Review: Doctor Who – 7×9 – Cold War

The Ice Warriors are back. Well, one of them, at least

Doctor Who - Cold War

In the UK: Saturday, 6.15pm, 13th April 2013, BBC1/BBC1 HD. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: Saturday, 8pm/7c, 13th April 2013, BBC America

Mark Gatiss is a fanboy. This will probably come as a surprise to you only if you’ve never heard of Mark Gatiss before. Otherwise, this should be known to you.

A member of the League of Gentlemen (a troop of horror-story loving fanboys), Gatiss first appeared in the realm of Doctor Who writing some of Virgin’s range of New Adventures books that emerged following the cancellation of the original series. Then, after writing and starring in some of the Liz Shaw spin-off P.R.O.B.E. stories, and some of the Big Finish Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel audio ranges (he’s an S&S fanboy, too), he came to write some Doctor Who TV episodes: The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern, Victory of the Daleks and Night Terrors. He’s also written fiction that pastiches 19th century fiction, hosted and contributed to documentaries on some of his favourite fanboy subjects (Nigel Kneale, Hammer horror), adapted and starred in HG Wells’ The First Men In the Moon and being a Sherlock Holmes fanboy, too, it should come as no surprise by now for you to hear that he’s one of the show runners and writers for Sherlock.

A fanboy, then. Clear?

The biggest problem facing fanboys in general and Mark Gatiss in particular is originality. It’s all right when you have something to adapt and something to riff on, but actually coming up with good new ideas is actually terribly hard for the fanboy. It’s no surprise therefore that whenever Gatiss writes anything, it’s usually slight variations on an existing, familiar story, with knowing references to other things thrown in and some sort of Important Obvious Metaphor thrown in for good luck.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise you when I tell you it was Gatiss who suggested to bestest Sherlock pal and Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat that they should do a story feature the Ice Warriors, just about the only popular old Who monster that the new series hadn’t featured. Nor should it surprise you that our Stevie was a bit dismissive of the idea, thinking they were a bit rubbish looking.

But Gatiss has brought them back, with an Important Obvious Metaphor about the Cold War (hence, the title) thrown in for good luck. It’s a little bit The Ice Warriors, a little bit Dalek… okay, a lot Dalek, with a big chunk of Alien and just a soupçon of Hunt For Red October on a low budget thrown in. And while it never hit the ‘totally excellent’ mark, by sticking with what he’s best at, Gatiss turned in what’s probably his best Doctor Who yet.

Here’s a trailer.

About
On a Russian submarine in 1983, a frozen alien warrior is waking up, just as the TARDIS materialises.

Was it any good?
It was certainly a hell of a lot more gripping than last week’s.

On the face of it, Cold War was quite derivative. Lone alien warrior, locked up with a bunch of humans uses its awesome alien powers to defeat the humans, before being talked into giving up by the Doctor and his companion? That’s the Christopher Eccleston story Dalek right there.

But thankfully, it was at least reasonably different from its predecessor. The show did follow the Dalek line by building up the society of the Ice Warriors, while demonstrating their technological prowess. Unlike Daleks, though, the Ice Warriors have been more ambivalent Who aliens, capable of being menacing invaders in one story, noble soldiers in another and ambivalent neutrals in others, and Cold War followed the template set down in The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon of “Are they good or evil?”

Here, instead of the lone Dalek that discovers its nobility because it has Rose-DNA spliced into it and becomes more human, the Ice Warrior discovers strength in numbers and decides it doesn’t have to nuke the world, Judge Dredd style (“You have been judged guilty by Martian Law. The sentence is death.”). But it dos this because it’s simply capable of rational thought and seeing the folly of MAD if you have a reason to live.

Cue Sting singing “The Ice Warriors Love Their Children, too”, a replay of the last five minutes of WarGames (“The only way to win is not to play”) and an Ice Warrior repeating “Mutually Assured Destruction” until the slower-witted members of the audience get the point.

