Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Cold War written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Douglas McKinnon

This story in a nutshell: The return of the Ice Warriors…

The Nutty Professor: The Doctor walking straight into the thick of things does remind me of his entrance to the Base in The Ice Warriors – Troughton was also wandering around sorting out technical mishaps, talking ten to the dozen and trying to charm his way in with the staff. It’s true that Smith really does channel his predecessor at times. He’s always serious, with days off (loved that line). I find it highly unlikely that the Doctor would have met the Ice Warriors as often as he has (taking in all the audios, novels and comic strips as well) and has never seen one outside of its armour before. I really liked how Smith’s trademark quirks seemed to drop away as the situation became more and more serious (his ‘how bad can it be?’ speech seemed to come from a different character to the madcap professor I am used to). He carries a Barbie? What a big Jessie.

The Closed Book: I still feel as if I know next to nothing about Clara which is making it increasingly harder to invest any time in her. What exactly does she want out of life? Why does she want to travel with the Doctor? Is she in a relationship with anybody? How did she fall into the job of nannying? What does she think about the Doctor? Why is she so interested in impressing him? She is literally a closed book and this is (technically) her fifth episode of what could be a one season stint. There is a point where Professor Grisenko asks Clara to tell him about herself and what she likes to get up to and she gives the enlightening answer of ‘stuff.’ Very helpful. I got the sense that Coleman didn’t quite know how to play Clara this week because she is given no direction in a script which pushes her into the role of the generic companion (brave, stupid, eager). In The Rings of Akhaten I really felt that she knew who Clara was (even if we don’t have a clue) and that she played the part with some emotional honesty. This whole ‘I went in there and did the scary stuff’ makes it sound like she has been reading a book entitled How to be a Doctor Who Companion. I liked the idea of her being pushed out of her comfort zone and forced to confront the Ice Warrior (it reminded me a little of Dalek and the scenes between Rose and the Dalek but the emphasis is completely different so it isn’t really objectionable) but the scene was held back because I never got the sense that Clara was frightened. Nothing seems to bother this girl (I’m hoping a trip to a haunted house next week will scare the life out of her) and since she is supposed to be our identification figure (otherwise why choose another contemporary character?) it was hard to buy into the danger of the situation. Although her little salute was super cute. Coleman sounded completely vacant when she talked about seeing the bodies and it making the situation feel more real – this story desperately needed somebody like Graeme Harper at the helm to gee up the actors a bit more and remind them that they are supposed to be genuinely frightened.

