It’s strange to think that Doctor Who’s 9th episode of series 7, Cold War, is a historical episode set in the year 1983, considering that the original series of the show was actually nearing its end during that time. 30 years ago. Feels too near to count as a historical, yet, it also feels a long time ago. Mark Gatiss has returned to write his fifth story for the show, and has again tackled a companion’s first trip into the past – as he previously did with The Unquiet Dead (2005) for Rose and Victory of the Daleks (2010) for Amy. Gatiss has a reputation for writing consistently decent episodes, but never anything special or that impressive, so I was curious to see how he would tackle this episode. Returning to direct is Douglas MacKinnon, who has previously directed the The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2008).
Firstly, I really love the concept of being trapped on a submarine with a deadly monster. (In fact, I actually had a similar idea myself for a spin-off/fanfiction series I wrote a couple of years, though that was with a Dalek – so I feel slightly bitter towards Gatiss for stealing it!). A sense of claustrophobia is successfully developed; when the TARDIS disappears; the submarine is stuck; there’s nowhere to run – it’s brilliant edge-of-the-seat viewing. In many ways, this felt a very traditional episode. Cold War has clearly taken notes from the 1960s’ ‘base under siege’ stories, and also has a lot of similarities with the 2005 episode Dalek. Gatiss has been criticised for, again, writing a good episode but nothing revolutionary. Which is fine, as long as we do get the more experimental pieces from time to time. My only criticism of the writing was that the pacing felt a bit off, at times – almost as if the plot was being stretched out to fill the time slot (unusual for Doctor Who; generally the opposite is true), though for such a small-scale story, despite the global implications, this may have actually added to the tension.
I also enjoyed how the Cold War period was realised in this episode. From the costumes the Soviet workers wore, the stars littering the submarine (even if historically inaccurate) and the stream of references to things like America and nuclear Armageddon, the setting immediately feels convincing – I particularly liked the line which went something like, “I know telling the truth might be a foreign concept to you, sir…” Excellent dig at Communism, there. One thing: the actual Russian soldiers didn’t feel entirely convincing. The lines about “Oh, we’re speaking Russian” were a bit forced, and the crew felt more British than Russian. Not sure how that could have been improved – the crew wouldn’t necessarily need to have had Russian accents, though that might have helped.
Of course, the true focus for Cold War was the return of an Ice Warrior, who were last featured in an episode as far back as 1974 in The Monster of Peladon. After a 39 year hiatus they’re back and, unlike previous returns such as the Cybermen and the Silurians, have remained very loyal to the original designs. The scales, the hissing voice – it’s all there! I lament the loss of the clamp-like hands, but that’s a minor detail. My first impression was how wonderfully well lit Skaldak, the Ice Warrior, was in every scene, particularly once he had crawled out of the suit. Tiny flickers on the side of the screen as he ran down corridors were also very effective. I wasn’t completely convinced by his final CGI appearance outside of the armour, however – the edges and proportions just didn’t feel that real. But I appreciated seeing an Ice Warrior outside of his armour – a first for the show – nonetheless. Gatiss did a good job of briefly explaining their history; in fact, he did a better job than most previous writers for them. Though I don’t find the idea of a mighty Martian Empire existing 5,000 years ago all that realistic but, I suppose, who cares?
Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman were perfect as the Doctor and Clara, as I have come to expect. Coleman is very nicely fitting into the role, now, and Matt Smith still surprises me three years into the role. Most of the crew members were well acted; David Warner as the 80s pop fan Professor Grisenko particularly stood out to me.
Overall, this was a very decent episode. The Cold War submarine setting was used to its maximum potential, and the return of an Ice Warrior was by no means underwhelming. Perhaps Cold War was a rehash of successful Doctor Who ideas, but they are successful precisely because they work. This may not be remembered in the future as the greatest episode, but for now it has achieved its aims rather well.
Final rating: 7.5/10