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Doctor Who: Cold War ★★★★

Mark Gatiss’s Ice Warrior revival has a taut script, strong cast and tender moments among the Alien-influenced claustrophobia

Published: Monday, 21st October 2013 at 11:17 am
A star rating of 4 out of 5.

Story 234


Series 7 – Episode 8

“My world is dead but now there will be a second red planet. Red with the blood of humanity!” – Skaldak

The Doctor and Clara land aboard a Russian submarine, stranded in the ocean deep at the North Pole. It is 1983 and fingers are poised over nuclear buttons at the height of the Cold War. Professor Grisenko has recovered a creature frozen in a block of ice for five millennia. It’s a dormant Ice Warrior, Grand Marshal Skaldak. Once defrosted, Skaldak sees the Russians’ aggression as an act of war. He plans to launch the submarine’s missiles and trigger a nuclear war. The Doctor and Clara must persuade the warrior to show mercy.

First UK transmission
Saturday 13 April 2013

June 2012. At BBC Roath Lock Studios; Llanwern Works, Newport. September 2012: models shots at Halliford Film Studios, Shepperton.

The Doctor – Matt Smith
Clara Oswald – Jenna-Louise Coleman
Captain Zhukov – Liam Cunningham
Professor Grisenko – David Warner
Lieutenant Stepashin – Tobias Menzies
Piotr – Josh O’Connor
Onegin – James Norton
Belevich – Charlie Anson
Grand Marshal Skaldak – Spencer Wilding
Voice of Skaldak – Nicholas Briggs

Writer – Mark Gatiss
Director – Douglas Mackinnon
Producer – Marcus Wilson
Music – Murray Gold
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Mark Gatiss is an amiable chap. I got to know him a little in 2013 as I went on set several times for An Adventure in Space and Time, his drama about the origins of Doctor Who. He indulged me, walking me round the fabulously faithful re-creation of the 1963 Tardis control room, and 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.

A few months later his new episode, Cold War, proved 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 the convention, a must for mainstream drama. I’m not saying I’d prefer subtitles on Doctor Who or would go to see 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 should wonder why Russians were heard speaking English before the Tardis arrived, 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,” an expression that 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 41min 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 has 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 recorded Who audioplays and voiced the 2009 animation Dreamland); he downplays everything but is completely wonderful. He’d be a good recurring character.

Liam Cunningham is a strong lead as the submarine captain (grizzled like Bernard Hill in Titanic), and Tobias Menzies (Rome, The Shadow Line) is unpleasant as the lieutenant. Matt Smith is back on form after a slight dip last week (wholly down to 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 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 in the case of 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 assured 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 isn’t entirely convincing despite elaborate CGI and “motion capture” to sync with Nicholas Briggs’s 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 die-hard 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 with his (rarely mentioned) granddaughter, and later faced a foe called “Grandfather”. Cold War honours Troughton, as discussed. And the next episode, Hide, ventures into third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s territory. It’s even set in 1974…


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