DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - Cold War / Review

Cold War
13 April 2013, 6.00pm

The review contains spoilers.

'Ultravox! I bloody love 'em!' exclaims David Warner's bobble-hatted Professor Grisenko as he bursts in on an extremely tense submarine nuclear attack scenario being run by grizzled Captain Zhukov and his hot-headed Lieutenant Stepashin. It's a wonderful comic anti-climax in the middle of a pre-titles sequence which establishes the nuclear fears and anxieties dominating the 1980s setting of Mark Gatiss' Cold War. 'This means nothing to me,' he croons, badly, as Zhukov and Stepashin hover over the button which could plunge the world into a winter significantly more devastating than the one raging above them at the North Pole.

Grisenko's reaction, as the sub's laconic zoologist, sums up his attitude to all of the testosterone flying about in confined spaces. Although, you do wonder why a Soviet nuclear submarine on a nuclear war footing would be carrying a resident zoologist among the ICBMs. However, we instantly get the measure of the antagonism between Zhukov and Stepashin too. Stepashin can't wait to loose off those missiles while Zhukov is more conciliatory about the NATO exercises the Soviets are getting jumpy about. These positions are continually in the foreground and feed into the negotiations that eventually have to be conducted with the intruder, frozen in a block of ice, waiting in their hold.

'the big green man from Mars' 
If it's nostalgia you want, then Cold War is for you. It is not only old school Doctor Who but it also evokes a period in the early 1980s when the geopolitical map was quite different and two diametrically opposed ideologies dogmatically believed Mutually Assured Destruction was a sufficient enough deterrent to any direct full-scale conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union. It's hardly a huge stretch to see the connections being forged between Communism and the fear of a 'red' planet when the frozen Skaldak, native of the equally red planet Mars, wakes up after a 5000 year nap.

The recovering of aliens frozen in ice is, of course, a lovely nod to Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks's The Thing from Another World (1951) and its veiled warning about the infiltrating 'red menace' of Communism, personified as a giant blood sucking James Arness, at the dawn of a nuclear age which saw Herman Rickover's nuclear powered submarine Nautilus make the first undersea voyage across the North Pole and the first nuclear reactors provide power to millions of domestic homes.

The Thing is, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Invaders from Mars (1953), one of the few 1950s science fiction films granted a remake within three decades of the Cold War. Their anti-Communist metaphors were easily re-engineered into a specifically 1980s paranoia of ideological possession, infiltration and domination and on a simpler level, in other films such as The Empire Strikes Back (1980), as a conflict with a metaphorical 'evil empire'.

When Skaldak leaves his armour behind and creeps about the submarine 'au naturel' his long, glistening claws are redolent of the long-armed Martians in George Pal's The War of the Worlds (1953), the face hugger in Alien (1979) and any of the 57 varieties in Carpenter's version of The Thing (1982). Gatiss, a big fan of Quatermass also manages to get a reference in to Bernard's clash with Colonel Breen from Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958) when the impulsive Stepashin scoffs at Zhukov for believing the Doctor's story about the Ice Warriors and insists that Skaldak and 'the little green man from Mars' story is just a Western weapon and, by implication, a clever use of nuclear propaganda. There's a neat reversal of this Cold War logic where the 'the big green man from Mars' demonisation of Skaldak by the Soviets is offered as a reflection of the way Western culture similarly used monsters and aliens as Communist metaphors for the 'evil empire' in the 1950s and the 1980s.

For those not even born in the 1980s, the Doctor does provide a quick, nostalgic primer of the era when there were 'itchy fingers on the button' and 'hair, shoulder pads and nukes' signified 'everything was bigger in the Eighties'. Although there is a nostalgia for 1980s culture here, with the cheeky pop quotations from Ultravox and Duran Duran - music from a period where we felt we were in the last chance disco as the relationship between Reagan, Brezhnev and his successors deteriorated and television frothed with such nuclear apocalypses as Threads (BBC, 1984) and The Day After (ABC, 1983) - many younger viewers will probably have gleaned their impressions of this era from Cold War thrillers like The Hunt for the Red October (1990) and Crimson Tide (1995).

