Doctor Who, Series 7, Episode 9: “Cold War”
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Airs Saturdays at 8pm (ET) on BBC America
This week, on Doctor Who: The Doctor and Clara miss Vegas, the TARDIS abandons ship, and a familiar face reappears
“Cold War” sees the return of Classic Who villains (and occasional allies) the Ice Warriors in a less memorable, though less flawed, episode than last week’s adventure on Akhaten. The setup is very familiar- a scientist has unearthed something in the ice he perhaps shouldn’t have and it’s loose in a contained location, hunting down a crew one by one. It’s not the most creative basis for an episode of Doctor Who, but the show can and has done a lot with even less in the past. With such a pared down story, there’s plenty of time to develop characters and successful episodes in this vein are often carried by at least one particularly strong performance. Unfortunately, though there are some nice moments, the hour winds up being mostly forgettable, with little to nitpick but little to write home about as well.
Despite being overall rather unremarkable, the episode does get most of the production elements right- the cinematography and direction of the episode are stylish, giving the claustrophobic feel necessary for a submarine (or spaceship) in peril story, and the creature design for the Ice Warriors successfully updates the classic look without losing its signature touches. Once the Grand Marshal Skaldak leaves his armor, though, things get a bit wobblier. There are reaction shots aplenty, but the decision to leave Skaldak lurking off camera feels less a stylistic decision and more a product of budgeting. The claws we see share almost nothing with the head, from color to texture to size, and are not particularly convincing as two parts of one fully conceived creature. Plus it seems odd for a creature to have a three digit claw but to decide it wants a five digit hand for its armor.
There’s never a sense that our main characters are in any danger from Skaldak. Most viewers will have seen other versions of this central conceit, particularly Alien, that are incredibly successful, but on a show with only two regular characters, neither of whom are going anywhere before the 50th anniversary this November, more work needed to be done to get the audience to suspend their disbelief over Clara and the Doctor’s certain invulnerability. Far more work also needed to be done to create an interesting supporting cast of new characters. Though Liam Cunningham and David Warner are fantastic actors, they are given almost nothing to work with here. By the end of the episode, we know little to nothing about either of them, besides that Warner’s scientist likes pop music and Cunningham’s captain would prefer not to nuke the world into oblivion, unlike his first mate.
We do at least get a few nice moments with Clara. Her reaction upon discovering the dissected bodies of two crewmen is appropriately severe and it’s great to have a Companion thrown off her game a bit by such a traumatic experience. Finally we see a response different from the other recent Companions- upon realizing the stakes of their situation, Clara is happy to do as she’s told and stay put. She’s brave and clever, but she’s also human and her somewhat traumatized behavior makes her feel incredibly real. The whole end of the episode is convenient and a little on the nose (as soon as MAD comes up as a concept, the climax with Skaldak and the Doctor standing in for the Cold Warring USA and USSR seems inevitable), but at least it’s a step of from the midseason premiere’s shoddy, “And then UNIT fixes it” and last week’s, “And then love fixes it” denouements.
Though we do get some nice character beats this week, and the cast and production side of Who is in fine form, this is the third underwhelming script in a row. Next week’s ghost caper, “Hide”, looks promising- hopefully the writing will improve and we’ll finally get back to the kind of exciting, memorable storytelling Doctor Who is capable of.
What did you think of this week’s episode? How did you like the Clara we see this week? Did the guest cast work better for you than they did for me? What did you think of the Ice Warriors triumphant return to Who? Post your thoughts below!