Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Cold War"

"One push and all Classic Who fans will be eliminated..."
Given that RTD was in charge first to reintroduce the biggest Classic-era villains, but only resurrected the Sontarans and the Nestene and Autons from the remaining stock of recurring villains, it's been left to Moff to bring back the leftovers of the somewhat-known opponents of the Doctor, first with the Silurians in their rather bizarrely mammalian offshoot in Series 5 and now with another race of reptile rapscallions, the Ice Warriors, last seen in 1974's dreary Third Doctor shameless rehash serial "The Monster of Peladon". This was a laboured plodder which was a sequel to an excellent earlier Third Doctor adventure, "The Curse of Peladon". One of the many things which made this serial interesting was that the Ice Warriors, who had appeared as enemies to the Second Doctor in two serials, "The Ice Warriors" and "The Seeds of Death", were revealed in a twist to actually be on the same side as the Doctor in the original Peladon story, despite his mistrust of them. "The Monster of Peladon" undid this clever character development by reverting them back to being the villains, although this was explained in a bit of cop-out dialogue as being only a rogue element of the Martian military with most of the Ice Warriors, off-screen, still firmly on the side of good. It's a mediocre story and the last we see of the Ice Warriors until now, where apparently after much pleading by Mark Gatiss they're finally returned to our television screens. Let me give you an episode pitch for an Ice Warrior story we could have had but which the New Series would never bother to do in a million years: Clara wonders if humans ever colonise Mars; the Doctor endeavours to show her, but arrives either too early or too late during a period of Ice Warrior supremacy. The Ice Warriors are under attack by some enemy whom the Doctor has to help them defeat. We get an alien but not too unfamiliar location, some action and some discourse because the big green guys are now the friendly locals in need of help. Too easy. Shame we got this instead.
"I have ssslept for thirty-nine yearsss.
Where is Missster Pertwee?"
We find ourself on a Soviet submarine where everyone speaks the Queen's English in pleasant regionless accents; the Captain announces that they're about to destroy the world when he's interrupted by an old man loudly singing Ultravox's "Vienna" along with his casette player. It's the Eighties! It's the Eighties, everyone! There were nuclear tensions and cheesy synth pop in the Eighties! I can't hate Gatiss for some reason, possibly because he still feels like he's somewhat trying even though he rarely succeeds, but he writes with all the subtlety of a kick to the crotch. Turns out this apocalyptic moment was just a drill, which the lieutenant demands be repeated so that the crew can be as prepared as possible; lots of very ham-fisted dialogue gets tossed about between him and the captain about NATO "sabre-rattling" and "American aggression". The captain has the big beard so that you know he's the sensible one; the lieutenant has the stupid pointy sailor hat and smug bastard face so that you know he's the smug bastard one. He does remind me of a Classic Series obstructive secondary antagonist, but after voicing his opinion he flounces off in a huff. The captain asks the old man, a professor, about a block of ice on board, speculating that it's a mammoth. Cut to another room containing a man-sized block of ice with a visibly anthropomorphic shadow inside. How could anyone think that was a mammoth? The nearby sailor decides to not wait until the return to Moscow; he's just going to disobey orders with no motivation and unfreeze whatever this is now. Predictably enough, it reaches out and grabs him. Serves him bloody right. What if the episode had begun in Moscow with an Ice Warrior freshly defrosted and at risk of causing an international incident? I suppose that wouldn't be enough of a boring base-under-siege story, for which the politically correct term is "homage to the Troughton era."
When this sub's a rockin.
