After all the Clara character setup in the second half of Series 7, we're now ready to delve into the business of being Doctor Who; in that sense, "Cold War" was a bottle episode of sorts, because we finally got to follow the Doctor and Clara on a normal day together. But without the crackle of the pair getting to know each other, a huge bizarro world to explore (the entire episode took place inside a Russian submarine), or a high-stakes, complex story, "Cold War" left me a little cold.
We joined a Russian nuclear sub running nuclear drills at the bottom of the ocean. On the sub were the noble Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham, a.k.a. Davos Seaworth from Game of Thrones), the power-hungry Lieutenant Stepashin (Tobias Menzies), and the daffy Professor Grisenko (David Warner), among others. We found out from the Professor's questionable music tastes that we'd landed in the 1980s. The sub's drills hadn't been going so well, but the crew did manage to find a creature encased in ice. As it started to melt, we realized it wasn't a mammoth in there, or Brendan Fraser, but rather a reptilian monster in a heavy suit of armor. That's right, lifelong Who fans, the Ice Warriors of Mars were back. Evolved to live in extremely cold temperatures, this proud Martian race of biomechanoid cyborgs first appeared on the show in 1967, and they've turned up a handful of times since then. This one in particular had been in the freezer for 5,000 years, and was understandably cranky when it woke up. In the ensuing fracas, the sub was breached and started to go down.
So of course that's why the TARDIS landed in the middle of the sub. The Doctor and Clara had been on the way to Vegas, but there was too much humanity to save. And since the TARDIS disappeared almost immediately after they disembarked, they were stuck at the bottom of the ocean, their oxygen was running out, and there was a monster on board (kinda like Vegas, but not really). The Doctor explained the long, proud history of the Ice Warriors to the bewildered crew and attempted to talk to the veritable Encino Man, named Skaldak. He appeared to be making some progress when Skaldak fell, tased from behind by the sub's Lieutenant. Skaldak, it turned out, was the greatest, gnarliest hero the Martian race had ever produced… and the sub's crew had just declared war on him.
I love it when monsters from Doctor Who's past are brought back—it's a wonderful nod to old fans and to the gads of history this show brings to the table. And the Ice Warriors were good candidates: They're warlike, rational, and cool-looking, making them excellent opponents for the Doctor. Rather than looking clumsily dated, Skaldak was just bulky enough to seem menacing.
This was Clara's chance to earn her keep around the TARDIS, as she was sent in to talk Skaldak down. I thought the writers could've done a lot more with this scene to hit some of Clara's defining characteristics—the loss of her mother, or her sass in the face of danger, for example—but she only got to hear a story about Skaldak's daughter being lost to time before he escaped. His skittering around the ship, out of uniform, was the episode's only truly creepy moment. Despite my disappointment with her first big negotiation session, I did like that Clara wanted to check in with the Doctor and other crew members about "how she did," and I liked even more that he reminded her that this isn't a game, but just life with time traveling. The idea that Clara is sassy but also in need of reassurance is pretty compelling, and I like that we're getting to know those qualities at the same time as The Doctor. So often, companions seem incredibly confident in their alien reasoning skills.
The situation just ratcheted up from there, with Skaldak discovering there were nukes on board and threatening to destroy humanity with them. The Doctor tried to talk some sense into Skaldak, while also promising to destroy the sub and everyone on it in order to keep those missiles from launching. We were faced with a nice moment with the Doctor, again, having to offer up everything he's got (himself and Clara) in order to save his beloved humanity, but oddly, the stakes didn't feel that high. Yes, he was willing to destroy himself to keep those missiles from launching, but I didn't for a moment buy that they were actually in danger. Skaldak was eventually rescued by his own people (surprise, they were still alive!), and showed that he'd rather have his legacy be mercy instead of murder by not dispatching the nukes—even when he had a chance to launch them from the safety of his own ship. The day was saved. Clara had gotten a taste of the reality of adventuring, and it perhaps knocked some of the brashness out of her. Then it was off to find the TARDIS, which had fled at the first sign of trouble.
This episode somewhat missed the mark for me. I love a good horror movie set underwater, but "Cold War" didn't feel nearly claustrophobic or scary enough to be truly frightening. Plus, as much as I loved seeing the Ice Warriors again, I felt like we just scratched the surface with them. The episode had a similar setup to the Series 5 episode "The Hungry Earth"—meeting one member of a proud, warlike race and trying to figure out how to respectfully deal with them—but in "The Hungry Earth," I felt like I understood the Silurians much more as a people, but then again, that was a two-parter. Perhaps more two-parters would help shake the feeling that we are just racing through every episode, skimming the surface of some potentially amazing storylines and aliens and characters. There was so much interesting ground to cover with respect to the actual Cold War, and humanity's warlike tendencies, Skaldak's brutish logic, and the Doctor's willingness to sacrifice himself for humanity—even if it meant sacrificing Clara, too—but none of that was even touched.
There were some things I did like, though: I did like Matt Smith's performance, especially near the end, when he was staring down the Ice Warrior. I liked the way Skaldak looked, both in and out of uniform. I liked the way Clara started putting her spin on things by interrupting proceedings to add some heart and humanity, a practice the Doctor is supposed to excel at but often forgets about in moments of stress. And I liked the Doctor and Clara's interactions, brief as they were. But something didn't gel in this episode for me, and it left me feeling a bit uninspired. My hope is that next week's haunted house episode will provide a plot where the stakes feel a bit more immediate, and as a result will inspire Clara and the Doctor to banter a bit more.
– I loved the Doctor putting his aviator glasses back on once the sub came to a halt, as if the problem was completely solved.
– Best quote of the episode: "Hair, shoulder pads, nukes—everything is bigger."
– Lots of Alien references: dripping water, skittering creatures hiding from our heroes…
– The Ice Warriors changed a bit from their first appearance on Who, but not too much, which is cool. According to the Wikipedia page for "Cold War," Millennium FX's Neill Gorton said, "My problem with the old ones is they had Lego hands and weird, spindly arms but a bulky body and these strange saddlebag hips, almost feminine. They had fur sticking out everywhere. So all of that together didn't suggest 'ice warriors.' They should be much beefier and stronger. We gave it more of a bodybuilder physique, changed the hands and styled the body to make it look more like armour-plating, even though it's reptilian."
- Good gracious Clara is gorgeous.
– The conversation about the TARDIS's translation abilities, explaining why everyone could understand each other, was clearly for new Who fans, and for new Who companions. It got a chuckle out of me.
– This was an interesting exchange between the Doctor and the Captain:
Doctor: He won't talk to you, you're an enemy soldier, he'll smell it on you.
Captain: And he wouldn't smell it on you, Doctor?
I love the idea, explored in previous series, that the Doctor is really just a mercenary, and I'd love to see that explored more.
– Anytime anyone on a TV show vehemently insists that someone must not do something, the next shot will always be of the warned person doing that thing. It's a rule. Case in point: Clara going to negotiate with Skaldak.
– The exchange between the Doctor and Clara, when she asked whether she'd done okay and he told her it wasn't a test, was the only flirtation I really noticed between the two of them, and it was adorable.
– The scene between Clara and the Professor felt a bit off to me. I liked the tense moment when we thought that perhaps he'd been taken over by Skaldak, but the payoff was just a joke (albeit pretty funny) about Ultravox. Plus Clara's reaction to the two bodies she saw torn apart—"It's all got very… real"—was somewhat bland.
What'd you think of "Cold War"?