Steven Moffat has described the Ice Warriors as “maybe the definitive rubbish” Doctor Who monster. While I must confess to being a fan of the Ice Warriors, they did always seem a bit too slow and had perhaps the worst peripheral vision ever (just watch “The Seeds of Death” and you’ll see what I mean). However, the new Ice Warrior unveiled in “Cold War” is a perfect update of the classic alien. In what may be the best episode of the season so far, the updated Ice Warriors returned to the show almost 40 years after their last appearance.
The premise is fairly simple. The year is 1983. While drilling, a Russian team uncovered something frozen in the ice. Thinking they had found a mammoth, they bring it on board their submarine to take back to Russia. Once on board, an over eager crew member decides not to wait and melts the ice, unwittingly letting an Ice Warrior loose on the submarine. All of this, of course, is a nice nod to the Ice Warriors’ first appearance back in 1967 (minus the submarine, of course).
In the chaos surrounding the Ice Warrior’s release, the hull is breached and the Doctor and Clara appear. The submarine pitches and the TARDIS dematerializes, leaving the Doctor and Clara stranded. The Doctor takes charge of the situation and learns that this particular Ice Warrior is the legendary Grand Marshal Skaldak. Unfortunately, before he can ensure that there will be peace between the Skaldak and the human crew, a crew member attacks the Skaldak, which is a declaration of war to the Ice Warrior.
The Doctor must then not only find a way to stop Skaldak from destroying everyone on the submarine, but, seeing as how he is dealing with an angry Ice Warrior (who happens to be bent on destroying all human life) on a Russian submarine armed with nuclear missiles, he must stop him from igniting the cold war as well.
As I stated before, I thought this was a great episode. It was Mark Gatiss’ best episode for the series so far. It was very tightly plotted; the story really drew me in, right from the start. There was a bit of humor peppered throughout to break the tension, but the episode also had a real atmosphere of menace and was genuinely a bit scary in parts. And, for the first time in a while, I wasn’t left wondering about loose ends that were unresolved or endings that came out of nowhere.
Furthermore, unlike “The Rings of Akhaten,” I could believe in the characters (and the world) in this story. They were characters with a bit of personality, especially the professor. David Warner did a great job of injecting a bit of humor into the episode with his character’s love of eighties music, but he also played his scenes with Clara well. He helped Clara show a slightly more vulnerable side than we’ve seen previously.
The star of this story, however, was the Ice Warrior himself. I loved the redesigned Ice Warriors. They retain their traditional turtle-like armor, but it is now far less cumbersome. It looks far more practical that it ever did on the classic series and it bears an even stronger resemblance to a reptile’s skin than it did before. The suit also takes on a far more cybernetic aspect than it did previously. I was also glad to see that the Ice Warrior still had his trademark hiss, even if his voice is no longer just a whisper. Of course, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat promised a new twist on the Ice Warriors and they certainly delivered with the first appearance of an Ice Warrior without his armor. I loved the slow reveal of the Ice Warrior throughout the episode, beginning with just the hands, followed by a shadowy outline of its head (with the glowing red eyes), until we finally see the Ice Warrior remove its helmet to face the Doctor at the end.
Much as “The Bells of St. John” was a tribute to the Pertwee era, “Cold War” was a tribute to the Troughton era. It was a modern twist of the base under siege format, which was, of course, the dominant storyline in the second Doctor’s time. This episode brought back one of the classic Troughton monsters and had it menacing a small group of people trapped in a confined area. It even managed to work in the traitor amidst the humans, one who betrays his species by helping the aliens (and winds up dead). It even mentioned that the TARDIS dematerializes because of the Hostile Actions Displacement System (H.A.D.S.), something it hasn’t done since “The Krotons.” Of course, in a nice modern twist, the Skaldak ultimately isn’t completely a villain, as the Doctor and Clara get him to show compassion for mankind.
I do, however, have a few random observations. First, what was the deal with the Barbie-like doll that the Doctor was carrying? I know the Doctor often has strange things in his pockets, but that was odd, even for him. Second, I couldn’t help but notice the Doctor talking about how history is always in flux. He actually states that history “rewritten.” This specific word choice made me think of William Hartnell’s famous line from “The Aztecs,” “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” What the Doctor is saying now directly contradicts that quote (which was not really proven to be true as even William Hartnell’s Doctor seems to have, at the very least, influenced the past), but I couldn’t help but wonder if Gatiss was referencing that line on purpose.
Basically, I loved this episode. My only complaint would be that the Doctor is still relying on his sonic screwdriver a bit too much, but that’s true over all of modern Who, so it’s not a failing of this particular episode. I also couldn’t help but notice a few small changes to this Ice Warrior costume. The Grand Marshal in “The Seeds of Death” wore a less bulky armor and was…well…sparkly. Obviously, the decision to get rid of the glitter (or sequins, whatever they used) help eliminate some of the “rubbish” quality that Steven Moffat felt they had previously (although it’s bizarre little touches like that that I love in the classic episodes). Can you image if Skaldak had removed his helmet to reveal a head that was covered in sparkles? Somehow, I don’t think that would have had quite the same impact.