After the title sequence the Ice Warrior starts wreaking havoc, as they do. It's a reasonably conservative costume update as they go, rather sleek and suggestive of reptilian armour as opposed to the hairy green coconuts with arms and legs of yesteryear. It also lacks the classic LEGO man hands, now having a couple of big chunky fingers and a thumb like a Sontaran. While it's true that the classic Ice Warrior design would, sadly, be too 'rough' for modern audience consumption, this is a more genuine visual update than that which was afforded to the Silurians (with breasts and human faces), the Sontarans (baby-blue action figure armour and, again, human faces) and the Cybermen (don't get me started), still being evocative of the original design in regards to the segmentation and especially the helmet; it's largely the texture which is different. Put simply, it could be a lot worse, and sells the idea of a big green Martian soldier with red eyes as something impressive. Hopefully kids like it; it does look like a bit of a big toy. It's also voiced by Nick Briggs. Does he have to do all of them? In a shocking coincidence, just as this Ice Warrior's gone on the loose the TARDIS materialises exactly on the bridge of the submarine. Why couldn't it have landed on polar ice where the sub was resting or something? It's a particularly implausible entry for the Doctor and Clara, who burst out expecting Vegas. The Doctor swiftly earns the Captain's trust because the sonic screwdriver somehow magically tells him that the sub can still be steered laterally despite its sinking, and so the little model submarine in Gatiss' bathtub can be awkwardly brought to rest on a nearby rock formation like it's being dangled on a fishing line.
"You refuse to talk? The periscope colonoscopy it is!"
The Doctor needlessly gives Clara a brief run down of the period, with nuclear tensions, tacky fashion and so forth, remarking that "it's the Eighties, everything's bigger." Someone needs to print the words 'show don't tell' on a billboard and hang it outside these writers' houses. The Doctor gets searched and in the vein of Tom Baker et al has a load of random crap in his pocket like a Barbie doll and some toffee apples. Then the TARDIS pisses off for no particular reason and Clara rather arbitrarily passes out as the submarine chucks a wobbly. When she comes to she's in the corridor, but apparently no time has passed because they still haven't figured out that there's a rampaging Ice Warrior on board until he comes into view during a corny sequence where the Doctor has his back turned. Prior to this, however, he abandons all pretense due some waffle about not having the stupid psychic paper or whatever and blatantly tells the Captain "me and Clara, time travellers." Plot expediency is the order of the day, apparently, and the Captain swallows this without excess fuss. Now the Ice Warrior's in view. "It never rains, but it pours," the Doctor remarks, which inadvertently lampshades how absurdly contrived this whole scenario is. Forty-five minutes feeling a bit tight? The Professor reiterates that he thought he'd found a mammoth. Doesn't say much for Soviet qualifications. The Doctor replies that it's not a mammoth, but an Ice Warrior. Isn't 'Ice Warrior' technically an old standby term for them? Shouldn't they just be referred to as Martians?
"Tell your parentsss that I only cossst sssix
poundsss ninety-nine on the BBC online ssstore..."
It's believed that this particular Martian has been frozen for five thousand years; quite a rest. The Doctor makes a valiant effort to negotiate, which I don't object to, until the Ice Warrior reveals himself as a certain Grand Marshal Skaldak. Why does he look like an ordinary Ice Warrior soldier, then, rather than one of the 'Ice Lord' type characters with the bigger helmet, cape and what not? Anyway Skaldak gets zapped by the generically evil second in command, Stepashin, with a cattle prod. "You idiot," the Doctor complains. Smashing dialogue. The Smith reveals that Skaldak is a warrior of fearsome reputation, attributing loads of lame pseudo-medieval-sounding titles to him like "Sovereign of the Tharseesian Caste" and "Vanquisher of the Phobos Heresy", honorifics which could be held by any character in a pulp fantasy novel, and yes, I know Phobos is a moon of Mars. The Doctor demands that Skaldak be locked up. Why couldn't he be a nice Ice Warrior? Why couldn't he be "Grand Marshal Skaldak, Defender of Innocents and Founder of the Martian Institute for War Orphans"? But no, you need a nasty monster or else you can't have fight scenes. Skaldak regains consciousness chained up in the torpedo room I believe, complaining about his five thousand year nap. I wonder if he thinks it's five thousand Mars years, which is somewhere along the lines of nine thousand four hundred Earth years, Mars taking not quite twice the time to orbit the sun; he could have an even worse impression of the time scale. These are the kind of questions with which my mind occupies itself while watching boring New Who.
"Episssodesss two and three ressstored with animation?!?"
