In general I am a big fan of Mark Gatiss's writing. I'm actually reading his Second Doctor novel The Roundheads now. It's very likely that when Steven Moffat hangs up his hat as showrunner, it's Gatiss who will step forward as the heir apparent. That's a good thing, but I can say in all honesty that "Cold War" is not his best work.
The episode has received a lot of attention as the return of the Ice Warriors, a race of Martians that The Doctor has a fairly strange relationship with. Frankly, the focus on this half of the season in returning old villains is starting to feel just a wee bit pointless. We still have the Zygons to look forward to, and we've seen the Great Intelligence return as presumably this season's Big Bad. Nonetheless, it sort of smacks of being out of ideas.
We open in 1983 on a Soviet nuclear submarine full of Russians who inexplicably speak in British accents. If that sounds a lot like how Sean Connery couldn't be assed to attempt a Russian accent in The Hunt for Red October (published only a year after this story takes place), well, don't worry, the similarities don't end there.
Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham) is returning the sub after a drilling mission at the North Pole, where they have found a frozen creature later revealed to be a famous Ice Warrior known for his ferocity, Grand Marshal Skaldak. A crew member thaws it out, after which Skaldak hunts the crew through the air vents with cattle prods.
Wait, isn't that the plot of The Thing and/or Alien? Yes. Yes it is. I'm also convinced that the hissing, clicking noise that signifies Skaldak on the hunt is the exact same sound effect used for the Predator. So within the first half of the episode, it's little more than a sloppy combination of four other highly successful movies with The Doctor and a classic villain thrown in as if to try and remind you that Doctor Who came first.
Which is true, and I am not for a single second denouncing the influence Doctor Who has had on the world of science fiction. That said, the show rarely benefits from aping other franchises, and "Cold War" is no exception.
The Doctor is actually pretty useless in the episode, losing the sonic screwdriver early on, losing the TARDIS, allowing Clara to almost drown, barely able to keep from being shot, and outflanked at literally every corner by Skaldak. Coming off one of the greatest moments of the whole show in "The Rings of Akhenaten," it feels like a strangely weak performance.
Clara isn't much better, as the offness of her existence still seems to be hampering the flow of the action. Her performances in "Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen" marked her as possibly one of the best companions ever, yet her time as a full-time TARDIS crew member is full of awkward pauses that are supposed to convey mystery but come across as just...nothing much.
We want to see that rapid-fire wit, that cheeky energy that made us fall in love with Clara in the first place. So far, the modern her is just not as lively as the Victorian governess or the Dalek who made soufflés. I want to know who she really is, but more than that, I want to just like having her around. A mystery with no character building is just Scooby Doo.
Some relief does come in the form of David Warner, who plays Professor Grisenko. The Soviet scientist is a huge fan of Western culture who deals with stress by singing "Hungry Like the Wolf" and using his chance to know the future to grill Clara about whether or not Ultravox broke up. For a band with such a fractured history, it's actually pretty freakin' random a question, but Warner's funny old grandfather gig playing off Clara brings back the fun of Bernard Cribbins as Wilf.
In the end, The Doctor convinces Skaldak (Voiced by Nicholas Briggs because apparently there is only one voice actor in all of England) to show mercy to Earth, and everyone is rescued from the crippled sub when the Martians bring the whole thing to the surface and teleport away. Once again, you might recognize that as the ending of The Abyss.
As a standalone adventure, "Cold War" isn't bad, but it's not exactly good, either. It certainly doesn't live up to Gatiss's work in "The Idiot's Lantern" or "Victory of the Daleks." I'll give the episode props for making one of the more ridiculous-looking classic villains actually appear pretty badass, though the unmasked Skaldak resembles a cross between a Gremlin and the koopas from the Mario Bros. movie. That's its main problem. "Cold War" is slightly inferior copies of better works plus The Doctor.
And now for a new segment in the reviews I call...
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Wibbly Wobbly Writing: Okay, so the TARDIS disappears yet The Doctor and Clara still understand and speak perfect Russian even though the translation matrix is completely gone. Also, The Doctor is carrying around a small blond Barbie doll without any explanation, which coupled with his creepstalking Clara last episode really is the sort of thing you'd expect from a serial killer.
Skaldak hides in the ceiling even when we can clearly see there is no place for him to actually hide. Plus, even though the Ice Warrior suits operate on sonic technology, at no point even after he's recovered the screwdriver does The Doctor ever try to simply override the suit even though he should theoretically have better technology.