Modern Doctor Who has made a particular virtue out of the show’s infinitely versatile format, its ability to flit between wildly different genres on a weekly basis. But that hasn’t necessarily always been the case; indeed, some eras of the show’s original, 26-year run proudly defined themselves in terms of their mastery of certain specific genres. Jon Pertwee’s tenure was associated with UNIT and weekly alien invasions, Tom Baker’s early years became all about the gothic horror, and William Hartnell’s time in the TARDIS was a mix of purely historical adventures and bug-eyed monsters. But perhaps no Doctor is more indelibly linked with a particular story type than Patrick Troughton and the so-called “base under siege.” At least half of Troughton’s stories—including pretty much his entire second season—found his Doctor defending an isolated base from an invading horde of monsters, including Daleks, Cybermen, the Great Intelligence and its Yeti, and the Ice Warriors. Tonight’s brilliant “Cold War” sees the return of that last monster for the first time in 39 years in a story that takes the Troughton-era notion of a base under siege to its logical extreme, as the Doctor, Clara, and a whole bunch of Soviets are trapped on a downed nuclear submarine with a particularly terrifying Martian.
Part of the reason I bring up all that background is because tonight’s episode is by Mark Gatiss, one of the most prominent fans of old-school Doctor Who working on the modern show. His previous efforts include “The Unquiet Dead,” “The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Victory Of The Daleks,” and “Night Terrors.” Those four episodes are a mix of decent but unremarkable efforts and outright misfires (I’ll leave you to sort out which are which), and the recurrent issue with those stories is an unwillingness to move outside the show’s time-honored tropes and conventions. His previous efforts have all honored classic Doctor Who and contained all the elements a good episode should, but they never push the format in new directions or try anything truly dangerous; they play it safe, and that’s the one thing Doctor Who should never do. “Cold War” is an instant classic in large part because it takes a classic monster and a classic story type and repeatedly twists them in unfamiliar directions.
“Cold War” is a lean, relentless story, as the whole episode illustrates the Doctor’s early observation that “It never rains, but it pours.” The pre-credits sequence economically establishes the main guest characters, the fact that they are on a Soviet nuclear submarine at the height of the Cold War, and the fact that a monster has just broken free. It all gets worse from there, for as soon as the Doctor shows up and saves the submarine from destruction, he encounters an Ice Warrior. But it isn’t just any Ice Warrior—it’s Grand Marshal Skaldak, the greatest hero and most fearsome warrior Mars has ever produced. Just when it seems that the Doctor and the Soviets have some measure of control over the situation, Skaldak leaves his armor and escapes into the bowels of the submarine, something the Doctor never expected. The Doctor realizes Skaldak has nothing left to lose and would be perfectly willing to launch all of the submarine’s nuclear warheads, which means things couldn’t possibly get any worse. And then the submarine almost shakes itself apart under all that pressure. It’s all a wonderfully tense, logical progression from bad to worse to even worse, and the downed submarine—with its dark corridors, flashing lights, and random bursts of steam—is a marvelously atmospheric setting. Doctor Who hasn’t been this tense in a good long time.
The episode doesn’t give the audience much of a chance to catch its breath, particularly in the first half. The Doctor and Clara enter the story as the submarine is sinking to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean; all we need to know is that the TARDIS has once again deposited them in the wrong place, so they require no episode-specific backstory beyond the Doctor’s interrupted cry of “Viva Las Vegas!” There’s no time to bother with misunderstandings or suspicions, as the Doctor orders Captain Zhukov to move the submarine laterally in a last-ditch effort to save everyone’s lives. Zhukov must instantly size up the Doctor and decide whether he can trust him; while his faith understandably wavers later in the episode as things keep getting worse, Zhukov shows an instant, refreshing understanding of who the Doctor is and what his value is. This is where Gatiss’ familiarity with Doctor Who conventions is a great strength, as he takes a half-century’s worth of military commanders distrusting the Doctor and just blasts right past that part. Even if not everyone in the audience is quite so familiar with Doctor Who lore, it’s clear that the Doctor is taking the dual threats of a collapsing submarine and a rampaging Ice Warrior far more seriously than normal. He explains that, just this once, he won’t bother with the usual lies, as he immediately reveals to Zhukov that he and Clara are time travelers. Matt Smith has never been afraid to show his Doctor’s vulnerability, but he rarely is as outright scared and determined as he is here.
Bringing back old foes like the Ice Warriors has such great potential because they bring decades-old—or, from the Doctor’s perspective, centuries-old—history to the proceedings. Admittedly, the Doctor can claim such familiarity with any monster he encounters, so on some level it doesn’t matter whether Patrick Troughton or Jon Pertwee ever actually fought these monsters onscreen. But the design of the Ice Warrior is so clearly of a different era; its blocky, oversized armor evokes ‘60s Doctor Who, lending it weight that a more modern design would not. The Doctor’s fearful respect for the Ice Warriors in general and Skaldak in particular is also crucial—he doesn’t hate the Ice Warriors like he does the Daleks or the Cybermen, he doesn’t dismiss them like he does the Sontarans, and yet he doesn’t see the same capacity for peace and justice that he does in the Silurians. He is willing to negotiate with Skaldak, to appeal to his better nature, but not before he orders Zhukov to “Lock. It. Up!” Crucially, the episode also puts its own spin on the classic monster, as Skaldak commits the ultimate dishonor and abandons his armor. This is exactly the kind of dangerous decision Gatiss’s script needs to make, and the fact that the Doctor is now in terrifyingly unfamiliar territory is best illustrated with his whispered realization that Skaldak, now free of his lumbering armor, is fast. The story is a worthy tribute to the Ice Warriors’ past, but it also represents a bold new direction.
