Mark Gatiss has always been a Doctor Who writer I find interesting. He’s clearly a massive, enormous, gigantic fan of the series and has been involved in fandom for decades. When the show came back in 2005, he was one of the first batch of fanboy writers Russell T. Davies brought on board for the new regime. In fact, Gatiss’ “The Unquiet Dead” was the only non-RTD script for the first 5 weeks of the show and is easily the best of that bunch. Since then, his scripts have been some of the most varied in terms of style and content, but also in terms of quality, unfortunately. With his newest script, “Cold War,” he went back to his horror roots (if you haven’t seen his three-part documentary series about horror movies, you’re really doing yourself a disservice) and gave us an episode that is equal parts Alien and The Hunt for Red October and also sees the return of a favorite classic series enemy race. All that PLUS Duran Duran? Wowzers.
The last two episodes of Series 7b have been very sci-fi, but neither were particularly scary. “Cold War” is claustrophobic, tense, and pretty harrowing, as the Doctor and Clara somehow end up on a sinking Soviet nuclear submarine just after some idiot has thawed an Ice Warrior, one of Mars’ battle-hardened race, who happens to be a ruthless war hero who’s been frozen for 5,000 years. Gatiss does a lot of great things in this episode, not the least of which is getting the Ice Warrior out of its bulky armor so that it can scurry around the ceilings and walls of the submarine and slaughter people silently. It’s very much like Ridley Scott’s Alien, but that’s not a bad thing at all. He also creates the tension of a world on the brink of “mutually-assured destruction” which perpetually haunted those of us living in the decade.
So, while I enjoyed the horror element and the war element, I think overall the script was a bit rushed and had too much going on that wasn’t developed properly. In Gatiss’ previous story, the almost-universally derided “Victory of the Daleks,” there isn’t nearly enough time for things to play out in any real semblance of sequence. While “Cold War” isn’t that rushed, likely because there was less going on, there are interesting things that get brought up that aren’t paid off in a satisfying way. The biggest example of this is the character of Lieutenant Stepashin, who is eager to be the one to end the world, or at least heat up the Cold War a bit. He is at odds a couple of times early on with Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham), who is a much more level-headed individual. Their dynamic was set up to be adversarial throughout, and one could imagine a scenario wherein even if Skaldak decides not to blow up the Earth, Stepashin might try to do it himself. However, in the scene where Skaldak gets the drop on Stepashin, he tries to strike up an alliance with the Ice Warrior (an interesting idea), but then he’s just dead the next time we see him (or his feet). His whole storyline, if one can even call it that, existed to be the catalyst for the conflict and to be the one to inform Skaldak about the nuclear weapons on board. He is a completely unresolved character.
I also have an objection to the way Gatiss felt the need to tack on the bit with Skaldak’s daughter, which just gets the briefest of mentions initially, just so Clara could then pipe up at the climax and mention that, of the billions of people who would die because of the nuke, daughters would be among them. I feel like the Doctor was doing a pretty great job of attempting to appeal to Skaldak’s merciful side. Even Clara’s mention of him not killing the professor would have been enough, but she has to have this little speech (reminiscent of Amy’s speech in “Victory” which prevents the robot-bomb-guy from exploding) simply because Gatiss needs something for her to do in the climax. It was very lazy, I felt.
Speaking of lazy, what a weird way to introduce the leads, who think they’re going to Vegas. Just, boom, now we’re on a Russian submarine in 1983. Then, just as suddenly, the TARDIS disappears. The eventual reason for this is pretty thin. It was very clear that they just needed a reason for there not to be a TARDIS on board so that the Doctor couldn’t just leave, or even take everybody on board the sub to safety. This happens a lot, but I didn’t care for this particular interpretation of it.
Maybe I sound harsh on Mark Gatiss’ writing, but I think it’s because I like him as a dude so much. I find him endlessly fascinating to listen to on retrospectives of the show, and I think he’s the perfect choice to write the upcoming docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, but his work on the series since “The Unquiet Dead” has been very hit and miss, usually within the same episode. In Series 2, he wrote “The Idiot’s Lantern,” which took place in 1953 and concerns TVs which remove people’s minds and faces. It was all right, but very hokey. His next script was the aforementioned “Victory of the Daleks,” which should have been amazing, given its inclusion of Daleks and Winston Churchill, but suffered from the reasons listed above. His script in Series 6, “Night Terrors,” was mostly good, but suffered from another hokey, heart-stringy ending. And now this one, which should have been his best one yet. I’d say it’s probably tied with “Night Terrors” for a very low number two. He has another script coming up this year, the Hammer-inspired story, “The Crimson Terror,” about which I know nothing. But given his love of Hammer and of period drama and horror, I’m hoping it’s a return to his “Unquiet” form.
The cast did fine. I didn’t love either Clara or the Doctor in this one, though it had nothing to do with the performances. Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones) and David Warner (of many things, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze) are both great, though I wasn’t really sure why the professor behaved the way he did. He’s an old guy who likes music. Were there old Russian guys who were that laid back? I have no idea. Part of me wonders if the professor wasn’t written to be a younger man, but when they found out they could get David Warner, they jumped on it.
If the episode works at all, and I think I did ultimately enjoy myself, it’s due to Douglas Mackinnon’s excellent direction. He stole the show completely. It’s very difficult to work in such tight quarters and still make it cinematic. I thought this was handled incredibly well, especially with the water and the lack of light and the low ceiling and all the rest of it. The design of the Ice Warrior itself was quite lovely. The updated look of the battle armor was new enough to make sense but samey enough to remind us who the Ice Warriors were in their ’60s and ’70s appearances. The look of the out-of-armor Ice Warrior was interesting. I’d have liked to see a shot of his whole body as his arms were very thin, but his head was about the size of something that would fit in the helmet. Cool idea, overall.
So, in the end, masterful direction with a great monster help solid but uninspired performances in an interesting but ultimately troubled script. Mild “like” from me. It’s an episode I’ll definitely watch again.
Next week’s episode, “Hide,” written by Neil Cross and directed by Jamie Payne, looks pretty terrifying. If “Cold War” represents the time-tested approach to the show, “Hide” looks like a complete departure. Very excited for it.