‘Doctor Who’ has a long and storied history. In fact, November of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere. However, there’s a marked difference between the first run of the show, now referred to as “Classic Who,” and the current run, often referred to as “New Who” or “NuWho.” While many of the writers are fans of Classic Who, the show feels very different now. Saturday’s episode, ‘Cold War’, hearkens back to the early days of the show by combining a Patrick Troughton-esque Second Doctor story with the return of a villain last seen during Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Third Doctor. The result combines the best of both worlds.
The Doctor and Clara find themselves on a Russian submarine during the Cold War. Prior to their arrival, a block of ice had been brought on board. Hidden inside is an Ice Warrior, Grand Marshal Skaldak, a soldier from the heyday of the Martian Empire. The Doctor almost manages to avoid a confrontation, but when a jittery crew member stuns the Ice Warrior, the wronged Martian vows revenge against the entire planet. It’s up to the Doctor to stop him, no matter what the personal cost.
‘Cold War’ is one of the best episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ since its reboot. It’s practically a perfect one-off story, with the submarine as the ultimate bottle to trap the characters in. It has the constant threat of being crushed by the water surrounding the sub, and the claustrophobic, red-lit corridors are a great setting for the game of cat-and-mouse that the Ice Warrior initiates.
Skaldak is an exceptional villain, a warrior lost in time, stuck in ice for over five thousand years. He remembers his daughter, now long dead, and can find no solace in anything except destruction. When he discovers the nuclear arms that the sub stocks, he decides to ignite tensions between the USA and the USSR, an action the Doctor threatens to blow up the sub in order to prevent. Skaldak is threatening, but only because he’s been threatened, and his disorientation and sense of loss make him sympathetic even as he tries to incite a nuclear holocaust.
The episode is filled with great actors, including ‘Game of Thrones’ alum Liam Cunningham as the captain, and the always delightful David Warner as a Russian scientist who loves western New Wave and Synth Pop music. (He first appears singing “Vienna” by Ultravox, and prompts Clara to sing Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” with him.) Interestingly, both of these men were considered for the role of the Doctor during the classic period, but Cunningham lost out to Tom Baker and Warner to Paul McGann. Warner eventually played an alternate universe Second Doctor for two Big Finish audio productions. Both actors are veteran enough to sell the material quickly and cleanly, so you care when Saldak holds Warner’s professor hostage, and understand the pressure that Cunningham’s captain is under.
Jenna-Louise Coleman also proves herself as a more than capable companion, boldly volunteering to have a face-to-face with Saldak, and providing some nice character moments with Warner. She also delivers the episode’s funniest exchange as she learns all about the TARDIS translation matrix. Smith does what he does best, making you believe that he’s an alien over a thousand years old. When he looks at Saldak and proclaims, “We go way back,” you truly believe it, especially if you’ve watched any of the Pertwee stories that feature the Ice Warriors. Smith also shows off the Doctor’s empathetic side far better he than he did last week, begging Saldak not to kill everyone on the planet, and warning Saldak that he will not be known as a soldier, but as a murderer.
There’s real tension at work here, and it all pays off wonderfully. This is how ‘Doctor Who’ should be, worthy of its 50-year legacy, while still taking the show in new directions. Sometimes it’s not about big, complicated, world-ending arcs. Sometimes it’s just about two veterans, alone and adrift, facing off in the darkness.