All of which is reasonably well handled, if not original. The Ice Warrior redesign is impressive, although the CGI of the warrior without its helmet was a bit ropey and there were bits that actually needed CGI (the opening and closing of the Ice Warrior’s, which looked clunky). Also, for purists, that wasn’t a Grand Marshall’s helmet. The sonic weapon was used perhaps too sparingly to really make an impression, but worked well in the brief fight scene at the beginning. Given the ‘base under siege’ storyline mined to death by Gerry Davis during the Troughton era, it was appropriate to have a reference to The Krotons’ Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS), if irritatingly fanboyish. There were annoying visual references to Alien at practically every turn, too, but as a way to off people one at a time in a closed space, Alien is hard to beat.

Where it failed was largely in the lack of development, human behaviour or proper characterisation of anyone who wasn’t an Ice Warrior. The Russians were largely there to be part of the Important Obvious Metaphor and to show that the Russians weren’t all evil, despite propaganda at the time (cue Sting, but it’s a popular TV meme these days) and to be “red shirts”. David Warner was largely wasted as the professor who discovered the Ice Warrior in the ice. Even Clara was there simply to fill in for Rose, not having any obvious personality yet beyond being perky, liking kids and dying.

All the same, a refreshingly simple story that harked back to old Who, polished up the Ice Warriors for the modern day and gave us some action and tension, even if the dwindling Who budget meant that every model shot looked rubbish and every set looked like a set.

Oh, and Murray Gold, please find another genre. It was the 80s – your orchestral manoeuvres just weren’t suited to the dark.

Here’s a trailer for next week’s episode, Hide:




  • Rullsenberg

    I certainly thought it MG's best effort since The Unquiet Dead. It did have a high level of nerdy-level references (me ticking them off, bloke next to me mostly confused) which does feel a little dangerously close to 1980s Doctor Who at it's worst… but I liked it. I didn't even Clara getting wet for so much of the shoot. She seemed remarkably sanguine about being drenched on this trip…

  • By “1980s Doctor Who at its worst”, you mean Warriors of the Deep, don't you?

  • Rullsenberg

    I certainly thought it MG’s best effort since The Unquiet Dead. It did have a high level of nerdy-level references (me ticking them off, bloke next to me mostly confused) which does feel a little dangerously close to 1980s Doctor Who at it’s worst… but I liked it. I didn’t even Clara getting wet for so much of the shoot. She seemed remarkably sanguine about being drenched on this trip…

    • By “1980s Doctor Who at its worst”, you mean Warriors of the Deep, don’t you?

    • Mark Carroll

      I was a bit surprised that arctic seawater didn’t seem to make them feel chilly.

  • Mark Carroll

    I was a bit surprised that arctic seawater didn't seem to make them feel chilly.

  • Steerforth

    I thought it was complete pants. To say that it was Gatiss's best and much better than last week shows how much we have lowered our sights, being grateful for small mercies. The casual decision to thaw out the ice warrior seemed absurd, as did the Doctor's ridiculous “Viva Las Vegas!” entrance. I didn't like the voice, the lack of sonic weapon use and particularly hated the arrival of the spaceship at the end. I thought Mars was now a dead planet? And 'sassy' Clara just seemed like Amy – more northern than usual this week, for some reason. I don't mind what accent she has, but I'd like her to stick to the same one.

    It was Doctor Who by numbers, but the dots didn't join up.

    Stephen Moffat is a great writer, but I'm not convinced that he's the right man to replace RTD. I can accept that I don't like the new stories because I'm a boring old middle-aged fart, but when my seven-year-old son says that Doctor Who is getting “silly and confusing”, I think there's a problem.

    In an ideal world, I'd replace Matt Smith, or give his Doctor more gravitas, ban Mark Gatiss from writing any more episodes and hire a new producer.

  • I think if we cast our minds back to Rusty's era, much the same thing could be said. It's part and parcel of nuWho to have highs and lows of rubbish and pretty good to greatest. I'm not finding there to be as many emotional highs with Moff as with Rusty, but I'm not finding as many egregious offences to logic as there were with Rusty either.

    Mars is a dead planet but the Ice Warriors have scattered through the galaxy, according to the Doc. Doesn't explain why they can pick up on the home beacon and turn up so quickly, but Doctor Who science strikes again. Or they could have just been passing through.

