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rare female film critic | by maryann johanson

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 DoctorWhoTeachersGuides.co.uk)


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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