At last Mark Gatiss delivers on years of promise, turning in his best Doctor Who story since the glorious early New Adventure “Nightshade”. Perhaps not quite as rich in character as the ripe and fruity Dickens of “The Unquiet Dead”, but without the unfortunate accidental “bogus asylum seekers”. And, in the setting of a Cold War warship, who’s going to notice the (companion aside) complete absence of roles for women.
There’s actually much less plot, much less creativity to explore, than in “The Rings of Akhaten”, but – hooray! – we get to run up and down some corridors!
There's a tonne of “fan lore” about the Martians, a lot of it straight out of the New Adventures, where NA companion Benny Summerfield was a (kind of) Professor of Archaeology specialising in the excavation of the Red Planet. And she had one or two Ice Warrior mates as well. It was in the New Adventures that we were introduced to the idea that the Ice Warriors' armour and "clamps" was attire, something previously only inferred from the divergent forms of the “Warrior” and “Ice Lord” classes seen from "The Seeds of Death" onwards. I must say, I was tickled by Grand Marshal Skaldak's long, skinny fingers – hinting that at least this much of the Martians physiognomy is shared with the War of the Worlds Martians (’50s movie and sequel TV series version, of course). And then, blow me, if he doesn't take his helmet off and turns out to be another New Adventures stalwart: a Chelonian, a bionic giant tortoise.
Actually we can run through a whole list of other monsters that the Ice Warriors “are”:
Like the Daleks they can come out of their shells;
Like the Cybermen they're cyborgs because their world was slowly freezing to death
Like the Rutans they dissect their enemies to find their weaknesses;
As well as the Chelonians, like the Selachians from Steve Lyons’ BBC books (and a Big Finish or two) they're actually skinny little things inside of their big, butch armour
And, like the Silurians, they're reptiles awoken from a long slumber by inferior “apes”. And in fact, had this been set in 1984 rather than 1983, it would have been an even better re-tread of 1984’s “Warriors of the Deep” – it could even have had that title – done, as everyone always says, “right”, by turning down the lights and having the monster lumber through dark and dank and confined (well a bit) corridors...
(One theory that Mark doesn’t “borrow”, though it’s not contradicted either, is the one where the Ice Warriors are, like the Sea Devils, another offshoot of the Silurian species, one who – rather than burying themselves in survival chambers – took to the rockets to escape the believed-impending doom of elder Earth and flew off to colonise Mars. Thus allowing the Quatermass continuity – which sees Mars home to an insect species who, maybe under the influence of the Fendahl, wipe themselves out in a frenzy of civil war – to fit into Doctor Who canon, as implied by “Remembrance of the Daleks”.)
None of that detracts, however, as these characteristics – and a sense of honour (I’d have added the Draconians to that list, but this is more the Star Trek Klingons’ idea of martial honour than the Japanese-in-drag system of chivalry to which the Draconians conform) – add up to a complex and credible yet alien civilisation, which is exactly what we expected of the Ice Warriors after their more nuanced turn in “The Curse of Peladon” and its sequels in books and audios. And of course that's entirely right in this setting where the Russians are a complex yet alien civilisation.
As an aside, I like the idea of the Martian civilisation occupying – and defending – the Solar System in the just-prehistoric past. With Earth in a busy part of the galaxy, surrounded by hostile alien Empires – Daleks, Sontarans, Rutans and the rest – it’s a wonder that we are not an occupied planet already, and a powerful Solar Empire would help to explain that. (Similarly, in the books, David A McIntee writes about the Tzun, your basic X-Files greys, whose Empire controlled our area of space but recently collapsed.) Perhaps 10,000 years ago would have been slightly better than 5,000, as that would push it back to before the start of human civilisation and, more importantly, into the last glaciation period of the current Ice Age – if the Ice Warriors abandon Mars due to the cold, it begs the question why they didn’t go all War of the Worlds and invade Earth. It would be a neat answer if the Earth had been a snowball at the time, and tie in with Varga, the original Ice Warrior, being frozen since “the last Ice Age”. (Although actually, I suspect that that 5,000 years is itself a fanboy’s nod to the supposed dating of “The Ice Warriors”.)
Pastiche and montage clearly work very well as tools for Mark Gatiss’s writing. His best includes: “Nightshade” (Quatermass with the serial numbers scratched off); “Poirot” and “Sherlock” (after Christie and Conan Doyle, obviously); and his M R James inspired “Crooked House” series. “Cold War” clearly takes much of its inspiration from “Dalek” and “Alien” (as well as the likes of “Das Boot”, “The Hunt for Red October” and “Grey Lady Down” obviously).
But there’s no shame in that. When hasn’t Doctor Who borrowed? Or indeed, received off the back of a lorry at midnight no questions asked. Gatiss manages to retell these stories with a new twist and extra polish, and that’s worthy of some praise in itself.