“Cold War” benefits from terrific guest performances from Liam Cunningham, best known as Ser Davos Seaworth on Game Of Thrones, and David Warner, best known for appearing in most major sci-fi and fantasy franchises and all of the minor ones. Modern Doctor Who routinely attracts great actors—the last few episodes alone have seen Richard E. Grant and Celia Imrie, just for a start—but these stars often end up playing fairly straightforward, often over-the-top villains. Cunningham doesn’t get many big moments as Captain Zhukov, but he projects such fundamental decency and insight that he’s memorable even as he cedes the spotlight to other characters. Zhukov refuses to let the Doctor speak directly with Skaldak, not because he doesn’t trust him but because he recognizes the Doctor is far too valuable to risk losing, and he sees through the Doctor’s apparent pacifism to the soldier within. Cunningham nails the speech in which he tells his surviving men that they must stop the Ice Warrior at all costs, because “We are expendable, comrades—our world is not.” While it’s definitely for the best that the Doctor and Clara showed up, there’s a sense that Zhukov might just have been able to manage on his own, even it required him dying a hero’s death to stop Skaldak. Cunningham basically plays Zhukov as the Soviet answer to the Brigadier, and I can’t pay a guest performance a much higher compliment than that.
As Professor Grisenko, David Warner is unsurprisingly fun to watch, making his character’s potentially daft obsession with Ultravox and Duran Duran both funny and endearing. With the Doctor distracted by the roving Ice Warrior, the Professor takes it upon himself to comfort Clara and keep her mind off the horrors all around her. Warner’s warm if somewhat irascible performance recalls the relationship William Hartnell’s original Doctor forged with his companions; he may not have the energy to be a dashing man of action, but he compensates with wisdom and compassion. Warner gets one of the episode’s best gags when he seemingly demands Clara reveal all the secrets of the future, only to admit that he just wants to know whether Ultravox splits up. He also gets at least one moment of quintessential David Warner awesomeness, when he unflinchingly pulls out a gun and shoots Skaldak when it threatens Clara. His victory is short-lived, but it’s still worth cheering.
At the heart of the episode, though, is Clara. “The Bells Of Saint John” and “The Rings Of Akhaten” established her as a worthy companion, but “Cold War” provides her with some much-needed character development. Like her modern predecessors, Clara shows an almost reckless bravery when she volunteers to speak to Skaldak; though the Doctor tries to forbid this, his initial, approving smile says it all. Clara reveals herself far more willing to obey the Doctor’s instructions than Amy ever was, as she faithfully repeats his words to Skaldak. But the death and destruction gets to Clara, and she loses her nerve. In another great tweak of the show’s longstanding conventions, the Doctor is genuinely shocked when Clara agrees to do what he says and stay put instead of demanding to come with him. Clara is not a coward, but she is vulnerable, and Jenna-Louise Coleman hits the right balance as Clara tries to convince the Professor—and, by extension, herself—that the carnage unfolding around her isn’t her fault.
The climactic confrontation, in which both the Doctor and Clara try to convince Skaldak not to launch the nukes, conveys just why the Doctor needs someone like Clara. The grand, ancient Time Lord appeals to Skaldak’s sense of honor and history, arguing only in high-minded, abstract terms. He thinks of Skaldak as a member of a race, one that he has dealt with before and so understands on a general level. But Clara, without all that experience, simply thinks of Skaldak as an individual, and so she realizes the personal stakes. She asks the Martian to think of his daughter and then of all the families, all the countless innocents that would be killed if he goes through with his plan. Clara’s words convince him where the Doctor’s fail. Modern Doctor Who has often told us that the Doctor needs companions to ground him, to keep him connected with people as opposed to drifting off into the universe at large. But it rarely shows us this idea as well as it does at the end of “Cold War.” This episode still might not have quite the wild ambition of other Doctor Who episodes, but this story hits its chosen targets just about perfectly, and the result is a triumph.
- Remarkably, this is David Warner’s first appearance on televised Doctor Who, although he has appeared several times in Big Finish’s tie-in audio dramas. For those curious, he turns in a particularly brilliant performance as Sir Isaac Newton—who deducts most of the Doctor’s secrets and Earth’s future history from a bit of spare change—in Circular Time, which is co-written by new series writer Paul Cornell.
- While I’ve already praised Warner and Liam Cunningham, another key guest star here is the show’s go-to Dalek and Cybermen voice Nicholas Briggs, who voices Grand Marshal Skaldak. His performance doesn’t feature quite as much hiss as the Ice Warriors of old, but he makes Skaldak terrifying without every entirely turning him into a complete monster.
- Insane, Obviously Wrong Theory Corner: The Doctor reactivates the Hostile Action Displacement System, or HADS, which was last seen in the Patrick Troughton story “The Krotons.” The HADS sends the TARDIS to the South Pole, which means we can cram in at least a few months of TARDIS-free wandering the Earth before the Doctor and Clara actually retrieve the blue box. I am now imagining an entire hidden season of 1983-set Doctor and Clara adventures, and it’s glorious.
- A crucial, if horrendously nerdy point: Should the Doctor have said “in a heartsbeat” instead of “in a heartbeat”?
- “Professor, I could kiss you!” “If you insist.”