Friday, 26 April 2013

Cold Warrior - a review of the Doctor Who episode Cold War

by Adam Manning

Please note this review has been written for the wonderful fanzine Strange Skins, and if you are a fan of Doctor Who you really should get hold of copies of this publication. 

A series about time travel can intrigue and tease the admirer with throwaway remarks that hint at past or future ages.  Advising “Boney” about armies marching on their stomachs hints at other adventures and involvement in historical matters.  Bittersweet memories of Puccini’s sadness suggests a time traveller not just observing but living and feeling days gone by and the people to be found there.  Da Vinci and Newton are often referred to as well; the Doctor clearly delights in the Enlightenment.

Sometimes events in the show can be linked to events in the real world.  In the long run up to the 2012 Olympics it is not surprising that in one episode the Doctor has to step in, grab the Torch and light the Olympic flame himself.  This presaging was later echoed in reality when Matt Smith bravely carried the Olympic torch for the actual event.  Perhaps more directly commercially, it cannot be a coincidence that the showing of The Curse of the Black Spot took place less than a fortnight before the release of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. Such convenient nearing could only, to the producer’s undoubted delighted, have assisted with publicising the Doctor’s nautical adventure.

Notes of future times are somewhat rarer.  In the very first episode some fifty years ago the Doctor’s granddaughter is a little self-conscious about forgetting that decimilisation hadn’t in fact been enacted yet.  Perhaps most famously, in one adventure in the mid seventies, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has to report to the British Prime Minister whom he addresses as Madam.  The series had predated reality in this respect by a few years.  It now appears that the writers had Shirley Williams in mind.

In considering the role of history in the series, as well as these throwaway asides there has always been a subset of the Doctor’s adventures called historicals, set in well known historical eras with an emphasis on character and drama rather than fantasy and imagination. The new series seems to have created a new style of adventure in addition to this, taking shorter hops in the past and future. Fear Her , The Idiot’s Lantern and Dalek come to mind and Cold War, set in 1983, is another example of this near contemporary premise. The fascination is perhaps in taking the viewer from the present to a future or past that is similar but with the twists that history or an imaginary tomorrow provides.

The early 1980s was, it is possible to argue, a second wave of deep hostility between the superpowers in the Cold War. After the Cuban Missile Crisis and the initial intense rivalry of the superpowers in the sixties as exemplified by the race to the Moon, a period of more relaxed relations known as détente in the seventies suggested World War III might not be so imminent after all.  Détente, symbolized perhaps by the Apollo-Soyuz joint space missions of the mid seventies, abruptly ended in 1980 by the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR and the election of Ronald Reagan as President.

During the early eighties the threat and fear of a nuclear war escalated again.  Two TV productions, Threads and The Day After, were made which haunted viewers in the West with a glimpse of what might happen.  It is easy and rather illusory to forget those old fears and setting an episode of the new series of Doctor Who at this point is unexpected and jarring. The Doctor humorously links the outrageous risk to world peace to the outrageous fashions of the time and it would be interesting to think of younger viewers learning something of the history of the times through this story.

For reasons that are not clear but presumably relate to the TARDIS going where it wants rather than being guided by the Doctor, our favourite time traveller and his beautiful lady friend find themselves on a Soviet submarine that is sinking fast.  Such a dreadful situation has of course a recent precedent in the tragic fate of the Russian vessel Kursk and for a fantasy series we are suddenly in a very real world of danger.  A powerful cast including David Warner, Liam Cunningham and Tobias Menzies drive up the tension early on and only some gabbling by the Doctor seems to distract the submariners long enough to stop him and Clara from being shot.

The cause of the sinking is the appearance of the previously frozen Ice Warrior, a reptilian native of the planet Mars.  A race hallowed in the chronologies of the series and lauded out of all proportion to their appearances in it, the Ice Warriors have returned. Or at least one of them. Cold War is the Ice Warriors’ Dalek – a story to revitalize them and strip away some of the softening that had made them rather sweet and cuddly.

The parallels to the Daleks can also be seen in Cold War’s depiction of the rather ungainly outer shell of the Ice Warrior as being an armoured survival suit.  The real creature lives inside this outer shell.  This is an exciting and clever science fiction idea, particularly as the amour looks vaguely crocodilian with its green scales although it has never been suggested before that Ice Warriors live this way and of course it is exactly the same idea as the Daleks’ travel unit.

This reintroduction of the Ice Warrior is nevertheless highly satisfying.  For once, continuity works to the benefit of the series. All the little details of the Ice Warriors’ past and indeed the rather original and unusual overall look all add credibility and interest.  The previous caste system of Ice Warriors is hinted at with this particular individual being introduced as Grand Marshall Skaldark. Die hard fans might object that he should have therefore been an Ice Lord rather than Warrior but we can overlook this point in the interests of bringing more of the classic series into the new.

When Skaldark is electrocuted, the Doctor rather crossly orders that the Martian warlord be locked up.  This doesn’t really fit with his previous desire to negotiate with the Martian and when later, through Clara, he tries to restart a peaceable mediation the uncharacteristic desire to lock Skaldark up can only be justified by it being exactly what Skaldark would have done if their positions were reversed. This tawdry reasoning is simply not what we expect from the Doctor. It’s not particularly coherent characterisation and just seems to be the writer pulling strings to get the characters where he wants them.

The use of Clara as the “monkey” (as David Warner’s character puts it) in the interview with the chained Skaldark also seems contrived.  All this talk of the Doctor and Liam Cunnigham’s Captain smelling too much of being soldiers is simply a way to give Clara something to do. Throughout the episode, despite looking very pretty in her borrowed naval jacket, Clara seems superfluous. Discounting the eye catching refinement of her features, the only interest she really has to the viewer is placing her accent with her pronunciation of words such as “caste”. 

