I didn’t really enjoy the Eighties the first time I lived through them (though the pop music was very good) – and have clear memories of the Cold War (living next to two American and one British air base, focussed the mind on the nuclear issue somewhat) – and I haven’t relished reliving them in a somewhat concentrated form for the past week thanks to Kim Jong-un and the death of ‘that woman’. I did enjoy Mark Gatiss’s Cold War though – a beautifully tense and claustrophobic piece of television.
So, we’re on a Russian sub, below the North Pole in 1983 and we know the boat’s in trouble because Tobias Menzies is on board… (I’m only half-joking, his character Lt Stephasin has an itchy trigger finger, not great on a sub loaded with nuclear missiles.) Thankfully Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunnigham) is clearly a man of calmer temperament, and less eager to destroy the world.
Of course, it’s not Stephasin’s keenness to counter US ‘sabre-rattling’ that’s about to place the Earth on the sharpest point of the Cold War’s knife edge, it is Professor Grisenko – the laid-back, Walkman-wearing, Western pop-loving man who has dug up some ice cap to take back to the Motherland. I’ve seen enough sci-fi to know that nothing could induce me to bring home as much as a flake of polar snow – there’s always something lethal in polar ice.
Suffice to say it’s not a mammoth in the block of ice, but an Ice Warrior, which promptly attacks and sends the sub plummeting towards the sea bed. The Tardis materialises in time for the Doctor to arrest their descent on a ridge 700 metres below the surface, but dematerialises (the Doctor eventually explains he’s been fiddling with the settings and that it took itself out of harm’s way) almost immediately stranding our time travellers. After last week, I’m sure lots of people will have been pleased to see the Doctor have to work without the sonic screwdriver for much of the episode too.
I loved the scene where the Doctor and the Ice Warrior meet for the first time (“It never rains but it pours”), the layers of Who history there on Matt Smith’s face to be read by those who know it (for those who don’t, a precis: Ice Warriors are not out and out villains, but they are deadly and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of them), the Doctor’s neat reply to the Captain’s line: “Martian? You can’t be serious?” – “I’m always serious. With days off”, and the neat rugpull that Mark Gatiss pulls on the Doctor after all his peace-making and empathising as the Warrior gives his name and the Doctor realises they’re in really big trouble. Followed by the shock as Stephashin makes the huge mistake of electrocuting Skaldak and signing the death warrant of every human on the planet.
Cold War, like Dalek (New Who series 1), makes a single alien more menacing than an army of aliens, and creates a genuine feeling of peril. This episode shares other features too – the alien does something unexpected (Skaldak sheds his armour, the Dalek levitated – and made all those staircase jokes suddenly, horribly unfunny) and it has nothing to lose (both believe they are the last of their kind, with nothing to lose).
Other things that made me happy this week:
- The Captain ‘smells’ that the Doctor is a soldier.
- Stephashin’s desperate bid to work with Skaldak after being embraced in what looks like a Vulcan mindmeld. Perhaps just an attempt to save his skin (as well as a neat bit of exposition), but almost certainly a genuine wish to win the Cold War for the USSR.
- There’s more to the Doctor’s line “You. History is in flux, it can be rewritten” than a warning that ‘mutually assured destruction’ can still happen, right? The question remains why is it being rewritten where Clara is concerned?
- The neat version of the ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t something out to get you’ joke as Onegin gets whisked into the ceiling.
- The idea that ‘it’s a young man’s game all this dashing about’ – tell that to the 1000-year-old Time Lord.
- The tantalising glimpses of Skaldak without his ‘shell-suit’. They certainly had Hat Jr impatient to see what he really looked like.
- The coming full circle with the songs of the ‘old times’, though it grieves me to recognise that Hungry Like The Wolf is now music from an old time.
- The Doctor taking the mickey out of the Captain laughing at him as the episode draws to a close. Anyone who lived through Eighties TV will know exactly where that comes from.
Full marks from Hat Towers for this one. See you next week for Hide, which looks gloriously spooky.
Posted by Jo the Hat