As I noted in my review of the previous episode, “Cold War” seems conceptually rather like a book from the Eighth Doctor Adventures, published between Paul McGann‘s first and only onscreen appearance in the 1996 TV movie and the series return in 2005, which saw Christopher Eccleston inherit the role. In short, Cold War is a period piece set in the late 20th Century and features the return of an old enemy.
From the pre-title sequence that sees the crew of a Russian nuclear submarine feverishly preparing to carry out an apparent missile launch (neatly and humorously disrupted in the first of several references to British synthpop band Ultravox), “Cold War” is quick in establishing the guest cast from whom wel will draw this week’s roster of human heroes, villains and victims, from David Warner‘s loveable but slightly daft Professor Grisenko to Tobias Menzies‘ officious, battle-hungry Lieutenant Stepashin. More so than any since Season Four’s “Midnight”, “Cold War” is a bottle episode, taking place entirely within the confines of the submarine and beneath seven hundred meters of water. The claustrophobia is palpable and inescapable, and – due to the actions of an errant crewman, a block of Arctic ice and a blowtorch – those cramped confines very shortly to turn deadly.
With the Ice Warrior wreaking havoc in close quarters, the hull breached and the submarine struggling to surface. The Doctor arrives on the bridge with a cheerful cry of “Viva Las Vegas!” But this is not Nevada, and, proceeding to temporarily save the lives of everyone onboard, The Doctor is forced to join team with the dastardly (but really pretty harmless) Reds. Whatever would Thatcher say?
It’s not long before The Doctor finds himself face-to-face with Ice Warrior Grand Marshal Skaldak (“It never rains but it pours”) in a scene that exemplifies Matt Smith‘s take on the Time Lord: his facial expressions as The Doctor vacillates between fear and glee at the sight of a Skaldak are something to behold. He recognizes Skaldak for what he is – a soldier, a hero even, but definitely a threat. When Skaldak is attacked and momentarily incapacitated, The Doctor doesn’t hesitate to order Captain Zhukov to “Lock. Him. Up.” Similarly, Jenna-Louise Coleman brings a strange incredulity to the part of The Doctor’s newest companion, a nervous sense of braveness and need to be reassured: more so than Amy, Clara feels like a normal human being, which serves to make her “condition” all the more intriguing.
In-keeping with canon, “Cold War” shows the Ice Warriors to be a proud imperial people who will accept no insult. The scene in which Clara – the only non-soldier in the group, according to Liam Cunningham‘s Zhukov – approaches a chained Skaldak with deference and ritual only to discover the iconic armor empty is genuinely terrifying and suggests that this particular story has been rattling around inside writer Mark Gatiss‘ head for a while. His decision to unleash the Martian – a spindly nightmarish beast in its true form – recalls the best of ’80s sci-fi horror (there’s even a brief Aliens shout-out).
If Menzies is somewhat wasted as Stepashin, the sole man onboard in favor if triggering Mutually Assured Destruction and who inspired the alien’s plan – then Warner is well treated by a script that allows him a sort of quiet hilariousness. To wit:
DOCTOR: Professor, I could kiss you!
GRISENKO (reluctantly): If you insist.
Cunningham, meanwhile, is allowed to be commanding and humane – think Davos Seaworth underwater – but not much else. Nicholas Briggs, best known as the voice of the Daleks, contributes towards giving Skaldak a sense of majesty.
Duran Duran gets a mention, specifically their 1982 hit “Hungry Like the Wolf” (which some fans have – maybe jumping the gun a bit – reading as foreshadowing the return of Rose in the form of Bad Wolf; Billie Piper having been confirmed to be appearing in the 50th Anniversary Special), but the episode never loses its tension: laughter can turn to horror in an instant. The ending, not to spoil it unnecessarily, is a bit of a deus ex machina, but The Doctor gets a good bit of speechifying (once again) and Clara plays her part (again). Overall, “Cold War” is a hugely convincing base-under-siege story in the vein of much of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton‘s era.
If “The Rings of Akhenaten” was a classic First Doctor-style episode – William Hartnell‘s incarnation did have a habit of getting caught up in the rituals of ancient times and alien civilizations and “Cold War” recalled the best of Troughton ala “Tomb of the Cybermen”, then next week’s episode, “Hide, involving a haunted mansion, could well be a Pertwee throwback. We’ll have to wait and see…