Yes, there is less plot, but you cut your coat according to your cloth (as the sixth Doctor almost certainly would not have put it). If you’ve got only got forty-five minutes, then I’d rather see those forty-five minutes used well, with less story spread more evenly over the episode, than have a well-developed opening spoiled by cutting straight to a rushed ending.
Which is, in précis, my complaint of the last two weeks.
In my review of “The Rings of Akhaten”, I talked about the lack of an “episode three”. Of course it’s more complicated than that; Andrew was quite right when he said “But the problem is actually that there’s no episode two or four either”. (Do go and read the rest of his piece, as he makes some very good points about how the modern conception of the series is forcing episodes to do triple time with “character growth” and “story arc” material on top of their own stories, overloading more into less story time.)
There was a series of excellent articles in Doctor Who Magazine – “The Adventure Game” (issues 296, 298, 300 and 302, if you want to track them down) – that set out how a serial could do worse than follow a template that runs: inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, resolution, (aftermath).
Or in Doctor Who terms:
“episode one – where are we?”;
“episode two – what’s really going on?”;
“episode three – nozink in ze vorld can schtopp me now!”;
“episode three cliffhanger – scream in the key of F”;
“episode four – something immensely clever”;
(“end of episode four – I can’t stand long goodbyes”).
The “exploration” of an episode one was particularly important in the Hartnell era (think “The Dead Planet” or “The Web Planet” or, particularly, “The Space Museum”) and again in the second Baker era in a variation where the Doctor was often totally excluded from the main action for a long time in order to let the viewers do the exploring of the world he was about to collide with (especially “Vengeance on Varos” and notoriously “Revelation of the Daleks”).
The classic example of the “complications” would be “Enlightenment” where the episode one cliffhanger overturns all that we think we’ve learned and we virtually have to start again; similarly “Kinda” asks us to re-evaluate what we think we’ve learned about who is “sophisticated” and who is a “barbarian” over the course of the story; while “Carnival of Monsters” shows us two separate stories in part one and then cliffhanger reveals how they are related, allowing us to re-examine the relationship in part two. Or at the crass end of the spectrum, Terry Nation would introduce the Daleks at the end of the first episode. (Though, to be fair, this really works in both “The Daleks” and “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”.)
Here Gatiss goes through the stages swiftly, and with ruthless efficiency. His episode one: “we’re on a Russian submarine and it’s sinking” is overturned with the forgivably Nation-esque reveal that there’s an Ice Warrior standing behind the Doctor; his episode two see the Doctor delivering rapid-fire info-dump to bring the audience up to speed – essentially “we’re in a remake of ‘The Ice Warriors’ and you’ve thawed out an alien” (Matt delivers this very well and hangs a charming lamp on it with the “you see, I’m telling you all about them and there isn’t time!” line). But that’s just so we can get more quickly into the more interesting confrontation between Clara and Skaldak and the reveal – and she’s clever enough to spot there’s something wrong – that he’s slipped away!
(Come on, all those people complaining “why did he do that if the armour could break free on its own”: clearly he slips out and then loosens the chains so that the armour can come when called; it’s not rocket science.)
And the crisis arrives when the Grand Marshall decides he can end the world and has reason to do so.
Less does turn out to be more. Although the plot is thin, and there’s hardly any character development, there is this decent-enough conceit at the heart of the episode on which to hang a story: the “who blinks first” analogy between the superpowers’ stand-off and the final confrontation between the Doctor and the Ice Warrior.
This is, essentially, the “Morgaine gambit” from the end of “Battlefield” but (again) done right – i.e. appealing to an honourable enemy to behave with honour.
“Are these the weapons you would use” is a powerful argument, it’s just that in “Battlefield” – as Alex points out – coming from the Doctor who nuked Skaro to a crisp the year before and delivered to the Witch-Queen who just minutes earlier literally unchained the Destroyer of Worlds it is a bit:
“Are these the weapons you would use like wot I did?”
“Yes, weren’t you paying attention five minutes ago?”
I should like to add that Alex also suggested a particularly good refinement of this story: with the Martian’s making so much importance of Clan, he was sure Skaldak should have taken issue with the “Clan” of the Russians’, rather than mankind as a generic whole, with the intention of launching the missiles against Moscow specifically. Global annihilation would have followed anyway – the “just one launch would trigger a war” is heavily played up in the episode as is – so the threat level would have been the same, but the added piquancy of the Doctor saving the Russians – because he loves and defends all humanity – would have been played up. (Particularly apt in the week of Cold Warrior Mrs Thatcher’s funeral.)
The Doctor of course has a deeper empathy with Skaldak, appreciating the feeling of “he’s got nothing left to live for”, drawing on his own experience with a death-wish in his ninth incarnation. Along with the reference to the Time War in his big speech to the vampire planet last week, is this a sign that Moffat-age Who is now comfortably referencing the Russell years along with the rest of the classic canon? It turns out, in a nice twist, that Skaldak is not the last of his species (well, it’s a twist in story, though not if you recall the future setting of every other Ice Warrior story, and particularly the Peladon ones – especially since that reverses what the Doctor did to the Martian invaders in “The Seeds of Death”, and better not to dwell on that.)
