Cold War

Story No. 256
Production Code Series 7, Episode 8
Dates April 20, 2013

With Matt Smith, Jenna-Louise Coleman
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.

Synopsis: An Ice Warrior is melted on board a Russian nuclear submarine in the 1980s.


Mutually Assured Disinterest by Mike Morris 6/10/16

The question between objectivity and personal taste tends to bother me, and I'd guess it's something that bugs most people who regularly write reviews. As a reviewer, you might strive to be "objective", but that means telling the difference between "this is badly done" and "I don't like this." Where I find that dividing line usually falls is the gap between how well a story is does what it sets out to do and how you respond to what it's doing. To be a bit more specific, you can be objective in picking out the good and bad in a story, but it's personal taste that defines how much the negatives annoy you and how much the good things make you happy. To give a very personal example, About Time 4's critique of The Sunmakers acknowledges every single thing about it that make me want to bury the negatives in a pit so deep it extends to the earth's core, but then they conclude the story is "quite good anyway". Or, to pick out two of my favourite negative reviews on this site: The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky isn't as bad as Hugh Sturgess's review suggests, even if everything he says about it is more or less accurate; and, while I've not read SynthespiansTM, no other reviewer finds it as horrendous as the always-fair and always-insightful Rob Matthews makes out. Those stories have faults that just happen to drive those reviewers nuts.

This is a rather laboured way of saying that my bottomless contempt for Cold War doesn't seem to be the majority view. I am open to the possibility that my dislike of it may just be my problem. However, I loathe it, and I can't pretend otherwise.

To start on a positive note, you can certainly credit Mark Gatiss with a good idea for a story, and that high-concept might be enough to carry some people along with it. An Ice Warrior loose on a nuclear submarine! It's such a great pitch that it's more or less impossible to turn that into something completely useless, but everyone involved seems to have tried really hard to do just that.

From the pretitle sequence, when a frozen Ice Warrior smashes its way out of a block of ice (which has somehow melted from the inside, but what the heck) in a deeply expected way, then kills a standard-issue pretitles redshirt for no sodding reason at all except that the theme music's coming, you know you're facing into a torrent of banality. The story's premise is weirdly familar: a not-entirely-evil-but-clearly-murderous lizard-thing stalking around in an underwater base, with a dollop of Cold War tension. Is it trying to create a more stylish version of Warriors of the Deep? That's a bar set pretty low, and still the story fails to clear it.

This story tries to reestablish the Ice Warriors as a rounded species, in a way that's reminiscent of Dalek. In fact, Cold War resembles Dalek in almost as many ways as it does Warriors of the Deep; unfortunately, this just shows up how inferior a story Cold War is, a modern-day Silver Nemesis aping its very own Remembrance of the Daleks. It's got none of the tension of Dalek, none of the clever parallels between the Doctor and his adversary, none of the insightful comment on the tortured and the torturers. We're back to the basic rule of show don't tell. The narrative of Dalek was all about showing us how Daleks think, but Cold War just has the Doctor telling us that Ice Warriors are noble, while the story gives us no evidence of the sort.

I'm conscious that I've given Mark Gatiss' scripts a bit of a kicking before, and I don't want to keep banging on the same drum. So I should say at this point that, while the script has many problems, a lot of the issues with this story are aesthetic. In a way, this is an odd complaint for an an old-school Who fan, because the new series is obviously light-years ahead of the old when it comes to visuals, and the Martian armour is miles better than the pre-2005 versions. However, if your story's basis is a scary creature killing people in a confined space (it should have been so much more than this, but we'll come back to that later), then the creature has to convince on all levels - and that means more than just looking good. Alien is always the template for this kind of thing, and just think about how much thought went into the biology and lifecycle of that creature. The visuals in Cold War, by contrast, are disjointed. The Warrior always seems to be a mish-mash of different bits. The clearest example is one you hear, not one you see; the old hissing voices of the old Ice Warriors, whether you like them or not (I did), were selected to sound reptilian and snake-like. In other words, they were adding to our sense of this creature. But Skaldak's voice is just bland and processed, adding nothing, evoking nothing.

Similarly, although I like the idea that, out of their armour, the Ice Warriors are lightning-quick creatures, it's never satisfactorily explained why they throw away such a huge inbuilt advantage by encasing themselves in something so slow. Now, if the armour-less Warrior just looked more delicate and frail, we'd instinctively understand it's about protection - but Skaldak doesn't seem frail in the slightest. In one long scene, it looks like he's strong enough to crush a man's skull (I suspect it's scripted that he's threatening to cut the man's throat, but it doesn't look that way); and, to add insult to injury, he's got comically oversized hands that don't look like they'd fit in the armour anyway. Add in the close-ups of Skaldak's face that look rather bulky and seem to belong to another creature entirely, plus a spaceship which looks nothing like the technology we see beforehand - people with armour like that would never make a spaceship that looks like this - and what you've got never convinces as a rounded species. None of the production team are talking to each other, nothing fits together, and there's no sense of the Warrior being anything other than an impressive costume and a few FX-shots.