The frozen alien sleeper was also a good enough trope for our first encounter with that once proud race from Mars in 1967's The Ice Warriors and it is surely no coincidence you can detect a distinctly Troughton vibe to the story. It's so Troughton-esque we even get HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System) back, a bit of Troughton continuity from The Krotons, used to expedite the TARDIS's removal from the story. So this is a classic 'base under siege' scenario transposed to the claustrophobic confines of a nuclear submarine.

The formula demands the Doctor must convince bloody minded human commanders to help him counter an alien threat. Today, it's not easy to strike a peace deal when someone takes a cattle prod to an Ice Warrior. Back in the 1960s, it was simply a conflict between 'them' and 'us' and the Doctor would vanquish the aliens and not be overly concerned about the moral implications beyond his duty to fight evil in every corner of the universe. Negotiation or detente is not really an option in the The Ice Warriors and they and their ship are destroyed by Brittanicus Base's ioniser. In Cold War, the Doctor needs to win the trust of the paranoid Russians but he also has to convince Skaldak that honour and compassion should cancel out his desperate need for revenge.

As well as visual annotations to those aforementioned submarine-based films, Cold War's nuclear stand-off theme may even remind dedicated Who watchers of 1984's disappointing Warriors of the Deep. Fortunately, you'll find nothing as alarmingly awful as the Myrka here. However, its theme of two power blocs uneasily vying for supremacy is echoed here. Putting nostalgia for the heady days of the Cold War aside, as Gatiss pointed out in this month's Doctor Who Magazine the geopolitical map of the world has become more complicated and dangerous now than it was in 1983. Yet as the Doctor says, 'it would only take one tiny spark' for the spectre of escalating nuclear conflagration to re-emerge and, with all the sabre rattling that's going on between North and South Korea at the moment, this theme in the episode feels more contemporary than it should. 

Clearly Piotr's training as an elite Russian sailor on a nuclear submarine is bypassed for rank stupidity when he decides to take an oxygen acetylene torch to the block of ice in the hold and thaw out Skaldak. How a solid block of ice surrenders so quickly to the flame is moot but it's a means to an end and gets us briskly to one of the most exciting pre-titles climaxes we've seen in some time as Skaldak's arm breaks through the ice to strangle Piotr. Gatiss obviously didn't want to stand on ceremony, needing to get Skaldak out of the ice straight away, quickly dispelling the Professor's notion he's brought aboard a frozen mammoth. Mentioning a mammoth is yet another gentle nod to those newspaper reports of a baby mammoth being found in 1900 in the Siberian ice which apparently inspired the original creator of the Ice Warriors, Brian Hayles.
'harm one of us and you harm us all'
It also means we plunge straight into the Doctor's first meeting with Skaldak, rather beautifully shot by director of photography Mike Southon, and importantly discover more about about Skaldak's origins. Gatiss gleefully uses the scene to provide new details about their ancient castes (Tharsisian, apparently), creeds and codes (a Phobos heresy was vanquished), Skaldak's status as a war hero and a father and the reasons for their bio-mechanoid make-up. He's identified as a Grand Marshall and thankfully resembles the standard Ice Warrior leader, like Varga, compared to the Grand Marshall we last saw in The Seeds of Death back in 1969, who looked more like an Ice Lord trapped in a disco.

Wreathed in lots of steam and gleaming with water, this sleeker, stronger Ice Warrior design benefits from the sympathetic lighting, predominantly primary yellows, greens, reds and blues, and the cramped, claustrophobic spaces. Director Douglas Mackinnon embraces the 'less is more' school of thought when it comes to showing monsters and he retains Skaldak's mystique until the climax of the episode, both in and out of his suit.

Unlike the design disasters of the new Dalek paradigm or the humanised Silurians we've seen in this era, Neill Gorton's update is less radical and is very recognisably the classic Ice Warrior of previous stories. The iconic hissing voice, something I think original Ice Warrior actor Bernard Bresslaw developed, is less sibilant and is now given a booming Nick Briggs overhaul but is augmented by some rather delicious alien, organic gurgling noises that underline the nature of the beast. I think I even detected a bit of Bresslaw in Briggs' vocal intonations.

