Doctor Who blogging: “Cold War”

Doctor Who Cold War Jenna-Louise Coleman Matt Smith

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “The Rings of Akhaten”)

(get my downloadable discussion guide to “Cold War” for teachers, librarians, and everyone else who needs to keep kids amused, engaged, and educated at

We’re no closer to solving the mystery of Clara here — it’s not even mentioned at all. Presumably the Doctor thought a clue might be found in Las Vegas, where they were headed before they landed in the middle of Alien on the Red October?

Actually, this episode reminded me most of the Peter Davison-era Doctor Who story “Warriors of the Deep.” Although set a century after its 1984 air date, it was very much about the Cold War… and very similar to “Cold War” with its nonhuman presence trying to set off a nuclear war among the humans. Perhaps because it was reflecting a geopolitical situation that had yet to resolve itself, it felt much more urgent than this story did.

For those of you too young to remember the 80s: It really did feel like we were all going to die in a nuclear war. I was a teenager at the time, and I was convinced of it. I wasn’t in the least bit worried that nuclear war was possible here, alas. Not because, as Clara notes, the world didn’t end in 1983 so surely it must all turn out okay. Because, despite the fact that the Doctor tells Clara that history is always in flux and anything can happen, that “anything” hardly ever does happen. We’d only need to see history get changed in a major way, departing from the timelines we know, once in a rare while, in order for there to be more suspense in stories like this one.

The challenges of writing for a show like Doctor Who are enormous, precisely because of stuff like this… but that’s what has always made the show so rewarding, because it has to be extra clever to work really well. And there hasn’t been much of that special cleverness lately. Quite the opposite, in fact. The sonic screwdriver has gone from being a neat-o tool to something almost magical. So the Doctor can now use it to determine which equipment is still working on sinking submarine and at the same time also can detect geological features of the surrounding ocean? This sort of thing isn’t necessary for the story — one of the sub’s crew could just as easily have come up with the same quick fix for their predicament — and it doesn’t even make the Doctor look particularly clever himself: he’s just reading from his magic tricorder. When he isn’t using it as the weapon that the Doctor has never needed before.

I don’t want to be seeing laziness in the writing, but I don’t know what else it could be.

The TARDIS is another device that can be too powerful for the purposes of clever storytelling. Here, if not for the technobabble about the Hazard Avoidance whatsit, the Doctor could have merely popped the Ice Warrior into the TARDIS and taken him home, or at least away from the sub. I wish Mark Gatiss had come up with a more character-driven reason to keep the Doctor on the sub instead of forcing him to stay there — or, again, the story could have been much the same if the TARDIS were handy but it simply required lots of coaxing to get Shaldak to let the Doctor take him away.

But this bothers me less than the laziness of positing a scientist who thinks that’s a mammoth in his block of ice. Especially when the pieces for something much more intriguing are already right here! There’s the officer who makes the comment about the Kremlin hiding stuff — a Soviet UFO conspiracy theory! — so why couldn’t the professor have secretly been working to bring home something already known to be alien frozen in ice? It would have given poor wasted David Warner something more interesting to do than talk about Duran Duran and Ultravox… and the professor wouldn’t have had to be so stupid as to think he had a mammoth on ice.

As Doctor Who goes, this isn’t awful — it’s still Doctor Who! It’s still an opportunity to hang out with the Doctor. There was some nice stuff between Matt Smith and Liam Cunningham: I liked how the captain acknowledges the Doctor’s “a soldier knows another soldier” — meaning that the Ice Warrior has the captain’s number — by recognizing the Doctor as a soldier in return (though that could have done with a little more exploration, too).

Doctor Who Cold War Matt Smith Liam Cunningham

I like how some stuff goes unanswered here, possible fodder for future stories. Like how did a great hero of the Ice Warriors end up frozen under the North Pole for 5,000 years? Why did the TARDIS run away; was it because the sub was sinking… or was it because of the presence of the Ice Warrior?

I am sorry, though. that will never get to see how the Doctor and Clara got all the way to the other end of the planet to retrieve the TARDIS at the South Pole — it’s unlikely that they hitched a lift on a Soviet sub, and they could have all sorts of fun adventures crossing the globe in 1983.

Random thoughts on “Cold War”:

• There’s a really shocking lack of discipline on this Soviet submarine. A wandering scientist interrupts a missile launch drill with barely a scolding from the captain? An ordinary sailor takes it upon himself to defrost a frozen mammoth? No wonder the U.S.S.R. collapsed: everyone was just doing their own thing. Collectivism? Ha.

• Why does the Doctor carry a Barbie doll around with him?

Doctor Who Cold War Matt Smith

And why is he this happy to get it back? Is this one of those things that no one else is supposed to be able to handle knowing about the Doctor?