    As for the seven year-old issue, without dwelling on specifics, four year olds probably don't notice much at all that might be silly and confusing, only whether it's enjoyable and fun; at 7, they can have some critical thinking, but whether it's too complicated and therefore silly and confusing and those are the words they use to describe that feeling, or whether it's simply silly and confusing will vary from child to child, I suspect. It's impossible to tell how they would have regarded the same piece of work when they were younger and how they would regard the things they saw when they were younger if they were seeing them for the first time now.

    As for hiring a new producer, they've already got through three (or perhaps more) with Steven Moffat alone. They just can't hire new producers fast enough…

  • Steerforth

    Sorry, I meant executive producer. Re: seven-year-olds versus four-year-olds, you're quite right, but I've noticed that given a choice of episodes on DVD, it's nearly always the RTD ones that get picked by my son. Mind you, his favourite DVD of all is 'Spearhead From Space' – that seems to be his benchmark of what a good Who story is.

    I have issues with certain aspects of the RTD era, but I can't deny the fact that his stories had children, parents and grandpaprents all sitting down on the sofa together. We stopped watching Dr Who as a family half way through the first Matt Smith season.

  • Steerforth

    I thought it was complete pants. To say that it was Gatiss’s best and much better than last week shows how much we have lowered our sights, being grateful for small mercies. The casual decision to thaw out the ice warrior seemed absurd, as did the Doctor’s ridiculous “Viva Las Vegas!” entrance. I didn’t like the voice, the lack of sonic weapon use and particularly hated the arrival of the spaceship at the end. I thought Mars was now a dead planet? And ‘sassy’ Clara just seemed like Amy – more northern than usual this week, for some reason. I don’t mind what accent she has, but I’d like her to stick to the same one.

    It was Doctor Who by numbers, but the dots didn’t join up.

    Stephen Moffat is a great writer, but I’m not convinced that he’s the right man to replace RTD. I can accept that I don’t like the new stories because I’m a boring old middle-aged fart, but when my seven-year-old son says that Doctor Who is getting “silly and confusing”, I think there’s a problem.

    In an ideal world, I’d replace Matt Smith, or give his Doctor more gravitas, ban Mark Gatiss from writing any more episodes and hire a new producer.

    • I think if we cast our minds back to Rusty’s era, much the same thing could be said. It’s part and parcel of nuWho to have highs and lows of rubbish and pretty good to greatest. I’m not finding there to be as many emotional highs with Moff as with Rusty, but I’m not finding as many egregious offences to logic as there were with Rusty either.

      Mars is a dead planet but the Ice Warriors have scattered through the galaxy, according to the Doc. Doesn’t explain why they can pick up on the home beacon and turn up so quickly, but Doctor Who science strikes again. Or they could have just been passing through.

      As for the seven year-old issue, without dwelling on specifics, four year olds probably don’t notice much at all that might be silly and confusing, only whether it’s enjoyable and fun; at 7, they can have some critical thinking, but whether it’s too complicated and therefore silly and confusing and those are the words they use to describe that feeling, or whether it’s simply silly and confusing will vary from child to child, I suspect. It’s impossible to tell how they would have regarded the same piece of work when they were younger and how they would regard the things they saw when they were younger if they were seeing them for the first time now.

      As for hiring a new producer, they’ve already got through three (or perhaps more) with Steven Moffat alone. They just can’t hire new producers fast enough…

      • Steerforth

        Sorry, I meant executive producer. Re: seven-year-olds versus four-year-olds, you’re quite right, but I’ve noticed that given a choice of episodes on DVD, it’s nearly always the RTD ones that get picked by my son. Mind you, his favourite DVD of all is ‘Spearhead From Space’ – that seems to be his benchmark of what a good Who story is.

        I have issues with certain aspects of the RTD era, but I can’t deny the fact that his stories had children, parents and grandpaprents all sitting down on the sofa together. We stopped watching Dr Who as a family half way through the first Matt Smith season.

  • SK

    Where it failed was largely in the lack of development

    My general problem with the whole of the new series. But it's become more noticeable since Moffatt took over, because Davies wasn't trying to actually tell stories: he was trying to thread together emotional beat after emotional beat and then have a big chase/explosion at the end.

