This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
“This means nothing to me. Ooooooh, Vienna”
Mark Gatiss’ Cold War sees Doctor Who on surer, less risky ground than last week’s The Rings Of Akhaten. Given that the response to The Rings Of Akhaten has been, er, ‘varied’ (culminating in The Sun penning a piece quoting people saying it was the worst episode ever), Cold War is likely to be a lot more unifying. Certainly, amongst the episodes of series 7 (in both its parts) thus far, it’s the one that spans Who fans of different eras the most successfully (the hostile action displacement system!), and a rare sighting of an Ice Warrior is responsible for a good deal of that.
Gatiss is a long-time fan of the Ice Warriors, and his re-introduction of them is effective. The episode also brings to the mind Rob Shearman’s superb 2005 story Dalek (which, of course, did a similar reboot job for sci-fi’s favourite pepperpots), and while Cold War isn’t up to that standard, it’s just as reverential and respectful towards its key foe.
In this case though, we meet the Ice Warrior nice and early (we got a bit of a starter guide to him in the first ten minutes), and there’s also the inspired setting of a claustrophobic, broken Russian nuclear submarine to set it loose on. That’s the staple of many a good horror movie – a monster versus a crew in a confined location – and Gatiss has a nice tip of the hat to one or two of them. He certainly knows the horror genre inside out, and that’s clear for large parts of the episode.
And if you can overlook the bizarre moment when someone decides to thaw the creature out and set it free right at the beginning (necessary perhaps, but nonetheless a not-very-believable act), the Dalek parallels continue. This is a deadly foe that the episode gets us to sympathise with after all, and whose motivations for doing what it’s doing are explained. Furthermore, it also, by focusing in, shows us just how effective one monster can be, rather than lots of them. It all feels just a bit more tangible a threat, in or out of its armour (although it looked better in it).
The Ice Warrior himself looked in good shape, too. This is an effective modernisation of a classic enemy (Matt Smith’s reaction to seeing him for the first time was just brilliant too), helped by armour that actually looks look it might deflect something were a projectile aimed in its direction. And in an episode that drips with a feel of older Doctor Who, having the Ice Warrior was a treat. We suspect this may not be the last that we’ve seen of Grand Marshall Skaldak – in spite of the E.T.-a-like moment near the end – and we certainly hope not.
It was the Ice Warrior that gave us the slight twist in the story, too. His escape from his armour was something that allowed Gatiss to both drop in a useful rug pull to set up the middle part of the episode, and then inject some fresh threat near the end when the armour started walking, RoboCop-like. Cue corridors washed in blue, tense music, and an ongoing, albeit quite short, game of hide and seek in the midst of it all.
It all left less room for some of the other supporting players. There was most definitely a redshirt feel about some of the faces that the aforementioned Warrior disposed of. It was left to Liam Cunningham’s submarine captain (we’d have handed over a Toffee Crisp instantly to hear him utter the line “Comradesh, we shail into hishtory”, Connery-style) and the 80s-loving professor, played by David Warner, to add some gravitas to things, and both duly delivered.
And, if you’ll indulge us, the episode also wove in a thread that’s been continuing for the second half of the series thus far. Namely, Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara appearing to be treading in Rose Tyler’s shoes a little again.
The show has already taken her to a vast alien world, and spent some time establishing her contemporary backstory. Here, just as it was Rose that brought the Daleks back to life, it’s Clara who gets to go face to face with a Who enemy of old for the first time in decades. Given casting announcements that have been made for Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary episode later in the year, this is either leading up to something, or it’s us taking our barmy paranoid speculation medicine again. Both are plausible.
Either way, Jenna-Louise Coleman is putting across a convincing mix of fear and bravery in her performance. This is the final episode in what Steven Moffat described as effectively a trio of series openers, and Clara is very firmly established already.
The bulk of the episode itself proved to be a decent one in all, once again choosing to establish the year in which it was set – 1983, we’re seemingly treading slowly through Clara’s life – through music. And also once more, a bit of a sing-song was in order, albeit with Duran Duran on the stereo this week. We suspect that won’t garner quite as many complaints, although we can’t imagine the otherwise wonderful David Warner getting many requests to headline a karaoke party.
Still, the wrap up, once more, was a bit disappointing. It feels as though there’s a continual over-reliance on a good speech and some sonic screwdriver waving at the moment to conclude Who stories, which may be a little disingenuous to Mark Gatiss’ script. Yet it didn’t, when everything was finalised, feel wholly satisfying. Granted, there was plenty to enjoy beforehand, but endings are tricky things, and that’s where Cold War arguably struggled the most.
That’s a pity, as the episode itself had atmospheric moments, and the tight, controlled setting of it injected a welcome sense of claustrophobia. The result was a solidly entertaining adventure, and one with a broader appeal certainly. But with Dalek as the obvious comparative touchstone, it seemed to fall just slightly short. Enjoyable though, and we do suspect it’s going to get a more positive response than last week’s episode…
Read our review of The Rings Of Akhaten, which we, er, seemed to like more than most people, here.
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