Doctor Who: Cold War (2013) Review

Doctor Who Cold War Moment Of Truth 9

“Cold War”, penned by series veteran Mark Gatiss, continues a tradition Doctor Who has adhered to ever since the show was revived in 2005: bringing back a different iconic monster from the classic series with each passing season and doing something different with them by humanizing them, giving them some additional depth. Mark Gatiss wanted to bring the back the Ice Warriors, because he always had a soft spot for the race of Reptilian soldiers from the planet Mars. By Series 7, it’s pretty clear that Mark Gatiss loves a good period piece: he loves to immerse himself in whatever genre of fiction he’s writing for, whether it’s a good old-fashioned ghost story like “The Unquiet Dead“, a forty-five minute wartime movie with a sci-fi twist like “Victory Of The Daleks“, or a larger-than-life parody of the classic Robin Hood myths like “Robot Of Sherwood“.

With “Cold War”, he once again sits down to write a wartime adventure, except this one is set during the 1980’s instead of World War II. As the title would suggest, this episode is centered around the constant high tensions of the Cold War, the politics and power plays involved on every side of it, and just how close the world came to nuclear annihilation during that period of history. Mark Gatiss decides to explore this topic by dropping some aliens right in the middle of it (including our favorite nomadic time lord). Compared to the last episode, which was a sentimental, heartwarming tale, there’s a very large tonal shift with “Cold War”, a claustrophobic, horror-themed episode. It’s designed to be your classic base-under-siege story, a formula that long-time Doctor Who fans should be very familiar with, except all of the action in this story takes place inside a sunken submarine at the bottom of the sea instead of a military base. “Cold War” is also a very slow-paced episode compared to the last couple of adventures, and it really takes its time building up a sizable amount of suspense, particularly during the latter half of the hour.

Doctor Who Cold War Debriefing

In “Cold War”, the TARDIS drops the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his new friend Clara off on a sinking Soviet submarine in the 1980’s (when they intended to go to Vegas) and then it just flies off without them, leaving them stranded there. The crew of Russian soldiers quickly grow suspicious of them and accuse them of being spies, which is actually a pretty reasonable assumption when two people appear out of nowhere on a military submarine at the bottom of the ocean. And of course, their predicament only grows more dangerous when the Doctor discovers an Ice Warrior is trapped onboard the sub with them too, and he’s not feeling very peaceful. In fact, he’s feeling quite vengeful.

“Cold War” brings up two key events in the Doctor’s life again, for the first time in a while, because they both relate to the main plot of this episode: he’s the last of his species, and he fought in a great war a long time ago, even if he’s not proud of it. The Doctor’s usual distaste for the military returns again in this story, when one of the Russians rather stupidly dooms his entire crew and possibly the entire world. The Doctor blames everything on Captain Zhukov, holding him personally accountable for the actions of his warmongering first mate, and is frequently hostile towards him as things escalate. Zhukov makes no bones about his status as a soldier, and in return pegs the Doctor quite well by calling him out on his hypocrisy: pointing out that they’re very much alike, which the Doctor rather tellingly doesn’t have a retort to, other than changing the subject. Like the Doctor’s scenes with Kahler-Jex in “A Town Called Mercy“, these little reminders of the time war are a nice way of foreshadowing “The Day Of The Doctor” at the end of this season, where the Doctor finally has to confront his past and revisit one of his greatest regrets.

Because of his own history with the nature of warfare, the Doctor understands how Skaldak thinks, the culture that he comes from, and he also understands how the humans on Earth think. He knows what’s at stake, how easily the Earth’s timeline could be changed for the worse, and he’s terrified that this little conflict between humans and Ice Warriors at the bottom of the sea could snowball into something much greater than that and bring about the end of the world (by humanity’s own hands), when Skaldak swears vengeance on the entire human race. The Doctor is also worried about Clara getting in over her head, because his new sidekick wants to prove herself as a capable, helpful member of the team. So the Doctor reluctantly works with Captain Zhukov to try to keep the peace, and fails.

