Sunday, 14 April 2013

A world gripped by nuclear tensions, David Bowie topping the album chart – no, it’s not 2013, it’s 1983, though the whole North Korea situation is a timely bit of publicity for Mark Gatiss’ latest contribution to Doctor Who, Cold War.

The setting was a Russian nuclear submarine carrying a creature found frozen at the North Pole, a creature which turns out to be an old enemy of the Doctor’s – Ice Warrior Skaldak. Naturally, it didn’t take long for the Martian behemoth to break free.

Bringing back the Ice Warrior race, last seen in 1974, in a claustrophobic one-versus-humanity story reminiscent of 2005’s Dalek or Ridley Scott’s Alien worked well to create a formidable villain. Not much had changed in terms of their design – the silly LEGO hand had been replaced by a much more dextrous claw, but the classic hulking green armour remained, brushed around the edges to be suitable for the era of HD. Perhaps the production team have learned from the backlash to the new Daleks and Silurians...

But that’s not all – in a brilliant twist, a desperate Skaldak abandoned his armour and roamed the submarine naked. The scene where Clara, attempting to negotiate with the captured Skaldak on behalf of the Doctor, realised that she was talking to an empty suit, was exquisitely unforeseen and scary. Gatiss kept the Alien-esque horror going at full pelt from then, with the surprisingly spindly-armed creature always a step ahead of the crew, hidden in the shadows and never shown in full – well, nobody wants to see an Ice Warrior’s naughty bits at teatime on a Saturday.

The submarine setting, a claustrophobic, inescapable environment with its own inherent dangers, an undersea Nostromo, fitted this story well. What could have emphasized the claustrophobia more, however, would be if the corridors were a little tighter – they’d been made bigger than actual submarine corridors to fit the Ice Warrior suit, apparently, but Skaldak spent a lot of the episode hanging unclothed from the ceiling, and the suit did have more than enough corridor width, so a little less space would certainly have helped.

Nevertheless, the submarine was a great choice of setting, and it worked brilliantly with the theme of Cold War tensions. While Skaldak on his own may not have been as indestructible as a Dalek at full power, he had the ability to take advantage of a world on the brink of war. At this point in history, it wasn’t just the Martians who could bring down humanity – humanity itself very nearly did. This theme was explored through the different perspectives within the Russian crew and three great guest performances – Liam Cunningham as the level-headed, authoritative Captain, Tobias Menzies as the eager subordinate insistent on being ready to fire at any moment, and the great David Warner as the Professor who didn’t give a shit and wanted to listen to Duran Duran. Professor Grisenko was one of those characters who are so good that I want them to follow the Doctor into the TARDIS at the end and become a new companion.

And, again, I liked Clara this week. Though I wasn’t fond of her in Moffat’s introductory episode(s), she’s fast becoming a rounded and engaging companion. It’s nice to see her growing into the companion role and learning how the Doctor’s world works. This is her first ‘scary’ adventure and it was lovely to see her genuinely scared shitless after seeing sailors killed by Skaldak. “It's all got very... real,” she says, as Grisenko tries to console her; a beautifully human moment that made me want to jump into the screen, hug Clara and shout “everything will be alright, because you’re now a character I like!” By the end of the episode, Clara had got over this fear and played a vital part in convincing Skaldak not to blow up the world. “Saved the world, then. That's what we do” she says to the Doctor. She’s growing up fast.

On the other hand, I do feel that the ending felt a little anticlimactic and that a more powerful "actually, I won't nuke the world" moment was needed. Perhaps a fault with this scene was that the Doctor’s threat to blow up the submarine, using his sonic screwdriver, wasn’t at all believable.

Which brings me on to my one other criticism of this episode, and it’s one that’s been made before. The sonic screwdriver was overused. It can be a useful tool to move the plot forward, but I like to see the Doctor solve problems by being clever, not by waving around a magic fix-anything wand, and this episode featured it in quite a few scenes which would have worked just as well without it. Arriving in the falling submarine, the Doctor worked out which way to steer it to safety by taking some unknown readings with his screwdriver – why couldn’t he have worked this out by looking at the sub's readings and judging the falls himself? Later, he tracked nudey Skaldak by taking some unknown readings with his screwdriver – why couldn’t he have used his eyes?

Despite this, I really liked Cold War. The Rings of Akhaten remains the highlight of the series for me (no, really), but the dual tensions of the desperate Martian and the fingers on the nuclear button kept me gripped throughout. Gatiss has delivered his best Who episode yet, a real edge-of-the-seat thriller that shows his love for the submarine movie and for the Ice Warriors. It’s a perfect re-introduction of an old villain; let’s hope I can say the same about Neil Gaiman’s Cybermen and Steven Moffat’s Zygons…

I also liked the pun in the title, though I think Skaldak should have used some more.


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