Doctor Who: Cold War review - Mark Gatiss's Ice Warrior revival is a classic in the making

A taut script, great cast and some tender moments among the Alien-influenced claustrophobia...

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Doctor Who: Cold War review - Mark Gatiss's Ice Warrior revival is a classic in the making
Written By
Patrick Mulkern

Bear with! I’m going to blow a lot of smoke in Mark Gatiss’s direction. We all know already he’s a hugely talented writer/performer, what with The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock and his BBC4 horror docs. He wrote his first, perfect, Doctor Who story in its comeback year, 2005 – The Unquiet Dead (Dickens, ghouls and gas monsters) – and he’s penned a handful of episodes since, including Victory of the Daleks, which had its heart in the right place but was lambasted for its ghastly Dalek-cum-dodgems.

Fans have very high hopes for An Adventure in Space and Time, his forthcoming origins of Who drama (which could well eclipse Steven Moffat’s anniversary special). I went to the filming several times and was hugely impressed at what I saw.

As Mark indulged me on set, walking me round a fabulously faithful re-creation of the 1963 Tardis control room, I picked up on his glee and felt a kindred spirit. “We’re both Pertwee boys,” he sighed, as we realised we’re almost the same age. Mark is such an amiable chap, so I am delighted – largely for him – that his latest episode, Cold War, is a classic in the making.

It proves his deep love and understanding of Doctor Who and adeptness at creating the kind of Doctor Who I adore – adventures with a clear sense of time, place, isolation and claustrophobia; vivid characters and witty lines; creeping tension and an alarming monster. And at least one minor point I can quibble over.

So let’s get that out of the way. The language barrier! Of course, spoken English is convention, a must for mainstream drama. I’m not saying I’d prefer subtitles on Doctor Who or would go to The Cherry Orchard if it were all in the original Russian. And it’s reasonable for Clara to wonder how she's communicating with Soviet submariners (even if last episode she didn’t question how she could speak to some Akhaten aliens and not others). The familiar explanation of the “Tardis translation matrix” is trotted out.

But once attention is drawn to this, viewers may wonder why Russians were heard speaking English before the Tardis arrives, how the Soviets can speak to a Martian, and why Professor Grisenko says, “He wants to speak to the organ grinder not to the monkey,” which surely doesn’t work in Russian. Maybe the Ultravox-obsessed Prof is actually speaking English here. OK, I’ll stop now. My own translation matrix is faltering.

Mark Gatiss’s script is taut, with detail where it's needed, but otherwise allowing no flab across its shortish 41-min running time. It's well matched by director Douglas Mackinnon’s tight shots, askew angles, vivid palette and often gloomy lighting. The sequence where Clara tumbles under water, loses and regains consciousness, is breathtakingly composed.

The nods to Alien and the sense of dread as the crew are picked off one by one are brave for the timeslot. Surely everyone watching fears for Professor Grisenko as he sits pontificating in that hatchway – an obvious target. But no. The Martian goes for Clara first, then the Prof.

And what a great cast. David Warner has been around so long it’s amazing he’s never acted in Doctor Who before (although he has done Who audioplays and voiced the 2009 animation Dreamland); he downplays everything but is completely wonderful. Let’s hope he's a recurring character.

Liam Cunningham is a strong lead as the submarine captain (worryingly grizzled like Bernard Hill in Titanic), and his Game of Thrones compatriot Tobias Menzies (RomeThe Shadow Line) is suitably unpleasant as the lieutenant – and lets the warrior's claws get alarmingly close to his eye. Matt Smith is back on form after a slight dip last week (wholly down to the terrible material). And you have to take your hat off to the entire cast for staying wet for days on end.

The FX shots among the icebergs, diving deep into the Arctic and of the sub poised on a crumbling ledge are stunning. As for the soundtrack, well, some of the dialogue is inaudible (a regular complaint) but I particularly like Murray Gold’s reverberating track after the sub surfaces, and the effect of the Martian’s gurgling respiration.

Perhaps people will be disappointed that only one Ice Warrior features, but this limitation echoes Dalek (the 2005 episode), a solo spot that allows us to focus on the strengths of the old foe being revived. Mark Gatiss gives them back their “ice” status, having one thawed from a glacial block, to match their 1967 debut, The Ice Warriors. He also reworks the tense duologue between companion Victoria and Varga from that serial (left) with Clara's courageous solo encounter with Skaldak.

The Grand Marshal is fearsome, noble and surprisingly tender, almost poetic when lamenting his long-dead daughter. And Mark promised “something new” from the Ice Warriors. Since boyhood, I’ve longed to see the creature behind the mask. The “Ice Lord” Martians who featured in some stories were visibly more humanoid reptiles, wearing robes and helmets, whereas with the warriors – perhaps as a failing of the design and make-up – it was difficult to spot where the armour ended and the reptile began. They were like tortoises bonded into their carapace.

Sadly we don’t get to see a wholly unclothed Martian, although monster-maker Neill Gorton assures me an entire animatronic body was created. Maybe it is best left in the dark and to the imagination. The flip-back reveal of the head under the helmet is effective, but noticeably CGI with “motion capture” to sync with Nicholas Briggs voice (another ssssucccesssss).

Mark has deliberately re-created the base-under-siege format prevalent during second Doctor Patrick Troughton's era – and in a delicious chunk of arcane continuity he reinstates the HADS, the Hostile Action Displacement System, by which the Tardis relocates. As every diehard knows, this has only featured once before, in The Krotons, an iffy Troughton serial from 1969. Well done, Mark. Lovely touch.

But each episode is now touching on a different Doctor’s era for this 50th anniversary mini-season. The Rings of Akhaten had a shade of the first Doctor when the 11th said he’d visited before with his (rarely mentioned) granddaughter, and later he even faced a foe called “Grandfather”. Cold War honours Troughton, as discussed. And the next episode, Hide, touches on third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s territory. It’s set in 1974 and features… ah, but that would be telling…

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