Doctor Who: Cold War

After 39 (!!) years, the Ice Warriors are back, BACK, BACK!!

In storytelling terms, the Ice Warriors enjoy far more potential than either the Cybermen or Sontarans yet have remained dormant in the revived Doctor Who canon until now. Mark Gatiss’ taut subterranean tale re-invigorates them in much the same way as `Dalek` did for the metal meanies and similarly feels as much a prequel to something larger as it is an event in its own right. `Cold War` manages to simultaneously unveil the Ice Warriors of old yet breathe enough new life into them to suggest they have a viable future and just as he did with `The Unquiet Dead`, the writer subtly weaves between old and new Who with panache. 

Of course there is just the one Ice Warrior to be seen here but what a specimen! Looking proper high and mighty, Skaldak puts most of his predecessors to shame. It is a striking image that suits the new series as much as did the old and thankfully the breathy scaly voice is still there too. The cramped submarine set adds to the general impression of size and power. You have to hand it to Nick Briggs too; having established definitive voices for both Daleks and Cybermen he completes the trio with a first class Ice Warrior vocal.

At first the 1983 setting seems random but in the context of the villain starts to make sense. Gatiss brings back memories of that crazy era when – as the Doctor puts it- everything was big. And Ultravox ruled the charts. Imagine that.  There is a lovely role from David Warner as Professor Grisenko a sort of social touchstone; an elderly Russian scientist who loves Western pop music.  As Skaldak’s actions begin to become increasingly threatening Grisenko’s interruptions to the tension are a highlight. That’s why Skaldak doesn’t kill him of course; I think he secretly likes the same music! Liam Cunningham (once a potentlal Doctor and nowadays best known from Games of Thrones) is another strong presence in an episode that for the first time in a while forces guest stars to the fore and keeps them there. His Captain Zhukov is practical and sensible. 

Visually the episode is packed with strong imagery; Douglas MacKinnon really taking us deep into the claustrophobic setting. There’s a surprisingly voluminous amount of water spurting about and excellent lighting which along with some odd camera angles gives the whole thing believability. The sequence where we glimpse the Martian’s face through smoke is particularly effective and it might have been better not to have shown its CGI face in full at the end. 

This is what the new BBC ident should be!

The episode proves less predictable than you imagine it will be. For a start, Skaldak soon sheds his body armour to become a skittering barely seen threat capering around the pipes of the submarine. His methodical yet cruel methods of researching the humans hark back to a Doctor Who all but gone from the modern series in which characters are despatched nastily but everyone gets on with it.  Clara’s reaction to the carnage is very well written and played at just the right tone. The potential trouble maker amongst the crew is killed off soon enough to stop him becoming the expected cliché who inadvertently save the day. And despite Clara’s attempts to empathise with Skaldak- and previous references to his sister- there is no firm climb down from our scaly antagonist. 

In fact if there is one criticism it is that the story literally stops. In a moment, Skaldak is rescued and, er, that’s all. Hopefully having gone to the trouble of making such a fantastic costume and impressive spaceship this really is just a taste of icier things to come. Gatiss appears to have imagined a whole Martian society and protocol which one hopes we will see some of.  Whether it does turn out to be a one off or just the start of something more, `Cold War` is a great episode, packed with incident, old school threat, smart cultural notes and the triumphant return of one of the show’s best ever aliens.

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