• Great quotes:

“Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the 80s — everything’s bigger.” –the Doctor

“I’m always serious. With days off.” –the Doctor

“Stay here.” –the Doctor, to Clara
“Okay.” –Clara
“Stay here, don’t argue.” –the Doctor
“I’m not.” –Clara
“Right. Good.” –the Doctor

(next: “Hide”)

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Peter Verwey
Mon, Apr 15, 2013 3:01am

I wasn’t too disappointed with the episode on the whole, but do agree that the effort put into the complexity of scripts has fallen off lately. I would ask how the Doctor and Clara were able to continue to converse in Russian and Ice Warrior after the Tardis had relocated to the South Pole? What is the accepted Tardis to Doctor and companion link distance?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Peter Verwey
Mon, Apr 15, 2013 9:43am

I don’t think the TARDIS translation thingie has ever been adequately technobabbled. There *have* been instances where the Doctor and companions have been further away, though — much further. Like in “Genesis of the Daleks,” when the TARDIS is, at a minimum, in a different solar system and likely many thousands of years (at a minimum) in the future.

Mon, Apr 15, 2013 5:45am

… actually, wait. The screwdriver working underwater actually makes sense. Sonar, right?

Mon, Apr 15, 2013 5:53am

I liked this a lot more than Bells of Saint John as there was a better balance between substance and style. Plot holes aside, at least this episode *had* a plot which stretched across the entire 45 minutes (unlike BoSJ). It also came across as more serious in intent than BoSJ – no ‘look at me, I’m clever aren’t I’ vibe. Hubbie only fell asleep in last 10 minutes so better reaction from him than BoSJ which occasioned picking up the newspaper about half way through. Good solid if stolid eppie for me.

The Good:

– liked how the Tardis and crew jumped right into the action with no lengthy whacky prologue featuring the Doctor doing his Kenneth Williams impersonation

– good atmosphere/lighting. I really felt for the actors sloshing through the water (I was also pleased that we didn’t have any gratuitous wet T-shirt type moments for Clara or cleavage-cam POV)

– great set

– Ice Warrior shell was great design (can see a new line of toys for Christmas)

– a few well timed shocks for the ‘behind the sofa’ brigade

– Matt Smith dialled down the mugging and the few cute bits (the Barbie doll in his pocket) were the right level of quirky for me and didn’t take me out of the story. I *really* disliked large slabs of BoSJ for this reason.

– there was a proper old threat at the bottom of the story, although I think this could have been developed further

– nice nod to Doctor #1 through David Warner’s performance

– some great dialogue (loved the bit about the big hair and shoulder pads!)

– thought it was good to get rid of the TARDIS physically rather than saying something hand-wavingly dismissive about why they can’t all just jump in and escape.

The Not So good:

– The character of Clara seemed a bit “off” in her reactions. They are on a submarine with nuclear weapons deep under the Arctic with a big scary old monster lurking in the dark, yet Clara kept on doing her manic pixie dream girl thing until the script required her to state that it suddenly “got real’ – really?? Not sure if this is down to the actress or written that way as part of the arc about Clara’s mysterious character.

– Too closely modelled on ‘Dalek’ in some scenes. (I do rather like Dalek though!)

– David Warner was cruelly under-used. While a nice comedy foil, not sure of the point of his character unless we are going to see him pop up later or there is some timey-wimey bobbins linking him to Doctor #1

– Also too little about the gung-ho second in command. Thought there should have been more interaction with the captain or the Doctor. I was expecting that he might pop up later having allied himself in some way with the Ice Warrior.

– Doctor didn’t give off any gravitas for me in the scene where he is proposing that he takes them all out by blowing up the missile (or whatever he was threatening).

– Bloody sonic screwdriver (Did like that Gatiss got rid of it for a while though. Thought maybe it was finally going to be rested)

The Bad:

– The resolution. I didn’t feel that the interaction between Clara and the Ice Warrior was so profound that it would deter him later from realising his threat.

– The threat from the scuttling creature was wasted. More could have been made of sailors being picked off or the doctor or Clara being under threat. There was enough time for Clara and DW’s sea salt to have a nice old chat in the middle of a corridor.

– What is this stuff about Clara being tested? I didn’t understand that at all

Next week looks good. Hope they use the great guest stars more effectively.


Mon, Apr 15, 2013 8:11am

I feel like the ending was rushed and I also feel if Steven Moffat hadn’t sworn off Two-part stories, this one could’ve been really fantastic. Epic even. And Peter Verwey brought up that excellent point to how the Tardis could translate at such a great distance.

reply to  Whitney
Wed, Apr 17, 2013 8:59pm

I thought the same thing. Unlike last week, which just didn’t make sense, this one seemed like there was a good structure of plot and character, but that it had been edited to the bone with good parts left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I told my wife “it’s like watchin Alien in fast forward.”