The one other big annoyance where the Warriors are concerned is firmly the fault of the script though. We're told, with great emphasis, that there's a huge taboo amongst the Warriors about them leaving their armour; this becomes a key part of their motivation, and it's a huge turning point in the script when Skaldak leaves his as an escape strategy. And yet another, later plot twist reveals he never had any reason to do this at all. That's unspeakably lazy writing, almost contemptuous for its audience, and it's entirely emblematic of how this story functions.

Mark Gatiss is an excellent actor who seems like a really nice guy and also co-wrote one of my favourite comedies of all time, so I've no wish to seem like I'm being gratuitously unpleasant. However, as a viewer, I don't particularly like stories that insult my intelligence, and I think I'm within my rights to say so. This could be the worst Doctor Who story Mark Gatiss has yet written, and it's certainly the most irritating.

Even its structure is all wrong. This kind of story - claustrophobic, with a small cast and lots of mistrust - needs to be about the characters and environment, combining to create a slow, building tension. I don't want to keep banging on about Alien, so let's look at The Ice Warriors as a good example: look at how the drama is driven by the character obsessions of Clent, Penley and Varga, with the the Doctor as a rogue element and the oncoming glacier turning the screws. These are the things that create a balance of power in the story, one that is constantly shifting from one side to the other. Then look at Cold War. Skaldak's just smashing things indiscriminately from the start. The Soviets are people with funny accents, and we're not given any reason to care about them. It's a promising setting - a Soviet sub during the height of Mutually Assured Destruction should be an immediately dramatic location - but you could swap the Soviets for Americans and the script wouldn't change in the slightest. You never get any sense beyond "we're at war with the Americans, sort of". Clara meeting honest-to-god communists is a chance for her to meet a truly alien mindset, right here within living memory, and it just doesn't happen. So there's no space for us to feel any of the characters even exist, let alone build tension or develop some nuance. It's just actors shouting loudly and lots of water.

The early dematerialisation of the TARDIS is the oddest, clearest example of everything that's wrong. It ends up as a transparent "whoops!" moment: the author's seen that having the TARDIS on board pretty much collapses the entire stuck-on-a-sub idea, so he has just used the first idea he could think of to remove it from the story. The fact that it's the crassest, most perfunctory idea imaginable (it's a reference to The Krotons, for crying out loud) doesn't seem to be an issue. Now, to someone like Neil Cross or Peter Harness, this would be a chance to add something to the drama. For example, the Doctor could be hiding the TARDIS because he's worried that the Soviets (or Skaldak) could use it as a weapon - and that would bring with it the added edge that the Doctor could get everyone out at any time but doesn't dare to try it. Suddenly, you've got a tale that's more than just a monster on a submarine - but this script doesn't actually want to be anything more than a monster on a submarine. The TARDIS is a problem that needs to be written out, and it doesn't matter why. So on we go.

So it is throughout. Cold War keeps suggesting storylines that would be much more involving, and then just seems to abandon them when they look like they'll be too much effort. Mutual distrust between Cold War humans and a Martian Warrior - both dangerous, both with a certain nobility - sounds like a great idea, but then Skaldak just happens to be psychotic, so that's out. Worse, the Doctor just tells us from the start that he's crazy, even though having the Doctor discover this would be far more dramatic. It's revealed that Skaldak's been frozen for thousands of years, but the storyline would be unaltered if he'd crash-landed last week; a crewmember goes rogue and suggests an alliance - a really good way of raising the stakes, especially in a Cold War story - but Skaldak just says "no" and kills him; the prospect's raised that the Martians might not want this war criminal back, but that goes nowhere either. Why even bother showing us these story elements if you aren't going to do anything with them?

And ultimately, the overriding impression is of an episode that can't be bothered being interesting, that just wants to get to the end as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible. There are places where it feels like everyone involved is struggling to retain any enthusiasm for the project, and the result is the laziest, most reductive, most tiresome excuses for television I've see for a while. It's forty-five minutes of televised footage that never once adds up to a story.

I'd like to focus on positives, but I genuinely struggle to think of any. The leads do their best, but even the Doctor and Clara are featureless; Clara's given no discernible character at all, and I'm still trying to forget that the Doctor was giddily excited at visiting a cesspool like Las Vegas. So the "credit where it's due" section consists of Liam Cunningham, an excellent actor making what he can of an underwritten role; the submarine sets, which are suitably claustrophobic; and yes, the revamped Ice Warrior armour which does at least look good, even if it's used badly.

Set aside those elements, and everything beyond the strapline ranges from mediocre to dreadful. However, in much the same way that Dinosaurs On A Spaceship got by with just the joy of "Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!", Cold War will entertain some people by dint of its basic premise - "An Ice Warrior! On a nuclear submarine!" I wish them luck and I'll concede that, objectively, it's probably not quite the disaster I'm suggesting. It might work in a leave-your-brains-at-the-door sort of way, if you're in the right frame of mind. In fact, if I may pinch a joke from the great Stewart Lee, it might even be the work of a genius; unfortunately it's a genius who has worked out, to the tenth decimal place, exactly how to annoy me.