The Good:
  • It might be disingenuous to say this considering I have been criticising the show for revelling in elements from previous adventures of late but I really enjoyed how Gatiss mimicked the reveal of the Ice Warrior from their debut story, encased in a block of ice. If you want a thrilling way to introduce your monster then having them burst from a block of ice is a pretty memorable way to do it. Saying that I have no Earthly clue way the marine decides to set at the ice with a blow torch (‘life’s too short to wait’ is a spectacularly lame answer to that question).
  • This is a season of genuine standalone adventures that you can stick in the DVD player and watch independently of each other in years to come. For lovers of arc storylines this might be a bad thing but it’s something that I have missed. I rarely re-visit series six (and not just because of the variable quality) for the reason that the stories are so integrated into a larger whole and lack something as individual pieces. Whereas series four gets a frequent airing (and not just because the latter half of the season is the single greatest run of episodes the show has produced since its return) because all of the episodes exist as single stories in their own right.
  • Over the years we have heard a great number of reasons why the Doctor cannot get back to the safety of the TARDIS. Everything from the Sensorites stealing the lock (The Sensorites), the Daleks thieving it on the back of a lorry (Evil of the Daleks), its knackered (the early Pertwee era), it’s rushed off to another adventure (Revenge of the Cybermen), it’s on another planet (Caves of Androzani), it’s been tossed down a mineshaft (Mark of the Rani), it’s been booby trapped (Delta and the Bannermen), etc, etc… It might look as though Gatiss has had an imagination bypass because the Ship simply vanishes at the beginning of the adventure only to be found elsewhere at the end but using the HADS as a way of explaining that should at least appease any fans. My mum was appalled, even after I explained about it’s initial usage in The Krotons. To her it looked as if a quirk of technobabble had whisked away the ship for no apparent reason (which it had).
  • I’ve been inside a submarine and I can tell you it was far more cramped and claustrophobic than suggested here but a small amount of dramatic licence should is appropriate. Regardless of the dimensions of the sets the designers should be applauded for creating such an detailed and authentic location. Douglas McKinnon barely has to work to generate atmosphere in such a superbly lit and designed setting. The running water might have made this a nightmare shoot for the actors but it really helps to sell the underwater location more convincingly than the shots of the CGI sub.
  • The costume designer has done a grand job in keeping the essential elements of the original Ice Warrior but managing to make it look sturdier and little more streamlined and functional. Shot and lit exquisitely for the most part, it is a truly formidable force stomping around the submarine. I really wished that Gatiss had kept it inside its armour for the whole of the story, not because the eventual realisation of the creature inside was underwhelming, but because it looks far more effective as the whole package. Add a well judged Nick Briggs voice and you have a memorable return of an old foe. 
  • The twist that the Warrior has left his suit was probably the highlight of the episode. A genuine surprise, excitingly delivered.
  • The eighties. A shell suit. Well, I laughed.
  • Antarctica is beautifully realised. As is the Ice Warrior spaceship. I wish as much effort had been injected into the script.
The Bad:
  • I don’t like stories that have to open up with a signpost informing me of the location and the time period. Some might consider it an economical storytelling device but I think it is a lazy way of not having to find an inventive way to convey this information to the audience. I rather enjoy that moment of not knowing where we are and seeking out clues to piece together the setting.
  • Murray Gold is a fine musician and he has provided many, many beautiful scores for Doctor Who episodes (some of my favourite soundtracks of all TV and film feature in The Girl in the Fireplace, The Sound of Drums and Forest of the Dead). I just wanted to get that out of the way before I commented on how predictable his music has become of late and how much I would like to hear another composer have a go at scoring the show. The opening scenes of Cold War would have benefited from a minimalist score that dragged us down into the depths with the Russian submariners rather than the usual orchestral bombast drowning out all of the dialogue.
  • My mum pointed out that the submarine crashing down onto the rocks looked very like an unconvincing toy. She has a point which is doubly troubling considering this is CGI. There really is no excuse. Last week the Mill successfully pulled off an entire solar system, this week they are having difficulty with a tub underwater. The two things just don’t match up. Note - I have since been informed (see comments below) that it was a model. More fool me and extra points to my mother. 
  • After such an impressive entrance it perhaps wasn’t the most effective way of maintaining its intimidating presence by having the Warrior knocked unconscious so soon. He redeems himself entirely by escaping the suit with nobody being aware of the fact but for five minutes I was left thinking he was a bit rubbish. In hindsight it is obviously a vacant suit because it doesn’t move in the slightest the whole time that Clara talks to it.
  • I don’t want to sound like a doddery old man who can’t keep up but sometimes Smith talks so fast that I find myself missing important bits of information and I have to rewind to catch what I missed the first time. Sometimes I feel that is a consequence of the 45 minute formula, he has to try and squeeze in so much exposition, so fast so we can quickly get around to the exciting bits. In this case I felt the importance of the location (the tail end of the Cold War) was lost because he rushed through the implications and bled away the tension by making fatuous jokes about the eighties. Sydney Newman would not approve. His potted history of the Ice Warriors was similarly rushed. It’s almost as though Gatiss wants to rush through the moments that might threaten to give this story any depth so he can get to the iconic moments that will be remembered in 50 years time (like the Ice Warrior leaving his suit).
  • ‘How comes I can understand them?’ ‘Don’t get clever in Latin!’ ‘Am I speaking Russian?’ We get it, the TARDIS can translate. No more.