Mon, Apr 15, 2013 9:14am

Other questions: where did the other ice warriors come from and why didn’t they answer (oh we just popped over and we wanted to surprise you!) and where did they go to and why did the missile not get launched in the end? I mean you would have thought that disappearing the baddie would have instantly solved the missile crisis, but it was made very clear that it wasn’t going to be that easy. And then it was.

Mon, Apr 15, 2013 10:54am

Once upon a time there was a show about a fellow who said “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”. I wonder what happened to him.
One of the few of John Nathan-Turner’s editorial decisions with which I agree was the removal of the sonic screwdriver. In the early 1980s it had become, as it apparently has again, a universal plot device.
At this point in Earth’s Doctor Who history there’s one Ice Warrior ship, and several warriors outside it, somewhere in a northern glacier; it doesn’t seem unreasonable that there should be another one around somewhere.

reply to  RogerBW
Tue, Apr 16, 2013 9:49am

I heartily agree with you about that sonic, Roger! It’s use as a get out of episode cut the Gordian knot jail free card is really, really irritating.

Jim Mann
Jim Mann
reply to  Maureen
Fri, Apr 19, 2013 8:56pm

While it may be overused at times, Russell Davies explained why he liked it. He said that if the Doctor comes up to a door that you know he has to get through but is locked, you can have him stand there for a minute, working to get it open, and thus dragging the plot to a halt, or you can have him pull out the sonic and open the door and move on. Davies opted for the latter.

reply to  Jim Mann
Fri, Apr 19, 2013 11:05pm

Yeah, or you can be a smart script-writer and not put in the locked door in the first place. Of course you then need to think of something else to fill the screen time.

reply to  RogerBW
Sat, Apr 20, 2013 2:01pm

Trouble is, there are occasions where a smart script-writer has to put in the locked door, or be criticized for being absurd (“Can you believe it? Russell Davies wrote a story in which the doors of the cells in Wandsworth prison were all unlocked?”).

The problem comes when a device designed to eliminate boring sequences is transformed instead into a deus ex machina.

Mon, Apr 15, 2013 3:43pm

First episode ever that I was yawning during. My husband almost left the room in boredom. Here comes bitching with love….Lots of running around while hearing clicking noises. Creepy hands coming down from the ceiling. More running around while hearing clicking noises. Little surprise shown by the captain and crew that there were time-travelers aboard. and it took me about 5 minutes to realize that they were Russian… lots of holding up the Sonic, even when there really didn’t seem to be any need. Why was it glowing pink? And for the first time I am disappointed in the Clara character who here was two-dimensional, showing no real sign of fear (even though she said she was) being dropped in a sinking sub. Even on a cop show a detective would see a dismembered body and lose their lunch. Why was the Professor even necessary as a character? Comic relief? an excuse to explain why the sub had taken on a frozen alien? As you say, I wasn’t thrilled with the lame excuse why the Tardis stranded them either, and, if we’re going to talk about why the Tardis does things, if she really doesn’t like Clara, maybe that explains why she basically spit her out into a sinking sub. did I miss hearing the reason that the sub was sinking in the first place?

At least no mysterious “clues” to wrangle over! ooooh, on second thought, yeah….I don’t know why it struck me that in TRoA there were several gratuitous shots of Clara from inside the big heat vent, framing her in a circle. By the end of the week I had decided it was just a Hitchcockian cool angle, but seeing her framed in the circular doorways in the sub struck a familiar chord. Of course every light in the sub was flashing. Why did she faint? Wasn’t it obvious to everyone that it was Clara who was disarming the missiles, not Skaldek – and by *singing*?? Why, after her interview with Skaldek, was she so concerned with how well she had done. Whether she had, if you will, *gotten it right.* Certainly the 60 seconds wasted in the scene where the professor kept on trying to get her wandering attention must have meant something other that a huge yawner in the middle of the show. And the final scene where everyone happily watched the Martian ship fly away, and the sit-com worthy “can we catch a lift” (everyone chuckles) was a silly way to try to tie up the loose ends. Gee, at least the Doctor could have called the Tardis by using the Sonic somehow.

Maryann, you are in a class by yourself and I can’t compare you to other bloggers, but after the show I went online and was stunned to read unanimous praise for what I consider one of the weakest and most boring episodes ever. Even Matt Smith did not seem to be on his game. I read lots of writers praising this episode as taut, well-written and acted, and a great throwback to the classic Who. I’ll give you the last.

All from a place of love!

Wed, Apr 17, 2013 4:51pm

I joked with my wife that the Doctor has the Barbie doll because he misses Rose.

reply to  feyrer
Thu, Jul 03, 2014 8:27pm

I agree. i immediatly thought that the doll was of Rose Tyler. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. :D