TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - Cold War

After last week's philosophical and visual feast, the third episode of Doctor Who left me feeling, if you pardon the appalling pun, a little cold. The Doctor and Clara find themselves on a Russian submarine as everything starts to go wrong. Led by an impressively bearded Liam Cunningham as Captain Zhukov, bothered by Tobias Menzies on fine weaselly form as Stepashin and threatened by a pressuring ocean, the submarine also happens to be carrying nuclear warheads. As if the situation weren't already bad enough, we're also in the 80s during the Cold War. So really, the Doctor and Clara could not be in a worse position. Well, until they find themselves dealing with an Ice Warrior who has been frozen for 5000 years and has been recently thawed by a cocky Russian with a blowtorch.

Now, first of all the good points, of which there are a few, despite my low temperature level response. Having been written by Mark Gatiss, I was filled with a certain amount of trepidation approaching Cold War as his previous Whoniverse record isn't exactly glowing; his last outing, Victory of the Daleks, still leaves a bitter taste even with the Jammy Dodger speech and a neat Where Eagles Dare reference. Yet for Cold War, he manages to be on good form, offering us a decent narrative about honour and restraint with some major Hollywood influences.

The episode was notable for its bringing back of an old Doctor Who foe in the Ice Warrior and it was a welcome return for the honourable Martian. Skadlak was an intriguing character too, a Martian out of his time, believing himself to be the last of his race. The parallels to the Doctor were clear, if not explored in great depth, but it was clear enough that a lot of the Doctor's respect for his foe stemmed both from that and his previous dealings with them. It's always good when the show-runners bring back an old foe that hasn't suffered from over-exposure. With the Cybermen showing up later (at the hands of Neil Gaiman no less, colour me excited) and the Daleks having already appeared in the first half of the series, I really enjoyed seeing an old fore back again.

Speaking of the Ice Warrior, I also enjoyed the return to a more traditional Monster of the Week episode without the constant questioning of who Clara is or a wider narrative arc taking away from the events of the episode. It meant that we got a focus on the supporting cast who were all excellent. I'm a fan of Liam Cunningham anyway and he brought the necessary gravitas to the role of a beleaguered submarine captain (with more than a few shades of Sean Connery in Hunt for Red October). Tobias Menzies is another one of those actors who crops up in everything (most recently in Game of Thrones) and he's on fine form again here, as the over-eager yet also slightly cowardly first officer. But it was David Warner is the Walkman-toting Grisenko who stole the show, right from the point in which he burst in singing Ultravox.

However, the major problem with the episode was that it held about as much tension as a lettuce leaf. With clear influences from the likes of Alien and The Thing, it could have been a truly suspenseful, claustrophobic and memorable episode. Alas, once again a victim of the run-time, there was no real build-up in the scenes where Skaldak was on the loose in the submarine. Instead, we got a couple of head-grabby scenes, a couple of off-camera screams and that was about it. The emphasis on the distress signal that the ice warrior sent out also meant that, at the back of your mind, you knew someone was on the way to pick him up.

Like the films it references, Skaldak held much more potential to scare people who hadn't seen the ice warriors before by skulking in dark corners, never to be seen or heard until someone dies. Think of Alien with its monster only being seen in flashes, bursting out of ventilation shafts or grabbing people from the ceiling. Skaldak did the same thing, though without any of the build-up or without the sense of peril. Granted, Doctor Who is going out at primetime on a Saturday evening, but it is a show that doesn't tend to shy away from scares - Blink still terrifies me. Here though, it just didn't seem to be trying.

The first disappointment for me of this new series run, Cold War was less than the sum of its parts though it was probably the best of Gatiss' episodes. Still we have a fair few more episodes to come and next week's looks like a cracker. It has Dougray Scott in it for one thing. 

- Becky

You can read Jen's review of The Rings of Akhaten here.

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