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BBC1. 6.00 pm. 13.04.2013.
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
A particular trend over the last couple of years in Doctor Who has been episodes that are apparently based on recent popular films. There’s nothing new to the use of pastiche in Doctor Who, of course – scratch a Robert Holmes-era story and you’ll probably find a piece of Victorian popular literature beneath – but it seems to have become a lot more overt during the Steven Moffat era. So, back in Series 5, we had ‘Time of Angels’/’Flesh and Stone’, which, with its clerics/space marines led by a female specialist (River Song) fighting a deadly enemy on a crashed spaceship, owed something to Aliens. In Series 6 we had ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ – camp fantasy pirates with a ‘stroppy homicidal mermaid’ in the manner of Pirates of the Caribbean – and ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ – fun and games in 1930s Berlin in a sort of sanitised version of Inglorious Basterds. And so far in Series 7 we’ve had ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ (Escape from New York), ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ (Snakes on a Plane) and ‘A Town Called Mercy’ (Westworld meets The Terminator). This week it was Alien meets The Hunt for Red October mixed with a dash of Crimson Tide.
There’s nothing wrong with this strategy: it’s been a frequent device of telefantasy at least since the 1950s when an episode of William Tell reworked The Most Dangerous Game (‘The Man Hunt’, with Christopher Lee as the villain, and a characteristically fine villain as one would expect). In fact The Most Dangerous Game must be the most oft-remade and reworked story in Anglo-American popular culture: it has also seen service in episodes of The Saint (‘The Death Game’), Star Trek (‘The Savage Curtain’), Dick Turpin (‘The Fox’) and even The Simpsons (‘Survival of the Fattest’). Classic Doctor Who also used it for the Matrix sequences of ‘The Deadly Assassin’. Robert Holmes once famously said: ‘All you need is a strong, original idea. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your own strong, original idea.’ One of the first examples of this strategy in Doctor Who – what the postmodernists call pastiche or inter-textuality, what others might call borrowing, copying or plagiarism, if such a thing exists in popular genres – was the 1967 Patrick Troughton story ‘The Ice Warriors’. This makes so many visual and narrative allusions to the classic science fiction/horror film The Thing from Another World that it cannot have been accidental: indeed I found this borne out in the BBC Written Archives when I was researching the classic series.
In this sense ‘Cold War’ was both an Alien/Red October/Crimson Tide pastiche (and insert any other submarine movie you care to mention: I detected a few references to Morning Departure among others) and an homage to the classic era of Doctor Who. In fact I would go as far as to suggest that it was the closest that new Who has yet come to classic Who in format and style: claustrophobic setting, tensions running high, monster on the loose, fate of the world at stake. Especially the claustrophobic setting bit. In the 1960s, especially, stories like ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ and ‘The Web of Fear’ turned the budgetary and logistical limitations of Doctor Who into a virtue by using atmospheric sets, close cameras and acute angles to generate a real feeling of suspense and paranoia. New Who is much less bound by those limitations, so in that sense the decision to set ‘Cold War’ on board a submarine must be seen as a narratively-driven rather than an economically-driven decision. And it made for a cracking good episode.
The Ice Warriors are one of the iconic Doctor Who monsters, of course, introduced during the Innes Lloyd/Patrick Troughton era when Terry Nation’s attempt to launch the Daleks in America meant that the production team were looking for replacement recurring foes to the barking pepper pots. I always felt the Ice Warriors were one of the more interesting monsters in the classic series. Unlike the Daleks or Cybermen, they were not driven solely by an impulse to conquer and destroy, but rather were seeking to survive as their home planet became uninhabitable. And, like the Draconians, there was an attempt to sketch in the social and military hierarchy of a race with its own codes of behaviour and honour. This was developed further by Mark Gatiss in ‘Cold War’ through the titles associated with Grand Marshal Skaldak which suggests a feudal (though technologically advanced) and caste society.
‘Cold War’, then, is another example of the resurrection of a classic series monster in new Doctor Who. This was a frequent motif under Russell T. Davies with Daleks, Cybermen, the Master and Sontarans all returning to do battle with the Doctor again (and again, and again, as it turned out with the Daleks). It would probably be fair to say that this strategy was a mixed success. Series 1’s ‘Dalek’ successfully revived the Doctor’s most iconic enemy as a genuinely threatening and thoroughly nasty antagonist, though I felt the Daleks were over used in subsequent series, as they had been in the 1960s. The Sontarans were the least effective, I thought, losing all sense of menace with their chanting of a haka before battle and their childish resentment at their exclusion from the Time War: it seemed fitting that they switched over to The Sarah Jane Adventures. The old monster strategy has been less frequent under Moffat, with only the Silurians making an appearance in Series 5. Moffat has said that he thought all the best of the old monsters had been done (but what about the Zygons, Steven, or even, dare I say it, the Zarbi?) and it was Gatiss who prevailed upon him to reintroduce the Ice Warriors.
In fact the Ice Warriors appeared only four times in the classic series, which places them on a par with the Sontarans, and only in two stories, ‘The Ice Warriors’ and ‘The Seeds of Death’, were they out and out villains. In ‘The Curse of Peladon’ the Third Doctor learned that in the future the Ice Warriors have become allies of the Galactic Federation – an idea that anticipated what happened with the Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They had reverted to stock villains in ‘The Monster of Peladon’, though, again like Star Trek: The Next Generation, these turned out to be a renegade group, and it is entirely plausible that the Ice Warriors remain allies. Gatiss respects established continuity by setting this story in 1983, long before the formation of the Federation, at a time when the Ice Warriors can still be regarded as hostile.
Structurally, ‘Cold War’ stuck to much the same narrative template as Rob Shearman’s ‘Dalek’. It was posited on the threat of a single enemy running amok in a confined setting. The scene where Clara talks to the chained creature, and where the Ice Warrior’s armoured suit proves impervious to human firepower, were direct equivalents of scenes in ‘Dalek’. Another motif common to both episodes was the creature’s feelings of loneliness and isolation. Skaldak, reawakened after being preserved in ice for thousands of years, transmits a distress signal (‘Find me my brothers if you are still out there’) and, believing himself to be the last of his kind, embarks upon an nihilistic campaign of revenge (‘My world is dead, but soon this world will be a second dead planet’). Unlike in ‘Dalek’, however, Skaldak is not alone, with an Ice Warrior spaceship turning up at the end of the episode to teleport him off the submarine. One of the things I liked best about ‘Cold War’ was that the ending left open the possibility that the Ice Warriors might be seen again. Perhaps Skaldak’s decision not to trigger the nuclear warheads will, in the internal history of the Doctor Who universe, turn out to be a turning point in their relations with other species.
Otherwise there were some nice moments, including David Warner’s cameo as an Ultravox-loving Russian scientist. The Doctor once again asserts that ‘History is in flux, it can be changed, rewritten’ when Clara reasonably points out that a nuclear war did not break out in 1983: evidently this was not a fixed point in time! There were also some genuinely frightening moments, especially when Skaldak left his armoured suit. Douglas Mackinnon’s direction was highly effective here, employing the technique of Alien by withholding sight of the creature and even then showing it in fragments (claws, eyes) and positioning it in the shadows. Some of the references to what the Ice Warrior did to its human victims might have been a little too strong for younger viewers in the new 6 pm time slot for this episode. Altogether I thought this was Mark Gatiss’s best episode since ‘The Unquiet Dead’, and I hope he will have the opportunity to develop the Ice Warriors further in the future. ■
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.