Last week’s episode, The Rings of Akhaten (which this reviewer gave three-and-a-half stars, if you’re interested) was one of the most hated episodes since The Curse of the Black Spot (and throwing objectivity aside for a while, that was rubbish) – but did tonight’s episode, Cold War, live up to the high expectations it had been set? Well, it’s a resounding yes.
Cold War, fittingly, takes place at the height of the second Cold War, in 1984. But it’s not the Americans who feature: nope, it’s the Russians, led by Liam Cunningham (or ‘him off Game of Thrones‘… and yes, I’m fully aware that you could use that nickname for a few hundred other actors) who we join at the episode’s start, with their nuclear drill interrupted by David Warner’s Ultravox-loving Professor Grisenko. But meanwhile in another area of the ship, the world’s least intelligent red-shirt thaws out a creature that’s been frozen in a block of ice… which promptly kills him. And who’s this creature? Well, it’s none other than our old friend: an Ice Warrior.
And minutes afterwards, with the Ice Warrior already rampaging throughout the ship, the TARDIS arrives in the now-sinking submarine: but the TARDIS has its own ideas, and buggers off to God-knows-where. It’s a handy way to dispel the usual complaints… but it does feel just a tiny bit too convenient. It’s the perfect way to get the TARDIS out of the way, but it does feel a little too perfect. Still, it’s just a tiny nitpick in an extremely solid episode.
The Ice Warriors had been under the ice for thirty-nine years before Cold War… so how does the men from Mars’ 21st century resurrection compare with that of the Daleks, Cybermen and co? Extremely well, in a nutshell. There’s just one Ice Warrior present throughout the whole episode – but that proves to be a benefit for the episode, as we get a look at everything the Ice Warriors are, distilled into one psychopathic monster. The re-design of the Warriors is excellent: one of the rare designs that actually betters its classic series counterpart… even if the armour is used surprisingly sparingly.
The voice of the Ice Warrior is excellent too: Nick Briggs has been a reliable voice actor for monsters in new Who, and the new, deeper Ice Warrior voice, while drastically different to the classic voice, is a suitably creepy one, complete with fan-pleasing hisses (‘I am in chainssssssssssss’) is a memorable quote. But it’s not just the voice and the armour that’s important – finally, we get to see an Ice Warrior with its armour off – and for a series steeped in dodgy CG reveals, it’s a rather effective reveal… even if it’s a mish-mash of a dozen other SF creatures.
It’s an effective little twist that turns what could have been a conventional base-under-siege episode on its head, as the creature scuttles its way around the corridors in a family-friendly version of Alien. Yes, the Ice Warriors hands are tiny for a seven-foot monster, but the moment where a redshirt is plucked up by the Ice Warrior is genuinely creepy. The whole episode couldn’t have been the Ice Warrior stomping around the submarine (stealth missions back on Mars must have been interesting), and it’s a clever little twist to have the Ice Warrior lurking in the shadows for a good fifteen minutes – providing some tense moments that could have just as well been from Alien.
There’s not much development on the Clara mystery this week – she’s firmly in regular companion mode this time around. Thankfully, all that’s great about Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance (even if we’re lacking a little bit of snark) is present and correct – Clara’s as plucky as she was before… and she’s not bad at singing Duran Duran, either. With the regulars (Matt Smith is being praised by exception) on top form, how does the guest cast fare?
Liam Cunningham is decent, if not hugely inspiring as the Captain… but the real star turn of the episode of David Warner as Grisenko. I’m not quite sure why you’d bring someone like Grisenko on a nuclear sub, but Warner convinces as what’s essentially an older, Russian version of the Doctor. His innocent question about Ultravox splitting up was one of the highlights of the episode, and Warner sells the frankly barmy character.
The plot’s resolution being rushed is a common criticism, but sadly, Doctor Who proves yet again that it needs more than 45 minutes. The episode frantically hits the brakes at episode’s end, and while it’s not an awful resolution, it’s a little too rushed. Still, it’s the only conceivable way that Skaldak – who (it’s not actually a fault of the episode’s, as his motivations are clearly explained) is an utter berk, threatening to kill anyone who threatens him, even if it’s in self-defence – could be taken off the sub alive.
To wrap the review up – Cold War is easily Mark Gatiss’ best episode – a tense adventure that defies base-under-siege tropes to deliver a cracking resurrection of the Ice Warriors – and if the resolution had been a little more measured, it might have been even better. More please, Gatiss. Come on, we know you’re hiding The Crimson Horror up there…
Tune in next Saturday for a review of episode nine, Hide – prepare to be spooked.