Trying to get Skaldak to see reason won’t work, because the vengeful Ice Warrior won’t listen to him, and eventually he has to resort to threatening him. He promises to blow up the sub and sacrifice everyone on it, to prevent Skadak from launching nuclear missiles and save the Earth. For once, the Doctor can’t see another way out, and despite his best efforts to defuse this conflict before it could get any worse, he ultimately winds up getting sucked into it and becomes one half of a mutually assured destruction scenario. However, Clara manages to buy them enough time for help to arrive, and the Doctor is deeply relieved when he doesn’t have to make good on his threat. Sometimes the Doctor has to make terrible choices for the greater good of many, choices where nobody really wins, and sometimes his friends manage to save him from that, just by being there to make their own decisions. “Cold War” is one of those times, and in hindsight, the climax serves as another nice bit of foreshadowing for the way “The Day Of The Doctor” pans out.

Doctor Who Cold War Clara's Mission 2

After being a key player for the last couple of episodes, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) takes on more of a supporting role in “Cold War”. She’s still learning the basics as a companion in this episode: how the TARDIS translation matrix works, and how time is constantly in a state of flux (which means the danger of Skaldak changing human history for the worse is very much real). Clara volunteers to help the Doctor appease Skaldak, by going to speak to him one-on-one. She puts herself in a considerable amount of danger to do so, and she gets pretty bummed out when it all goes horribly wrong. After everything that happened in “The Rings Of Akhaten“, Clara has gained respect for the Doctor as an unlikely wandering hero, and she’s starting to follow his example. She wants to gain his approval, which is a significant development for her character, even if it doesn’t seem like one at first glance. A major part of Clara’s character arc over the course of her tenure is that she gradually starts to become more like the Doctor as she tries to follow in his footsteps, which eventually lands in her some real hot water at the end of Series 9 when she’s met with her limitations.

In “Cold War”, she and the Doctor are in quite a bit of trouble, so she tries to put on a brave face and have faith in his plan, but she’s more scared than she lets on – she’s still very green as a heroine, after all. “Cold War” is also the point where Clara starts to realize that traveling in the TARDIS won’t always be fun and games, when she stumbles upon two freshly mutilated corpses – two people Skaldak recently murdered – and she’s quite rightly mortified by the gory sight. However, she still manages to help save the day, by using what she’s learned to appeal to Skaldak’s better nature and buy them all some time for a third party to step in, before either Skaldak or the Doctor make a decision that they can never take back.

Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham), the leader of a scientific expedition to the Arctic circle by the Soviet military, is shown to have a fair amount of layers. He’s a tough, grizzled, patriotic man who’s not afraid to get violent to defend his country or his crew. He loses his temper with the Doctor several times, when he suspects the time lord is holding out on him or putting them all in danger. But despite his faults, he does try to be a sensible and level-headed leader, because he obviously cares about all the men serving under him, and he has a good sense of humor, which makes him approachable. While he does his duty for his country, he understands full well that there’s no such thing as a good war. He doesn’t want a ton of unnecessary bloodshed to happen, and he certainly doesn’t want to be the one responsible for kick-starting the end of the world.

When it becomes increasingly obvious that the humans are in way over their heads, and the Doctor is telling the truth about everything, Zhukov does take his advice into account so he can try to protect his crew and do what’s best for everyone onboard the ship. It’s easy to see why he’s the one in charge, instead of his lunatic of a first mate. Throughout the hour, Zhukov’s prejudices are challenged, and he comes to see the importance of recognizing Skaldak as an equal – an enemy soldier with a keen amount of intellect – instead of thinking he’s a mindless beast. He also starts to realize that he and his crew might not survive this skirmish – in which case, they need to focus on saving their world. After some initial arguments, the Doctor and Zhukov do manage to find some common once they team up and work together to stop Skaldak’s plans. It’s not uncommon for military leaders to be portrayed as belligerent, gun-toting idiots in Doctor Who, so they can act as foils to the Doctor’s own personal ideology: so easily the most interesting type of soldier you can pair the Doctor up with is someone who’s fighting to stop a war.

