After watching the Doctor put himself through the emotional ringer last courtesy of a pissed-off planet-sized alien parasite, this week’s “Cold War” is a much more down-to-Earth story. Actually, it goes down to Earth and then keeps on going, eventually arriving inside a disabled 1980s Soviet nuclear submarine that’s come to rest on an undersea shelf some 700 meters below the surface. In typical Doctor Who fashion, the TARDIS materializes in the middle of the bridge and a shades-wearing Doctor pops out yelling, “Viva Las Vegas!”
Once again, the Doctor should have taken that last turn at Albuquerque, landing right in the midst of trouble with a capital T rather than Vegas with a capital V. The Russians are none too happy to have people inexplicably appearing on their boat, and before the Doctor can even try to talk his way out of getting fired out a torpedo tube, the TARDIS vanishes, leaving the time lord and his companion trapped inside a cramped submarine where a series of Bad Things are about to happen. (The Doctor later explains that he’d been “tinkering” with the TARDIS’ “Hostile Action Displacement System,” and he perhaps made it a little too prone to bugging out at the slightest hint of danger.
They don’t have long to worry about their ride, however, because the sub is carrying a critter they found frozen in the Arctic ice. The sailor tasked with standing guard over the block of ice — one that everyone assumes contains a mammoth, a claim that makes no sense at all given the size and shape of the ice — decides to thaw it out with a welding torch, just so he can have a look-see. That ends about as well as you’d expect.
Yes, the ice block was 100% mammoth free, but it did contain an Ice Warrior, one of the classic Who villains. Native to Mars, the Ice Warriors first appeared in the 1967 Second Doctor serial named, appropriately enough, “The Ice Warriors.” The show has a great little tip of the hat to that history, having the Doctor say that he and the reptilian creates go “way back.” As if having an Ice Warrior inside a nuclear submarine wasn’t bad enough, one of the Russians soon makes things worse by knocking the creature out with a cattle prod.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just your average, everyday Ice Warrior. He’s an infamous Ice Warrior leader, Grand Marshall Skaldak. As you’d expect, he’s not pleased when he wakes up, and the Doctor tells the crew that Skaldak would have forgot all about them if they’d just let him go, but by attacking him they’ve essentially declared war, and the Ice Warrior code is “Harm one of us, harm us all.” Worse, Skaldak has sent a distress signal out, which means his people could already be on their way, preparing to rain down hell.
In the meantime, Skaldak slips out of his battle armor, dissects a crewman or two to see how we work, and decides that he’s going to retaliate for his attack by launching nukes at Russia and/or the U.S., turning the Cold War into a scorching hot one and basically wiping out the human race in the ensuing spiral of mutually assured destruction. As with many a Doctor Who confrontation before, things come to a head with the Doctor attempting to reason his way out of the predicament, appealing to Skaldak’s mercy and saying that humanity should get a pass for zapping him because they’re a young race, so they deserve a little leeway. In the end, Skaldak’s people do show up after all, recovering their long-lost Grand Marshall and dragging the stranded sub up from the ocean floor to boot.
After a couple of episodes that have had a strong focus on the mystery of Clara’s nature, “Cold War” is very much a self-contained story, and it’s a fun one. In spite of the constant impending doom, there’s plenty of levity throughout the proceedings. Because after all, if you can’t laugh in the face of worldwide nuclear apocalypse, when can you? The Doctor and Clara have some nice back-and-forth banter about whether the time lord’s assurances that everything will be fine is outright bullshit, and David Warner has some good fun as a scientist with a taste for ‘80s pop music.
We also see Clara get the classic “explaining why history could change” scene after she points out that she is alive, which means the world obviously didn’t end in the 1980s. The Doctor gives her the whole “time is in flux” bit, which is Doctor Who’s go-to bit of technobabble when it comes to sidestepping the more convoluted aspects of time travel.
It’s also great to see the modern incarnation of the show resurrecting an old Who baddie we haven’t seen in a long time, and the episode deftly realizes the Ice Warrior with a mixture of a badass practical suit and a bit of CGI when Skaldak later takes off his helmet to face down the Doctor face to face.
There’s also one very brief but noteworthy moment. The Captain and the Doctor are arguing about which of them should go try to reason with Skaldak. The Doctor says it can’t be the Captain because he’s an enemy soldier who attacked the Ice Warrior, and “a soldier knows a soldier.” And the Doctor can’t, and doesn’t, argue with that. The Captain then turns that argument around on the Doctor, essentially suggesting that the time lord has a point, but that he can sense that same quality in the Doctor. It’s a nice reminder that, for all his silliness, the Doctor has done some dark things in his time, and it’s left scars for those who know how to recognize them.
All in all, “Cold War” was a nice standalone episode that blends together tension and humor, and a successful upgrade to one of the show’s classic alien species. It’ll be interesting to see if the Ice Warriors return again down the line. At the very least, it could give the writers an excuse not to trot out the Daleks or Cybermen yet again. (Actually, we’re getting more of both later this season, but a guy can dream…)