Monday, April 15, 2013

Television Review: Doctor Who – The Cold War

I haven’t done a Doctor Who recap in a long time (because the number of people reading them versus how labor-intensive they were for a single day’s post didn’t work out), but the vastly differing levels of entertainment that I got out of “The Rings of Akhaten” and “The Cold War” have inspired me.
            As I briefly mentioned on last week’s Earth Station Who, I was just shy of hating “The Rings of Akhaten”. I loved the setting, I liked Clara’s oddly easy acceptance and recognition of the TARDIS’ sentience, and The Vigil looked cool. Everything else ranged from disposable to outright terrible.
The bit with Clara having to give up something personal for a ride on a rocket bike felt very artificial and hollow. It almost seemed cruel of the Doctor to be forcing her to do it. I could have accepted that from Doctor Seven, but thus far Eleven has been a velvet glove over an iron hand; so to speak.
The singing was just awful. It might have been acceptable if everybody weren’t singing in English. The lyrics were just dumb. It was utterly unnecessary for the audience to understand the words. We still would have gotten the point of the song because various characters explained it several times throughout the episode.
The face on the giant sun god was cringe-inducing. Another overly-demonstrative detail.
Actually, it only just now occurs to me that this might be a great episode for children. One of the main characters is a little girl, there’s singing, lots of interesting creatures, no intense action or violence, and the narrative is very easy to follow even if some of the ideas don’t make a lot of sense. I’m going to have to watch this one with Lil’ Troublemaker and see if my theory bears out. If it does, I might just have to reassess my rating.
Side Note: I wasn’t actually on the “Akhaten” episode of ESW because me and the missus went to see Event Horizon at the Plaza Theater’s Splatter Cinema. I hated to miss a recording, but we couldn’t reschedule this week and Mrs. Troublemaker and myself do not get enough date nights that we could pass one up. Needless Things Podcast co-host Mr. Beau Brown subbed in for me and did a fantastic job. I did manage to call in to introduce Beau and give a quick review, so you should still check it out. Oh, and I gave “Akhaten” 2 out of 5 TARDISes.
Okay, so as of right now I am not a fan of “Rings of Akhaten”. But I was still excited about “The Cold War”. It featured the return of the Ice Warriors (or an Ice Warrior) and also guest starred Liam Cunningham (Davos from Game of Thrones) as a submarine commander. Those two elements alone were enough to overcome the fact that the entire story appeared to take place on a submarine. I don’t have anything against submarines, per se, but a single cramped, interior setting for an entire Doctor Who story isn’t the most exciting idea.
The story opens in 1983 aboard a Soviet submarine. The Cold War is at its height and tensions are high amongst the crew. Captain Zhukov is dutiful but not eager to utilize the sub’s nuclear arsenal. His First Mate is not so reluctant. All of this is communicated to the audience in just a few minutes. Then the action starts. We leave the command crew and move to another part of the sub where a sailor is examining a huge block of ice with a somewhat familiar shape inside. The sailor references a professor who thinks the ice contains a mammoth and wants to wait until the ship reaches port to defrost their find. The sailor isn’t going to wait. He uses a torch to start melting the ice, the shape inside moves and makes some very Predator-like noises, and then an armored hand thrusts out of the ice and chokes the mess out of the sailor. Curiosity kills and all that and we go into the title sequence.
Speaking of which, I absolutely love everything about the new titles. The visuals are chaotic and an excellent representation of the feel of Doctor Who. They’re modern, but with traces of Classic Who – lots of tunnels and the new Matt Smith face fade-away. The new version of the theme song is my favorite of the modern versions. It has a similar orchestral performance to the others, but a very classic, synthesized rhythm portion that makes me very happy and gives me the nerd chills. And I like the TARDIS doors opening on the episode at the end.
After the titles we see that releasing the Ice Warrior was a terrible idea. The guy is wreaking havoc on the sub and killing sailors left and right. I didn’t quite catch how his path of destruction resulted in the sub taking on water, but it did. While Captain Zhukov and the First Mate are in the control room trying to figure out what the heck is going on, the TARDIS arrives. This was an interesting difference in almost every other TARDIS arrival in that usually it will materialize in a cargo bay, an abandoned corridor, or a little used chamber of some sort. Very rarely does it ever happen in front of people. This time it materialized in the middle of the control room, right in front of everybody. It was an interesting device to move the story along and skip past most of the usual bits where the supporting cast have to wonder why they should listen to the Doctor.