Doctor Who Cold War Regrouping 3

By comparison, Zhukov’s second-in-command Stephashin is exactly the sort of stubborn, short-sighted fool you would expect to see in a position of power in this show. Stephashin is a distrusting, nationalistic warmonger who makes it no secret that he hates America. He would like nothing more than to light the fires of war and end the stalemate that all the great western powers find themselves in at the moment, so Russia can show its strength and put the Americans in their place. A worldwide nuclear war would risk bringing about the end of the entire world, but Stephashin is confident that Russia could win the fight, and truthfully, he only cares about himself anyway. He’s also an insubordinate officer, who’s constantly trying to undermine Zhukov’s authority by pushing his captain’s will as far as it will go, and as such even his own crewmates find him insufferable to deal with – but he makes for an excellent antagonist.

His shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality winds up causing everyone trouble when he attacks Skaldak by shooting him in the back. After he’s brought the Ice Warrior’s wrath down upon his crewmates, he refuses to learn anything from the experience by ignoring everything the Doctor has to say about it. And later he proposes an alliance to Skaldak, where he’s willing to sell out his entire species just to get his war, which really cements that he is a terrible person. But he finally gets his just desserts: Skaldak is really not interested in a partnership, so he decides to do everyone a favor and kill him off. The last notable human character in this episode would be Professor Grizenko, a mellow fellow and a man of science who provides most of this episode’s quirky pop culture jokes. He has a very small role compared to Zhukov and Stephashin, but he does act as a mentor figure Clara while the Doctor is busy, helping her manage her fears and anxiety.

In “Cold War”, Mark Gatiss decides to handle the return of the Ice Warriors to Doctor Who by focusing on one Ice Warrior in particular, and explaining the inner workings of his society through him. The main antagonist of this episode is a war hero named Skaldak, a decorated general who spent five thousand years sleeping under the ice in the Arctic, when an expedition to the planet Earth went wrong. He’s finally unthawed in the 1980’s by a few unwitting humans, and is quite rightly horrified to discover he’s now outlived all of his friends and loved ones. He spends most of this episode coping that revelation, and he fully believes that he’s the last of his kind: a crushing feeling that the Doctor knows all too well. The Ice Warriors are a very militant species with a different sort of morality than humankind, and they’re also very vengeful.

Stephashin assaults an officer by shooting him in the back, which is considered to be an act of war on Mars. Skaldak is legally allowed to do whatever he wants to the humans, so he sets about taking his revenge on the crew members who are trapped onboard the sub with him – taking out his grief and anger on the Earth’s native life. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the only thing he has left that will make him feel better about his new isolation. Mark Gatiss decides to do a few new things with the Ice Warriors in this episode by having Skaldak leave his armor and go a hunt with his own natural weapons, as well as finally showing us what an Ice Warrior looks like without a mask for the first time. Ultimately, the day is saved by an Ice Warrior Ex Machina. Skaldak’s race managed to survive after thousands of years, even if they’ve moved to a different world, and they eventually come to collect him. After a talk with Clara, Skaldak relents and decides to show humanity mercy – returning again to his own kind, after he’s gotten off scot free for committing multiple murders.

Doctor Who Cold War Killing Spree 2

“Cold War” is helmed by Douglas McKinnon, who returns to direct his second episode for Series 7 after “The Power Of Three“, and his direction for this episode is certainly a large step up from his work on “The Power Of Three”, even if the blocking is confusing at times. Thanks to some impressive work from the show’s lighting department, there are a couple of beautifully composed shots of the sub’s darkened corridors, with a deep blue and orange color scheme that constantly pervades this episode. While there are some very nice CGI shots of the Arctic circle in this episode, “Cold War” actually relies mostly on practical effects: most of the exterior shots of the submarine underwater are actually cutaways to a model sub in a tank, creating the sort of illusion that you would often see in old wartime movies.