    Whereas now the episodes are trying to tell stories and discovering that you simply can't tell a decent story in forty-five minutes when you have to introduce a whole new environment and supporting cast every time. You can just about set up a situation and resolve it, but there is not time to set up a situation, develop it, and resolve it. As a result we get stories that aren't so much beginning, middle, end as beginning, set piece, set piece, end. Or occasionally, for the 'big-plot' heavy ones like 'A Good Man Goes to War' or 'Let's Kill Hitler', all middle.
    As a result here what could have been an exploration of militarism and ratcheting tension is instead rushed and we're left feeling that so many opportunities were missed. The political officer, for example: where was the big scene between him, the Captain and the Doctor about how to deal with the alien? Nowhere, because for reasons of time he got shunted away from the main plot straight after the initial attack and never rejoined it.

    'Base Under Siege' stories, when they worked, worked because of the conflict between the human characters who were under external threat. but that requires time to establish relationships and then show them cracking under strain. Modern TV can do that sort of thing much faster than the '60s, but — I think we can now say definitively — not quite fast enough to fit it and an alien plot into enough time to launch a weapon of mass destruction.

    Storytelling, after all, is about twists: something happens to that a good situation turns bad, or some new information is revealed that changes what the audience knows of the situation. Old-style Doctor Who, when it worked well, mandated at least three twists per four-episode story, before the climax. Now there's one or maybe two (in Cold War, structurally, there are only two moments when the story changes direction: when the Ice Warrior is knocked out so he can be locked up, and when he escapes — all other sections of the story proceed entirely linearly).

    So instead of stories we get vignettes: an idea, a little bit of exploration around it, and then a resolution. The equivalent of those old 'Brief Encounters' from Doctor Who Magazine.

    Sigh.

  • Steerforth

    “So instead of stories we get vignettes: an idea, a little bit of exploration around it, and then a resolution.”

    That's it in a nutshell. Cold War felt like a poorly-abridged edition of a longer episode.

  • SK

    Where it failed was largely in the lack of development

    My general problem with the whole of the new series. But it’s become more noticeable since Moffatt took over, because Davies wasn’t trying to actually tell stories: he was trying to thread together emotional beat after emotional beat and then have a big chase/explosion at the end.

    Whereas now the episodes are trying to tell stories and discovering that you simply can’t tell a decent story in forty-five minutes when you have to introduce a whole new environment and supporting cast every time. You can just about set up a situation and resolve it, but there is not time to set up a situation, develop it, and resolve it. As a result we get stories that aren’t so much beginning, middle, end as beginning, set piece, set piece, end. Or occasionally, for the ‘big-plot’ heavy ones like ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ or ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, all middle.
    As a result here what could have been an exploration of militarism and ratcheting tension is instead rushed and we’re left feeling that so many opportunities were missed. The political officer, for example: where was the big scene between him, the Captain and the Doctor about how to deal with the alien? Nowhere, because for reasons of time he got shunted away from the main plot straight after the initial attack and never rejoined it.

    ‘Base Under Siege’ stories, when they worked, worked because of the conflict between the human characters who were under external threat. but that requires time to establish relationships and then show them cracking under strain. Modern TV can do that sort of thing much faster than the ’60s, but — I think we can now say definitively — not quite fast enough to fit it and an alien plot into enough time to launch a weapon of mass destruction.

    Storytelling, after all, is about twists: something happens to that a good situation turns bad, or some new information is revealed that changes what the audience knows of the situation. Old-style Doctor Who, when it worked well, mandated at least three twists per four-episode story, before the climax. Now there’s one or maybe two (in Cold War, structurally, there are only two moments when the story changes direction: when the Ice Warrior is knocked out so he can be locked up, and when he escapes — all other sections of the story proceed entirely linearly).

    So instead of stories we get vignettes: an idea, a little bit of exploration around it, and then a resolution. The equivalent of those old ‘Brief Encounters’ from Doctor Who Magazine.

    Sigh.

    • Steerforth

      “So instead of stories we get vignettes: an idea, a little bit of exploration around it, and then a resolution.”

      That’s it in a nutshell. Cold War felt like a poorly-abridged edition of a longer episode.