‘Cold War,’ though not without flaws, is far and away the best Mark Gatiss episode since ‘The Unquiet Dead,’ all the way back in series 1, eight long years ago. Taut and claustrophobic, it works beautifully in that tradition of Gothic science fiction wherein an exploration team (or, in this case, Soviet soldiers in a submarine) are travelling in some waste land (usually one of the poles) only to become trapped with a slithery, slimy, merciless alien. Think Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, or John Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There? which was adapted into John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Luckily for The Doctor and our Soviet sub team, the alien monster they encounter is not Cthullu and it turns out he does have some mercy left, albeit only after his rescue is secured. Mercy has been a recurring theme throughout this show, with both The Doctor’s mercy (or lack thereof) being explored along with his monstrous foes’. It was almost brought to the tipping point quite recently in the aptly titled ‘A Town Called Mercy.’ The Doctor’s mercy is quite a nuanced thing. It’s a question of what constitutes justice on those who, quite clearly, deserve it and even more interestingly, what is The Doctor’s responsibility when dealing out justice and mercy.
The mercy of villains is, naturally, not nearly as nuanced as The Doctor’s, and so the discussion shifts. The conversation in ‘Cold War’ is much more visceral. The Doctor’s plea to the Ice Warrior Skaldac is not an appeal for love or understanding or tolerance, but a simple, desperate wish for mercy at its most basic: To stop him from pressing the proverbial and literal Big Red Button and annihilating innocent people for no reason other than blind hatred. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, with East and West pitted against each other with their fingers over the triggers, the theme works quite well with the episode’s setting. It even resonates quite strongly with the current global climate, in which daily headlines publish North Korea’s threat to launch missiles, or with today’s news of the bombings in Boston. It’s a dangerous world full of people much lacking in mercy.
The success of the episode can largely be attributed to Gatiss’ brilliant idea to update the Ice Warriors, and by golly it went down smoother than his attempt to update the Daleks. Apparently, Steven Moffat was unconvinced of the Ice Warriors’ (a classic Who monster) ability to translate successfully in the modern show, as their slow, lumbering nature clearly goes against today’s fast-paced TV-aesthetic. The Doctor very pointedly declares, “He’s fast!” as if to tell the audience up front: This is not your father’s Ice Warrior. I’m not sure if the old show ever established that the outer shell was just the Ice Warriors’ armor, but it’s a lovely twist when we suddenly realize that Skaldac has escaped from his suit. The show wisely shows very little of his real body, relying on tentacles flicking away just out of frame and long, spindly hands and fingers grabbing the Red Shirts from above. Like the shark in Jaws, Skaldac is a monster brought to life in the editing room. His face, when we finally see it, doesn’t quite live up to expectations, and I wonder if they would have been better served to use prosthetics or simply never show his face at all. Still, a few minutes of dodgy effects don’t ruin what is otherwise quite a scary episode.
Also of note is an interesting trend of character development we’re starting to see with Clara. Despite making it clear to The Doctor at the end of the last episode that she is “not going to compete with a ghost,” she nevertheless seems particularly eager to prove herself as a worthy companion. She almost seems to fear that The Doctor will reject her if she lets him down (and don’t forget her strange sense in the previous episode that the TARDIS doesn’t like her). She volunteers to negotiate with Skaldac, seeks validation from The Doctor that she did well, and then analyzes her own performance after the fact. Despite The Doctor assuring her that it “wasn’t a test,” she still expresses to the professor her anxiety. “It went ok,” she tries to convince herself. “Actually, it went about as badly as it could have done, but that wasn’t my fault.” When Skaldac finally leaves, she hugs The Doctor and smiles to herself smugly, declaring, “We saved the world. So that’s what we do.” She seems very taken with the idea. For the aloof Clara we first met only two episodes ago, this need to impress The Doctor is quite striking, and may be the quickest transformation of a companion we’ve ever seen in the new show.
I can’t help but be reminded of two things, neither of which bodes well for dear Clara. Firstly, Rory’s admonition to The Doctor in series 5:
“It’s not that you make people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you. You make it so they don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.”
These are words that it would behoove Clara to hear. Unfortunately, Rory is not around to say them. As Clara seems to be a more mature personality than spitfire Amy, perhaps she can come to this conclusion on her own. The other companion who could definitely have been accused of this mentality, and one who paid a heavy price for it, was Rose. Like Rose, Clara seems to enjoy the danger and her role as world-saving companion. As I said in last week’s review, the show seems to be creating definite links between Clara and Rose, and although in many ways they are quite different Clara is showing potential for the same Doctor-devotion as Rose. Perhaps I’m reaching, but I also saw nods to Rose in The Doctor’s blonde Barbie doll (a funny, sad, and slightly creepy thought) and the constant refrain of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Hungry Like the Bad Wolf, perhaps?
Put together, ‘Cold War’ is a great example of the kind of self-contained, one-off episode that Doctor Who can do really well, wherein the memorable setting and monster work together to tell a thematic story. I’m glad to see that Moffat is not pushing Clara’s character but letting the mystery of who she is tick away at the back. This allows her to develop as a realistic person, not as a giant symbol for something else. I have no doubt that we are coming soon to revelations about her character, but Moffat doesn’t seem in a rush to get there. Some viewers complained of the show recently turning into the “Amy Pond Show,” and Moffat seems aware of this as he takes his time with Clara’s story. Not every episode has to be about The Big Mystery, capital “M”, and this allows for tight little self-contained stories like ‘Cold War.’
End Note: I blame network marketing departments for occasionally creating trailers for movies and episodes of TV which mislead viewer expectations and often cause disappointment with the actual movie/episode itself, so I actively try not to get too excited when there’s a good one (although I usually fail at this). But let me say, Saturday’s episode ‘Hide’ looks incredible. Doctor Who doesn’t do spooky as often as I’d like, but when it does (‘The Unquiet Dead,’ ‘The Impossible Planet,’ ‘Midnight’) I generally love it. And the visuals just look stunning. I’m looking forward to it more than any other episode this season so far.