5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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Back in Ye Olde Tymes, when onscreen Doctor Who was just a nostalgic memory, we few, we happy few, we band of fans kept the flame alive with Doctor Who books from Virgin and then the BBC. And the debate that raged back then was between Rad and Trad: books that followed the hallowed Doctor Who formula of monster-base-under-siege-let's-split-up-oh-no-it's-picking-us-off-one-by-one, and books that went where no one had gone before.
Trad bored us into a coma. It still does. But we acknowledge that a lot of other people love it to death.
Cold War is trad to the nth degree. As a result, we detest it with the fury of a thousand fiery planet-sized parasites. Hey, if you like that sort of thing, we're not going to argue with you. But this is why we loathe it.
Mark Gatiss doesn't exactly have a star-spangled history when it comes to writing for Doctor Who. The Unquiet Dead was probably the pick of them, but it's been all downhill from there. Night Terrors. The Idiot's Lantern. And (steel yourself) Victory Of The Daleks.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Victory Of The Daleks is a 24-carat stinker. Cold War isn't as bad as that. It's just desperately unoriginal, overly sentimental, poorly put together, and duller than the inside of a Dalek's lunchbox.
Let's start with the unoriginal part. An Ice Warrior slips off its mobility scooter and goes for a slither. This is stupid, given that Mars's gravity is a lot lower that Earth's and therefore Old Green Hands would be more likely to be quivering in a puddle on the floor than zipping back and forth like a tachyon on speed. However, it is at least something we haven't seen before, so yay for that. What else?
That's right. We can't think of a single other novel element in this story. The submarine stuff. The alien sliding around just out of sight. The Russians spouting propaganda. Even the crusty old professor who's down with the kids. Add on top of that the bog-standard base under siege and aliens determined to crush the Earth and it's not a single jot more than a giant mash-up. They were also clearly determined to allude, with thumping obviousness, to Dalek, for which we really need a better explanation than "But it's the 50th anniversary!".
But that's OK, right? That's what trad is: glorious ritual. Well, if you say so. But even if we were able to see the force of this argument, we'd still contend that it has to be done well. And it just isn't.
Let's take what they laughingly refer to as the plot. So what happens here? For absolutely no reason other than plot expediency, someone thaws out a snoozing Ice Warrior. This really is exceptionally annoying: they could have at least tried to come up with a reason for it, couldn't they? Anyway, he's awake now and doesn't know where he is, so he phones home. And his peeps come and pick him up.
Slice through all the pointless action surrounding it, and that really is all that happens. What does the Doctor do to change anything? Zip. He explains the frozen dude's family tree, he sends in Clara to chat with him, and he begs him not to off the entire planet. None of which has any effect whatsoever. Oh yeah, and he rushes around after the Ice Warrior with his screwdriver. What's he going to do if he finds him? Put up a shelf? Matt Smith is the least effective we've ever seen him here, but it's not his fault: he has practically zero to work with.
How about Clara? Well, there was an intriguing moment where they seemed to be hinting she'd died, making us wonder if there are subtle little deaths in the previous episodes we've missed (maybe she's Kenny after all). Other than that, as we said her chat is pointless. She does delay the green finger on the red button by spouting a bunch of sentimental slush about his daughter, we suppose, so that's a thing that actually happens, even if it's nauseating. And she still manages to be the most likeable thing in here by a long shot.
As for the Russians, dear oh dear. We love Liam Cunningham as the Onion Knight in Game Of Thrones, and he injects a similar sort of level-headed gravitas here. Not that it has any effect. His psycho offsider is a walking cliche. And David Warner is completely thrown away in an embarrassment of a part. Ugh. Hungry Like The Wolf? More Queasy Like The Weasel.
What about the Ice Warrior? It's supposed to be a big moment when they get an iconic monster out of the vault, after all. It's not, though. The exoskeleton looks great, but they quickly dump it in favour of a pair of rubber gloves. This is less giving a new and fascinating glimpse into Ice Warriordom and more giant Alien ripoff.
Like we said, the "action" is pure padding. The Ice Warrior takes people apart supposedly to study their weaknesses, information he neither needs, since he has bugger-all difficulty in trouncing them, or uses. He threatens the Earth with annihilation because of the Code Of The Ice Warrior or some such macho spoo, then when his ride arrives pisses off without so much as kicking someone in the shin. Yes, we know Clara is impressive with her heartstring-tugging, but given how invested the Ice Warrior is in all that Klingonesque guff about honour, it's a ridiculous turnaround.
And what's all the padding around? More pointless talking. "We need more jaw-jaw, not war-war," the Doctor paraphrases Winston Churchill, and man, do they throw themselves into it with a will. They have what should be a tense and terrifyingly claustrophobic setup, but not only does none of that claustrophobia come over, they fill the space up with speechifying.
What a wasted opportunity. Since they insist on spend big chunks of the episode yapping, they could have delved into some interesting stuff about Ice Warrior culture to give him some good reasons for what he was doing. Instead, it's an automatic default to codes and honour and "Kill all humans!" Sigh.
What's more, it's all utterly futile. Fire stuff from a nuclear wessel 700 metres down? Yeah, right. And even if it survived the pressure of the descent, you can bet that the submarine's speedy climb up to the surface isn't going to be any too healthy for the crew inside. They aren't the only pieces of dumbness, either. Automatic weapons...on a submarine? "He's in the walls"... ON A SUBMARINE?
You know what? This isn't our most meticulous, comprehensive review, and we know it. The truth is that while we normally always watch every episode a second time, with this one we just couldn't face it. It was so boring it made our fingernails ache. Of course, it's possible we might change our minds and see it again. If we're ever in need of heavy sedation.
We don't doubt there's an audience for this stuff. We hope it's you, because it certainly isn't us. Sorry, Ice Warriors. Better luck next time.
MORAL: Be scared of that thing at the back of the freezer.
They want to get across the tension of the Cold War years, right? Where the finger was permanently hovering a hair above the button? So given the Russians are convinced about the tricksiness of the decadent capitalist West, how come they're so quick to accept the Doctor and Clara?
Yes, we know the Russians really have proposed drilling for oil in a nuclear-powered submarine. But that's not the same thing as drilling for oil in a submarine whose purpose is to carry nuclear weapons. Because that would just be silly.
A mammoth? They thought an organism the size of a largish man was a mammoth? What is it about the word "mammoth" that they're not getting?
I LAUGH IN THE FACE OF DEATH
What's with all the hearty guffawing at the end? Haven't they just experienced a massacre? (Thanks to Greg Chadwisk for this.)