This review may contain spoilers.
A Russian nuclear submarine returns from an expedition to the North Pole where they had been drilling for oil, but found what they thought was part of a mammoth encased in ice. Professor Grisenko’s (David Warner) assistant, bored, defrosts their prize prematurely and unsupervised. He immediately pays the price when the thing wakes up cranky.
It seems that Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and the Doctor (Matt Smith) are still day-tripping, but we are spared pickup and destination discussions as they lunge right into the action. They pop out of the TARDIS in the midst of chaos as the sub is sinking uncontrollably, taking on water and no one knows why. The TARDIS promptly disappears; so they and everyone else is trapped on the sub. They had intended to be going to Las Vegas, so after Clara’s slinky gown is drenched, she spends the rest of the episode in a donated Russian uniform jacket.
When the Doctor encounters our monster of the week, he immediately recognizes him as an Ice Warrior from Mars. But not just any Martian, he is Grand Marshal Skaldak (Spencer Wilding, voiced by Nicholas Briggs), Mars’ greatest hero. The Doctor informs him that he has been frozen for 5,000 years. When Skaldak tries to contact his people and receives no reply, he assumes the worst, believing that Martian society has collapsed and disappeared entirely while he slept.
Desperate, rudderless and angry after being attacked with a cattle prod, Skaldak begins killing the crew. In an encounter with Stepashin (Tobias Menzies), would-be warmonger, he learns of Earth’s current circumstances. It is 1983, during the cold war, and any missteps, particularly with a nuclear submarine, could potentially initiate World War III. He decides to light the match on this particular pile of tinder. After much pleading from the Doctor for mercy, reason and proportionality, Clara delivers the coup de grace. Skaldak hesitates until his people in a lovely classic UFO ‘port him out. Remotely, he releases his control on the missile system and the world is saved.
POINTS OF INTEREST
1. Native Martians are reptiles who adapted to the cooling of their world by augmenting themselves with cybernetics and donning armor. The armor actually has a flaw causing it to malfunction in heat. A warrior culture much concerned with honor, they are called “Ice Warriors” and 5,000 years ago had a vast empire that nicely left Earth alone (mostly). For an Ice Warrior to leave his armor is a act of the highest dishonor.
2. What Skaldak misses most when he thinks that Martians are no more, particularly the ones he knew 5,000 years ago, is his daughter, also a warrior of the fleet. They sang together songs of the red snow. Is the snow red due to trace chemicals or atmospheric conditions, or red with blood?
3. The Martian code is “Harm one of us and you harm us all.” Conversely, one ill considered attack by a single Earthling means that the entire planet is forfeit. Didn’t Skaldak declare war first, as it were, by killing the professor’s assistant? You’d think it’d be hard to build a massive interstellar empire if you fly off the handle at any little thing.
4. At the end it is explained that the TARDIS’s dramatically convenient disappearance was due to the Doctor fiddling with a TARDIS sub-system, the HADS. To add insult to injury, the TARDIS was waiting at the South Pole. He can use the sonic screwdriver to scan through the planet to find the delinquent TARDIS, but he has no means of recalling it? Even given ample time when he’s not in the midst of an emergency?
Publicity photos for “Cold War” with its updated Ice Warrior still looked kind of cheesy. In the episode itself, however, the way Grand Marshal Skaldak was filmed and framed made him look so forbidding and genuinely threatening most of the time that we can forgive the way his exposed head was kind of squishy when it moved.
Liam Cunningham made a very convincing practical and grounded military commander of the era and made a lovely contrast to Lieutenant Stepashin’s hawk character and a good companion to hippy-ish Professor Grisenko. Having two amazing actors of that caliber guesting at the same time left one wishing that they had had the running time to properly feature both.
Considering that the show is routinely shown to toddlers, the dismemberment scene was handled with a very delicate hand. The scene that followed where Clara coped with the dark side of traveling with the Doctor was also very circumspect and only slightly artificial as Clara creates emotional distance by speaking of herself in a meta fashion.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The submarine innards still felt very much like flat dry-walled rooms painted and lit for effect. Not enough pipes and conduits? Strange round doors instead of the expected ovals? Or is that proper Russian submarine architecture?
Callbacks to ‘80s music are nice, but “Hungry like the Wolf” seemed utterly inappropriate to the moment when it was inevitably used.
I am a fan of Doctor Who from the classic days, but somehow missed all the Ice Warrior episodes. So it was, that I watched this whole episode feeling like maybe I was missing something. Was this Skaldak the Davros of Mars? What is the history with Skaldak referred to by the Doctor? Had this been a new villain, I would have been comfortable in the knowledge that the history referred to was just added color and not something I should maybe know.
It seems odd that the time traveling Doctor, who knows every detail of Earth history, doesn’t know whether or not the Martian empire is still going in 1983.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
“Doctor Who” stars Matt Smith, Jenna-Louise Coleman, Liam Cunningham, Spencer Wilding, Nicholas Briggs, David Warner, Tobias Menzies, Charlie Anson, James Norton, Josh O’Connor. “Cold War” was written by Mark Gatiss and was directed by Douglas Mackinnon.
“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. ET on BBC America.