Written by: Mark Gatiss
Guest Starring: David Warner, Liam Cunningham
Directed by: Douglas Mackinnon
During a mining and training run beneath the North Pole, the crew of a Russian submarine discover something hidden in the ice. Before too long, Mutually Assured Destruction is seeming all too real a possibility…
Now that’s a bit more like it!
After two episodes which have been more or less good, it falls to Mark Gatiss to really wow the audience. Cue the return of a fan-favourite antagonist, an enclosed space, a riff or two on ‘Alien’, and relax.
Gatiss has written for the show before, of course. His first contribution was ‘The Unquiet Dead’, back with Christopher Ecclestone – a solid episode, memorable mainly for being the episode with Charles Dickens. For David Tennant, he produced ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ – not particularly brilliant, but probably unfairly maligned, and most recently heavily plundered by Steven Moffat for ‘The Bells of St John’. Working with Moffat and Smith, he has written ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and ‘Night Terrors’ – both were fantastic ideas, and indeed pretty good episodes up until the half hour mark, at which point they both seemed realise there were only fifteen minutes left to wrap everything up, resulting in Spitfires that can be retrofitted for space travel in under five minutes (in-universe), and an incredibly powerful alien that can be soothed with a single hug.
None of his episodes have been bad, but equally, none of them have been particularly great. ‘Victory…’ and ‘Night Terrors’ both had potential, but would probably have benefited from a second part to allow the concepts to really develop. However, that is a criticism that you could level at the vast majority of the show since the revival.
‘Cold War’ is by far and away the best thing he has written for the show.
It is, of course, a classic idea, and something that the show has traditionally excelled at: take a scary, dangerous creature, and trap it somewhere with the heroes. See also: ‘Dalek’, from series one, at least half of Steven Moffat’s episodes, certainly before he became showrunner. In restricting himself to a less showy central concept, Gatiss seems to have been able to focus more on writing a really good script; most of the best lines went to Warner’s rather un-professorial Professor, with his love for Ultravox and Duran Duran, but there were plenty of good scenes to go around, with particular standouts being the Doctor’s first encounter with Skaldac and the subsequent ‘negotiation’, which also allowed Jenna Louise Coleman a chance to shine. That was probably one of Gatiss’s best touches, to be honest. Having the Companion realise that travelling with the Doctor isn’t all stars and adventures and weird sights, but pain and death and trauma isn’t an uncommon thread, but having it thrust so brutally in their face, and so early, is something new. Her scene with Warner was the best bit of the episode, and potentially Coleman’s finest work on the show yet.
Elsewhere, Matt Smith was on fine form once more, and Nicholas Briggs turns in a cracking, sibilant performance as Skaldac. Skaldac looks good, too, even when represented by CGI later in the episode. And it’s always nice to have an antagonist with depth; there aren’t too many occasions on the show where you feel sorry for the alien, although this is stretched with the whole nuclear annihilation thing. True boo-hiss villainy is reserved for the Russian officer who seemed all too eager to unleash said nuclear annihilation. Even Skaldac seemed to despise him (although refreshingly, all the other Russians were just people doing a job).
Complaints? Well…nothing, really. You could raise an argument that the resolution was very convenient, although it had been established earlier in the episode. The disappearance of the TARDIS, although obviously necessary for the episode, was a little bit cheesy. And I suppose it was rather formulaic, with no revolutionary or intriguing ideas to be seen. However, I’d far rather have a formulaic but good episode over an innovative but poor one. Top marks to Mr Gatiss.