For “Cold War”, the show’s costume and wardrobe department were given the challenge of redesigning the Ice Warriors for Doctor Who’s modern incarnation. Compared to the radical redesigns the Cybermen and the Silurians underwent in previous seasons, the Ice Warriors look very similar to the appearance they had back in the classic series, because Mark Gatiss wanted them to retain most of their old features, though their armor has become more sleek and streamlined, to show that they’ve grown more efficient as a war machine overtime. Compared to the last couple of episodes, where Murray Gold’s score took center stage, his music for the series is very subdued in this episode. “Skaldak” and “Cold War” are both sinister, electronic track that simmer in the background throughout the hour, before lunging out at the viewer for sudden, unexpected jump scares. The rest of Murray’s music is recycled from previous episodes like “Asylum Of The Daleks“, “A Town Called Mercy” and “The Angels Take Manhattan“, because there were not a lot of scoring sessions done for the show during the latter half of Series 7.

“Cold War” is one of Mark Gatiss’s better episodes (crafted with the love and care of someone who’s been a Doctor Who fan for most of their life), that combines some of the best aspects of the classic series and the revived series to create a fun and suspenseful hour of television.

Rating: 8/10.

Side Notes:

Doctor Who Cold War Standoff 5

* The entire plot of this episode is set in motion by an idiot. One of the crew members decides to go against the professor’s wishes and unthaw Skaldak ahead of time, instead of leaving him perfectly preserved in the ice. Even if they had unearthed some kind of prehistoric creature, how in the hell was he going to stop it from being damaged or decomposing further before they got back to dry land?

* “Hair, shoulder pads, nukes! It’s the eighties, Clara. Everything’s bigger!”

* “Ah, it never rains but it pours!”

* “Just keeping it light, Clara. They’re scared” “They’re scared?! I’m scared!

* There’s a funny bit of misdirection, after Stephashin attacks Skaldak. The Doctor angrily glares in his direction and snarls ‘lock him up!’, and just when the audience starts to wonder if he even has the authority to make that judgment call, a quick cut to the next scene reveals he was actually talking about a very pissed off Skaldak.

* “By his own standards, Skaldak is a hero. It was said his enemies honored him so much, they’d carve his name into their own flesh before they died” “Oh, yeah. Very nice. He sounds lovely!”

* Clara’s expression when Zhukov tells Stephashin to get the fuck out of his quarters and the man angrily storms past her is priceless. “Bro, that was awkward” is written all over her face.

* “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?” The Doctor’s silence speaks a thousand words.

* “It is time I learned the measure of my enemies, and what this vessel is capable of! Harm one of us and you harm us all! By the Moons, this I swear!” It’s murder time, baby.

* “Skaldak got no answer from his Martian brothers. Now he’s given up hope of being rescued. He thinks he’s been abandoned. He’s got nothing left to lose”.

* “This sub’s stuffed with nuclear missiles, Zhukov. It’s fat with them. What do you think Skaldak’s going to do when he finds that out? How bad can it be?! How bad can it be?! It couldn’t be any worse! ….Okay, spoke too soon”.

* “Mutually assured destruction. But this has not occurred?” “No” “Not yet“.

* “Ah, Professor, I could kiss you!” “If you insist” “…Later” Why do I have a feeling the Doctor would have gone for that kiss if the professor had been young and pretty.

* “If we get out of here, we’ll be bloody heroes!” I’m afraid you just jinxed yourself, dude.

* There’s another unintentionally funny scene where Clara is freaking out because she can hear what is obviously Skaldak coming closer, getting ready to attack her and the professor. Professor Grizenko tries to distract her to calm her nerves, when she does not want to calm down, and you can tell that she is ‘this‘ close to snapping at him to be quiet.

* “My distress call has not been answered, it will never be answered! My people are dead. They are dust. There is nothing left for me except my revenge!”

* “My world is dead, but now there will be a second red planet! Red with the blood of humanity!” Edgy, Skaldak, edgy.

* “So, we saved the world then?” “Yeah” “That’s what we do!”

* Right at the very end, we discover the Doctor caused his own misfortune. The TARDIS ditched him because he had been messing with the emergency settings on her controls, and she wound up going to the south pole. The Doctor asks Zhukov for a lift, but considering how long it would take to travel from one end of the globe to another, the Doctor and Clara are clearly going to be stuck in the 1980’s for quite a while.

Further Reading:

Doctor Who Cold War Scared Clara 2

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