Doctor Who Series 7 Episode 9 Review: Cold War

Cold War Doctor Who

Directed by Douglas Mackinnonn

Written by Mark Gatiss

Starring Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman

An old Doctor Who monster in a story set in days gone by this week, with the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) coming across an Ice Warrior on a Russian submarine in the aptly-named episode Cold War

It has been a while since the Doctor last came across the Ice Warriors, this time finding one found encased in ice for the last 5,000 years. Discovered by the Russians right in the middle of the Cold War during a routine missile launch drill, Skaldak (Spencer Wilding) – a surviving Ice Warrior with a reputation that precedes him – begins to cause havoc, leading the Doctor and Clara to arrive onboard via the TARDIS, in the hopes that they will come save the day.

Cold War is the third episode of this half of Doctor Who Series 7, and it’s written by prolific Who writer Mark Gatiss. The episode itself is a celebration of Who lore, tied into a context that resonates and runs parallel to the events occurring.

Whether it is intentional or not, once again this episode has a feel in some degrees similar to that of another Rose (Billie Piper) episode, at least from the perspective of Clara’s character. Cold War feels like a parallel to some extent to the Series 1 episode Dalek, where an old foe from Doctor Who history returns, redesigned, alone, in search for others of their kind, confronts the Doctor and his companion, and proves to be dangerous and deadly.

What can be said for sure is that the episodes this series are certainly increasing in quality. The thing that is most satisfying is the antagonist this time around. We are given more than enough screen time to discover this formidable foe, and the writing does well to illustrate why they should be a force to be reckoned with. While quite a few recent episodes of Doctor Who give poor payoffs or lack in villain screen time, Cold War is an episode that does well to raise the stakes and build to a strong showdown. 

Gatiss is very good at writing the atmosphere and suspense in this episode. For a good chunk it feels very much as if Doctor Who did Alien, with Skaldak leaving his armour (which is something the Doctor has never seen an Ice Warrior do) in order to stalk the crew and gain the upper hand. Some of the best moments here involve the slow build-up until Skaldak strikes another unfortunate expendable character.

The real letdown is through no real fault of its own, other than the fact that Doctor Who is a family programme. Gatiss has written a fantastically suspenseful and deceptively macabre script, but due to the fact Who is meant for children too a lot of the payoffs are lacking. In one instance, Russian crewmembers have been torn apart by Skaldak, but we are only told this because we can’t see it. If it was any other show, Gatiss’ writing would be brilliantly paid off, but tragically it can’t be to the full extent it could with Who.

It is especially curious to discover the lack of such payoff, as Dalek, an episode similar in beats to Cold War, managed to involve a more terrifying and Terminator-esque rampage involving a Dalek, including some visible onscreen attacks and fatalities.

Another questionable element (though explained by the TARDIS’ ability to translate) is that the Russian submarine crew are all cast and played British. For an episode that is very much a classic Cold War story in the Doctor Who universe, going in expecting Russian accents and discovering the lack thereof may be a little jarring. It is not too much of a detraction, but rather an odd choice.

The performances this episode, however, are stellar. From the Doctor facing off with Skaldak in a case of mutually-assured destruction, to Clara going alone to confront an imprisoned Skaldak, to even the crew of the Russian submarine and their fragile alliance with the two time-travellers, everyone shines this time around.

Smith isn’t offered as powerful a moment as he got last episode, but the real star here is Spencer Wilding’s Skaldak, one of the first real formidable foes this series. While not quite on par with a Dalek or the Cybermen, Skaldak the Ice Warrior is a villain with nothing left to lose, and has no qualms killing the crew of the submarine and launching a nuclear missile to destroy the rest of humanity.

There is not much in the episode that hurts the potential of it this week. If anything, Cold War exceeded expectations with its revival of the Ice Warriors. Mark Gatiss certainly wrote an episode of Doctor Who that fits very well with the series, and whether it meant to have some parallels to Dalek or not, there is nothing wrong with that comparison. The only disappointment that comes with the concept is indeed the fact it’s a BBC One family show and so things had to be a little more reserved.

Overall, Cold War is a brilliant third episode and hopefully things will keep up at this sort of pace. With Gatiss pulling it out of the bag, can Neil Gaiman best his previous Doctor Who episode later this series? Only time will tell. Until then, one can only be more excited for next week!

Cold War premiered on BBC One on Saturday 13th April 2013. It is available on BBC iPlayer, and Doctor Who will return next Saturday 20th April 2013 with Hide.

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