"My world is dead, but now there will be a second red planet — red with the blood of humanity!" — Grand Marshal Skaldak
File my instantaneous, mad love for “Cold War” under “Didn’t See It Coming,” because I was hedging bets this episode would be a letdown, especially after the flirtation with greatness that was “The Rings of Akhaten” (an episode that’s grown on me enormously over the past week). Surely the series couldn’t produce two straight weeks of awesomeness? Also, it’s written by Mark Gatiss, whose Who scripts I’ve had issues with more often than not. But not here, not this time, not at all. He got it just right. I want to declare “Cold War” an instant classic, right here and now, and deem it one of the triumphs of the Steven Moffat era, despite the era not having ended yet. It’s everything that’s ever been great about Doctor Who, and basically none of what’s been deficient about it. If the show could be this straightforward, intelligent, and unsettling more often, it’d be all the better for it.
Gatiss is a few years older than I, which still puts him at a relatively impressionable age at the time “Cold War” is set, which is 1983. Looking back, for someone like me, who was a young teenager at the time, the early to mid-eighties were an absurdly frightening time. It seemed all about the Russkies holding the free world hostage through the grip of nuclear terror. I distinctly recall living, for several years, with the mindset of “I shouldn’t think too much about what my life will be like in twenty years, because the world won’t be around that long.” One Friday afternoon, when leaving school, a classmate wished me well and goodbye, as the world was supposed to end that weekend. Such incidents seem normal for the time in hindsight. If you’re in your twenties now, maybe you’ve got similar types of memories of the years following 9/11. Hell, with all the insanity going on in North Korea right now (whether it’s any kind of real threat to America or not), “Cold War” couldn’t possibly have come at a better time.
But the nuclear paranoia of the eighties, at least as I remember it, was positively nightmarish. On Ronald Reagan’s watch, even the phrase “Star Wars” ended up twisted into something that had nothing to do with lightsabers or Ewoks. The very tangible and relatable threat of mass nuclear annihilation pervades “Cold War” from its first moments, and rarely lets up, cranking the intensity to ten (or eleven, if you’re a Spinal Tap fan). This sort of thing rarely happens on this series that largely relies on fantastical happenings, villains, and weaponry (though “Cold War” has all of that, too). It took me back to that time in my life and those feelings of helpless anxiety that kept me awake at night, for fear that falling asleep meant I might not see the morning. This was the exact same time period in which I discovered and took comfort in the world of Doctor Who. So you can perhaps understand why this particular episode affected me so, though surely “Cold War” is strong enough to appeal to anyone, of any age without all the baggage outlined above.
In a recent interview conducted by Ed Stradling, Moffat explained the circumstances behind the return of the Ice Warriors: “It was Mark Gatiss’s idea and it was very much his pitch – he’d been pitching for Ice Warriors for a while. I wasn’t tremendously persuaded. I’ll be honest: I thought they were maybe the default condition for what people thought of as rubbish Doctor Who monsters – things that moved very, very slowly and spoke in a way that meant you couldn’t hear a word they said.”
Certainly when compared to what was on display in “Cold War,” Moffat is right to call out the classic Ice Warriors, and the series was under no obligation to revisit these creatures that were last seen in the sub-par 1974 Jon Pertwee serial, “The Monster of Peladon.” A big reason the Martians have a place in many a Whovian heart is because they looked so friggin’ badass … until they started moving and talking, when much of their badassery dissipated.
Entering the story as a sort of reptilian equivalent of The Terminator, Grand Marshal Skaldak (Spencer Wilding; voiced by Nicholas Briggs), lost in time and place, reverts to the only thing he’s trained to do, which is engage in the art of tactical warfare … and what better base of operations for that than a nuclear submarine. Gatiss has reimagined the race for the better. What’s largely been retained is that iconic look, with a few minor tweaks (the gauntlet has been thrown down, Cosplayers). What’s new? Better to ask what isn’t. The whole idea of the creature leaving the armored suit behind is fresh, and what that suit contains, and what this episode does with those claw-like hands, is a thing of absolute horrific beauty. This imagery has the same sort of power as the very best villainous alien touches showcased in modern Doctor Who (i.e. the Weeping Angels, the Silence, etc.). The scene where Skaldak tore apart the crew member in order to discover what human beings are made of was equally chilling, as was Clara’s reaction to it.
