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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, Cold War

Season 7, Episode 9
Grade: A-
Verdict: This Mark Gatiss-written "base under siege" style story makes for the second winner in a row for a season I was starting to get concerned about. It marks the return of a long forgotten Classic Who villain and entails some very nice guest starring performances, and is only let down by perhaps too tidy an ending.

Doctor Who has an incredible ability to morph and play with genre, that it could easily be argued that the series is one of the most versatile in television history. Each Doctor, particularly in the classic years, has had a particular style of storytelling that came to define their given run. I've always been quite partial to the Gothic style (but in Space!) tales of Tom Baker's Doctor in Seasons 13 and 14, probably the Golden Years of the original run. Those given serials were often homages or inspired by popular works of horror or science fiction such as having an Agatha Christie style whodunit but with robots, or a Manchurian Candidate-esque tale on Gallifrey, or a Frankenstein riff on a Time Lord being resurrected. Later Who has attempted to play in this sandbox occasionally, but to limited success. Tonight's episode returned to this arena with a scenario that's not too dissimilar from the film Alien, while also playing as an homage to the Second Doctor's era which featured a number of tales that played with this setup.

In "Cold War", Mark Gattis' fifth contribution to the new series, the Doctor and Clara find themselves on a Soviet submarine in the middle of the 1980's on which a monster, that had been brought on board in a block of ice, was freed and began to wreck havoc on the ship. This monster, which turns out to be an Ice Warrior, an armored martian, approaches the Doctor and crew and is promptly cattle-prodded into unconsciousness. Recognizing that the Ice Warrior's race will take that as an act of war, particularly when said individual is a long lost war hero named Grand Marshal Skaldak, the Doctor instructs the crew to imprison him. After an attempt at negotiation, with Clara as the middle-man, fails, Skaldak escapes from his armor and begins attacking crew members through the bowels of the ship. And then, Skaldak threatens to launch the nuclear missiles that are on the sub, all the while the ship continues to shake apart due the machinations of a character that is at the end of his rope. There was a really nice sense of tension throughout and the atmosphere was really quite something to behold. Doctor Who is at its best when these elements all come into place.

Lately in New Who we haven't seen many of the Classic villains. During the Tennant years, we were exposed (perhaps far too much) to the Daleks, with an arc or two with the Cybermen, and an episode or two with the Sontarans, along with big appearances by The Master. Since Matt Smith has taken over the role, the show has shifted more towards original creations and very arc heavy storytelling (for the better and not totally dissimilar from the Baker years) but we have gotten the occasional dash of the old rogues gallery. The appearance of the Ice Warrior, a race that debuted during the Second Doctor days and appeared only a few times since (and never in the new series), continues the sense that this season will be positing a fairly big homage to Patrick Troughton's time on the show. Matt Smith often cites The Tomb of the Cybermen as his favorite serial of the old series, so this is no surprise.

Mark Gatiss' work within Doctor Who has been serviceable, if not outstanding. For the Eleventh Doctor, his script for Victory of the Daleks was an interesting take and at least had a creative conclusion, while last year's Night Terrors might have been the series at its most inessential, which is sadly a term I might use for the majority of his work thus far. His episodes have never been unwatchable, but they often do very little to elicit excitement, perhaps as they express far too much deference to the old series. With Cold War, Gatiss finally gives us an episode thats much more in-line with the work he's been doing in Sherlock, which is lean, visceral, and willing to take a few chances. For example, Gattis finally gets to make a mythos impact on the series by defining just what an Ice Warrior looks like underneath that armor. It may not seem like much, but that's a fairly huge moment for the long time fan. Once the Ice Warrior is free of his blocky armor, Gatiss's script goes into overdrive with the Doctor once again at a point where he is no longer "one step ahead", and is a very welcome choice. One quickly tires of The Doctor having the solution to every single problem at the drop of a hat, but lately we're getting a Doctor who is finding himself in far less comfortable environs and situations.

Gatiss also focuses in on Clara, as to be expected since her arc is fairly paramount here and there's very little room for filler episodes since we're on a high speed track toward the still untitled finale of the season. Filler being an area where a small bit of Season Six stuttered and the first half of Season Seven was almost entirely made of, I'm glad that momentum continues in a sense. Clara gets a nice scene with guest star David Warner, who at this point has to had appeared in just about every major science fiction franchise in some capacity or another. Warner's almost uncle-like discussion with Clara about Duran Duran and Ultravox was not only humorous, but much like her conversation with the Queen of Years last week, gives Clara an opportunity to show a side of a companion we don't get to see as often, which is situational fear. A young person cowering in the corner with an old man as her only protection makes alot of sense for someone who hasn't been doing this very long. Unlike the grand scale of the event that occurred in Akhaten, the threat was far more immediate here and Clara's reaction made perfect sense. 

I will also say, I loved the conversation between the Doctor and Clara as to why she can understand these Russian speakers, and vice versa. Before said explanation, I was willing to accept it as just a case of Doctor Who British-izing everything in its' universe, but Gattis' willingness to explain it away along with nice bits of humorous dialogue from Warner, "You speak wonderful Russian Clara, but sometimes I can't understand what you're talking about" that was absolute aces. Liam Cunningham, who was one of my favorite parts of last season of Game of Thrones, turns in a nice guest appearance as well. Playing the role of the straight man to the Doctor, we get a presence and role fulfilled that I'm not sure we've had since the Brigadier. I would love to see more of Cunningham's stoic and quite valiant character, who likely would have marched in and taken on the creature himself, Doctor or no Doctor. Though, my guess is he'll probably go the way of my other favorite one-story companion, Canton Delaware.

My two most pressing concerns, and they're very minor, about the episode were relayed into its ending. I thought the conclusion was a bit too similar to last week's episode, as well as a number of other stories recently where the companion ends up one-upping the Doctor's attempts at a solution. I understand its necessary to put the character on somewhat even footing with the Doctor, but I dislike the Doctor looking almost brutish when all that was needed was his companion's human touch. Additionally, the last scene was written and framed in a way that it looked almost like a sitcom. The idea of the TARDIS vanishing and going off to who knows where is certainly an interesting one but then when the line of dialogue hit about catching a ride to the south pole and the Captain just laughs before they ride off was just "too happy" an ending if such a thing is possible. I half-expected him to say "Oh Doctor!" and a laugh track to roll. I particularly hope to not see the former again next episode if it can be helped or I may start to worry.

In all, it was quite a homerun for Mark Gatiss, who hasn't been on the good graces of the more critical fandom in some time, and it puts Doctor Who on a real roll now. Next week we get another Neil Cross episode, if it's anywhere near as good as last week's, then I'll know for sure that Doctor Who is back on the right track after last year's dismal start.

By the way, that better not be a romantic entanglement building up between Clara and The Doctor, if there's one angle about the Davies era I'd prefer seen left in the dust, its the Companion falls in love with the Doctor scenario. Hopefully Moffat is more clever than that, I'd like to think so.

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