I’m not the greatest fan of Mark Gatiss’s writing for Doctor Who, which generally doesn’t reach the heights of his work elsewhere (for example, on Sherlock). But “Cold War” is probably his best script for the series yet—a straightforward adrenalin rush of an episode with the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) trapped on a sinking Soviet nuclear submarine in 1983, which very successfully reinvents a well-remembered monster from the classic series for the 21st century.
First seen in 1967, back when Patrick Troughton was the Doctor, the Ice Warriors always loomed large in any list of the show’s most memorable aliens. Even though they only made four appearances on television (the last one in 1974), they made such an impression that they’ve been repeatedly used in the various Doctor Who ancillary media (comics, novels, and audio plays), which have built up quite a complex mythos on the simple foundation of a militaristic race which evolved millennia ago in the cold, barren climate of Mars. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long for them to reappear in the revived series, but by all accounts showrunner Steven Moffat was worried that the creatures’ design would be unsuited to the sort of fast-paced storytelling required these days. Indeed, despite their striking presence, the classic Ice Warriors are basically the archetype of the lumbering Doctor Who monster—stiff-legged green giants that shamble at a snail’s pace in pursuit of their victims and talk with slow, hissing voices.
Gatiss here overhauls the Ice Warrior using the same approach that Robert Shearman took in 2005’s “Dalek.” The external appearance of the creature is kept as unchanged as possible (though the crude clamps of the original have been sensibly upgraded to rather more flexible hands), and its toughness is emphasized—a shot of Skaldak (Spencer Wilding) striding down a corridor, shrugging off a hail of bullets, is an iconic moment. The fact that just one isolated member of the race is shown as being more than a match for all the humans around it makes it a powerful threat. Most importantly, the episode shows off new capabilities that address the idiosyncrasies of the original design without violating continuity. By allowing the creature to leave its armored shell, Gatiss can have both the hulking behemoth and a fast, dangerous creature that lurks in the shadows, suddenly snatching people from above like in Alien and ripping them apart.
The “base under siege” story, with a small group of characters trapped in a confined location under attack by an alien menace, is a venerable staple of Doctor Who. The direction, by Douglas Mackinnon, makes the most of the enclosed setting (though a real submarine is even more cramped than seen here), and generates plenty of pace and tension by keeping the actual Ice Warrior creature out of sight as much as possible. The 1983 setting is evoked mainly by costumes and performances that resonate with Cold War-era films like The Hunt for Red October (Liam Cunningham as Captain Zhukov certainly seems to be channeling Sean Connery).
In order to keep the Doctor and Clara trapped in the story, it’s obviously necessary to remove their access to the TARDIS. It’s a rather shocking moment when the time machine unexpectedly disappears of its own accord early in the episode, but the explanation at the end is something of a letdown. Gatiss chooses to indulge in a fannish in-joke, as the embarrassed Doctor admits that he was tinkering with his ship and accidentally activated the HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System)—one of the sillier examples of a writer in the classic series inventing a capability of the TARDIS for the sake of one story (in this case, 1969’s “The Krotons”) which was then conveniently forgotten about in later stories. (The final line of the episode also falls flat, with the Doctor asking the captain to give them a lift back to the TARDIS, which has relocated itself to the South Pole—good luck getting a submarine there!)
This episode was shot well before the two previous ones, which explains why Coleman’s Clara is much more of a generic companion most of the time here. She does, however, get a telling moment, well played, when Clara sees the bodies of two of the crewmen killed by Skaldak. Shaken, she tells Professor Grisenko (David Warner), “Seeing those bodies back there, it’s all got very…real.” Warner, the episode’s main guest star, is very good in a role that’s small but crucial, both plot-wise (it’s the professor who sets everything off by finding Skaldak entombed in the ice) and character-wise. With his shabby dress and eccentric obsession with western music, he makes a delightful contrast to the straight-laced crew, and his bonding with Clara across several scenes is very nicely done.
Smith gives his usual excellent performance as the Doctor. His initial levity (when he arrives on the submarine thinking he and Clara are in Las Vegas) soon gives way to seriousness as the magnitude of the problem becomes clear. In his speeches to the Ice Warrior, Smith shows wonderful intensity as the Doctor tries to make a connection with the creature behind the mask, knowing he has nothing but words at his disposal to stop Skaldak from firing a missile that will trigger a nuclear holocaust.
Ultimately, in a slightly too-easy ending, Skaldak is found and beamed off the submarine by his own people. But the tension remains until the Doctor’s (and Clara’s) words finally pay off when Skaldak, after being rescued, decides to abort the missile launch. It provides the episode with a real sense of triumph entirely appropriate to the Cold War setting, with a threatened apocalypse only just dragged back from the brink.
Next Week: Something’s lurking in a spooky old mansion, in an episode titled simply “Hide.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The original Patrick Troughton story “The Ice Warriors” is scheduled for release later this year, with animation replacing the missing two episodes (of six). In the meantime, for another Doctor Who inspired by the Cold War, check out a story made at the very time depicted in this episode, “Warriors of the Deep” starring Peter Davison, with Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.