So the Doctor explains that the Ice Warriors are a bit cybernetic, their armour keeping them nice and cosy on their cold homeworld, which I believe is a new idea of Gatiss' invention which may explain why Skaldak's less of a large tropical drupe than we're used to. The Doctor makes a point of Skaldak being particularly dangerous. We keep hearing about the nuanced, complex culture of the Ice Warriors but we never see enough of it, just being teased by it during the episode's many meandering conversations. This one includes Clara wondering about being able to understand the Russians. Isn't she surprised that she can understand Skaldak, who's presumably speaking a Martian language? Incidentally, how can the Russians understand Skaldak? Did the TARDIS get them in on the translation circuits too? Does it just translate for any Johnny who's been near it recently or who's involved in the plot? Stepashin's having none of this waffle; he wants to act, believing it all to be a Western conspiracy. "The Cold War won't stay cold forever," he remarks. That's a serious piece of dialogue. He really comes across as unnecessarily, arbitrarily sinister, before once again flouncing out of another of these awfully roomy submarine chambers. The Doctor claims that the attack on Skaldak was a declaration of war, and that since he's sending a distress call to his Martian chums they need to talk to him, but everyone around are soldiers with whom any self-respecting Martian would not converse. The Doctor suggests going in himself, to which the Captain suggests that Skaldak would recognise him as a soldier too. Oop, suggestion that the Doctor's got a bit of a dark side! How confronting!
"Doctor, all this ham is giving me a heart attack."
We get a terribly cliché 'bicycle joke' as the Doctor flatly refuses to send Clara, the only "innocent" in the vicinity, to communicate with Skaldak, and guess what happens? We smash cut to her entering his chamber to do just that. It's very reminiscent of the plot of "Dalek", although as I recall Rose's encounter with the Dalek in that episode was largely accidental. I can't remember, to be honest, and I'm not going to look it up because I'd rather drink acid than rewatch parts of an RTD episode to try to figure out plot flow. A lot of people have complained that "Cold War" is a rip-off of "Dalek" but to be honest I think it's only in terms of a few set pieces rather than details. Clara has to recite a lot more pulp fantasy bollocks to Skaldak, like "by the moons I honour thee" where Skaldak complains that he shouldn't be chained up if he's not their enemy, which is a fair point, and only further emphasises how stock and unambitious this plot is. I do, however, think it's a wee bit cute when Clara does the Martian salute. Then Skaldak gets to have a Swords 'n' Sorcery rant about being "Fleet Commander of the Nix-Thassis" and how he "Sang songs of the old times, songs of the red snow." Um, okay? Do people realise that having characters reminisce about made up stuff usually sounds really cheesy, and especially cheesy if it's dressed up with some really generic poetic imagery? Starting to turn into little more than a scaly green Klingon, he gets himself really worked up, having a big cry about his long-dead action girl daughter, while the Doctor hastily reassures him about how "Your people live on" all over the galaxy and how "Mars will rise again." That sounds cool. Why couldn't we have seen it? Why are we stuck in a Soviet submarine with a bunch of two dimensional supporting characters?
"Is it not true that you feel nothing but the deepest,
blackest rancor for that walking vomit stain the world
calls Arnold Rimmer?"
 In a surprise twist that's about as shocking as someone rubbing their socks on the carpet and zapping you Clara discovers that Skaldak's vacated his armour, swearing revenge on the belligerent earth folk: "By the moons, this I swear." He sounds like an Asterix character, by Toutatis! He sweeps by Clara and the others unseen, their horrified expressions meant to fill our minds with wonder at what nightmarish creature might inhabit an Ice Warrior's scaly carapace. The Doctor deduces that, receiving no reply to his distress signal, Skaldak has assumed that his race is dead and, very originally, he has "nothing left to lose", suspecting that he's going to use the sub's missiles to start a nuclear war on the dance floor to wipe out all life on Earth. Bit of an overreaction isn't it? Meanwhile, Stepashin's sulking when his head and shoulders get groped by the big rubber hands of doom. Obviously it's meant to be scary as we're teased by the unseen presence of Skaldak, but it just looks ridiculous. I hope there was a guy squatting behind him with those two things on sticks. They remind me of the claws of Rimmer's self-loathing monster from the Red Dwarf episode "Terrorform", but that was an intelligent comedy. This just makes all the jabs about 'wobbly props and tin foil' look hypocritical. On the bridge, the Captain helpfully tells the crew that given the sub's damage they're probably all going to die, but nonetheless they need to help him avert a nuclear war, the prevention of which they now have no stake in due to the apparent inevitability of their watery demise. Frankly, I would have saved that part for later. Stepashin, like all good nasty second in commands, suggests an alliance to get war started on earth again, claiming that "we're both warriors." I always hate this kind of characterisation. He then goes on to explain the concept of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction for Skaldak and the thickies in the audience.