  • Initially I found the idea of the icky Ice Warrior hands gripping the characters heads quite tense but once it had been done for the third or fourth time I was a little bored by the suggested violence and wanted to see some real violence. That’s one of the biggest problems of trying to film Alien for a family audience, you can generate the atmosphere but you can’t pay it off with the carnage. As a result this story promises far more than it can ever deliver – you can’t massacre a submarine crew at 6.00 on a Saturday evening. A few spots of blood on a pass don’t cut it. The show was much bolder in its early years, Eric Saward would have piled the sub up with corpses instead of wasting time with Ultravox gags. Plus the direction when the Professor was grabbed made it really obvious that it was about to happen. McKinnon should not be framing his shots quite as predictably as this.
  • ‘Professor I could kiss you’ ‘If you insist’ ‘Later’ That should be funny in the hands of actors of this calibre but as directed it falls strangely flat. I didn’t understand the purpose of David Warner’s character other than to give Clara someone cuddly to talk to. He serves no real plot function and adds minimal colour to the story (without him the cast on the sub would be completely faceless but making him the least tedious of a vacant bunch is hardly a screaming endorsement).
  • I don’t know what to say about the CGI Martian. Did we need to see this species out of their armour? No. Do the effects boys do a decent job in realising the creature? Yes, but it is obviously CGI rather than a living thing. Does it effect my enjoyment of the previous stories knowing what is inside the armour now? I’m on the fence. I’m completely ambivalent to the whole thing whereas I was thrilled by the redesign of the overall creature in its armour so can future endeavours just feature them suited up please?  The whole sequence of the Ice Warrior climbing back into its armour is squandered because the director cuts away from all the most interesting shots (actually seeing it get into the armour). It feels like something is missing just these scenes.
  • Like The Bells of Saint John the complete absence of a climax is a little worrying. Skaldak vanishes into thin air, the Doctor presses a few buttons (and waves the sonic, naturally), everybody on planet Earth is safe again and the TARDIS turns up (albeit on the other side of the planet). Cue laughter. Nobody does anything clever or imaginative, it all just seems to come to halt and wind up hunky dory. I can’t be the only person who finds that unsatisfying. I might have had an issue with the leaf defeating a sentient sun last week but at least something conceptually penetrating was occurring.
 Result: Distinctly average for me, I’m afraid. It doesn’t help that I went in to this story with huge expectations because of some gorgeously shot publicity photos of the Ice Warriors or that the circumstance of watching the episode was somewhat blunted by my entire family staying with me for the weekend. My Uncle and Nan fell asleep declaring it the dullest thing they had ever seen, my used to be a fan during the Tennant era but has completely gone off the show mum pointed out every flaw in the production and script (and she’s a massive horror fan so the steals were all pointed out with strained impatience in the way only mothers can) and Simon was getting irritated by the fact that we weren’t able to view the episode on our own (its one of our little rituals as a couple that we always watch the new episodes together for the first time – he’s becoming quite the fan in that respect!). Even if my surroundings had been perfect (preferably in the dark and silence) this was still cliché ridden, characterless and anti-climactic. I don’t want to say that I didn’t get anything from the episode at all because it was atmospheric and (whether you like the idea of him coming out of his suits or not) the Ice Warrior was captured as something brutal and very menacing. What bugs me is that once you have adjusted to the atmosphere, the setting and the fabulous Ice Warrior costume (about fifteen minutes in) what you are left with is a story that lacks any substance and is populated by ciphers. Say what you will about the Russell T Davies era but there were plenty of episodes that managed to mix the iconic moments with oodles of character work that really made me care about the action that was taking place. It had atmosphere and it had people that I could invest in. My trouble with the show of late is that I cannot think of single character in the last three episodes that I actually gave a damn about (as sweet as Merry was in The Rings of Akhaten I really didn’t learn anything abundant about her as a person to force me to give a shit). There have been terrific moments but interesting characters have always been a vital element of Doctor Who and without them it becomes quite an empty, if visually spectacular, exercise. Who were these Russian marines? Why are they fighting? Did any of them object? Do they have families? What is the Professor’s motivation? Why is Clara trying to impress the Doctor so? It’s a Doctor Who story entirely populated by Star Trek Red Shirts and they are given us much care in their development. David Warner is one of my all time favourite actors and he lights up the story whenever he appears but aside from learning that he likes pop music the Professor is completely non-existent too beyond the actors' added quirks. Liam Cunningham is wasted in a role that gave him nothing to do but gnash his teeth. Is it wrong that it bugs me that something as colourful and imaginative as The Rings of Akhaten should be largely swept aside by fandom but something that adheres to every single chestnut of the base under siege formula should be so lauded? I never truly felt that the Earth was in danger and I never engaged with the characters in the sub and as a consequence I don’t know the last time I was this apathetic about how the story would pan out. I wish that the return of an old monster was enough for me to shut down my critical faculties and bask in the nostalgia of it all but I need something a little more significant than a rehash of several claustrophobic horror films to perk my interest. The Cold War setting should have been much more than just peripheral  background danger, this was a chance for the show to indulge in some real adult drama but instead its more interested in slimy monsters in the rafters and it does that sort of thing all the time. I would even say the action needed a tighter director at the helm; there was a problem with the pacing of some of the action scenes, McKinnon cuts away from some vital shots and there was a distinct lack of gore that was needed to make the threat impact. Cold War was sporadically exciting, occasionally frustrating but never once threatened to be interesting. It was an exciting return for the Ice Warriors but it feels more like a 45 minute prelude for a much more absorbing story. If you want to watch a NuWho episode that is set in a confined space, featuring realistic characters and an atmosphere of tension that will keep you on a knife-edge then stick on Midnight instead. You don’t even see the monster in that one: 5/10


