Chillingly Good

Review of Cold War
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Hallelujah - finally, an episode I actually liked!

Though the pre-credits sequence didn't grab me quite as much as it did the poor sailor, it was not a bad way to start (and narratively necessary). Where the story really got rolling, though, was immediately after the credits as the ship was heading down. It had an extremely Das Boot feel, and was incredibly tense as a result. And I thought they largely managed to maintain that tension throughout.

I'm not sure how much of my love for this episode comes from the fact that I could utterly relate to the Doctor's declaration: "hair, shoulder pads, nukes - it's the '80s. Everything's bigger." It certainly didn't hurt that I remember the political climate of 1983 so clearly. The episode definitely gave me that rock-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach feeling that "mutually-assured destruction" always did. It was something we lived with daily; the threat of nuclear war hung over the heads of even middle school kids like me. So suffice to say I thought they nailed the feel of the era.

The rest of the episode was also filled with fabulous moments of one flavor or another. There are the explanations of how the show works for those who are just coming on board with Clara ("Am I speaking Russian? How come I'm speaking Russian?" "Now? We have to do this now?" or "The world didn't end in 1983, or I wouldn't be here." "... History's in flux; it can be changed. Rewritten."). There are the nods to the pre-Hiatus years for the long-term fans ("All right, Captain, all right. You know what? Just this once, no dissembling, no psychic paper, no pretending to be an Earth ambassador."). And there are the uncomfortable character moments, especially for the Doctor ("Skaldak won't talk to you; you're an enemy soldier." "And how would he know that?" "A soldier knows another soldier. He'll smell it on you. Smell it on you a mile off." "And he wouldn't smell it on you, Doctor?").

Most of all, though, it's finally the Doctor who's the hero of the hour again. It's all about him knowing what the threat is and how to deal with it, the tension mostly being from human bungling and new behaviors that he's not seen before (and the damnable creaking submarine! ~shudder~). For me, this is Doctor Who at its best, and I strongly concur with others I've seen who have said this is Gatiss's best script since The Unquiet Dead and those who say it's the best episode to come along since The Doctor's Wife.

There were only three small parts where I felt at all let down. First, when Skaldak's Martian brothers came for him, it felt incongruous to me. I'm not sure why that startled me out of the story so thoroughly; it certainly seems like it should work, but for some reason it was so unexpected that it felt like a deus ex machina to end the face-off. Confusing matters more, after Skaldak's departure, I felt just like Clara did - the threat was past. I couldn't quite work myself back up to the proper level of concern (though I liked the way the Doctor quietly insisted "I will destroy us if I have to" and tapped himself on the forehead with his sonic, as if psyching himself up).

The third and largest let-down was the moment Skaldak's face was fully exposed. It's well established that an unseen threat is more frightening than one that is seen; our minds fill in horrific details that cannot be duplicated visually. Given that fact, I don't think it was a wise decision to reveal Skaldak; before that moment, he had been absolutely one of the creepiest villains we've seen in ages. His bare flesh was disturbing at best, and the self-ambulatory armor undoubtedly sent a few tots scurrying for the safety of that spot behind the sofa. Even just the glimpse of his glowing red eyes was creepy, but his face in context just looked... well, like a CGI monster-of-the-week instead.

Back to the positives, we're continuing to get some interesting character development with Clara. This time she actually stood back and analyzed her own performance as a Companion, which is something I don't believe we've ever seen before. Nor have we seen one so meekly stand aside ("Stay here." "OK." "Stay here; don't argue." "I'm not." "Right. Good. ..."). It's almost like Clara was having her Tegan moment at the beginning of her tenure rather than the end of it. Why's she so keen on living up to her Companion potential? It feels odd; perhaps it will turn out to be related to The Big Clara Mystery, or maybe it's just a part of her personality. At any rate, I was glad to see her taking a slightly less central role.

Not to say she didn't hold her own. It was really the Doctor's case, but she did kind of seal the deal with her closing arguments. From the first mention of Skaldak's daughter, I knew that would turn out to be key to the resolution of the problem, though I had anticipated that it would somehow be Clara as substitute daughter-figure. I'm actually glad it was Clara's understanding of how important she was to her father, though; it felt more organic and was, for me, a more satisfying resolution of that particular thread.

So what about Skaldak? Personally, I'm thrilled with the redesign of both the look and sound of this classic race. The Ice Warriors last made an appearance on-screen some thirty-nine years ago, in the Third Doctor adventure The Monster of Peladon. In the '60s and '70s, they were the epitome of man-in-a-rubber-suit monsters, and I can see why Moffat wasn't eager to see them return. Gatiss convinced him - and me - that they could be proper, scary adversaries. I love that he took Skaldak out of his armor, too. That was both a beautiful retcon to make the original clunky design make more sense, and an honestly surprising moment in the episode.

A couple of other tiny moments piqued my interest enough to mention them here. First was the doll (which I took to be a Barbie, but have seen Brits identify as a Sindy). Why the hell does the Doctor have that doll in his pockets, and why does he care enough to kiss it upon its return (no, I refuse to believe it has anything to do with either Rose or Amy!)? Then there's the fact that his sonic screwdriver suddenly has a red setting (a nice nod to Forest of the Dead). Finally, there was the HADS.

