Sunday, 14 April 2013

Doctor Who: Cold War (Episode Review)

A common criticism of Christopher Nolan’s cinematography is that he seems to have skipped basics to play about with the fun stuff. Things like how to shoot fight scenes, stage certain actions and edit together stuff tend to have a lot of basic errors in them despite their quality. The same thing seems to apply to the Doctor Who writing staff. They skip so many elements of basic storytelling they end up repeatedly breaking the “show don’t tell” endlessly in this. This has become a serious problem and Cold War is just the latest example of their failings.

Set at an undetermined date during the Cold War, a Soviet nuclear submarine is engaging in training manoeuvres in the North Pole. At the same time it is transporting a scientist and his latest find back to the mainland for further study. Unfortunately someone decides it would be a great idea to thaw the alien out en route and within moments a very angry Ice Warrior begins wrecking the submersible. As the sub crashes into the sea floor the Doctor arrives, but soon they find themselves at even greater risk than they know…

Let’s talk about that event at the beginning for a moment, where the Ice Warrior, Skaldak, is thawed out. Not only does the opening abruptly jack-knife into showing this but it makes no effort to make things seem natural. It literally cuts to someone saying “I'M IMPATIENT! IT WOULD BE A FANTASTIC IDEA TO THAW OUT THIS ALIEN ‘ERE!” All without the slightest hint of intelligence or awareness of how bad this would be. No mention is made of what his actions might screw up. No mention is made of the possibility of it carrying diseases. No caution for damaging the subject or even mention of it possibly still being alive is made. It is wrong in every conceivable way and begins to episode’s biggest sin.

Not only is the episode driven almost entirely by the idiocy of the characters but it doesn’t even try to make it feel natural. You’re never broken into or have the characters established or time take to even lampshade their foolish actions. Their behaviour is so dumb that they make mistakes are things which should be written out in a first draft!

For example, an alien warrior is loose on the ship. He has already proven himself a threat and the Doctor has repeatedly explained how bloodthirsty he is, with examples no less. He has also heard the Ice Warrior itself stating that it’s bent upon killing all of humanity in an act of vengeance. After the alien gets loose again, traps one officer and seems bent upon killing them all, what does he do? Not only tells it the world’s on the verge of mutual destruction via nuclear Armageddon, but also that the sub has weapons that could trigger it. His apparent reasoning for this is that he thinks the Ice Warrior can be convinced to side with them and defeat America.

What’s his prior characterisation? Being so trigger happy and zealous that he thinks the Doctor and Clara are American spies and Skaldak is a NATO experimental war-machine. After he has seen the TARDIS arrive and knows the Ice Warrior was trapped in the ice for five thousand years.

Now understand that half the frigging cast are like this and the rest are extremely ill defined. There are only four additional characters besides the regulars important to the plot, and all of them are either extremely generic or one dimensional. David Warner, yes he’s in this, really manages to make something out of nothing with an insanely flat, one note and barely distinct character. One who is supposed to have major impact upon Clara, and yet were it not for Warner’s inflections and details, would phase into the background. The same goes for Liam Cunningham as Captain Zhukov who you could replace with any number of background military characters from Doctor Who alone. It’s also saying something that even with the great performance the actors give, you’ll be lucky to remember their names by the end.

The only real standout here is Skaldak, who comes across as genuinely threatening. Injecting far more terror into the tale than any previous story his race featured in and is built up to be interesting to the audience. Without him this story would have crumpled in upon itself, but even here there are a huge number of problems. The Doctor repeatedly goes out of his way to reason with him and describe him as honourable when, for all intents and purposes, he is acting like a monster. This is put down to a very different morality system, but he attempts to wipe out the whole of humanity for revenge against a minor infraction against him. Not to mention comes close to murdering David Warner, who is playing as a harmless old scientist who is of no threat to him. It’s hard to be accepting of this when his morality is not only repulsive, listing genocide as an acceptable response to assault, but outright insane.

This also has to be the laziest excuse for the Doctor to show up I’ve seen yet. Apparently the writers are so hellbent upon cutting corners that he shows up as the disaster is taking place in an utterly jarring way, with little explanation. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-line explaining he thought the TARDIS had arrived at Las Vegas, explaining his and Clara’s outfits, but it still feels incredibly jarring. In things like The Idiot's Lantern, written by the same writer who did this story, at least ten seconds were spent explaining the Doctor had gotten the time wrong. It also wasn't shoved into the middle of an action scene where it could be easily missed.

That being said there are some good elements to this.

The setting and lighting details add a level of claustrophobia to the story to help enhance the terror of having a monster running lose, and the writers clearly did their research. With a few minor moments involving Soviet values and attitudes during that time having been gotten right. Furthermore when the episode actually takes a moment to slow the hell down we get some genuinely nice scenes. A moment where Clara is questioning why they can’t just leave, and her certainty everything will turn out fine, is a good call-back to something similar from the Pyramids of Mars. Not to mention that the few moments of humour used here are actually quite funny.

The redesign of the Ice Warriors is also up to par with those which have come before it. Quite possibly this is the best one we’ve seen since the daleks were reintroduced all the way back in 2005. Much of their unnecessary bulk has been removed in favour of a much more dextrous and muscular look which radiates menace. Revealing what the Ice Warriors look like beneath their armour, at least with their faces, was definitely a mistake however. Matt Smith is also as good as always and there were a few subversions of old tropes which were nice. As a return of an old foe though? They really dropped the ball here.

This is quite possibly the worst returning episode for an old foe we’ve had since the Great Intelligence was brought back in The Snowmen. It rushes through things, details are lost at the sheer breakneck speed the story moves at and there’s nowhere near enough time to develop anything. After Night Terrors there was some hope that Mark Gatiss had improved beyond things like Victory of the Daleks, but this was just atrocious. Still better than Dinosaurs on a Spaceship admittedly but nowhere near the quality we’ve come to expect from the show.


Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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