There is certainly a much stronger sense of their provenance as bio-mechanoid creatures when Gatiss decides to let the cat out of the bag, as it were. The huge clamps they sported in the 1960s have been replaced by armoured fingers with nifty extendable fingertips for managing the tricky task of launching nuclear missiles. Let's face it, the clamps could easily have caused a nuclear mishap. More intriguing than this is the notion of a lithe and powerful predator unleashed from its protective armour able to freely roam the ship and tear burly Soviet sailors limb from limb. The ferocity of the Martian's attacks, with Mackinnon indulging in an homage to Brian Glover's disappearance through a ceiling in Fincher's Alien3 (1992), is a welcome return to depicting more suspense and visceral horror in the series.

There is also a sense of replicating some of the scenario we saw in Robert Shearman's Dalek - where a single belligerent alien held prisoner goes on the rampage and rejects all attempts at reason - and certainly, the way Clara is used to placate Skaldak is somewhat reminiscent of Rose's first encounter with a Dalek. Rose humanised the Dalek to the point where it no longer understood its own purpose and was at odds with its own ideology but here the Martian sticks rigidly to his guns as 'the greatest hero the proud Martian race has ever produced' responding to an unprovoked attack with his 'harm one of us and you harm us all' ancient code.

In the end the Doctor must try and generate a 'glasnost' between Ice Warrior and humans. Skaldak also feels he has been abandoned by his race and that all those he knew, including a daughter, are 'only dust', mere footnotes to the 'songs of the old time, the songs of the red snow' and he has nothing left to lose even after the Doctor reassures him the Ice Warriors remain as a still proud race. Gatiss is careful not to overburden the narrative with trivia about the Ice Warriors, preferring to drip feed in new details to what we know about this race, one very much bound by codes of conduct and previously a curious dichotomy between the militaristic but honourable warriors and erudite diplomats of the Peladon stories.

In this way, Skaldak comes to embody the Cold War as a metaphor for the political and moral positions in the story and the values of both Zhukov - an older, wiser Soviet commander who would rather there be a thaw in East-West relations - and Stepashin - an impulsive apparatchik who is loyal to the party and is irritated by the uneasy nuclear stalemate. This tension is also apparent in the way Clara starts the negotiations with Skaldak simply because Zhukov doesn't trust the Doctor or himself to conduct them, after the Doctor notes that Skaldak will perceive them as 'soldiers' with whom he will refuse the right of parley. Zhukov's recognition of the Doctor as such a soldier is subtly played too.

The escalation of hostilities between Skaldak and the occupants of the submarine reflects the use of Cold War strategies, both the personal and the political. Skaldak comes to understand the nuclear brinksmanship between the major powers from his interrogation of Stepashin whose offer of 'we are both warriors who together can form an alliance' fuels the rhetoric and perception theory of Cold War strategy where in 1983, paradoxically, within the terms of Mutually Assured Destruction each side believed an escalation in armaments was the best deterrent. It's a desperate strategy for Skaldak because to leave his suit, a rare occurrence for Ice Warriors it seems, is to inflict upon himself a terrible dishonour.

The back down from nuclear brinksmanship in the episode reflects the gradual thaw in the antagonistic relationship between the Soviets and the Americans, one which accelerated when Gorbachev came to power in the late 1980s and through Reagan's own gamble in announcing the Strategic Defence Initiative to augur a change in perception, one which shifted the nuclear fear debate, changing it from a discussion about eliminating nuclear weapons to one about defending against them. It provoked the Soviets into a reorientation of their strategic aims and signalled the end of the Cold War. Cold War is essentially a story where honourable military leaders on both sides of the strategic argument struggle to find a mutual way to solve their differences without losing face. For Zhukov, Skaldak and the Doctor it becomes a battle to negotiate from strength rather than weakness and results in the Doctor calling Skaldak's bluff and threatening to instigate his own form of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The Doctor fails in his attempts to appeal to Skaldak as a warrior who could teach the human race the honour in mercy. Clara, who it must be pointed out is not a soldier like Skaldak, Zhukov or the Doctor to some extent, approaches the issue by evoking Skaldak's sense of compassion, highlighting his hesitation to kill Grisenko, asking him to remember his daughter as he condemns millions to death and the honorary code, those 'songs of the red snows', of the Ice Warriors.