As soon as the familiar blue police box solidifies the Doctor pops out of the doors wearing Elvis sunglasses and says, “Viva Las V…” and is interrupted by the violent lurching of the submarine and the water spraying all over the place. Clara tumbles out of the TARDIS with him. Realizing the severity of the situation, the Doctor dashes back across the control room towards the TARDIS, which promptly dematerializes.
I feel that if the Doctor were the sort of person who says “shit”, then he most certainly would have said “shit”. But Matt Smith’s tremendous ability to express without words did the job. His face was clearly saying “shit”.
Side Note: Matt Smith in Elvis shades>David Tennant in 3D glasses
The sub is obviously in the midst of disaster, on the brink, of destruction, on the precipice of pulverization; so there is minimal discussion of who the Doctor is and what he’s doing there when he starts giving orders to the crew. It is very quickly established Captain Zhukov is going to be his pal and the First Mate isn’t. Using the trusty ol’ Sonic Screwdriver, the Doctor determines that there is a ledge that the rapidly descending submarine can be guided to. Captain Zhukov tells his crew to follow their new passenger’s orders and the submersible ends up balanced on the ledge, safe for the time being.
The visuals in this episode are excellent. All of the exterior shots of the submarine look great and didn’t have a fakey CGI quality to them at all. Few things take me out of a story faster than poorly-done CGI like we saw in last week’s rocket bike scenes.
Now that the situation has stabilized Captain Zhukov decides he needs some answers about what this dude in a bowtie and this cute girl are doing in his vessel. There’s some discussion, but before things can get too familiar (boring) for long-time Doctor Who fans, our pal the Ice Warrior shows up behind the Doctor. This was the classic scene where everybody else but the protagonist sees what is standing behind him. In the hands of a less competent cast and crew this scene could have come off as incredibly stale and clichéd, but between the tight camera work and some fun acting from the cast it provided exactly the nervous humor that the director (and writer, I suppose) intended.
After the inevitable commercial break (which made the prior scene a bit of a Classic Who cliffhanger), we come back and the Doctor is doing what he does – talking. He finds out that this Ice Warrior’s name is Skaldak and he is basically the Perseus of the Ice Warriors – a legendary hero. The military guys are doing what they do – trying to shoot. The Doctor manages to stop them, but before he can make any headway with the armored giant one of the sailors zaps it from behind with a cattle prod. Shit.
Side Note: I appreciated that the presence of a cattle prod on board a submarine was explained later in the episode. Sometimes when the sub surfaces in ice they have to deal with polar bears. Now, I don’t know if that’s nonsense or not, but it was a good enough answer for me.
The crew chains the incapacitated Skaldak up in one of those little-used chambers I mentioned so that the Doctor will have time to give some exposition. It’s hard to talk when a huge, armored reptile is crashing about all willy-nilly. After they chain him up, the reptilian soldier activates a distress signal that should bring his people to hi location. After a time it becomes clear there will be no response. The Doctor later points out that this has left the alien with no hope, making him much more dangerous.
The Doctor explains that the Ice Warriors are a race of armored reptiles from Mars. Since he has been attacked he will now swear vengeance on the entire human race because the Ice Warrior’s motto is, “Attack one of us and you attack us all” or something similar. Captain Zhukov is a bit skeptical, but the Doctor points out that skepticism is ridiculous given what’s happened so far in the episode and because Captain Zhukov is this week’s Doctor’s Pal he relents. But he’s not totally the Doctor’s pal because when the Doctor says he needs to go and talk to the Ice Warrior and iron all this out Captain Zhukov isn’t having it. But Captain Zhukov can’t do it either because to Skaldak he is The Enemy. They decide that Clara is an acceptable alternative because it’s the only way to have her do something useful in the episode. Seriously – that’s the only reason I can come up with. I wasn’t quite clear on why Captain Zhukov – who had by that point accepted the Doctor as a time-traveling alien and a non-hostile – didn’t want the Time Lord talking to the alien. Or why Clara, who arrived with the Doctor, was okay. Especially considering the Doctor ends up being the one that tells Clara what to say.
But when an episode of Doctor Who is good, I am willing to overlook little things like that. And so far, “The Cold War” is very good. And also, because Doctor Who.
Clara enters the makeshift prison chamber wearing a hilariously 80s-looking headset and starts talking to Skaldak, who is chained to some pipes. The Doctor is guiding her through some chit-chat the is pretty much incidental because the whole point of the scene is Clara being brave and approaching the Ice Warrior only to discover that it’s just the armor chained up and the Martian itself has escaped. What follows is a pleasantly Hammer Horror-esque scene of cute young girl being stalked by an unseen monster. Lots of camera action and scared looking around while the Ice Warrior makes those Predator noises. They did a great job with the speech and sounds of the Ice Warrior.
