This weekend’s Doctor Who brought another Classic Who villain back from the past, updating their design and reminding us again of just how many enemies The Doctor really has. “Cold War” was written by Mark Gattis, a huge and longtime fan of the series, and while it’s not a love letter like “The Doctor’s Wife,” it’s littered with homages to the era of Classic Who. Particularly those years of the Second through Fourth Doctors and adventures with U.N.I.T. The U.N.-British, alien task force doesn’t make an appearance, their role is filled by the crew of Soviet submarine damaged and sunken, but The Doctor and soldiers get on just as “well” as ever. Leading the crew is Captain Zhukov as played by Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham. He’s stern but fair and is basically fulfilling the role of the Brigadier in this sort of U.N.I.T.-era adventure. And I guess once a sea captain, always a sea captain. Then there’s Professor Grisenko played by David Warner because, duh, it’s David Warner. I wouldn’t have ever thought to cast Warner as an eccentric, 80s pop loving, Soviet scientist – and I’m not sure Doctor Who would have either – but when given the opportunity, jumped at it, and rightly so because his character is a definite highlight of the episode. These two give some of the best guest performances of the show to date.
The setting of a sunken submarine is perfect for this story as everything about it heightens the tension. The claustrophobic atmosphere, the dampness, long, dark, foreboding corridors; it’s all very uninviting and from the minute The Doctor and Clara arrive – in true Who fashion, completely unexpected and with the intention of arriving somewhere else – you immediately want to leave. Unfortunately, they can’t. Once the sub begins sinking the TARDIS disappears due to new safety protocols The Doctor has initiated, essentially stranding them. This is one of a few things that happen throughout “Cold War” for no other reason than the story needs it to happen, and it’s one of my few gripes about the episode. Had the TARDIS still been around the fear of both the submarine’s rapidly increasing level of water and decreasing level of oxygen, plus the reawakened Ice Warrior wouldn’t have been nearly as threatening. But I can kind of forgive such moments, too, because in a way this is what Classic Who was all about. It didn’t always make the most logical sense why The Doctor got himself into such situations, we just want to see how he gets out of them.
Updating Classic Who villains for our more modern sensibilities is never easy, but each and every time it’s done on Doctor Who it’s a triumph. Even after being so impressed with the look of the Ice Warrior’s updated design I had my reservations, but they nailed it. It would have been nice to have a full body look at an Ice Warrior out of his armor but I’m grateful for the chance looks they did give us. Hey, it’s still more than we’ve ever seen of them! And they smartly chose to start by only introducing one of the hulking, armored, reptilian Martians. In that way this episode sort of reminded me of “Dalek,” where Rose, and therefor everyone who was new to Who, first met only one of the psychotic, tin, pepper pots. It’s a decision that works exceedingly well at making the “monster” more sympathetic.
Though I don’t think they needed help in making Grand Marshal Skaldak sympathetic, they managed that through him being lost in time from his own people and the typical, fearful reactions of the ignorant humans. Doesn’t hurt either that Nicholas Briggs again imbues a faceless villain with real emotions through only his fantastic voice work. It then becomes Clara’s job as the companion to pick up on these emotional cues, so often ignored by The Doctor. It’s all a bit routine in that sense. How often is it the companion’s job to remind The Doctor to be forgiving towards enemies who’ve wronged him in the past? Very often, but I will say this time I’m not sure The Doctor really needed reminding. He was doing a darn good job appealing to Skaldak’s sense of honor that I’m not sure we needed Clara’s little speech at the end. What The Doctor may be in need of is a reminder Clara is still very new to this whole adventuring in time and space thing. In last week’s episode they traveled to an alien world, would that not have been the time to mention the TARDIS matrix and its translation capabilities?
“Cold War” was a bit of an eye-opener for Clara, too. Stranded by the TARDIS, trapped in a submarine, a Martian maniac with nothing left to lose murdering the crew; we finally see her have a real reaction to what’s happening. And in this sense I really liked the relationship Clara struck up with Grisenko. I got the impression he was able to tell how afraid she was from the moment they stepped on board, he saw through her confidant, ‘taking it all stride’ mask. At times, Clara is almost stupidly brave and I think it’s because she’s trying to prove how capable of a companion she can be. And I’ve begun wondering if she could be The Doctor’s perfect companion, created for him by someone who knows him very well. I mean, how many companions ever stay put when their told?
While there aren’t as many important, developmental moments between The Doctor and Clara as we’ve seen in earlier episodes, the chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman is still crackling. The success of this series relies more on that, I believe, than the quality of the stories. If that chemistry isn’t there we have no interest in seeing where these two go together. Not to say this season is off to a rough start, I’ve enjoyed each episode thus far, but there hasn’t been one I feel will define The Doctor and Clara’s relationship. But again, we’re just getting started, and next week’s episode, “Hide” looks even scarier and could prove to be quite revelatory about Clara, this “impossible girl.”
Doctor Who airs Saturday at 8pm EST on BBC America.