Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Cold War

A return for Mark Gatiss, a return for the Ice Warriors and a return to the Eighties for Doctor Who. When I heard the premise for this story it all seemed so obvious, as if there had previously been a hole in the Universe that Cold War had been designed to plug. A Martian warrior, hauled out of the ice by Soviet sailors, runs amok inside a submarine during a potential USA/USSR nuclear flashpoint? Absolutely! And in a sense, Gatiss is plugging a gap.

Fans have been regularly and incorrectly anticipating the imminent return of the Ice Warriors since about, ooh, 1983, when Doctor Who's twentieth anniversary prompted the show to revivify long lost villains from its past. For example, there was Warriors of the Deep (January '84), which saw the return of the Silurians and, er, the Sea Devils, and, set in a deep-sea military base, agonised about a cold war between two nuclear powers turning hot. Despite some strong moments, the story was plagued by production issues and, well, not very good. The reptilian Earthlings suffered from some dodgy revamping and the whole thing was lit with a one billion watt bulb. You'd be forgiven for thinking there should have been another way.

Cold War is it. The best form of revisionist history, it takes the real-world nuclear tension of 1983, brings back the Ice Warriors with a subtle and excellent redesign, and, with modern Who production values, makes the whole thing look bloody good. And it doesn't need to twist itself in knots to explain its oh-so-neat title (I'm looking at you The Power of Three). What's not to like.

Time to rattle through some things.

The Submarine. Moody, atmospheric, claustrophobic? Tick, tick, tick, all present and correct, along with gallons of water, red lighting and torpedo tubes. Was there a periscope? I don't remember now, but if there wasn't, I didn't miss it at the time. I've seen this described as a classic Sixties 'base under siege' environment, but really it's even more confined than that and, of course, the sub is not under siege (unless you count the bottom of the sea): the Ice Warrior is already in here with them. It's a fantastic bit of set design even though it is just a little bit on the roomy side - but then imagine how terrible and improbable it would have looked if they had stuck to the compressed dimensions of a real sub.

Skaldak. Excellent redesign of the Ice Warrior. Gone are the child-bearing hips and the Lego hands, but the classic look remains intact. Nicholas Briggs works his magic on another voice (exotic, sibilant but still blissfully audible) and Spencer Wilding provides the looming presence. Gatiss writes beautifully for the Martian, capturing that signature wistfulness and poetically evoking the culture of an alien world ("The songs of the Red Snow"). And then the surprises - Skaldak escaping from his suit, the spindly hands descending from the shadows, the final reveal of the native Martian physiognomy... I liked all of that, it felt like progress. One day, when we win the CGI lottery, I'd love the TARDIS to visit Mars in its pomp.

Clara. It used to be that companions just jumped aboard and found their feet. Or didn't and just stood about faffing for two years. But these days, joining the TARDIS is a bit like becoming a Blue Peter presenter, constantly having to prove their worth through tests and extreme situations. Having lived like a Dalek for a year and nailed the skydiving, Clara's next challenge is to interrogate an Ice Warrior! Let's see how she got on. Needless to say, she's no Adam and passes with flying colours. But her key moment comes when she does suddenly have a wobble. Having held it together through the conversation with Skaldak, the deaths of the sailors and the alien hunt, she cracks at the point of greatest tension as the inscrutable Martian ship hovers and the world teeters on the edge of nuclear war. And thank goodness she does, because I would have started screaming about forty minutes earlier and this recognisable moment of real fear ensures that Clara remains ordinary and likeable.

The Russians. Liam Cunningham, having escaped the utter dross that was Outcasts, resurfaces here as very likeable Captain Zhukov. Definitely the safe pair of hands one would want in charge of an enemy nuclear sub, especially if there are dangerous lunatics like Stepashin aboard. Although the lieutenant's bellicosity looks like it's heading somewhere when he offers to make a deal with Skaldak, he doesn't make it to the final scene. Those final moments are fairly tense as they are, sure, but I can't help but think they could have been more dramatic if Stepashin had been there trying to press the button himself. Then there's David Warner, playing the eccentric scientist Grisenko. Warner is a legend (if only for his work with Gatiss on the wonderful radio sci-fi comedy Nebulous), and surely deserves a meatier role than this. Because it's Warner, I was initially suspicious of Grisenko's amiable nature - but he does just turn out to be nice. It feels like a bit of waste, but then it's still good to see him in Doctor Who. And lastly, William on the anonymous crew member who decides to take a blowtorch to Skaldak's ice block in the first place: "Oh, he's an idiot. That is clearly not a mammoth."


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