The Doctor and the sub crew come running, but the unarmored Ice Warrior bolts past them just as they arrive at the hatch to find Clara unharmed.
I haven’t mentioned Professor Grisenko, played by David Warner. The Professor is the one that found the Ice Warrior-cicle (merchandising opportunity). He has – being a Man of Science – been in favor of the Doctor pretty much from the start. Also, he walks around listening to New Wave music on a Walkman. There a couple of funny jokes worked in about that. There’s a scene after Clara’s ordeal with the now-naked Ice Warrior where the Professor tries to convince her to sing “Hungry Like the Wolf” as a way to calm her nerves. Warner was awesome and charming as Professor Grisenko to the point where I’d like to see him again. It was probably nothing, but at one point he told Clara, “Courage, my dear,” which for some reason put me in mind of both William Hartnell and Peter Davison.
Obviously by this point the audience wants to see an unarmored Ice Warrior. But at the same time, I really didn’t. And I’m pleased to say that for the most part the creature remains in shadows. We see his hands clearly when he is pursuing his favorite pastime of grabbing human’s heads. We also see his head fairly well, though the creators wisely used shadows to conceal the inferiority of the CGI. I like very much that the Ice Warrior leaving his armor was a narrative device more than it was a gimmick. It was still definitely the latter, used to create an exciting and surprising moment. But they didn’t make it feel exploitative by just straight-up showing us the Martian.
Speaking of surprises, there’s a nice scene where it looks like Captain Zhukov and the Doctor have the Ice Warrior cornered. He’s up in the ceiling and the Captain and his men have guns pointed at it. But just as they’re about to put an end to things, the suit of armor comes clanking down the corridor and the Martian hops back in, once again becoming nigh-invulnerable.
Skaldak heads straight for the control room, determined to unload the submarine’s nuclear arsenal on Earth and its inhabitants. The Doctor and company arrive just in time and the Doctor does the whole “I’m going to talk at you until I think of something” bit. Clara joins in as well, but the Martian seems determined to unleash his vengeance. Finally, the Doctor threatens to destroy the submarine and everybody on it, syncing his Sonic Screwdriver to the missile launching computer (which changes the Sonic’s emitter to a pink color – something I can’t remember seeing before). Skaldak doubts the Time Lord’s veracity. The Doctor does some more talking and for reasons I didn’t quite catch seems to convince the Warrior not to blow everything up. And just as he’s looking all thoughtful and stuff, an Ice Warrior ship – charmingly disc-shaped – shows up in the sky above the ice and beams him up.
But the day isn’t won yet. The Doctor says that Skaldak has the frequency for the launching computer and could still activate the missiles. But he doesn’t. Not only that, the Martians bring the submarine up to the surface before they leave. Zhukov, the Doctor, Clara, and everybody else pop out of the hatch and look around at the icy landscape. The Doctor gets a message on his Sonic Screwdriver and sheepishly tells Clara that he’s the one that reactivated the system that compels it to dematerialize when it comes under attack (this is a narrative device that has been used before). The TARDIS is now at the South Pole, prompting the Doctor to ask Zhukov for a lift. That made me laugh.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story. The characters were all great, the setting was very cool – similar to the cramped spaceships of Classic Who, and the Ice Warrior looked and sounded fantastic. There were a few plot points that didn’t quite gel, but I can overlook them because the rest of the story was so great.
4 out of 5 TARDISes
I’m happy to see that last week’s misfire was an aberration (similar to “The Power of Three”) and I’m very excited about next week’s ghost story. I don’t know that I’ll attempt another recap, but you can tune into Earth Station Who each and every week to find out what me and the rest of the ESW crew think.
Side Note: My theory bore out - I watched "Akhaten" with Lil' Troublemaker and he liked it and said he'd watch it again. I realized just how Disney the episode was - Clara has a dead parent and there's lots of singing. I still didn't like it, but judging from my son's reaction he gave it a 3.5 out of 5. I may not do half scores, but he does. I guess. I also just this very second found out that Mrs. Troublemaker loved it.


  1. My thoughts on Akhaten are pretty close to yours. Plus, you know how much I love a musical episode. Yes, that was sarcasm. :)

    Cold War was much better for me. I enjoyed it. My brother asked a question about how the TARDIS translation circuits were still working once the TARDIS leapt to the other side of the planet. My answer: Because Doctor Who.


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    2. I've watched Cold War three times now(!) and still dig it quite a bit. It might be one of my Top Ten of New Who. Certainly of Matt Smith's run so far. It's just a very tight, well-done story. Very little to distract from the main plot, and that's not something you can say about very many post-Davies stories.