Sunday, 21 April 2013

Doctor Who - Cold War Review

Mark Gatiss' chilly thriller falls just short of greatness

After last week's divisive The Rings Of Akhaten, Cold War finds Doctor Who on much more familiar ground. Familiar, but wonderfully entertaining.

It's 1983 and a Soviet submarine crew uncover what they believe to be a mammoth. Except it's very much not a mammoth, it's a Martian Ice Warrior. Living underneath the ice for nearly 5000 years, the Ice Warrior is lost and confused. The Doctor and Clara arrive just in time to see the Russian crew provoke the Ice Warrior, turning the proud soldier into a very dangerous foe. Last year, Doctor Who delivered an episode called Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, and Cold War could easily be re-titled Alien On A Submarine as not only does the episode take place within the confines of the underwater vessel, but it bears a significant resemblance to Ridley Scott's 70's masterpiece (Alien).

It's behind you... and slightly to your right

Even though this is the first outing for an Ice Warrior in nearly 40 years, The Doctor is very much aware of what the Ice Warrior is capable of. After the introductory confrontation, The Doctor has to work with the Russian crew (led by Liam Cunningham) to try and resolve the situation. The Ice Warriors are a proud race and Grand Marshall Skaldak in particular takes particular offence to the unprovoked attack. As with the previous 2 episodes in this series, Cold War continues Clara's induction into The Doctor's world. This week, she volunteers to speak to the contained Ice Warrior. She is perhaps a tad overconfident and unlike  her other 2 outings, the Ice Warrior is a physical and very tangible threat. As she approaches the Ice Warrior, Mark Gatiss builds up the tension, suggesting something is clearly not what it appears.

While the Ice Warrior may have been absent from Doctor Who for many years, there have been several other warrior races that go up against The Doctor. Mark Gatiss ensures that the Ice Warrior stands out from the pack through the implementation of a very interesting twist. Clara approaches the Ice Warrior, only to discover that Skaldak has left his amour. Skaldak quickly scuttles out of his captivity, leaving a very shell-shocked  Clara behind. It's a very clever move as now not even The Doctor knows what Skaldak might be capable of; this adds another layer of terror to an already worrying situation. Skaldak realises that he is on his own and, with nothing to lose, plans to take revenge on the crew as his final act.

Liam Cunningham as Captain Zhukov
The crew split up and we are drip fed glimpses of the un-suited Ice Warrior as several of the crew members are picked off. A hand here and an arm there, Gatiss realises that less is more and keeps his monster in the shadows. After the earlier confrontation, Clara has lost her earlier bravado. The glimpse of a pair of murdered crew members further increases her paranoia.

She is saved not by The Doctor, who runs off to try and stop Skaldak, but by a Russian professor with fondness for 80's pop music (played brilliantly by David Warner). Clara is scared, her courage has taken a knock; for the first time she realises that she may not survive. The Professor calms her down and reconnect with her humanity which had previously served her so well. She realises that it's alright to be scared, as long as she doesn't hide away.

The submarine crew weigh up their options
Skaldak returns to his amour, having learnt how to wipe out the human race, and stands by the missile launch system. Unfortunately, this is where the episode doesn't satisfy. Throughout the episode, Grand Marshall Skaldak has been defined as a proud and unflinching warrior race. Yet as with many other monsters in the series, is defeated by a few chosen words. Clara remembers Skaldak mourning the loss of his daughter earlier on and appeals to his humanity (or should that be martianity?) to not kill millions of daughters and sons, sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers all across the world. The plea for compassion also doesn't match up to Skaldak's turmoil as the implication is that (however harsh this may seem) the entire population is about to be wiped out and as such, there will be no one left to mourn. Furthermore, it's clear that Skaldak isn't going to destroy the planet as the show has to carry on next week and beyond. Essentially, the episode wimps out as Skaldak is saved by his people and decides to spare the human race.

This change of heart comes on too quickly in the last 5 minutes and this is an episode which would benefit from an additional 15 minutes on the running time to make the transition a little more believable.

Despite the disappointing ending, Cold War is a very entertaining and often quite funny episode which shows how effective standalone adventures can be when done well. Not only is this the best episode that Gatiss has written, and he has written some stinkers in the past (Victory Of The Daleks and The Idiot's Lantern to name two), but it is one of the better episodes of either half of this 7th season.

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