Ten Things About Who: Cold War

Ten discussion points about the Doctor Who 2013 episode, Cold War by Mark Gatiss

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

1. A timely reminder

No amount of foresight could have anticipated that this episode of Doctor Who would be aired in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s passing. As it was, though, it meant that the schedules in the week leading up to this broadcast were full of echoes of the 1980s.

The pre-credits sequence refers to “NATO exercises”, which the Captain dismisses as “sabre-rattling”. Given that the story is set in 1983, this could be a reference to Able Archer 83, a ten-day exercise in November which led to the USSR’s own escalation, in the belief that the war games could be masking preparations for a genuine conflict.

Although if that were the case, and this episode is taking place while UK audiences were celebrating the 20th anniversary of a certain TV show by watching Elisabeth Sladen roll down the world’s gentlest incline, the North Pole would be a lot darker than it is shown to be here…

2. That’s no mammoth

David Warner is, of course, one of the key successes of this episode. His music-obsessed professor was an absolute delight. But you do have to question how he could possibly mistake a reptilian biped for a hairy, mammalian quadruped.

The dates do match, though – mammoths are thought to have survived until 1650 BC, although we tend to think of them as being much older.

Incidentally, if you’re up for seeing David Warner being hilariously deadpan (and who isn’t), check out the short film Wizard:

3. “I’ve never seen one out of its armour before”

All the pre-publicity for this episode went to town on the reintroduction of the Ice Warriors, along with copious amounts of photography of the redesigned “monster”. It’s always been sort-of assumed that part of the traditional Ice Warrior build is armour, rather than some form of intrinsic shell – especially when the diplomatic caste of Ice Lords, thinner and less lumbering, turned up.

So the glimpses we get of Skaldak outside of his armour are intriguing. The monster-in-the-shadows picking off lesser cast members is a sci-fi and horror staple, of course – although I think Doctor Who managed it better in Tooth and Claw, and the submarine interiors needed to have a little less Top of the Pops-style lighting if the tension were really to build up.

But the thin, spindly arms did add a level of creepiness (are they really what powers the hulking ‘shell suit’ limbs?). And, luckily, we were spared much other disclosure of what a naked Ice Warrior looks like. By the looks of the CG animation of its head, I’d say that was a lucky escape for all.

4. Appropriate acronyms ahoy

The term mutually assured destruction, with its intentionally humorous acronym MAD, was coined by mathematician John von Neumann – who also came up with the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer.

I suspect he’d be quite tickled to have one of his concepts name checked in the series which over the years has given us UNIT, BOSS, WOTAN, TOMTIT, LI’n’DA and, um, K9. Although that’s not an acronym, it’s still by far the worst – which also makes it the best – pun the series has ever indulged itself with.

5. Model effects

If we still had Doctor Who Confidential around, we’d by now know which of the exterior shots were CG, which were scale models, and which were mixtures of both.

When it comes to water, there are certain organic effects that even multi-billion dollar Hollywood movies struggle with. You can put up with a certain level of crudity in cartoons like Finding Nemo, and even sumptuous feasts for the eye such as The Life of Pi struggled at times. On a BBC budget? Those underwater shots wisely eschewed CG and bore the print of old-school model shots. Just like Doctor Who of the 1980s. Except with time and a budget.

Although the sight of the submarine’s sail crashing through some very polystyrene-like ice could have looked a little better…

6. “I know something of sonic technology myself”

One thing I didn’t raise in last week’s Ten Things… about The Rings of Akhaten was the Doctor’s use of the sonic screwdriver. A number of people who found that episode wanting complained online about an apparent over-reliance on ‘the sonic’ last week.

But, I think, for all of last week’s faults (which were legion), using a sonic device in an episode where doors were opened, and monsters were fed, through sound made some sort of sense. True, if the door to the pyramid opened in response to Merry’s song, it would have been more unusual (and far more fun) to have the Doctor have to keep singing in order to open the door. But I think there’s a distinction between over-use of the sonic screwdriver, and abuse of its omnipresence.

If your question begins “How does the Doctor…?” and the answer is, “with the sonic screwdriver”, then you have to damn well make sure that the question isn’t crucial to the resolution of the plot. That’s where The Power of Three fell down – and, for example, the fall of the Cyberleader from the airship in Rise of the Cybermen does too.

But for getting through doors, or giving the Doctor access to some exposition-busting information, the sonic is perfect. A locked door should only ever be a barrier for long enough for something interesting to happen, and no longer.

Here, the Doctor clearly seems to be able to instantly reconfigure the sonic to act as a nuclear trigger. But that gives him enough time for Clara’s final, emotional plea to Skaldak’s compassion. And that’s good enough for me.

7. The song of the Ice Warror

For the second episode in a row, we have an episode that sees alien technology activated by sound. Coincidence?

…I suspect so, yes.

8. You’ve been HADS

The Hostile Action Displacement System has only previously been seen in action on screen once before, in the 1969 Patrick Troughton story The Krotons. Its absence for so long is probably down to it being one of the sillier ideas used to separate the Doctor from the TARDIS until the story resolves itself. (Best draw a veil over ‘drops into the centre of the world and just happens to land next to the pit holding the Devil’ from The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.)

It just about works here, though. Having the TARDIS onboard the submarine all the time would distract from the story far too much, and its presence would make it far too easy for the Doctor to offer Skaldak a quick jaunt to Mars.

Let’s just put it away for another 44 years, yes?

9. The Clara mystery…

…seems to be on hold for a week. Unless somebody’s being very, very clever. At one point, I thought her conversation with David Warner’s Professor was initially heading for some portentous revelation, but… we never did get to find out if Ultravox would split up.

10. Also from 1983…

Another Cold War classic, released in the year in which this episode is set and which ultimately relied on the futility of mutually assured destruction, is the classic thriller WarGames, where schoolboy hacker Matther Broderick inadvertently triggers a simulation that the military cannot distinguish from the real thing.

Not only is it a crackingly good film, but the commentary track on the DVD is a must-listen on the art of disguising expositionary dialogue (key hint: make your characters argue – it’s the only time they tell each other stuff that they would already know, but the audience doesn’t). It also has a supercomputer named the WOPR – which, let’s face it, is an acronym worthy of a Doctor Who computer.

Next week: Boo! It’s a sppoky ghost story with Dougray Scott and Jessica “Verity ‘Midwife’ Lambert” Raine…

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

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