It's the '80s. Everything's bigger! by Evan Weston 25/7/20

Cold War is something we haven't seen in quite a while on Doctor Who, not since The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, if I'm not mistaken: an introduction of a classic monster to new Who audiences. The Ice Warriors were always seen as too representative of the negatives of Classic Who - clunky costumes, terrible effects - to ever be brought to the new series (though they were given a passing mention in The Waters of Mars), but Mark Gatiss somehow has the ear of Steven Moffat. Thus, the frozen Martians are back for the Eleventh Doctor to fry, and the result is certainly mixed. Basically, it's a Mark Gatiss episode, which means ups and downs throughout.

The Ice Warrior itself, though, is certainly an up. While the updated armor is as silly-looking as ever, though at least it moves with some fluidity. Gatiss makes the phenomenal choice to take Skaldak out of his armor for half the episode, which makes him far scarier and way more modern. The script takes great pains to alert us to how dangerous Skaldak is, but it really doesn't have to - his dialogue and actions, combined with a tremendous bit of voicing from Nicholas Briggs, tell us all we need to know about how nasty he can be. He's an intelligent, savvy villain, and a very successful update on a lame old monster. I look forward to seeing more Ice Warriors in the Twelfth Doctor era.

The world which Skaldak inhabits is a 1980s Soviet submarine, as Cold War's genre of the week is campy 80s thriller (think Top Gun or Crimson Tide). It certainly feels like a damaged submarine - though the CGI shots of the exterior don't do much, there is water everywhere, all the time, an effect achieved by the production team dumping gallons on the cast between takes. This is one of the lower-budget episodes of Series 7, and especially coming on the heels of The Rings of Akhaten, Cold War looks a bit dull. But the claustrophobic effect of the submarine is mostly achieved, the costumes are solid as usual, and the blue-green hue in which the episode is shot gives it that underwater feel quite nicely. However, Skaldak's armor-less head is a bit too Davies-era CGI for my tastes. Prosthetics may have been a better choice.

The story itself is mostly a waste of time, in what's become a staple of Gatiss's writing. The Ice Warrior is revealed right in the pre-credits sequence, written into the story easily and allowed to dominate the proceedings from the beginning. However, almost every character in Cold War is a total cipher, with the exception of David Warner's delightful Professor Grisenko, who adds a humanity deeply lacking in the rest of the cast. The phenomenal Liam Cunningham is brutally underused as the mechanical Captain Zhukov, and Tobias Menzies is one-note throughout, barely menacing and usually annoying, until Skaldak snaps his neck in the second act. Things stall when Skaldak is captured and Clara is sent in to talk to him (in a moment of stupidity that I will address shortly), and even after we get a brief jolt from Skaldak leaving his armor, Cold War devolves into a classic Doctor Who run-around for 20 minutes until the Doctor... threatens to blow everyone up?

Honestly, Cold War has enough going for it between the production, the villain and even the acting (while the characters are poorly written, everyone except Menzies is at least good) to earn a passing grade, but the story's resolution is so mind-numbingly stupid that it is rendered a poor episode. It's not quite as lousy as The Power of Three, since it's at least coherent, but Cold War's conclusion has nothing resembling logic running through it. We start with the Eleventh Doctor acting way out of character, sacrificing his own life and those of his friends (something Eleven in particular would never do) to prevent Skaldak from firing the nukes. It appears Skaldak plans to fire them anyway, leading to a Mexican standoff that can only be resolved with a classic Davies ex Machina, as if pulled straight from the dregs of Series 4 into the present. The Ice Warriors - who failed to answer Skaldak's call and are presumed dead by the rules of the story - magically return to bring their Grand Marshall home. Even after this, when Gatiss gives Skaldak the power to remotely launch the nukes, the greatest warrior in the history of his race, by all accounts a complete sadist, decides to spare the Earth. I can only describe these events as stupid and lazy, and Gatiss should be ashamed of himself for such poor writing. This isn't the worst episode of his career, but it is his worst ending.

He also becomes the first in a long line of guest scribes to misuse Clara, who for the first (but certainly not the only) time is nothing but "just a companion", there to solve plot issues and assist the Doctor in giving exposition. No sane person would ever volunteer to speak to the Ice Warrior, and her fiery dialogue in the face of extreme danger is just silly. She jumps into situations because the script forces her to. Even when she has her little moment seeing the dead bodies, she quickly gets over it and moves on with the plot. There's no depth to her characterization that wasn't already present in every other companion to date. Jenna Coleman does the best she can, but there's nothing here for her. Matt Smith is also going through the motions in Cold War; it's one of the few episodes in Series 7 in which he doesn't bring gravitas and maturity to the performance, instead acting more like Tennant in something like The Idiot's Lantern. Hmm, wonder who wrote that?

While I applaud Mark Gatiss for bringing back the Ice Warriors in a unique and modern way and Steven Moffat for greenlighting the episode, I can't help but dislike Cold War overall. The ending is simply brutal, and while there's a lot to be enjoyed, the story leaves a bad taste in your mouth when it's over. This also starts a trend in which Clara is used more and more as a plot device and less and less as an actual person with human emotions and personality traits, a trend that makes Series 7 feel like less than the (considerable) sum of its parts.