Doctor Who: 708 “Cold War” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert
“You speak excellent Russian, my dear, but sometimes I don’t understand a word you’re talking about.” – Professor Grisenko
Mark Gatiss’ track-record for Doctor Who is hit-and-miss. His stories typically revolve around the ‘body-horror’ subgenre, situating characters in grim, macabre predicaments against a seemingly impassable foe. When Gatiss migrates outside his comfort zone (i.e. Victory of the Daleks, and its garish multi-coloured ensemble), the quality of his narrative suffers. The result is a maudlin, tedious affair, featuring amateurish tirades and uninteresting characters. Cold War, sadly, fits this description.
Now, I’ve never experienced the Ice Warriors in action before, so coming into Cold War I was excited yet cautious. The premise paralleled Robert Shearman’s critically-lauded Dalek: a lone solider, motivated by its blood-thirst for revenge. However, where Dalek was a victorious reintroduction of the Daleks (without straying significantly from their fundamental physiology), Cold War makes a fatal lapse of judgment. Part of what makes the Martian design appealing is the underlying mystery concerning the creature encased within the armour, yet recognising what defines the Ice Warrior, the solider in action (as opposed to the ‘civilian’ Martian) is the armour and its symbolic power. To my mind, the Ice Warrior is meant to be a hulking, monstrous brute, designed for strength and resilience, rather than stealth. When Grand Marshal Skaldak leaves his armour to skulk in the shadows of the Firebird, the story transforming into Ridley Scott’s Alien on a submarine, the risk involved in this decision misfires. I’ve no qualms, as such, about elaborating on the mythology of the species (their code of honour is interlinked with their armour) if it didn’t turn into a wholly different alien. The slender limbs, the partly glimpsed body, the deep voice… It’s clichéd, and Skaldak himself was a clichéd villain. There’s no real personality or depth outside of belligerence, and Gatiss’ sentimental storytelling is wearisome. There’s also no explanation for how Skaldak arrived on Earth, nor the circumstances under which he was preserved in ice. (What happened to his spacecraft? Did it sink into the depths of the Arctic Ocean? Did any Ice Warriors investigate his disappearance? I would’ve appreciated a historical context from Skaldak himself.)
I will say, though, within the context of the narrative, the audience’s retrospective awareness that Skaldak has always been outside his armour when Clara enters the torpedo room (a scene that visually recalls Dalek) does intensify the creepiness of the atmosphere. The sequence itself was well-composed, and I’ll commend the direction and lighting. Indeed, the lighting becomes one of Cold War’s more striking features – at the cost of making the atmosphere gloomier than intended.
Speaking of characters, Clara was the highlight. Although her dialogue with David Warner’s Professor Grisenko dispels any remote tension, given their immediate predicament, nonetheless I could almost enjoy Clara’s relationship with Warner’s grandfatherly figure – even if the dialogue was cringe-worthy (“Ultravox. Do they spilt up?”). It’s occurred to me that this series’ heavy focus on Clara (thus far) may be a deliberate ploy to invest the audience emotionally within the character, so, come the finale, the revelation of her ‘true’ purpose – assuming this is the case – will be an accentuated shock to both Clara and the audience. We will be made to sympathise with her because she’s a victim.
The reintroduction of the H.A.D.S. (The Krotons) was pointless fan-service (the denouement was unfunny, with the Doctor, again, seen to act like a malcontent child; sheepishly confessing to Clara, then mocking the adults’ laughter). It didn’t help matters by the story’s decisively cop-out resolution – as it prevents either the Doctor or Skaldak from making a choice; ideally with Skaldak relenting. The TARDIS didn’t need to dematerialise. There’s an Ice Warrior loose on a Soviet submarine, primed with nuclear missiles. The characters would have stayed to investigate, then safely returned the survivors home, including Skaldak, following his change in heart.
If Cold War can be summarised in one word: “disappointing”. The story contains a plethora of flaws. The Soviet crew consisted of Redshirts, Stephasin was a paranoid, clichéd fool, disdainful of his superior’s attitude. Only Liam Cunningham’s Captain Zhukov was remotely interesting: a man willing to place his patriotism aside to prioritise his crew’s survival, assisting a stranger against their common adversary. I liked the nuance, however, of the Kremlin withholding, what we can presume is, knowledge of extra-terrestrial activity – synonymous to the British government/UNIT in the Whoniverse. (Aliens aren’t deferential to the south of England, then.) Logically, the Doctor wouldn’t be fazed at the sight of mutilated corpses, but it’s upsetting he didn’t act more compassionately. Fortunately, Clara’s reaction (“Seeing those bodies… It’s all very… real”) adds a layer of substance to an otherwise glibly grim scene. The climax was reminiscent of Battlefield’s pacifist preach against the villain utilising nuclear missiles for revenge – which isn’t a positive indicator of the story’s merit.