“My people are dead, they are dust. There is nothing left for me except my revenge.”
A very nostalgic episode of Doctor Who this week, as we saw the return of a classic 60s ‘monster’ beloved by the fans but in no way as embedded in popular culture as the Daleks or the Cybermen. The Ice Warriors were back, in a genuinely interesting period piece that revisited one of the most defining aspects of the 80s without miring itself in big shoulder pads or terrible hairstyles.
For those of us who grew up in the 80s, the looming threat of nuclear armageddon was probably a more all-encompassing menace than Thatcher and a bigger cultural phenomenon than New Romance. It was, as we all knew, the ‘Cold War’. What better war to reintroduce the cyber-augmented reptiles from the freezing planet Mars – the so-called ‘Ice Warriors’?
The Ice Warriors (name coined by a minor human character in their first story, which uncannily turned out to be what they were always known as) are one of Doctor Who’s more inventive aliens; inventive in the sense that, unlike the Daleks or the Cybermen, they had individuality, depth, and a proper culture.
We saw, in their first few stories, that they could be bad guys. Then, along with the Doctor, we had to face up the idea that as individuals, they might be capable of good as well as bad. 1972’s The Curse of Peladon is a groundbreaking story, the first demonstration that ‘monsters’ were actually people, and that it might not be the case that an entire race were ‘bad’ even if the ones we’d seen up to that point were.
As a result, the Ice Warriors have become something of a fan favourite, their ‘honourable warrior’ culture much explored in the Virgin New Adventures and other such fan fiction. But this is their first appearance on your actual television since 1974’s The Monster of Peladon, where they were back to being the baddies. So how did they fare?
Well, it was a script by Mark Gatiss, whose work has been somewhat variable on the show. A huge fan, whose Virgin novel Nightshade was genuinely superb, as a TV writer he’s rocketed from the excellent The Unquiet Dead to the fun but inconsequential The Idiot’s Lantern and then the pretty awful toy relaunch Victory of the Daleks. His work has been so variable, I’ve come to think of it as rating on a ‘Gatiss scale’. Cold War, on that scale, is better than Victory of the Daleks, on a par with The Idiot’s Lantern, but not quite up there with The Unquiet Dead.
On top of being an Ice Warrior re-introduction and a period piece, Cold War also took on the tall order of being a genre piece too – a submarine movie, like Das Boot, Crimson Tide or my all-time favourite, 1957’s The Enemy Below. On that score, it didn’t work out too well. Those movies depend on actual conflict, while this utilised the claustrophobic submarine setting but little else.
Nevertheless, it (perhaps intentionally) reminded me of another aquatic Who story – the less than classic Warriors of the Deep, itself a re-introduction of sorts for classic monsters the Silurians and the Sea Devils. Warriors of the Deep was actually made at the height of the real Cold War, and reimagined it in a future setting. It was still an obvious allegory for the situation that was, at that point, current.
Mark Gatiss, a child of the 80s every bit as much as me, obviously had his own adolescence as sullied as mine by the threat of nuclear holocaust. With that in mind, it was refreshing that he chose to set his story on a sub belonging to the ‘enemy’ – the Soviet Union. The sub (not, as far as I noticed, named) was populated by the usual Gatiss cast of varying depth (pun intended).
Commander Zhukov (presumably named after WW2 Marshal Georgi Zhukov) was played with some dignity by the excellent Liam Cunningham, Game of Thrones’ similarly seaborne Ser Davos Seaworth, but not really given any more depth than the standard ‘base commanders’ of the Troughton episodes this was reminiscent of. Less, really; he was more like the forgettable Commander Vorshak from Warriors of the Deep.
His (I assume) political officer Lieutenant Stepashin was a good enough performance from Tobias Menzies (especially his doomed attempt to ally himself with the Ice Warrior), but an obvious lift of Tomas Arana’s rather more threatening equivalent in The Hunt for Red October. The rest of the crew, sad to say (even the pretty James Norton as Onegin) were given little more depth than the average Star Trek redshirt.
