Sunday, April 21, 2013

Doctor Who: Cold War

This is the one I was waiting for ... the return of the Ice Warriors after 39 years to Doctor Who! They'd better get it right ...

First off, the script is written by Mark Gatiss, so that's something of a good sign. Mark knows his Who and has a keen sense of writing style, and so hopefully it will work out well. Then the Warrior costume was revealed online before transmission ... this is practically unheard of for Doctor Who where they keep it all so secret that sometimes you wonder if they will decide not to show the finished episodes for fear of details of them getting out. I loved it. It maintains the elegance and reptilian look of the originals, while updating them for the modern audience. After all, if something is not broken and works well, then why change it?

So ... to the episode ... We kick off with a lovely 'floating in the air' caption telling us that this is the North Pole, 1983 ... and under the water is a Russian submarine going through a nuclear weapon deployment. We learn that this is a test, but that at any time, the Russians could be ordered to launch nuclear missiles at America. So far so good, but why are they all speaking English? And why is there a Professor there played by the sublime David Warner, who likes listening to Ultravox and Duran Duran. The questions start to stack up - why is a Soviet Nuclear submarine playing host to a Professor drilling for oil? And why decide to transport a huge block of ice containing a mammoth (more to the point, how did they get such a block of ice onto the Sub in the first place? The doors are tiny, and many of the rooms interconnect with smaller still circular hatches.)

So another crewmember randomly decides to thaw out the mammoth using a blowtorch, and a massive pincered arm crashes from the block and grabs him round the throat.  Crash to the titles.

The Sub is now sinking fast as this alien creature runs rampage, killing people and generally smashing the place up (not sure how it can get through the tiny doors and hatches mind you). And Oh no, they've not used the classic sound of the Ice Warrior's sonic gun. Shame. The TARDIS arrives, and the Doctor and Clara are expecting to be in Las Vegas rather than a sinking Soviet Sub. But the Doctor realises the problem and gets them to wedge the Sub on a ledge to stop it sinking. And thus they rest, 700 metres down, with a leaking Sub and an Alien on the rampage. The TARDIS abruptly vanishes, leaving the Doctor and Clara somewhat stuck.

The Warrior makes a proper appearance. I love the strange clicking noises it makes - similar to the creepy gurgling sounds the originals made, but why do its feet clunk like Cybermen? Then the Doctor calls it an Ice Warrior. Oh dear. In the original series, this term was coined by one of the men who discovered one buried in the Ice. It's not the name of the race - they are Martians! But I guess we can overlook this one.  What we can't overlook is the voice. Oh dear. Rather than the creepy hissing cadences of the original (caused because Earth air is of a different composition to Martian air, thus making it hard for the Martians to breathe) we have something that sounds more like the Honey Monster or the Judoon. This is dreadful. There is no-way that the people making the show didn't know what the Ice Warriors were supposed to sound like, so this is a deliberate decision to change the voice. Why, I have no idea, but it's awful and is certainly not an improvement.

The Doctor knows all about Grand Marshall Skaldak, his history and everything - there is a lot of time in the episode where the Doctor 'tells' everything, rather than showing it through the plot and action, and this leads to some quite talkie scenes.  Skaldak is subdued by a cattle prod (there in case of Polar Bear attacks? I'd like to see someone defend themselves against a Polar Bear with a short cattle prod) and chained up. Clara is sent to talk to him to try and persuade him to leave them in peace. But he has escaped from his suit of armour and is loose in the Sub.

I liked this idea a lot, that the Warrior could leave his armour and move around without it, but the design of the creature - in particular its hands - looked all wrong to me. How would something with such thin, clawed hands operate the hands in the suit? It looked like one of the creatures from the War of the Worlds series, or from the film Independence Day to me.  So they all go off Martian-hunting, and now the show feels like Alien or some such with the creature being in the walls (In the walls? of a Submarine? Where all space is critical? Come on ...) and it tracking them as they track it.

The Martian kills some humans to find out how they work (shades of 'Horror of Fang Rock' or 'Ghost Light') and meanwhile David Warner's Professor is interested to know if Ultravox split up when discovering that Clara and the Doctor are time travellers. He also comments that Clara's Russian is very good (but presumably he speaks English as he understands and knows the lyrics to the songs). Skaldak eventually calls his suit back to him (how on earth it gets there through all the small doorways and hatches is anyone's guess) and the Martian heads off to destroy humanity, assuming that his own distress call has gone unheard.  The Doctor and Clara try to talk him into showing them mercy and then suddenly they are all rescued by a Martian Spaceship which brings the Sub up to the surface and then teleports Skaldak away. As a parting gift, he resets the controls on the missiles, and they are all safe!

In the closing scenes, the Doctor explains that the TARDIS moved because he set the HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System - previously referred to in 'The Krotons' in 1969) and is now at the South Pole. Not sure then how it's translation function is working for everyone then, unless it has a very good range!  Nor how the Doctor and Clara are going to actually get to the South Pole! The Russians can hardly 'give him a lift' as he asks.

Overall, and despite my massive disappointment at the Warrior's voice being so totally wrong, I loved this story. It has so much going for it and gets so much right. I loved the return to an isolated base approach, with a small group of characters (even if David Warner gets nothing to do here, and it's something of a waste of an actor of his stature to use him in such a minor role!) I loved the Warrior costume and the ideas presented (the alien being able to leave it, the technology of its suit and so on). I was less taken with the ending, which seemed rushed and something of a deus ex machina of the spaceship arriving - which is very like Close Encounters. I found myself wondering if there would actually be any Martians still alive in 1984 though - in Doctor Who history, the Red Planet was destroyed by the Fendahl on it's way to Earth in the distant past, and no Martian life remained apart from those Warriors who had left their homeworld. Other stories to feature them were set in Earth's future - 3000 for 'The Ice Warriors' where the Warriors had been buried in the ice for centuries and late 21st Century for 'The Seeds of Death' where they attack the Earth - and the two Peladon stories were set in unstated times. As with all Doctor Who though, this sort of thing only really matters to fans.

As I say, I loved the story, and I'm so pleased to see the show return to a semblance of the past, with standalone stories, where the Doctor and companion arrive, have an adventure, and then leave ... it's somewhat bizarre though that this should happen in this season, where there is arguably the strongest internal arc of all about Clara and her background (which seems to have been all but forgotten).  Kudos to all involved for a great piece of teatime telly, but please. Please. Please. Please. If you're going to bring back something from the past, don't change elements of it for the sake of. There's a reason these creatures and monsters are so memorable, so don't change the thing that made them a success in the first place! Thanks.

1 comment:

Ben Biddle said...

Is that a PET computer in the background with the Professor? Why would a Soviet submarine have a desktop PC?