For a character set up to be a mystery, the only strange thing about Clara in this episode is her obsession with her performance in the interview with Skaldark. Why is she concerned about how she did? It is never made clear and seems rather odd.

An important role of the companion in a Who story is to enact a sense of fear, to highlight the danger. Here Clara never seems unduly worried despite their precarious position.  David Warner’s character of the Professor (who like Dougray Scott’s character in another episode appears to be an analogue for the Doctor) seems, aside from the initial discovery of the Ice Warrior, to exist only to give Clara someone to talk to. When he shows some concern for Clara’s mental state all she can say, somewhat insipidly, is “seeing all those bodies back there.  It all got very”, and at this point the statutory dramatic pause is inserted, “real”. 

This flat performance is matched by rather flat dialogue.  At another point the Professor, trying to keep her calm, asks her what she likes doing. “Stuff, you know, stuff” she answers, about as mysterious as the price of digestive biscuits in Asda. Perhaps writer Mark Gatiss simply didn’t know who she is supposed to be or what he was supposed to do with her. Cold War is Clara’s weakest adventure to date. 

The Ice Warrior, in an exciting development, breaks out from his armour and tears around the submarine in his natural body. Clearly Ice Warriors are far less helpless than Daleks when deprived of their armour. Skaldark has tried signalling his fellow Ice Warriors to rescue him but when they fail to answer, he decides that if he is going down he is going to take the submarine and the Earth with him.  We learn that an Ice Warrior’s greatest disgrace is to leave their body armour and so Skaldark has nothing to lose. It’s all racking up the tension rather admirably, helped along by Matt Smith’s somewhat panicked and fearful yet still residually authoritative Eleventh Doctor.

We don’t see a lot of the Ice Warrior in the all together for a while but this doesn’t stop the naked Skaldark tearing up the poor Soviet submariners.  In keeping with the parameters of a family show, the violence, horror and gore is only glimpsed at or suggested.  The cast is seen gazing around a room in which a sailor has been torn apart and this clever sequence makes it all to clear what has happened without really showing much.  References to the Alien films are obvious and immediate but here the show translates that sort of horror into its own context with skill and subtlety.

As Skaldark frees himself from his armour he seems to make odd little reptilian noises. We’ve had scenarios from The Hunt for Red October and Alien and now this sound effect is taking us to Jurassic Park.  The Ice Warrior’s face, when at last he is seen, albeit in shadow, is reminiscent of War of the Worlds as indeed are the slender fingers and claws that clasp Tobias Menzies’ head as he desperately tries to save himself.

It is the Alien context that is paramount though and indeed at one point the Soviet sailors’ highlighting of this word is almost as if the writer is making this explicit for the viewer.  This is not a standard Doctor Who story of a base under siege as the invader is already inside.  The Soviet forces get a good showing and are brave and honourable, mostly, and prepared to die to save civilization from nuclear destruction.  The Eleventh Doctor has a lot of female fans in Russia who no doubt will be pleased.

In the final sequence, the Doctor plays a game of brinksmanship with Skaldark which neatly manages to mirror the concept of mutually assured destruction the Ice Warrior learned from one of the submariners.  Somehow, despite the previous grave announcements that they were not coming to rescue their Grand Marshall, a Martian flying saucer finally appears, saves their comrade and as a result all is forgiven. 

Cold War is a highly satisfying Doctor Who adventure that really does reintroduce the Ice Warriors as intriguing foes, perhaps setting matters in motion for a more large scale story with them later. The episode has a few references to episodes from much earlier epochs as befits such an important story.  The Doctor tells the Captain he will dispense with any pretence including not posing as Earth ambassadors, a reference of course to a Third Doctor adventure involving the Ice Warriors in which he does just that. 

The TARDIS, quite early in proceedings, dematerialises to safety and this we are told is due to the Doctor’s reactivation of the Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS), a notable reference to a feature of the TARDIS first referred to in the time of the Second Doctor.

As well as the HADS, the Ice Warriors were also first noted in the adventures of the Second Doctor and it seems entirely fitting that they be reintroduced in an Eleventh Doctor story.  The Eleventh Doctor in my view often gently reminds one of the Second.  This is no bad thing – the Second Doctor is often thought of as one of the best.  Matt Smith’s Doctor though is a truly great Doctor in his own right.  Indeed it maybe that the Eleventh Doctor epitomises all that the long term fans, the ones who really love Doctor Who, want in a Doctor without just being a predictable, made to order manifestation of “Whoishness”.

Matt’s performance is always so engaging, so particular, so wonderfully crafted. Whilst his episodes have swung up and down in quality, he is consistently the Doctor at his most intriguing. In Cold War the Eleventh Doctor shows us quite a spectrum of emotions and Matt is given the chance to colour his performance rather more than usual. 

A good episode that happily bears a number of viewings.  Mark Gatiss is a popular writer for the show and Cold War will help strengthen that connection. 

Yet not even Mark Gatiss could have foreseen the odd link between Cold War and the events of the real world.  The year 1983 was a year of triumph for UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Fresh from victory in the Falkland Islands she had gone on to win a second general election in that year which lead to the larger than life era of shoulder pads the Doctor refers to. 

So although she is not referred to in Cold War, Mrs Thatcher’s profound stamp on the eighties means many older viewers will be reminded of her. Its showing  between her death and much discussed funeral coupled with all the eighties revivalism that ensued was a rather peculiar coincidence.  I couldn’t help wandering if it was another, albeit accidental, example of the odd, perhaps even metafictional interplay of real world events and the theme of time in Doctor Who.

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