"Massage the shampoo into the scalp..."
Back on the bridge the Doctor tells Clara that "history's in flux, it can be changed," to explain how a nuclear war could occur. Apart from those bloody fixed points in time, huh? They split up to hunt down Skaldak, the Doctor gets the god damn sonic screwdriver back, and the Professor suggests they all sing a song: "Do you know 'Hungry Like the Wolf'?" he asks. "Duran Duran." For god's sake Gatiss, we get it! I don't mind Clara's remark that singing would help "If this was Pinocchio," but it comes at a price: this scene is followed by a maddeningly cliché horror set piece where one guy waffles into middle distance obliviously while his buddy is yanked into the ceiling by the big rubber hands of death. Upon discovering their hideously mutilated corpses the Doctor observes that Skaldak is being "forensic", discovering human strengths and weaknesses. Doesn't he just want to blow them up? While the Doctor's arseing about not doing very much as far as I can tell Clara chews the fat some more with the Prof. "Clara, what is it?" he asks her, apparently concerned despite his complete lack of inflection and the fact that Clara doesn't look especially distressed. It's a rare moment of understatement which goes too far in the opposite direction. Clara observes that seeing the corpses of the murdered sailors makes everything seem real. That's because someone actually died in Steven Moffat's New Who!
"You're the one that I want, one that I want,
Ooh hoo hoo!"
Skaldak's not the only one snaking around like a slippery reptile man; Matt Smith reappears and slides down corridors on his soles like he's about to burst into Jerry Seinfeld's apartment, still searching. It's a good thing this sub has really quite large corridors with separate crawl spaces for the alien to scoot around in. There's a bizarrely awkward conversation between Clara and the Prof where he demands to know if Ultravox split up, regurgitating the same joke for the third time, and Clara now gets grasped by the rubber hands of destruction. The Prof, luckily, is a fast-shootin' Tex who gets her out of hot water only to get his own head grasped. The Doctor shows up as Skaldak observes that "Martian law decrees that the people of this planet are forfeit." It's very similar to the Atraxi's whole "the human residence will be incinerated" thing from "The Eleventh Hour". Skaldak has to have a huge nihilistic breakdown because that's what you do when you're a New Who baddie. As he laments that there's nothing left but his revenge it can be observed that he's a big shadowy frog face hanging from the ceiling. The Captain bursts in insisting that "I will do whatever it takes to defend my world." Like with the whole time travel issue, he's unrealistically accepting of the cosmic scale which has suddenly been taken on by events. The Doctor tries to calm everyone down, reminding them that they need "jaw-jaw, not war-war", a quote immediately attributed to Churchill because New Who can't resist passing off explaining how clever it is.
"Don't worry, Chief, I'm always on duty."
Along the theme of people bursting into the room, Skaldak's armour lumbers in for a third dramatic entrance, directed by remote control. "Sonic tech, Clara," the Smith explains. "The song of the Ice Warrior." What? What song? His sonic control? Why does everything always have to be explained with amateurish faux-poeticisms? Every single time! Incidentally, why did they waste this really quite decent Ice Warrior costume on an episode where the Ice Warrior doesn't wear it for half the run time? Skaldak heads for the bridge, declaring that "now there will be a second red planet." Surely as a Martian he'd recall that Mars is really a sort of brown? "Red with the blood of humanity." Oh, really? I thought you were going to paint everything. Skaldak is much more effective in his chunky armour charging down a couple of hapless sailors with AK-47s (in a submarine?) than he is as a pair of big rubber hands and a shadowy frog face in the ceiling. It's a real missed opportunity. Once he's on the bridge, you might find yourself wondering how he'll activate this primitive alien technology, especially with his big chunky fingers. Well fortunately for him he has some telescoping Go-Go-Gadget tendrils which emerge from his fingertips perfectly capable of hijacking an 80s Soviet missile sub's firing system. The Doctor catches up and berates Skaldak for judging the innocents of Earth and suggesting he show the honour of mercy, or he'll use his screwdriver to blow up the ship. "I'm a TIME LOOOORD!" he yells dementedly, putting weird emphasis on those two words. "I know a thing or two about sonic technology." I thought sonic stuff was more a speciality of his, not a general Time Lord trait. They're not... 'Sound Lords'. To show that he means business the sonic screwdriver glows red at the end. How imaginative.