Oh, my fangirl heart did a happy dance when the Doctor admitted the TARDIS had skipped out because he'd reset the HADS! The HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System) is one of the TARDIS's defense mechanisms, one which the Doctor admits he "[hasn't] used in donkey's years" - an apt description, since its only televised appearance was in The Krotons, more than five years before we last saw the Ice Warriors. This is one of those little nods to the pre-Hiatus era that the production team is throwing into each episode lately, and it's probably my favorite yet.

To me, Cold War is about as good as it gets these days. It brings all the best aspects of pre-Hiatus Who firmly into the post-Hiatus setting, and I love it. I know we've got another Gatiss script - not to mention one from Neil Gaiman - yet to come this season. I can only hope we've got more episodes of this quality to come.

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Comments

Amazing that I was thinking along the same lines as you, happier with the episode, feeling the anticipation build, and just generally more excited when I watched this. I wondered if other fans would feel a difference, a change... and wondered if it was just me??? Now I see this is not so!

I liked so many of the things you mentioned: the Ice Warrior, Clara's subtle change in personality - finally, I could identify a bit! She was actually scared, at least that's how I took it, and shocked to see dead people! The enormity of what she had undertaken hit her - that travelling with the Doctor can be dangerous. She seemed more human and real. I liked that they brought up the language issues; I didn't know about the HADS, so thanks for the explanation, that DVD is sitting on my shelf!

I liked that Skaldak wasn't just a monster, but an intelligent life form. The Doctor could reason with him. That kept me involved. Gatiss demonstrated that it's the story, the dialogue that matters. Setting the story on a sub in the 80s was briliant; the paranoia of the crew lent a certain atmosphere you might not have had in the 90s or 2000s. When I realized he was writing this week's episode, I had certain hopes, and Gatiss did not disappoint. I, too, am waiting for Gaiman's episode with baited breath.

I was genuinely happy to watch the episode this week. I felt a change in the air and was pleased. I also wondered why the the doll got so much attention, thinking it must have more meaning than once again demonstrating to the audience that the Doctor is eccentric.

Always enjoy reading your reviews, Marcia!

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Glad you enjoyed the review! I was so pleased with this episode that I had a hard time imagining what anyone could find wrong with it. Clearly, based on the poll, some folks found plenty. So far I've only read one negative review, but I didn't agree with many of their points. :)

By mrfranklin

I have to agree with you on this episode, it was definitely one of the gems of the series so far. Straight from the beginning I was enthralled in what was going on, which I have to say wasn't the case in some of the previous episodes.

I agree about the part when the Ice Warriors come a-calling to rescue Skaldak. I thought that was so sudden and out of place, almost like the writers needed a cop-out so they wouldn't have to write a "real" resolution. It left me wondering what the Doctor would've done to deal with the situation if they had never showed up! Although now that I think about it more, if the Ice Warriors hadn't come and lifted the submarine out of the sea everyone would've likely died anyways due to how deep they were. I enjoyed seeing the Ice Warriors in general though, as I've only recently started venturing into Classic Who territory and I find all the little things they're bringing back and integrating into the new series very interesting.

I also found the bit about the doll to be very confusing. I thought they would explain it later on in the episode, but then nothing was said about it! Part of me wants to think that it has something to do with Clara and the Doctor's quest to discover "who she really is". Perhaps it's something he picked up whilst skulking through Clara's childhood, as we saw him doing in previous episodes?

Lastly, do you think there was anything significant to the whole "Hungry Like The Wolf" bit? I thought that was very strange and random, especially when Clara herself began singing a line near the end. It just didn't make any sense to me and seemed rather unnecessary to include. The only reasonable explanation I can think of is that it has something to do with the overall plot of the series and will be expanded off of in later episodes.

By Bri (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

The doll... I don't know. I guess I figure it's another "precious item" he could easily have used to pay for a moped in the previous episode, but if we ever hear about it again, it'll have to do with the series arc.

As for the song, I am praying it's a random toss-off nod to 1983. If it has anything to do with a larger arc, I'm likely to be irritated about it. ;)

By mrfranklin

Ha, I knew you'd say something about the objects in his pocket(s). Every time they pulled something out, I was yelling "where was that, then? Why couldn't you pay with that?!"

Nasty Timelord. What has it got in its pocketses?

By abqmichelle (not verified)

I wondered about the song, too. I wonder if they were just trying to create the 1983 atmosphere along with more of a character for Clara, or what... trying to allude to her childhood? Wolf symbolism with Russia at the time - to Americans? Just thoughts... pondered this as well and couldn't quite figure it out. I, too, just chalked it up to the 1983 "feel" of the episode, and would also be irritated if meant anything in the larger picture.

By Tree (not verified)

I'm in agreement that I hope the song is just a nod to the time, not to a larger plot. I hadn't even thought of it as such, but now you point it out, the Bad Wolf connection is there, though I wish it weren't.

Overall, I'm feeling much like Tree & mrfranklin said last week, that something is just not grabbing me. I liked this episode fine, but didn't love it. Nor hate it. I chalked it up to not having watched much classic at all? I like the nods very much, but don't really *get them.

I won't say more, I've just watched Hide & don't want to confuse my feelings for the two episodes or the series overall. :)

By abqmichelle (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yeah, I've seen some serious splits in the ratings of the last couple episodes, and from comments I've seen online, it's mostly along pre-/post-Hiatus fan lines. That is, those who know all the little details from the pre-Hiatus stories react one way, and those who are head-over-heels about the post-Hiatus stories react almost diametrically opposite. Will be interesting to see if that continues.

More about Hide tomorrow. ;)

By mrfranklin
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