With the exception of David Warner as the New Romantic-obsessed Professor Grisenko. Warner, a firm genre favourite and veteran of more Star Trek roles than is reasonable, is one of the greatest Doctors we never had, having given us a glimpse of how good he could have been in two ‘alternate Doctor’ Big Finish audio stories. Here, he was as charismatic as ever – I never expected to hear him sing Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ – but while the part was good, and he was good in it, I couldn’t help feeling that his long-awaited appearance in Doctor Who should have been something more significant than, essentially, a comedy bit part.
But what of the Ice Warrior, thawed out in minutes under very similar circumstances to the creatures’ original appearance? On that, Gatiss did really well, exploring aspects of Brian Hayles’ creations we’d always theorised about but never actually had spelled out. It was a given from their very first story that they had some kind of cybernetic augmentation, and certainly their built-in sonic weapons (little used here) were not the product of natural evolution.
Gatiss here did what we’d always wanted – demonstrated that the big green carapace was a removable suit of cybernetic armour. And also that, out of his armour, Grand Marshal Skaldak was at least as much of a threat as he was in it. Douglas Mackinnon’s clever, old-style direction steered clear of showing us the unmasked Warrior until the very last minute – a good strategy, as it turned out, as I wasn’t entirely convinced by the CG facial expressions. Nonetheless, as it stalked the sub picking off unwary crew members, the creature was (again presumably intentionally) a credible threat reminiscent of the original Alien.
And to add menace, we discovered that the armour could be used as a weapon in itself, as Skaldak summoned the empty suit to gun its way tot the command deck. We also learned more of the (somewhat Klingon-inspired) Martian code of honour; Skaldak’s hostility was basically a reaction to the Russians having started the fight, and he was honour-bound to meet them in combat. Discovering (he thought) that his people had died off during his 5000-year slumber, his bitterness against a race whose nations he didn’t distinguish between was understandable. And more than a little affecting, with his stories of his past, and the combat alongside his daughter in “the red snow”.
Matt Smith was (as usual) on good form as the Doctor, though he seemed to slip into Tennant’s ‘Estuary English’ accent at one point. The aspect of the Third Doctor overcoming his (understandable) prejudice against the Ice Warriors, and realising their race could be good as well as bad, was a central plot point of The Curse of Peladon. Here, it seemed like a lesson learned, but the point was well-made that, whatever the Doctor thought of himself, Skaldak would see him as a ‘soldier’ every bit as much as the Russians.
So, as is often the case since 2005, it was his companion who saved the day. There wasn’t much of the self-conscious ‘arc’ stuff about Clara this week, which thankfully gave Jenna-Louise Coleman a chance to showcase her character on its own terms. She is, as we know, the standard Moffat self-reliant spunky young woman; I still find her a little identikit in that regard. But that’s no disrespect to the actress, and Coleman was enjoyable here. Her belated acceptance of Grisenko’s invitation to sing ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ was the tipping point that stayed Skaldak’s hand in mercy, reminding him of his daughter singing. It was both amusing and touching.
Aside form the obvious nostalgia value of the Ice Warriors returning, we also got the fanboy-pleasing reference to the HADS – Hostile Action Displacement System – not used or even referred to since 1969’s The Krotons. It was more than a fan-pleasing gesture though, effectively answering the obvious question I asked early on – “why doesn’t the Doctor get everyone out of there in the TARDIS?” Still, alongside last week’s oblique reference to Susan, it’s plain we’re getting 60s references to celebrate the 50th anniversary year. No bad thing, in my opinion; the references aren’t so central as to alienate new fans who won’t get them, and give a little thrill to those of us who do.
All told, while I thought the story wasn’t that inventive, this was an excellent re-introduction of a classic alien – probably the best since 2005’s Dalek. I hope they’ll be back. I also hope that, if they are, the nuances of their culture seen here are retained, and they don’t just become another Big Bad.