Doctor Who Recap - Cold War
By Edwin Davies
April 15, 2013
As someone who has always been fascinated by submarines and who grew up loving stories of people trying to survive whilst trapped inside one, I was already predisposed to like "Cold War" since it immediately brings in some of the key elements in any good sub story: claustrophobia, internal and external threats, and no chance of escape. With nowhere to run, The Doctor has to convince the sceptical Soviets that he is there to help them, and they have to work together to defeat Skaldak before he starts a global thermo-nuclear war.
His opposite number, Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham, who is the sort of person whose face looks incomplete without a grizzled beard) begrudgingly accepts help from The Doctor and Clara, though he doesn't trust them enough not to point a gun at The Doctor's head when a negotiation with a seemingly restrained Skaldak goes awry, but some of his other men are less willing to cooperate. One, Lieutenant Stepashin (played by Tobias Menzies) even goes so far as to try to strike a deal with the Ice Warrior, having already been established as the sort of fanatical Cold Warrior who relishes the outbreak of a warmer conflict. It doesn't work out terribly well for Stepashin, but it sets up a nice tension as it it becomes clear that not everyone is willing to set aside political beliefs in favour of not being obliterated.
In addition to drawing on the best aspects of submarine films, credited writer Mark Gatiss also weaves in plenty of elements from great, claustrophobic science fiction and horror. The discovery of Skaldak, a being frozen in time and rudely awakened, recalls The Thing and Quatermass and The Pit (Gatiss is, in addition to being a fine writer, a horror aficionado and fan of Nigel Kneale) and even H.P. Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness, while the idea of a creature being loose in an enclosed space obviously recalls Alien. Gatiss has been writing for the revived series since the Eccleston year (and he also works with Who showrunner Steven Moffat as co-creator and actor on Sherlock) and this was one of his more satisfying works. It blended together a number of disparate ideas in a way that made sense, and delivered a lean, propulsive story that perfectly suited its chosen milieu.
He also found time to work in a good subplot for Clara, who got to show her mettle by going in to talk with Skaldak when no one else was deemed fit to do so, and played a crucial role in appealing to his sense of honour in the critical moments of the climax. She even got to sing a snatch of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" at the prompting of an old Professor (David Warner) obsessed with Western music. Probably the weirdest thing about that sequence was that it wasn't featured in Neil Gaiman's upcoming episode, considering his prior history with that band.
It was a good showcase for Clara as a Companion, too, since not only did it get some of the usual "The TARDIS can translate all languages" exposition out of the way, but it showed off her courage, strength and sense of humour in a way that previous episodes largely have not. In the end, Skaldak's people answer his distress call and he decides not to annihilate the Earth, but it's clear that this decision isn't driven by elation at not being alone, but because of the emotional appeal that Clara so effectively made to him. The about face he pulled seemed a little abrupt, but Jenna-Louise Coleman was very funny and convincing throughout, so I bought it.
It's unlikely to enter the pantheon of truly great Doctor Who episodes like "Blink" (which, incidentally, is the yardstick I compare every episode against), but it was a superior offering, not only in terms of the middling last couple of episodes, but just in general. This was a funny, suspenseful and smartly constructed episode that did everything that a good episode of Doctor Who can do. It even had a couple of nasty off-screen deaths too, which moves us away from the rut of "The Doctor saves everyone!" episodes we've had recently. Needless to say, this gets a hearty Na Zdorovie from me.
- Interesting that this episode takes place in 1983 considering that was also the year that the previous episode started in. I'm starting to wonder if the series is building up to the revelation that there is something strange and/or miraculous about that year. Apart from the release of David Bowie's Let's Dance and R.E.M.'s Murmur on consecutive days, obviously.
- Very impressive production design on display this week. Doctor Who tends to be pretty sharp in that department (barring the eye-searingly awful green screen from last week) but they really captured the mood and feel of something like Crimson Tide or The Hunt For Red October. The re-design for the Ice Warrior - an enemy who hasn't been seen since 1974 - also had an impressively physical, almost retro vibe to it while still seeming imposing.
- Skaldak was very well-spoken. It seems that most aliens on Doctor Who are very good at enunciating, which suggests to me that not only do most planets have a North, but most of them have a RADA, too.