Saving the word by appeal to an honourable warrior's honour works for me better than last week's power of lurve. The solution is emotional, but it’s the use of emotion as emotion and not as magic fairy pixie dust. Skaldak decides not to end the world because the Doctor appeals to him not to be a dick about this, and because Clara reminds him of his lost daughter. Yes, there’s another song, but any comparison between Clara nervously singing the half-remembered words of an old Duran Duran hit to give herself courage in the face of Armageddon and the sing-along-a-max love in at the end of “Akhaten” is clearly ridiculous.
With the plot already pared down to a minimum, there’s almost nothing to add to the season’s Clara-arc story this week, and all the better for it. No time is wasted having the Doctor picking her up again; we just go straight into the action with them travelling together. To Vegas, obviously. There are just a few slightly-odd moments in the scene between Clara and Professor Grisenko, where she seems to be appraising her own performance as a companion. Now it might just be a case of having a bit of a post-trauma shock, as it sinks in how incredibly dangerous it was to go in there with Skaldak, now that she’s seen what he leaves behind when he’s in a less-than-chatty mood. Or it could mean something about how “real” she is. Jenna-Louise continues to impress as the sympathetic and enthusiastic (too sympathetic too enthusiastic?) “perfect” travelling companion.
Lovely performances from David Warner, Liam Cunningham and especially Matt Smith – and a different voice for Briggsy – all add to the overall satisfaction.
Warner, in particular, has long been overdue in Doctor Who on the telly, as his many appearances for Big Finish attest (and also as Steel in their sadly no long in production “Sapphire and Steel”). His light and whimsical performance as the Professor is almost Doctor-like in the way that he wanders onto the submarine conn singing Western tunes or how he cheers and chivvies Clara in their scenes together, and shows what an awesome Doctor he could have been.
Alongside Richard E Grant’s Shalka Doctor, he’s another “alternative Doctor” (this one from two of the Big Finish Unbound stories: “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Masters of War”, both very worth checking out) to appear this year. It’s probably a coincidence: two others, Derek Jacobi and Arabella Weir have already appeared in the post-millennial series; and of course Geoffrey Bayldon and David Collings had already been in stories in the original series as had, self-evidently, Michael Jayston as the Valeyard; and Nick Briggs, of course, has been an alt-Doctor several times over, and is all over the new series. Including here! But it would be nice to think they’re including all the Doctors in the anniversary. Perhaps we could have Peter Cushing appearing by synthespian technology (cue “Daleks vs Mechons”).
It would be nice to see him return. There are hints that the Russians are not totally ignorant of extra-terrestrial affairs, as indeed, the West via UNIT are not. It would be intriguing and open up some new and interesting plot lines to have Grisenko “seconded” to a Russian UNIT.
Less to do for Liam Cunningham other than bring some world-weary solidity to Captain Zhukov, in contrast to his rather more apocalypse-eager subordinate Stepashin (Tobias Menzies – one of those actors we’re always seeing in things – from “The Thick of It” to “Eternal Law” to even “Casino Royale” – and going “oh it’s… him”; pity his story didn’t go further). You can catch both of them again in season three of “Game of
And of course again Matt Smith, the best thing the series has going for it by a mile at the moment. I’ve already praised his delivery of info-dump, but I’d really like to single out the ending where he confesses that – this being a Troughton tribute episode – he lost the TARDIS because he reset the Hostile Action Displacement System or HADS introduced in the Krotons, arguably seen last in “Voyage of the Damned” when the Ship, cast adrift, headed off back to Earth under her own steam. Everyone else has a jolly end-of-episode Scooby Doo laugh... and the Doctor laughs along with them and then turns his back and starts grousing to himself about the stupid humans. Lovely touch.
There’s something very “old school” about “Cold War”, a flashback to the ’Eighties in more ways than one, and that’s possibly borne out by the comparison of the audience appreciation index, or AI, of 84 – still respectable, but actually down on “The Bells” and “The Rings” – and the ratings on Gallifrey Base where it currently polls an average 7.6 out of 10 slightly up on “The Bells” and substantially up on “The Rings”. And as a grumpy old-school curmudgeon, it probably explains why I like it too.
On the strength of those figures – and final ratings still comfortably in the 7½ to 8 million range that the series has enjoyed pretty much since it returned, exceptionally performing episodes, usually Christmas, aside – it’s still Moffat who has the knack of bridging the divide between what the public want and what the fans want. But, on the strength of this episode, and his Sherlock work, I’d be less wary of a future Mark Gatiss taking on the showrunner role. So long as he doesn’t cast himself as the twelfth Doctor.
Next Time... Another chance for Neil Cross to show us what his Who is made of. It’s actually his first go, but also it’s the one he actually wanted to pitch. From classic base under siege to classic haunted house, and it’s time for the scary stuff. Get ready to “Hide”.