Is the return of the Ice Warriors sssssuperb, ssssshoddy or sssssomething in-between?
When it comes to Doctor Who writers, Mark Gatiss is a rather strange case. He's hailed as a true fan of the show, and has penned plenty of adventures for The Doctor and his companions ever since the third instalment of the revived series way back in 2005, which was not only a hit but also the very first historical episode of the 21st century. Not only this, but he was also the first guest writer to work on Doctor Who's revived series. It's funny, because since then practically all of Gatiss' episodes have turned out to be either wholly divisive outings or complete flops, more-so the former. However, things were certainly looking up for Mark's latest script. It promised the exciting resurrection of a forgotten foe that hadn't been featured in the show for over thirty years. It promised a thrillingly claustrophobic base-under-siege adventure for The Doctor, Clara and a heap of Russians onboard a submarine in the heat of the cold war. And perhaps most importantly, it showed promise on the run-up to its initial broadcast.
The question is, did Cold War, the return of the long-forgotten Ice Warriors, deliver in its promise? If you've got a spare few minutes, I advise you read the rest of this review. If not, I can answer that question right now without a sliver of doubt in my mind: No. In fact, showing promise is all the episode ever seems to succeed in...
In my view, Mark Gatiss' latest is an effort that never quite capitalises on its inherent potential. The cold war setting could be the backdrop for some truly exciting goings-on, but it proves nothing other than a poorly realised metaphor for the stalemate situation towards the story's end, and a bad pun. The sinking soviet submarine, however, is brilliantly realised and as claustrophobic as it needs to be - Safe to say, those with a fear of water will be feeling a little queasy for the better part of this adventure. As exciting as returning Ice Warrior Skaldak looks and indeed sounds, this is far from reflected in his flat personality. Matt Smith, oddly, isn't taken anywhere outside of what we've previously seen of his portrayal of The Doctor in previous episodes this time, leading to a stellar if unsurprising performance. This, however, is solely down to Gatiss' writing. Noticing a theme, here? Get ready for more of it...
The supporting cast consists of a few superb actors, such as David Warner and Liam Cunningham, but the roles they portray are disappointingly weak and for the most part unexplored. Although, the former actor's character does pack some likeable traits (such as an unhealthy adoration of Duran Duran and Ultravox) and gets a few legitimately hilarious pieces of dialogue because of this. As for the rest of the background characters? Cannon fodder. There are no other words to describe 'em. Generic meat-bags get picked off one by one and you couldn't care less, no matter how much screen-time and dialogue is devoted to their presence. Heck, even Jenna-Louise Coleman's character, everyone's favourite twice-dead lass Clara contributes very little to the narrative, and the big mystery surrounding her multiple deaths isn't even touched upon in this outing. She's partially developed with her first glimpse of horror and death, but that's basically become a trope for every Who companion since the revival and it honestly felt a little forced in Clara's case. Her performance is great, but again, it's the writing that falls flat.
If there's one thing that Cold War nails, it's the return of everyone's favourite Martians. Debatable as that last statement may be, the fresh update of the Ice Warriors featured in Mark Gatiss' episode is a brilliant take on what was previously a rather clunky-looking foe. A single Martian, the nefarious grand marshal Skaldak, is featured in the episode. Angered by the alleged extinction of his race, this armoured juggernaut is something of a renegade. There's even an obligatory 'bullets bouncing off armour' scene to demonstrate the beast's power. The design is faithful to the original but comes across as a lot more threatening, with a lick of paint and a deeper tone of speech. Sadly, a few things prevent this from being the episode that brought back the Ice Warriors with a well-deserved explosion. The new design is fantastic, yes, but when the warrior leaves its battlesuit in a surprising twist, things go a little poorly. While you only get a good glimpse of the species' face for the first time, it's somewhat sullied by slightly dodgy CG work, an aspect that isn't necessarily that bad but pulls you out of the episode when you distinctly notice the difference between the CG mouth and the mouth Skaldak sports when suited in his armour. It's a tiny peeve, but the reveal of a bare-bones Ice Warrior should be so much more thrilling than how the episode presents the prospect... About as bare-bones as the reveal could possibly be.
The Ice Warriors hadn't been featured in an episode of Doctor Who for over three decades preceding the broadcast of Cold War, and in various interviews Gatiss was described as practically desperate to bring these armoured beasts back to a contemporary audience. So, how could he possibly deliver a script so adherently flat and expect fans old and new to thrive in the return of such a beloved, if forgotten foe? The episode's most glaring fault is the fact that, if you were to remove the Ice Warrior from the yarn and weave in a generic foe that does exactly the same things, you're left with nothing other than the following: An average plot with average characters and an average villain, taking place in a thrilling base-under-siege setting that makes you wish every other aspect was superior to what it is: average. Cold War doesn't bask in the return of the Ice Warriors, it practically relies on the presence of one to make its plot just that bit less endearing. Granted, it succeeds in this, but that doesn't make the story as a whole any less mediocre.
To put it bluntly, much-anticipated return of the Ice Warriors is an over-hyped exercise in glorified filler material. Take out all the hype surrounding Grand Marshal Skaldak and replace him with a generic, never before seen foe and what you'll end up with is the episodic equivalent of Mars' native resident leaving its bio-armour: An empty shell full of unrealised potential. I hate to dislike this episode, I really do, but the truth is that Cold War is so mediocre and unexciting that I struggle to call it anything other than one of the series' weakest stories yet. It's saved somewhat by a fantastic new design for the classic Martian monster of Who lore (at least in its armoured shell), but let down by buckets of unrealised, unfulfilled would-be brilliance, boring direction and lack of anything truly engaging outside of the classic foe's return. It's not terrible, but it's just not as quality as it should be; A disappointment that brings a dissatisfying amount of shame to the pride of Mars' finest. Sssssorry Mr. Gatiss. At least you've still got another shot at finally delivering a worthwhile script with series 7's eleventh outing, The Crimson Horror, eh?