After a run of Doctor Who episodes which have made a play of character riddles and tricksy story twists, ‘Cold War’ represents something of a thaw in proceedings.
There are no paradoxes here to send you hurrying to the internet to speculate about what you have seen and why. There’s probably less subtext than in last week’s, altogether more awkward, instalment.
In fact, the only act of recursion going on is the one that’s happening at production level, as the programme confidently finds a new direction by going in the old direction: reinventing itself in the image of itself. Which may in itself be ironic and paradoxical, but frankly, we couldn’t care less, because this is Doctor Who like they used to make it – only with better visuals and a bigger budget.
As befits a story that seeks to hit the ground running, back story, for all characters except Skaldak, is thin on the ground. One thing you won’t hear about in this episode is the impossibility of Clara, because as soon as the TARDIS lands, she’s in conventional companion mode, paired up not only with Matt Smith’s Doctor, but also with everyone’s favourite Time Lord that never was, David Warner.
As Professor Grisenko, Warner is very much a Doctor surrogate, entering the action at exactly the moment and in exactly the manner you’d expect the Doctor to: shambolically, and with a popular culture reference, just before the big red nuclear button is pressed. The fact that the nuclear strike in question is only a drill just adds to the cheek of the moment. Mark Gatiss’s script may, at different points, evoke The Hunt for Red October and Alien; but Gatiss knows that what makes it Doctor Who is having the man who was in The Omen sing ‘Vienna’.
Were this any other narrative, Grisenko would be the one responsible, in an act of fatal scientific hubris, for resurrecting the Ice Warrior, but Gatiss gives the task instead to a Jean Paul Gaultier-style sailor boy, leaving Grisenko with the business in hand of bumbling about the ship, listening to synthesizer pop. A love of small, beautiful things – like, er, Midge Ure – may be another Doctorish quality; but Grisenko’s tinkering with his Walkman is more than just fannish obsessiveness. It’s both a means to tap into Skaldak’s homing signal and also a quiet act of rebellion against a state which, in 1983, routinely jammed Western radio stations against the subversive influences of foreign media. When Grisenko sarcastically remarks to Stepashin that telling the truth is ‘a revolutionary concept, I know’, the line becomes more than cliché in the knowledge of the treatment of dissidents in Communist Russia.
We may not hear much of it directly, but the murky world of Soviet-era double-dealing is never very far from this cold war, which makes it ironically fitting that the one character who should most represent uncompromising honour is the monster, Skaldak.
Visually, the Ice Warrior looks a treat, the redesign an object exercise in being utterly faithful to the original and at the same time quietly radical. But it’s through the dialogue that he acquires most impact. Skaldak is the Vanquisher of the Phobos Heresy: a soldier who ‘will bring down the fires of Hell just for laying a glove on him.’
When he talks, in Nicholas Briggs’s richly resonant new Ice Warrior voice, of standing side by side with his daughter in battle, singing songs of the red snows, a whole culture is poetically evoked. It’s a sign not just of the quality of Mark Gatiss’s script, but also of the richness of creator Brian Hayles’s vision for the Ice Warriors, 46 years ago.
Gatiss is admirably faithful to his source material; but he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve, not least the moment when the Ice Warrior leaves its armour. A necessary plot device, in order to play the ‘there’s something in here with us’ card, the trick is an effective one, even if the naked Ice Warrior is a more scuttling and sinuous creature than we’d imagined.
Even allowing for the speed at which it moves, or the explanation of Skaldak’s sonic connection with his armour, it’s never entirely clear how it gets such easy egress from its body suit or quite how creature and armour match. But such things are easily ignored when the focus is on the cat-and-mouse stalking of the crew. When Skadlak responds to Stepashin’s question, ‘What do you want with me?’ with the single reply, ‘Much’, the line – a direct lift from A Christmas Carol – is chilling whatever its provenance.
Mark Gatiss knows his stuff, and if anyone is best placed to write Doctor Who’s homage to the Cold War thriller, it’s him.
Aired at 6pm on Saturday 13 April on BBC One.
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