Published on April 15th, 2013 | by Philip Bates
Viva Las Vegas!
A submarine plummets to the depths, water cascading in from all angles. The nuclear warheads are armed. Something that’s been asleep for 5,000 years is waking up. And suddenly a bright blue box materialises out of thin air. Not Vegas then…
The Ice Warriors are finally back. It’s taken them nearly 40 years, but it’s so good to see their reptilian hides once more.
That’s the main reason why Cold War will be remembered so fondly for so many years to come, but it’s definitely not the sole reason. I’m quite happy to proclaim Cold War Mark Gatiss’ best Doctor Who script – it even rivals his magnificent Sherlock episode, The Hounds of Baskerville. It’s the quintessential ‘base-under-siege’ story, up there with the best Troughton-era serials.
Ignoring the marvellous Grand Marshall Skaldak for the minute (he won’t be happy about that), Gatiss’ fifth TV script gets the setting just right – in both time and space. The submarine feels isolated and claustrophobic, teetering on the edge of destruction consistently, as does the entire world in 1983. Arguably, the world has never felt to perilously close to the end; it all just hinges on the press of a button.
We’re introduced to this scary world straight away and the rug is pulled out from under us throughout the tale. It really feels like anything could happen – and we trust that the Doctor will do anything to stop Skaldak from releasing those warheads.
The Firebird is a perfect microcosm for the cold war, in fact, highlighted by the stalemate between the Doctor and Skaldak at the story’s conclusion, and Gatiss expatiates the tense atmosphere for all its worth.
Cold War is as tense, scary and grisly as Doctor Who gets. The whole situation seems hopeless and the ideas on show are so macabre, they have to be hidden from view: we never actually see a victim of Skaldak entirely because it belongs more in horror stories than teatime viewing.
But that’s what Gatiss has always done right. He loves horror and knows that implied scares are far more effective than a grand exhibition. It’s significant, too, that we never really see the Grand Marshall fully. We see horrific glimpses, sure, but much is left to the imagination.
Cold War also takes the brave step of taking the Warrior out of its armour. It’s interesting to note that showrunner, Steven Moffat, felt that the Martian race were just too stereotypically-maladroit to pose a real threat in 2013 Who, so for much of the tale, the lumbering ‘shell suit’ is sidelined. That’s not to say it isn’t a substantial threat. I love its tank-like, impregnable persistence.
Personally, I would’ve preferred not seeing Skaldak’s face entirely – squinting through the shadows was immensely powerful regardless – but I can understand the need to break new ground and give the audience what we’ve been promised. Was anyone else reminded of Androvax the Veil from The Sarah Jane Adventures…?
Tobias Menzies’ last scene as Lieutenant Stephashin was incredible creepy and brilliantly set up the idea of the Ice Warriors’ hands wrapping around you. You could almost feel it – from behind the settee admittedly.
The whole cast give excellently fleshed-out performances too, reflecting their tense surroundings well, but it would be a crime to gloss over two guest actors in particular. Liam Cunningham’s Captain Zhukov was very well-rounded; very much a man torn between what his country (and second-in-charge) dictates and what he knows he should do. You can see why Matt Smith ranks him as one of his favourite actors.
David Warner, too, has magnificent range. I hadn’t much exposure to him before, but comparing his role in Mad Dogs to Professor Grisenko shows why he’s one of the most sought-after stars. He provides the warmth of the tale and subverts all expectations. Who’d have thought a Soviet scientist would be so keen on Ultravox? It’s a testament to Doctor Who’s appeal that a single episode garners such an outstanding and esteemed cast.
Needless to say, Matt Smith is blindingly good. I really hope he stays forever.
Jenna-Louise Coleman is hitting the ball out of the park as Clara. She’s an increasingly interesting character: she wants to be the Doctor’s equal – and so she has to prove herself, looking for reassurance from the Time Lord and then Grisenko. When she talked the Doctor into letting her talk to the big, bad monster, I was reminded of Vampires of Venice (2010) where Amy has to do similar. It’s a boundary that the companion has to help the Doctor cross – and one you know won’t end well.
(But does Clara really find it so hard to believe a song will sooth their troubles given what she’s seen in Akhaten? Maybe this shows just how scared she is…)
It also occurred to me that the plot of the TARDIS not liking Clara would be picked up again and that’s why it dematerialised at the show’s beginning. But I still loved Gatiss’ knowing wink at fandom when it turned out to be down to the HADS. I wonder if any casual viewers felt cheated by this though…
The pace of Cold War is unrelenting and brilliant, really taking advantage of its 40-odd minute runtime by layering on menace even in the small, personal moments. The opening ten minutes is break-neck and even when Clara is knocked out, it’s gritty and cinematic, while skipping over all that messy ‘who the devil are you’ business.
Director, Douglas Mackinnon, must be applauded for the breath-taking visuals, playing on all the classic base-under-siege traits as well as the typical horror scenarios. Cold War contrasts to his other Doctor Who efforts, The Sontaran Stratagem/ The Poison Sky and The Power of Three, but is even more memorable with a recognisable and distinguished colour-palette.
Some may have felt a little let-down by the ending, in which Skaldak is saved by his own people and so lets the Firebird crew go, but it leaves the audience with the impression that this is not over yet. Because the Ice Warriors are back – and don’t you forget it. Which was the whole point really, wasn’t it?