Doctor Who: “Cold War”

“Cold War” is a vast improvement over the previous two episodes of Doctor Who, and may be the best episode of the season so far. Faint praise considering this season, I know, but still. “Cold War” does it right where so much of Doctor Who feels like it’s doing it wrong these days.

Warning: Spoilers follow!

First and foremost, “Cold War” is a “monster loose in an enclosed space” story, which it turns out is exactly what Doctor Who has been missing amid all these overly complicated, nearly incomprehensible, Steven Moffat-era plots that fall to pieces under the slightest scrutiny. The setting, a Soviet submarine during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, is perfect, and one we haven’t seen before in Doctor Who. (It’s interesting to see a “historical” episode that takes place during a time when classic Who was on the air.) While the tensions of the times and even between crew members could have been played up a bit more by the script, it’s strength really does stem, ironically, from being a straightforward story with a simple setting.

The addition of a classic monster we haven’t seen before in new Who adds a lot to it as well. I knew we would eventually see an Ice Warrior again once David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor referenced them, albeit obliquely, in “The Waters of Mars.” (Much the same way he referenced Davros obliquely in season three before the creator of the Daleks made an appearance in season four. Which makes me wonder if the Doctor’s similarly oblique reference to his granddaughter Susan in “The Rings of Akhaten” might mean we’ll be seeing her again for the 50th Anniversary.) The use of an Ice Warrior here is a great echo of the Cold War of the setting, both for the pun and for the militaristic mindset of the Ice Warrior himself, who decides that he must be the last of his kind and will therefore launch the sub’s nuclear missiles to go out in a blaze of glory. And for the first time in what feels like ages, the climax plays out perfectly for the story itself, rather than being hobbled by Moffatesque moments of “wouldn’t it be cool if?” (“Wouldn’t it be cool if the sun were actually the monster and it eats stories instead of people?” No, Steven. No, it wouldn’t.)

Special guest star Chancellor Gorkon David Warner is great in the small, gentle role of the rather goofy Professor Grisenko, a scientist aboard the sub who is obsessed with ’80s New Wave acts Ultravox and Duran Duran. (How I loved seeing that old, bulky Walkman clipped to his belt!) Grisenko is one of those character types that have been there since new Who started in 2005, the interesting, charismatic person who winds up sacrificing himself to save others, but amazingly, that’s not how the story plays out. For the first time in a long time, (almost) everyone lives. Given how superior this episode is to what came before, I’m surprised it was written by Mark Gatiss, the man who brought us “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Victory of the Daleks” (not to mention the absurd “Hounds of Baskerville” episode of Sherlock)!

It’s not all perfect, of course. The Ice Warriors are needlessly retconned into cyborgs whose shell armor is actually mechanical in nature, thereby making them pretty much exactly the same as the Daleks or the Cybermen. As soon as the Ice Warrior slipped out of his armor to sneak around the sub, I knew we were in for an absolutely awful looking CGI creature, and I was right. There’s a needlessly distracting callback to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” during the tense climax. Matt Smith mugs for the camera too much when he really needed to play this one more seriously. The TARDIS disappears as soon as the trouble starts because plot device.

But despite all these nitpicks, it’s not a bad episode. Dare I say, it might even be a good one. If the rest of this season’s episodes follow the example of “Cold War” and keep their stories this straightforward and uncomplicated by Moffatisms, it might just salvage season seven. The next episode looks like it might do just that, too, with the Doctor and Clara exploring a “haunted” house. Sign me up.

And now for some of that Doctor Who neepery you secretly come here for!

The Ice Warriors were never a top-tier villain like the Daleks, the Cybermen, or the Master. I don’t think most fans would even put them on the same tier as the Sontarans or the Silurians, although they did make several appearances through the years. The Ice Warriors first show up in the 1967 serial “The Ice Warriors,” in which Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor foils a Martian invasion of Earth. (The plot is actually strikingly similar to “Cold War,” with frozen Ice Warriors being discovered in the Arctic, getting thawed out, and going all aggressive on everyone when they learn Mars is a dead planet now.) The Ice Warriors returned in the 1969 serial “The Seeds of Death,” where the Second Doctor discovers they’ve taken over the Moonbase and plan to try their invasion again. They didn’t show up again until Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor took the reigns. The 1972 serial “The Curse of Peladon” found the Ice Warriors much evolved and now part of the peaceful Galactic Federation. They even help the Doctor foil a coup against King Peladon. The very last time we saw them, before “Cold War,” was in 1974’s follow-up serial “The Monster of Peladon,” but this time the Doctor encounters a rogue unit of Ice Warriors who are trying to muck things up again. Nearly 40 years later, it’s fun to see them once more, and interesting to see how the show has kept their evolution going.

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