"Now if you'll excussse me, I need to appear
in a generic video game cutssscene..."
The Doctor demands that Skaldak look him in the eye, and so the Ice Warrior turns and confronts him, his big toothy frog face plopping out of his tight fitting helmet for pure shock value I suppose. The design's neither here nor there, although I think it spoils the illusion, but at least he doesn't have a human face. I kind of never distinguished between the helmet and what might be underneath; it's still reminiscent of how the Silurian snake faces were just masks. Clara questions why Skaldak didn't kill the Prof at her suggestion, implying that she reminds him of his daughter. Just when it's deeply unclear whether Skaldak's going to kill everybody or the Doctor is a magic beam of light lifts the sub all too rapidly to the surface, where it now sits despite the fact that it was sinking before, having smashed through the ice unscathed. The Martian ship has a rather eccentric design, with lots of silver and purple. I was expecting green. Skaldak teleports away, Clara sings a snatch of "Hungry Like the Wolf" for some reason and, in a display of mercy, our resident Ice Warrior deactivates the missile system. Clara gives the Doctor a hug and they all go up to the conning tower to stare at the ship. The TARDIS has relocated to Antarctica apparently, as a result of the HADS, or 'Hostile Action Displacement System', a concept not mentioned on TV since 1968 in "The Krotons"; just a pointless Classic reference. The Doctor asks for a lift, the Captain cracks up like it's the end of an Eighties cartoon, the Smith salutes the Martian ship and it pisses off. That's it.
This should have been a giant flying Ice Warrior head.
I barely even know how to describe "Cold War". It's a pointless episode where nothing happens, serving only to resurrect the Ice Warriors in a form presumably intended to sell action figures. The submarine crew are all complete cyphers with no character beyond some incredibly simplistic traits: Stepashin's a bastard who gets killed off halfway through, the Captain's mostly reasonable and the Prof's an eccentric who likes stereotypical Eighties music; that's all there is to them. I don't object to Skaldak being talked out of his plan because it's nice to see an antagonist with something approaching a conscience, who doesn't get blown up or kill himself by the end of the story, but there's a severe dramatic imbalance in the fact that he's never taken to account for the many lives he takes over the course of his unarmoured escapades; the Doctor even salutes him at the end. If he hadn't killed anyone it'd be fine, but it seems like the Doctor takes an uncharacteristically utilitarian approach, implying that individual lives don't matter in the face of nuclear catastrophe. That might almost be justified if it was suggested in any way through dialogue, but the Doctor pays almost no attention, in contrast to, say, the incident in "The Beast Below" where he thought that making the Space Whale into a vegetable was the most vaguely acceptable option, if still a bad one. Here, the Doctor calls Skaldak's bluff about wanting to annihilate humanity, but he never suffers any retribution for the actual murders he committed. No one seems to care about Skaldak's victims apart from a brief, awkward moment with Clara which is focused on her shock, and to me that's the episode's greatest flaw. That's on top of the fact that it's quite simply boring and unimaginative, a base-under-siege tale we've all seen a million times before, and it feels dull, stale and needless. I daresay the budget would not stretch to more than one costume, and so they made a weak compromise leading to a mediocre story. They could have done so many interesting things to bring back the Ice Warriors. This generic piece of cliché, which no writer should have been able to compose without realising its utter imaginative and dramatic bankruptcy, binning it and starting again, was not one of them.

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