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.

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:


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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