These are qualities his desperate strategy, with its cold determination to forensically learn about the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents, has ignored and overriden. Clara's humanism, rather like Rose's in Dalek, is contrasted with the Doctor's own unflinching and desperate threat to blow the sub up and sacrifice them all, echoing Zhukov's earlier assessment 'we are expendable, comrades... our world is not'. The Doctor's quite dangerous here because you're not quite sure if this was all bluff, more than just an initiative to assuage fear. Fortunately, Skaldak's Ice Warrior brothers arrive and redress the balance.   

This scene works rather well and along with earlier moments in the story is a way of concentrating on Clara as the companion rather than layering in yet another piece of the mystery about who she is. It's refreshing just to have her explore the function of the companion and interesting to note her vulnerability and how she feels she must pass muster and seek approval from the Doctor. This includes a reality check as she tries to accommodate the very real horrors of Skaldak's rampage and after seeing several crew members torn apart and enduring the threat of nuclear extinction, she suddenly sees the reverse of the coin in these adventures with the Doctor.

Jenna-Louise Coleman and David Warner play those intense scenes together well and the Professor, demanding to know about the future, allows Warner to beautifully defuse the tense situation with a bathetic and plaintive cry of 'I need to know! Please! Do Ultravox split up?' Gatiss sets up, in classic horror narrative style, a moment of comedy which effectively turns to the horror of Skaldak seizing her and then the Professor. Warner's character is more or less a cameo and we don't learn a great deal about Grisenko but having Warner in the episode to, forgive the pun, disarm the situation is good enough for me.

Its back to basics plot and the reintroduction of a classic monster make Cold War an enjoyable episode. While the iconic Ice Warrior design is retained more or less intact (but he must have a hell of job getting those big hands inside the armour), their mystique is somewhat undermined by the final reveal of what's beneath the helmet. From an emotional and narrative point of view the reveal hits the right note but the CGI creature facing us and the Doctor is a little bit of a disappointment. I think I'd prefer the Ice Warriors to stay behind their reptilian armour in future.

The submarine sets are excellent and generate the necessary claustrophobia. Director Douglas Mackinnon dresses the episode very stylishly, employing some slow motion, dissolves and quick cutting amid the steam and water, and injects the story with the requisite tension. He also gets some committed and convincing performances from Liam Cunningham as Zhukov and Tobias Menzies as Stepashin.

Matt Smith is fortunately more controlled in his performance this week - the 'no pretending to be an Earth ambassador' line will raise a chuckle from dedicated classic Who watchers and his reaction to a companion actually obeying his instruction to stay put is lovely - and Coleman still proves her worth with an emotionally powerful reading of Clara's fears and a comic touch - the speaking in Russian scene is highly amusing for example. All in all, a great introduction to the Ice Warriors for younger viewers and a treat for those of us who witnessed Varga's resuscitation at Brittanicus Base in 1967.

*I'm also over at The Slate chatting to Mac Rogers about Cold War this week.

2 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - Cold War / Review”
  1. The "This is not Pinocchio", line by Grischenko is rather intriguing. Is this a clue by Gatiss to Clara's true nature, that she is some kind of artificial being attempting to fully understand or become human? The other name written on her book in the graveside scene featured in 'The Rings of Akhaten' would seem to indicate that she is perhaps a life-hopping 'cuckoo' of sorts, able to successfully integrate herself into the lives of those she inhabits and subtly alter reality in the process - a bit like the way the 'Crack' affected Amy Pond's life and loved ones. In this way, Clara could be seen as an analogue to the Doctor - well, Steven Moffat's thesis that the Doctor is something of a fairytale figure whose adventures and experiences with his companions is means of not only humanising him but also of elevating him from abstraction to real, living person.

  2. I thought the Pinocchio line was said by Clara? I quite the idea of her being some sort of 'time cuckoo. I think she's some sort of analog to the Doctor to remind him of who he is perhaps?

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