One of the script’s many fab touches is that it’s a Russian submarine. Making the Soviets the heroes of the piece is really rather brilliant (it could just as easily have been an American or even a British sub), as it casts them in a sympathetic light, which is exactly how we didn’t see them back in ’83. There isn’t a weak performance among the cast; however Liam Cunningham’s straightforward Captain (“And he wouldn’t smell it on you, Doctor?”) and Tobias Menzies’s morally ambiguous Lieutenant, are the obvious standouts. It could even be argued that the latter made the episode with the scene that introduced Skaldak’s hands. (Both actors can be seen on Game of Thrones, by the way.)
The episode’s lean on humor — a gigantic plus given how heavily the series relies on laughs these days. What little it does have comes from a pair of Elvis glasses, a Barbie doll, and the idea that the presumably 70ish Professor Grisenko (David Warner) is a fanatic for New Romantic synthpop. Speaking of Warner, his presence is another great period touch. For the right kind of cinemagoer, David Warner was a villainous icon back in the day. The trio of Time After Time, Time Bandits, and TRON alone collectively gives Warner an immense amount of off-kilter cred. Indeed, given the sheer amount of genre work Warner’s done over the years, an appearance onscreen in Doctor Who was long overdue, and this hearty eighties soup that is “Cold War” was an ideal showcase for a few of his more understated wares. The scenes highlighting his love for Ultravox and Duran Duran are emblematic of how a lot of people coped with the eighties – through the music — and it’s too bad the kindly Professor didn’t learn that his favorite bands would still be releasing albums well into the 21st century.
Give Gatiss a big round of applause for not only engineering the return of the Ice Warriors, but also for being the architect behind this bold, unnerving reinvention. His script is complex in its outlook, but never with the mechanics of plot. It reinvents the classic Patrick Troughton base under siege story for a modern audience, while at the same time seemingly emerging from a very personal place in the writer’s mind. Everything within it comes together so perfectly, you can almost picture the fire in the writer’s eyes as he unveiled the idea to Steven Moffat, ending with, “And we’ll call it ‘Cold War’!”
If next week’s episode is even close to as good as the two before it, we may just have to declare Doctor Who smack in the middle of some sort of creative renaissance.
Odds and Ends
- After questioning the mechanics of the TARDIS language translation systems last week, the topic was broached this week, with the Doctor quickly reasserting the old rules for Clara’s benefit. Perhaps a nod to the English-speaking Russians of The Hunt for Red October?
- What sort of adventures did the Doctor and Clara have as they trekked from one end of the Earth to the other, in order to get back to the TARDIS, in the year 1983? One would think that by next week’s episode some of the “newness” of their friendship will have worn off as a result.
- Clara’s desire to impress the Doctor recalls Rory’s assertion in “The Vampires of Venice”: “It's not that you make people take risks, it's that you make them want to impress you. You make it so they don't want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you're around.”
- Director Douglas Mackinnon also deserves some major kudos for infusing Gatiss’s script with pulsating life. He previously helped reintroduce the Sontarans to the series with the fourth season “Sontaran Stratagem” two-parter, and also helmed this season’s “The Power of Three.”
- Much of “Cold War” felt influenced by Alien (and even Aliens, to a degree). 1975’s “The Ark in Space” has also often been compared to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece. The ending of “Cold War,” with the submarine being pulled up from the ocean depths by a massive spaceship, recalled The Abyss.
- The original “Ice Warriors” serial from 1967, starring Patrick Troughton, is set for DVD release later this year (likely early September for Region 1).
- The Doctor says that he reactivated the HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System) setting on the TARDIS. The HADS was introduced in the Troughton story “The Krotons.”
- Though it’s been 39 years since the Ice Warriors were last seen on Doctor Who, they were slated to appear in the aborted Colin Baker serial “Mission to Magnus,” which has since been novelized and produced as an audio play by Big Finish.
- Doctor Who previously explored themes of cold warfare and mutually assured destruction in the 1984 serial “Warriors of the Deep,” starring Peter Davison, and featuring the Silurians and the Sea Devils.
- David Warner has previously loaned his vocal talents to Doctor Who in the animated one-off “Dreamland,” starring David Tennant, as well as various Big Finish audio plays, including two outings as an alternate version of the Doctor!
- “This means nothing to meeeeee! This means nothing to me! Oooohhhhh Vienna!!!”