Matt Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Smith said...

I really enjoyed this episode, and I can’t help but feel the complaints are just nit-picking at its finest. Matt Smith talking too fast? Have you not seen the previous two seasons?! Clara didn’t necessarily know that the Tardis could translate, and as a long-term viewer how many times have you heard the term ‘bigger on the inside’? It’s not even an issue, although I remember similar complaints being levelled at the new Spiderman reboot with Andrew Garfield with the story having to retell certain plot points already known again. Signposting a story with a date and place? I mean, really?! That’s a criticism? Whilst not necessarily imaginative, it happens in movies all the time.

Whereas the original Ice Warrior story was bogged down by the concept of technology taking over the world, and dragged to fit a six episode formula, this episode was well paced and exciting; having the Ice Warrior out of its armour for the first time in its history(!!), eventually resulting in a dramatic showdown where the Ice Warrior had the capacity to destroy the world. But you also forget this is a 45 minute story, and you can’t expect it to feature everything. Maybe this is why I missed the serialised nature of the old series, where you could have more time to care for the other characters. But on the criticisms of the soldiers being empty vessels, aside from the classic series, I couldn’t tell you a single name of any of the UNIT officers since the show come back. Orange is the New Black for instance, usually spends the whole hour focussing on one character, a single 45 minute episode of Doctor Who cannot provide the same level of detail because the show isn’t about Stepashin or Zhukov, it’s about the Doctor (or his companions) saving the day. Whilst tonally I can agree the blend of horror and action in this episode does not coalesce well, this story was involving and action-packed.

I generally love your reviews but I felt it was well worth defending what I thought was a cracking story.

Pol said...

Midnight is an entirely over-rated story which all to clearly demonstrates the hasty under-edited nature of the script. You are once again attempting to denigrate the current show running while over-inflating the run of stories produced by his predecessor. I could claim that Cold War is a far better example of a story set in a confined space than 42 and thus seem to prove the wrong-headedness of series 1 - 4 and the specials. I don’t because there are laudable moments and storied across all eight series on the new series, just as there are flaws.

Joe Ford said...

Ah Pol, long term thorn in my side. I use the Moffat era to defend RTD's about as much as you do the reverse - as we both have the right to do. I expressed an opinion, one that is back up with a weight of evidence. You have made a two line comment. Come back to me when you have backed up your statement with a little more evidence. Just because I prefer a certain era to another means I have an alternative perspective to you, not that yours is exclusively correct. I think some Dr Who fans go into meltdown when their opinion of the series is threatened. My suggestions is to take a cold shower and just accept that people have different tastes.

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David Pirtle said...

I'd give it a 6, but it's undeniably disappointing that this story features three great guest actors and wastes them almost entirely. David Warner should NEVER be simply the comic relief! That ought to be rule.