* Warning: Spoilers Ahead *
Ever since The Unquiet Dead back in 2005, we’ve been waiting for a Mark Gatiss-scripted episode to pay off on that early promise, and regrettably Cold War isn’t it. What it is, however – and fortunately – is perhaps Gatiss’ most entertaining episode of Doctor Who to date, and an homage to 1967 and Matt Smith’s favourite predecessor, the second Doctor, with a deal of Alien3 thrown in for good measure.
Cold War suffers from all of the usual problems that can be associated with any other of Gatiss’ scripts, with the further complication of being almost an out-and-out remake of that other story from Christopher Eccleston’s Series One, Dalek; far more so, even, than Night Terrors was a remake of Fear Her. There’s a golden rule of the remake, Mr Gatiss, and that is that you only rework something that wasn’t very good to begin with, in order to improve upon the original. Remaking something as well thought of as Robert Shearman’s story is only going to result in unfavourable comparisons.
A lone example of a feared alien race, trapped in an isolated environment, soon to be freed after a one-on-one encounter with the Doctor’s companion? Check. A scene involving water and electricity that provides a “shock” for the viewer? Check. Important information gathered at a remove via an intercommunications link? Check. The surprising reveal of what’s inside the alien’s armour? Check. A resolution that relies less on solving the problem or defeating the alien menace than it does on the alien in question (or his Mothership, as it turns out) stepping back to allow humanity its survival? Check, check and check again. The big difference here is in the camerawork; while Joe Ahearne, the director of Dalek, prefers long-lenses and static cameras, Douglas Mackinnon (previously of The Power of Three and Series Four’s Sontaran two-parter) is far more kinetic in his approach, which when you add it to the natural claustrophobia of the submarine set, at least makes of Cold War an episode where you can feel the danger, even if the tension is rather dissipated by the quirks of Gatiss’ dialogue and characterisation.
The story begins well enough, with a couple of sequences either side of the opening titles packed with both tension and adrenalin, and therefore promise. Even the sight of the Ice Warrior moving its hand around inside a solid block of ice is a forgivable flourish (and perhaps explicable given the sonic technology), although one sign of an inferior writer is when he gives his characters tics rather than personalities, and the aging Professor Grisenko is a prime example of this approach. Yes, in a 45-minute episode you need shorthand to get your message across; no, it doesn’t need to be as obvious as this. Meanwhile the Doctor and Clara’s arrival is exhilarating and hilarious – there’s a classic shot of the Doctor replacing his glasses at the end of the sequence, and boy does Jenna-Louise Coleman look hot when she’s cold and wet.
It’s not long before the deficiencies of Mark Gatiss’ sketch-writer’s approach to screenwriting kick back in though, after the early mention of Ultravox which, while amusing enough, had me dreading what was to come, and the Clara and Ice Warrior two-hander scene is where the episode begins to unravel. Most television writers will tell you that each individual scene needs to keep moving things forwards, whether that be for the characters or for the plot, but never is that journey so apparent than when Gatiss is on writing duties – the reintroduction of the HADS simply to allow for a punch line at the end of the episode being just the most obvious example among many. Gatiss’ script is a combination of characters saying things only in order to further the plot, and contrivances appearing unnecessarily here, there and everywhere serving no other purpose than as a distraction from these other deficiencies. Cold War, in common with most of Gatiss’ other stories, is populated not so much with people as it is with walking idiosyncrasies. And what a strange choice to bring back the Ice Warriors, or rather an Ice Warrior, and then take the thing out of its shell almost within moments of meeting it. It’s almost as if Gatiss took Steven Moffat’s dislike for the lumbering beasts, the epitome of the classic Doctor Who monster that wouldn’t work in the modern series, and in order to show how it could work, had to change (pardon, augment) almost everything about it. It might look more like the Ice Warriors of yore than most of the current show’s other updates, but we really don’t get to spend an awful lot of time with it. Not having been a fan of the Ice Warriors of old, perhaps this is a blessing, and Nicholas Briggs’ updating of their speech patterns, retaining the sibilance of the originals but fortunately not the sluggishness, is another bonus. It’s also nice to see that, even given forty years of improvements in monster-making technology, the creature’s mouth still seems to disappear up its nose from time to time (although the reptilian appearance of the creature within kind of explains why this should happen). Plus ça change.
Why the need to make Skaldak the most revered Ice Warrior in Martian history, though? Surely these kinds of imposition on the story need to play out as if they’ve been included for a reason, but unless you count his notoriety as perhaps the incentive for the Mothership being prepared to make such a monumental trip just to pick up a single missing citizen, it seems like wasted extra baggage, and while the necessity for making that trip without advertising the imminence of their arrival is something that allows for the tension to build in the episode, its illogicality is less defensible in light of the fact that it gives the story an easy and massively disappointing outcome – one of three successive resolutions that come pretty much out of nowhere and leave the Doctor and Clara looking less than useful.
Which leads us to perhaps the most disappointing thing of all. Matt Smith has been almost a note-perfect Doctor since his arrival three years ago, and even last week his acting maintained its authenticity in spite of the difficult scenes he was asked to play. Jenna-Louise Coleman too has been a revelation, managing to hit exactly the right levels in her performance from the very beginning. But Cold War includes moments in which the pair are left floundering with dialogue that is almost impossible to play convincingly, and it’s the first time I’ve found either of them anything less than believable. I’m not sure whether Clara constantly asking people how she’s doing at the most inappropriate of moments was an imposition, but if it was it’s one I hope is quickly dispensed with. She also struggles with having to sing Duran Duran and pretend like it’s helping her in a moment of extreme tension; unfortunately, it’s the very fact that she’s singing Hungry Like the Wolf that dissipates any tension the scene in question might have contained.
Fortunately, there’s an upside to all this. Or rather, there are two: the cast and the direction. Douglas Mackinnon is maybe the most traditional of all the directors Steven Moffat has used on his edgier vision of a movie-style Doctor Who (there are few of the modern stylings that, for example, Nick Hurran brought to The God Complex) but happily this is the most suitable approach for this kind of story. It’s a physical, in fact almost visceral episode, and Mackinnon’s cameras and design capture it all supremely well. And what a cast he has assembled. Liam Cunningham, Tobias Menzies and David Warner are three of the strongest and most reliable actors that modern Doctor Who has yet found roles for, and to see all three in the same episode is an almost joyful experience, even if they tend to be rather wasted at times (Menzies in particular disappears way too soon). They almost make Gatiss characters feel like real people, and they undoubtedly give the convolutions of the story a legitimacy they probably don’t deserve. Ultimately, it is these three and Mackinnon that make of Cold War a far more pleasurable experience than it might have been. In fact, oddly enough and in spite of most of the above, I must admit to having thoroughly enjoyed it. Must be the old-fashioned fan in me.
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