Warriors.  Not only is the latter more psychologically terrifying  – by never raising their voice, they sound cool and calm, and the effect is unnerving  – it is the more familiar, and one of the few identifying features truly unique to the Ice Warriors.  The new, deep, gravelly voice sounds generic, and the ever-present guttural hissing is much too similar to the Silents’.

In fact, as presented in “Cold War,” the Ice Warriors seem to be an amalgamation of other popular monsters:

  • like the Daleks, the Ice Warriors had to build armor to protect themselves when their environment became inhospitable.
  • the Ice Warriors are cyborgs, and have arm-mounted weaponry, like the Cybermen.
  • they are a warrior race, like the Sontarans, and even salute in a similar fashion.  (“Sontar-ha!”)
  • the Ice Warriors “classic” look is revealed to be a mask;  the Doctor is only now seeing their “real” forms (the Silurians).
  • they have Slitheen-like arms.

Don’t get me wrong:  much of this continuity was established in classic episodes, so Gatiss should be praised, not faulted, for including it here.  And, yes, the redesign is way better than that presented in The Monster of Peladon, where the Ice Warriors are little more than human-voiced stuntmen in cheap, green suits;  however, “Cold War” did little to present a unique adversary to a new generation of Doctor Who fans.  I missss the hissss.

Another mixed bag in this episode was Clara, who unfortunately could have been dropped from the script, with little effect on the narrative.  Clara’s confrontation of Skaldak is awkwardly-explained (Captain Zhukov doesn’t want to risk “losing” the Doctor), and is really only included to necessitate her presence in the episode.  The scene practically verifies this, as Skaldak bypasses Clara and talks directly to the Doctor, within four sentences of the conversation’s start.  Clara seems paralyzed, and then exhilarated, by the danger of being in the room with the Ice Warrior, asking, “How’d I do?  Was I OK?”  Suddenly, Clara is very success-oriented  – a trait almost surely dictated by the show’s character bible, making me curious as to its deeper meaning for her as-yet-unrevealed backstory.

Clara’s reaction at the episode’s end is interesting, because it’s not one we’ve experienced from a previous companion:  she and the Doctor connect solely over the thrill of having saved the world.  It was such a relief to see this:

'Cold_War'_-_the_Doctor_&_Clara,_NOT_kissing

. . . and the end-result not be mooning eyes and awkward kissing.  Thus far, Clara has been established as feeling purposeless  – trapped in a crashed star cruiser, tending bar in her free time to achieve some sense of adventure, stagnant in life after a friend’s death brings up memories of her mother  – and it’s nice to see a tiny progression in that storyline.  For me to truly embrace Clara as a character and a companion, I’m going to need more of this type of development.

Lesser points aside, Gatiss’ script mostly disappoints because it never capitalizes on its inherent potential;  the most we get out of the episode’s Cold War premise is the awful pun in the title.  Great science fiction uses fantastic plot elements as allegory to teach something universal about the human condition  – say, the destructive power of a stalemate born from fear and lack of compromise.  As it stands, the episode is a standard, trapped-with-a-shadowy-monster-who-will-pick-us-off-one-by-one adventure, and the script merely checks off the story beats as seemingly-nameless crewmembers die.  Think how much better it would have been to watch the Soviets and the Ice Warrior in a volatile standoff, the Doctor and Clara in the middle, trying desperately to avert mutually-assured destruction, before the air runs out.  In Gatiss’ script, the Doctor does a small amount of negotiating, but it’s quick and exuberant, and lacks real heat.  Imagine the slow burn of a tense drama played against the Cold War metaphor!

In fact, so little was done with the episode’s premise that the script runs short, and is padded with additional, unnecessary plot elements, just to meet its meager 41-minute run time.  For example, no purpose is served in knocking Clara unconscious, just after the TARDIS dematerializes, other than to increase her presence in the episode.  Similarly, while it is nice to lose the sonic screwdriver for an act  – it’s been way overused, lately  – its loss contributes nothing to the story.  The Doctor doesn’t seem challenged by its absence, as it is conveniently recovered the precise moment it is again needed.  The same could be said for the sudden disappearance of the TARDIS, which, from a narrative perspective, traps the Doctor and Clara on the submarine.  However, had the Doctor discovered the Ice Warrior before the TARDIS dematerialized, he would have stayed with the Russian crew anyway, so why utilize that specific plot device, other than for the chance to mention the H.A.D.S.?

Without completely rewriting the script, what minor changes could have been made to fully realize the episode’s potential?  The solution rests in creating a situation involving “mutually assured destruction,” mirroring that of the Cold War.  The episode’s teaser could remain basically the same with the newly-freed Ice Warrior running amok, damaging the submarine, and causing it to sink.  The Doctor arrives, with Clara, in the TARDIS  – but not on the ship’s bridge.  Instead, the pair follows the crew’s shouting to the bridge, where, as seen, the Doctor prevents the submarine from sinking to the ocean floor.  However, there are still sounds of a struggle from the rear of the ship, and upon catching a glimpse of the looming Skaldak, a scared crewman shuts a heavy metal door, sealing the Ice Warrior  – and, unfortunately, the Doctor’s TARDIS  – in the back half of the submarine.  This establishes the desired “mutually assured destruction” scenario:  the Ice Warrior, separated in time from his home, feels he has nothing to lose, and contemplates launching the nuclear bombs.  This will destroy the Earth, but also the Doctor, who offers to take Skaldak home in the TARDIS.  The Soviet crew considers flooding the back of the submarine, which would kill the Ice Warrior and prevent the launch of the missiles, but would prevent the ship from ever surfacing.  As the Russian crew and the Ice Warrior try to negotiate a peaceful resolution, tensions mount;  air is running out, and the Doctor cannot use the TARDIS to escape.

Confident in the Ice Warrior’s future nobility from his experiences in The Curse of Peladon, the Doctor manages to resolve the crisis by bonding with Skaldak over their respective daughters – both the product of warrior races, both lost to their fathers in their first missions.  The Doctor, true to his word, returns the Ice Warrior to his time, preventing the need for the deus ex machina of the suddenly-appearing Ice Warrior spacecraft.

As presented, “Cold War” lacks the expected claustrophobia of an adventure set inside a submarine.  This is due mostly to the need for hallways much too wide to be historically accurate, in which characters can run and fire guns.  By shifting the tone of “Cold War” to that of a psychological thriller, the episode could be filmed in even tighter, cramped quarters, thus enhancing the tension of the standoff, and the characters’ feelings of being trapped.

Again, “Cold War” isn’t a bad episode – it’s just not a great one, either, which is a shame, because there are moments in the story that do impress.  For example, my favorite exchange of the episode:

the Doctor:  “Skaldak won’t talk to you – you’re, you, you’re an enemy soldier. . . .  A soldier knows another soldier.  He’ll smell it on you, smell it on you a mile off.”

Captain Zhukov:  “And he wouldn’t smell it on you, Doctor?”

Nice, subtle Time War reference, Gatiss!

Matt Smith looks very handsome in this episode.  He’s beginning to grow into his looks.

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The opening shot that curves through Arctic icebergs before diving underwater to find the Russian submarine is beautifully realized.  However, between this establishing shot and last week’s effects-heavy “The Rings of Akhaten,” I’m afraid most of Series 7’s budget has been spent, and the remaining five episodes will have the Doctor and Clara fighting tin foil Cybermen and papier-mâché Daleks.

On the next page Clint follows up on last week’s review of The Rings of Akhaten.

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