The previous week’s instalment of Doctor Who had received (to put it kindly) a mixed reception; which is to say that some people loved it but an awful lot of people despised it. There was a much more unanimously positive response to this week’s story “Cold War” which was a return to familiar ground for the series, both thematically and also in the return of a classic monster from the original Doctor Who series.
I can’t say I’ve ever had any particular feelings either way regarding the Ice Warriors. I certainly haven’t been among those clamouring to have them back, like this week’s writer Mark Gatiss who clearly adores them. I remember them vaguely from their appearances in the two 1970s stories set on the planet of Peladon starring the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), but if anything they were overshadowed by the much more memorable (albeit marmite) character of Alpha Centauri and therefore didn’t make a huge impression on me.
Looking at photos of their original appearances, they certainly didn’t look very imposing or threatening at the time, despite the producers casting the biggest actors they could find for the parts, including Carry On stalwart Bernard Bresslaw. They looked almost cute and curvy and just a little effete. Well, if that was true of the original creature design in the 1960s then there’s no such problem with their 21st century appearance this week, which manages to comprehensively change and update the Ice Warriors while somehow managing to still remain admirably true to the spirit of the original. There’s no mistaking just what this alien is when you see it, but when you view the before and after photos then you realise just how much of a radical upgrade the design has actually gone through.
As impressive as the new look and feel of the Ice Warrior is, it’s the sound design that I thought was actually the most stunningly successful: it’s the guttural clicking and gurgling underlying the hissing speech that really chilled my bones and left me feeling genuinely unsettled every time it came over the soundtrack. Really, quite marvellously done, and all in all the return of the Ice Warrior was magnificently achieved – even for those of us who had been less that excited by the prospect of it. For those fans too young to be aware of Ice Warriors, there’s nothing in this episode that would have detracted from their enjoyment either.
Direction, set design and atmosphere overall were also triumphs: setting the story in a Cold War-era Russian nuclear submarine under the polar ice cap was brilliant in allowing for a tight, dark, claustrophobic setting that the lighting engineers could really go to town on in an eye-catchingly dazzling fashion. The guest cast was one of the best that Doctor Who has been graced with of late, with Liam Cunningham as the Soviet captain, Tobias Menzies as his first officer and the ever-brilliant David Warner superb of course as the eccentric scientist with a fetish for the Western New Romantic music of Ultravox, Duran Duran and co.
The episode had a strong, gripping if rather obviously derivative premise: a isolated Ice Warrior is let loose on the sub, making “Cold War” a monster mash of the likes of Alien, The Thing, The Abyss and countless others. Still, no bad thing there – Doctor Who has always been at its best when ‘borrowing’ liberally from other sources. Gatiss even pulls off a sneaky little surprise with a previously unknown ability of the Ice Warrior to shed its turtle-like shell, slip it off and move more freely around the sub: not only does this allow the threat to diversify into a scary unseen menace dashing through the shadows and behind the walls, it also allows the now-vacant shell suit of armour to become a secondary threat late in the day in a splendid raising of the stakes. Just because it works so well within the context of this instalment I’ll cheerfully forgive Gatiss for taking liberties with classic Who mythology, and for making the Ice Warriors into something of an unoriginal variant on the concept of the Dalek Mark III travel machines. I’ll even overlook the less-than convincing CGI for the ‘true’ appearance of the Ice Warrior.
At the end of all this praise it seems that this should be a gushing two-thumbs up rave review. Certainly most people have hailed it as the best New Who in years. Maybe it is, and maybe I’m being churlish, but despite all the glorious trappings there was still something missing from the core of this episode for me. It felt as hollow as the vacated suit of empty Ice Warrior armour, as though someone had failed to give the heart of the thing the proper substance it needed.
For one thing, that impressive supporting cast was somewhat squandered by being given very little to do other than act as window dressing, monster fodder and provide a hint of conflict and/or humour when required. Basically, once revived from a block of ice the Ice Warrior simply sneaks around the sub picking up tips on its enemy, then figures out it should head off to the missile room to start World War 3 between east and west (and how many young fans are really going to understand the reality of that threat in the way that the fortysomethings like Gatiss and myself did who grew up in that perilous era?) But then the Doctor – lacking any other ideas and options – asks him pretty-please not to, and the fearsome, remorseless and pitiless Skaldak is revealed as being just a little misunderstood, metaphorically shrugging and saying “Yeah, okay then’ as he tousles the Doctor’s hair affectionately. It’s the second time in a row that a fearsome foe has been vanquished by being given a talking to, and while this approach was once daring and imaginative now it’s becoming rather an unfulfilling cliché within the show.
Personally I think the episode became hostage to its own success in producing such a tense, nail-biting atmosphere of dark horror early on. This is scary stuff for kids watching at 6pm, so where does that leave the episode for the rest of the story? It can’t raise the stakes into full blown horror because that would be clearly inappropriate for the time slots given the audience. No surprise that the episode has no where to go except a talkie letdown.
It’s a shame that the story didn’t keep its focus more on the atmospheric bits that worked to perfection – the tense, nail-biting slow burn at the start. Having the Ice Warrior thawed out in the first two minutes before the main title sequence was a major lost opportunity. Such long slow build-ups are the very hallmark of what gives Alien, The Thing et al their power. Having the Doctor frantically trying to persuade the Captain and his crew not to go ahead with the defrosting as he alone knew what would happen if they did would have been an excellent way of building and sustaining the tension while also giving the supporting cast something more meaty and dramatic to do working opposite Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman – both of whom excellent as always, by the way. Instead, sadly, that whole sequence is lost and something far less compelling is substituted.
“Cold War” was an episode so nearly there, then, but ultimately not quite. Although without question a much stronger outing than the previous week’s and by no means a bad episode, it was one that could have been a great one with a little work but which ultimately just failed to quite catch fire on all boosters.
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Saturday evenings starting around 6.30pm, with repeats on BBC and also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.