Aired 13 April 2013
After the apparently divisive ‘The Rings of Akhaten,’ Doctor Who returns to more traditional territory with a story that’s sure to appease a much greater proportion of classic and new fans alike. Taking a cue from ‘Dalek’ that showcased the menace of the entire race by focusing on one trapped individual, writer Mark Gatiss takes a similar approach with his reintroduction of the Ice Warriors.
Doctor Who and Gatiss are both no stranger to the horror genre, and the classic setup of a foe versus another group of characters in a confined setting is used to superb effect here as the Ice Warrior confronts a crew of Russian sailors aboard a broken submarine. Although the decision to thaw out the Ice Warrior which sets events in motion is a bit dubious, the end result is great as the threat of the Ice Warrior is effectively brought across and the visual update of the classic foe is strong and fitting of the warrior race. Matt Smith’s reaction to first seeing another of his old nemeses is brutally brilliant.
Rather than just treating Grand Marshall Skaldak as a generic menace, ‘Cold War’ does a very good job in exploring the Ice Warrior, explaining his actions and motivations and making him a somewhat sympathetic figure in the process. Although Skaldak looks much more imposing within his armour, his escape from the armour proves very effective in ratcheting up the tension and unease first as he creeps about the submarine while hunting and hiding the shadows and later as his suit takes on a life of its own.
With so much focus on reintroducing the classic foe, it’s understandable that the supporting cast would be more limited in its scope and capacity here. And while there is a definite sense that some of the crew members were destined to be killed right from the beginning, it is David Warner’s professor and Liam Cunninghams’s captain characters that ably deliver the strongest performances and stand out amongst the rest.
This is what Steven Moffat referred to as the third in a trio of series openers in a sense, and it’s telling that the character of Clara is already so incredibly well rounded and defined. She continues to portray an effective mix of persistence, bravery, honesty, and trepidation, and while the overlaying mystery about her fate is still the source of much speculation, she’s certainly already well on the path to becoming another very strong and confident companion for the Doctor. The scenes in which she approaches Skaldak when nobody else aboard the ship is able or willing to are some of the strongest in the story.
While the 1983 setting perhaps isn’t used to full effect, it does allow Clara to learn that time can be changed, that the world can end in 1983 even though it hadn’t where she comes from originally. That comes perilously close to being the case, too, and the Captain and Grand Marshall get into a power struggle with Skaldak threatening to create a new red planet form the blood of humanity with the use of the nuclear weapons aboard the ship. This also affords the more brutal side of the Eleventh Doctor to shine as he brings out his sonic screwdriver- a counterpart to the Martians’ sonic technology- and defies the Ice Warrior to challenge him as he continues to find a peaceful resolution. Even when a Martian ship rescues Skaldak, there’s still high tension that Skaldak may launch the nuclear weapons as an act of vengeance and retribution, though fortunately the strong code of honour of his race keeps him from doing so.
‘Cold War’ is certainly one of the most atmospheric stories in recent Doctor Who memory, evoking a sense of tension and claustrophobia rarely elicited. Though the ending may have been let the setup of the story down just a little, the episode as a whole is a fantastic piece of science fiction and a great solo story for the Ice Warrior race on television since the late 1960s. They’ve joined the likes of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and the Silurians who have made the effective leap from classic to modern Doctor Who, and hopefully they will join the rota of returning villains now as there is clearly much more to be explored.