We connect with characters that have a past. A character that has had a full and complex life long before we meet them is instantly fascinating. This is particularly true of mostly unknown, or largely obscure, characters. That’s why comic book creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns (to name a few) love taking the discarded and turning them into legends. This is another item on the growing list of reasons why Doctor Who is the greatest television series of all time.
The fact that the show still exists, especially after not being regularly on television for sixteen years, is testament to what I’m talking about. Not only does The Doctor have nearly 50 years of TV history under is scarf, but the Time Lord has CENTTURIES of life behind him. If he is not an infinite well of character greatness – I don’t know what is.
I remember watching the episodee Dalek from season one of Current Who. Until then I had no idea what a Dalek was. But when The Doctor came into that dark room and realized what was chained up opposite him I felt the weight of their past. The writing of that scene and Eccleston’s performance told me that these two knew each other, they had met, probably many times, and it never ended well.
It was iconic. The mythos was established perfectly in that scene. Which I have included here!(With subtitles for any Greek readers out there)
Lots of people have pointed out the similarities between that epic season one two-parter and season 7’s most recent entry Cold War. A chained up warrior from The Doctor’s past, one we haven’t seen in decades, posing a massive threat to everyone around them and the world itself. Yeah, I noticed it too. And really dug it.
Dalek was a great story. The first thing I did when it was over was look up as much as I could about the Daleks. They were the ultimate Doctor Who Villain. Merciless killers, bent on exterminating the entire universe until Dalek reigns supreme. Squid Nazis in plunger tanks.
After investigating The Doctor’s greatest foe, I fell down the rabbit hole. There was no turning back. I steeped myself in Who myth until it became my religion. Cold War didn’t really have the same effect.
I freely admit that I knew practically nothing about The Ice Warriors prior to now. They were mentioned for building an empire out of snow in The Waters of Mars, and there was a Doctor Who Fan Film (http://www.fanfilmfollies.com/movies/dr-who-2009-fire-and-ice) in 2009 called Fire and Ice that they featured in. Other than that, and some images on Google, they were a mystery to me. I thought about going back and watching their previous meetings with The Doctor, but decided against it. I wanted to come in fresh.
Although I may not have come away from Cold War wanting to devour Ice Warrior mythology, I did feel satisfied. This was a solid episode. The Submarine set was fun and interesting Clara was human and engaging. Skaldak was fascinating as all hell. And the tone of the episode was steady. Nothing here was massively groundbreaking and that’s okay.
Sometimes a simple, “survive this alien threat” story is all you need.
It’s nice that the episode took advantage of it’s set. Steamy, dripping pipes (no sleaze innuendo intended) will always add good atmosphere to a story. Especially when that story is about an alien using the steamy, dripping pipes (I SERIOUSLY don’t mean for that to sound dirty) as camouflage, so it can pick apart the crew members. In addition to that is the peril. Not only are they trapped in a submarine with a universally feared alien. Not only is that sub sitting unsteadily on an underwater cliff. But it’s carrying some nukes, during the Cold War. That’s intense.
The similarities to the Alien films are also clear. That’s an entire series built on the appeal of steamy, dripping pipes. (Oh my God.)
For a little while I was concerned the episode might spiral into SyFy Channel Original Movies territory. The moment when Clara sees the dead crew members easily could have gone down that path. Luckily the look of cold shock and understanding that not everything with The Doctor is fun and games elevated it far beyond that. This was something that could have been further explored. Something I always like to see is when shit gets real for the companions, when they realize how far they are from home, and how wrong things could go. Which brings me to a point I’ll discuss in just a moment.
The obvious main attraction, the star of the piece, is the newly thawed Ice Warrior himself, Grand Marshall Skaldak. This is a warrior so feared and respected that his enemies would carve his name in their flesh as they were dying. He’s a dude you do not want to find frozen in the artic, bring him on your Russian sub, then thaw his martian ass out. Oops.
I love the design of the character. They kept it pretty retro while still updating it. It looks like the Ice Warriors from back in the days of Troughton and Pertwee, but super modern and menacing.
What surprised me most is how much you felt for him. Yes, he’s a big, bad, imposing killer from Mars, but he has a code of ethics. He comes from a proud people. He’s been frozen for 5,000 years. He had people he loved who are now dust. He’s vulnerable. The guy misses his daughter.
That is the very heart of this episode and what keeps it alive. You’re worried for everyone on the sub, but you feel bad for Skaldak. You want to see him with his people. Skaldak is hands down one of the most interesting and compelling antagonists (and he’s not even that) in recent Who.
Unfortunately he is such a great character, and so much care went into making him a fully realized personality, that everyone else got a little ignored. Hence, my point from before.
In my last Who Review I called Mark Gatiss (the writer of Cold War) a hit and miss writer. Understand, I’m strictly talking his Who work. The scripts he wrote for Sherlock were excellent, and I haven’t really seen anything else he’s done.
The first episode he wrote for Doctor Who was the Charles Dickens adventure The Unquiet Dead. I loved it. He followed with The Idiot’s Lantern, which was fun, but felt empty. In season five he wrote one of the weakest episodes of that year Victory of the Daleks. That one bugged me. Not because of the new Dalek design. It just didn’t feel like a full episode. I can’t really articulate it, but it felt like a couple scenes, an unsatisfying resolution, and done. The same with his episode last season Night Terrors. It was totally unremarkable.
When looking at Cold War I realized the pattern that began with The Idiot’s Lantern. His episodes feel like they’re reaching to be more than what they are, then back away at the last second. They tease a little bit. It’s difficult to say how exactly. I think I keep waiting for a really clever twist, or a zinger of an ending, and they just end.
Like in Cold War. You’ve got David Warner. One of my favorite actors ever. Every time he’s in a scene you think something is going to happen with his character. Maybe he knows someting he isn’t telling. There’s an air of mystery around him. The scene comes when he’s asking Clara about the future. It seems like he’s trying to comfort her, but he’s acting kind of creepy. Then he exclaims, that he must know, MUST KNOW, if a band he likes breaks up…right. That’s fine if he’s trying to cheer Clara up, pretty sweet actually, but when you’ve set up that there may be something secret about this dude, and that’s the pay off, it’s a little disappointing. Like, “Wait, he really did think that tiny block of ice was a Mammoth? He really does just want to listen to tunes. He’s just…a guy?” I know Gatiss has no say over the casting, but when you have David Warner in a role you expect something meatier.
The captain is also wasted. At first I got the sense that he’s a guy who is tired of this stuff. He’s sick of being under water, he’s sick of the war, he just wants to go home. By the end, he’s just a guy. His crew are expendable extras. You even think his Lieutenant is gonna cause some trouble. When Skaldak has his hands around his head, you’re thinking, “Oh snap! They’re going to form an alliance! Some shit is gonna go down!” Then…he’s just a dead guy.
The Tardis Disappears. The Doctor won’t talk about what’s going on. Oh, it was just programmed to do that.
I guess what I’m taking forever to say is that this episode is what it is. Nothing more. A bunch of folks trying to make it in a sub with an alien. Well, two if you count The Doctor. Who was also wasted this episode. He was good, Matt’s always good, but I he could have had more to do.
It was a strong episode with enough good stuff going on in it to keep me happy. It may not have sent me down the rabbit hole like the similar Dalek did, but I’m already there. And at least this episode made me happy to stay in Wonderland.