Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Idiot Box: Doctor Who 7x08 - "Cold War" Review

I've always liked the Ice Warriors. In many ways, I think they could have been the Doctor Who equivalent to the Klingons if they had been pursued as more of a regular villain, threatening and war-like, and yet at the same time possessing a certain honor and nobility that sets them apart from the typical tyrannical Who bad guys. There have been a few vague references to the creatures in the new Who series, two off the top of my head being The Christmas Invasion and The Waters Of Mars, and in light of almost every new season bringing back a classic villain in some capacity, I've been holding out hope that the Ice Warriors would be next. Well, I've finally got my wish, and while being a stand alone it isn't perhaps everything I might have wanted, its definitely a step up from the majority of this season, and an indication that we might just be on the right track after all.

Cold War finds The Doctor and his new companion Clara on a Soviet submarine filled with the most British-sounding ruskies ever televised as they team up to face off against a legendary Martian general unearthed from a block of ice in the Arctic Ocean. The mystery surrounding Clara's reincarnation takes a backseat to some fan service and cramped small space tension that might not amount to much in the grand scheme of the season's arc or series' mythology, but was a whole lot more fun to watch than the last episode. Our first new Ice Warrior in decades is an imposing and often fanatical soldier working from a harsh code of warfare ethics, and much of the story finds The Doctor desperately trying to keep his already agitated Russian hosts from escalating a conflict they don't understand and stop both sides from destroying each other over a tragic misunderstanding.

The first thing I love about this episode is the setting, both in terms of the submarine location, and the time period, which allows for a nice little political through line to enhance the theme implied by the title without overwhelming the action or suspense. When the Russians attack the Ice Warrior out of fear, he takes it as a declaration of war and proceeds to stalk the underwater tube like a Xenomorph from the Alien movies, picking off the crew one by one. Its the perfect set up for this sort of episode and is the most effective example of a basic monster on the loose story Doctor Who has done in some time. The episode wraps up on a hopeful and politically cogent note as the Ice Warrior learns of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, and his face off with The Doctor inevitably comes to mirror the same kind of brinksmanship America and the Soviet Union were facing at the time the story takes place.

The new design of the Ice Warrior is actually not that different from the original. Certainly it is updated to look more menacing and less hokey, mostly enhanced by the limbs appearing more proportional to the bulky frame, but I was surprised by how much they retained from the old design. Even after so many years, its still the same basic look, and it still holds up. Of course, the main draw of the episode is that in addition to being their first appearance in a long while, this is also the first time we get to see the Ice Warrior out of its suit. I never really saw this as something I needed to see desperately, and the result isn't anything special. It's not bad, but its just a CGI reptilian creature that looks like a dozen other CGI reptiles you've seen before. I found the suit-less Ice Warrior to be much cooler when he kept to the shadows, only seen as two spindly clawed arms descending from the ceiling, and once we see him in all his full glory, while I can't say its a let down necessarily, it doesn't feel as monumental as a moment like that arguably should be.

The guest cast is great, though somewhat under-utilized. Liam Cunningham from Game Of Thrones shows up as a Russian captain who is a bit too quick to trust The Doctor and accept the situation he's found himself in. I would have liked him to have been a bit more antagonistic, but I gather the writer felt this would distract from the main conflict with the alien on board. David Warner also pops in as an absent minded professor who first brings the Ice Warrior onto the sub, and while he's certainly as entertaining as always, I thought he was criminally wasted in the part. This is a guy who is capable of so much more than this role provides, especially as a villain, and to see him as what is ultimately a somewhat meaningless side character is kind of sad. If they ever bring back the original Master, I can only hope they just forget they already used him and call Warner in to don the Delgado beard

Overall, I'm inclined to call Cold War a pretty rousing success, and hopefully a set up for more Ice Warrior stories to follow if the last few minutes are any indication. The mood is dark and suspenseful and the treatment of the classic elements is respectful and a fitting homage to one of my personal childhood favorites. Here's hoping this trend continues into the rest of the season, which apparently also may feature a return of the original non-Cybus Cybermen in a Neil Gaiman episode if spoilers are to be believed. Then again, the very next episode is apparently written by the same guy who wrote The Rings of Akhaten, so I'm not holding my breath just yet.

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