Doctor Who: Cold War
(1 episode, s07e08, 2013)
Hungry like a wolf.
North Pole, 1983: In the frigid depths, a Soviet submarine conducts an ICBM launch drill. They are interrupted by Professor Grisenko, a man who has secured a certain specimen during this voyage. Captain Zhukov and Lieutenant Stepashin face pressure from NATO exercises on the military front, but thanks to a crewman below decks, they now face a new threat as something emerges from the ice.
Havoc erupts on the submarine as the green armored figure rampages through the boat. As the submarine flails, the TARDIS materializes and the Doctor and Clara rush into the control room looking for Las Vegas. The crew decide to trust the newcomers for the moment as the submarine grounds out on the ocean floor, 700 meters below the surface.
The crew then apprehend the travelers and search the Doctor’s pockets, unveiling all sorts of artifacts. The submarine takes another jolt, knocking Clara unconscious as the TARDIS spontaneously dematerializes. When Clara comes to, the Doctor and the captain are arguing. They stop when the being appears in the control room.
Welcome back, Ice Warriors!
The Doctor informs them that the Ice Warriors are soldiers that demand respect, pleading with the Soviets to stop attacking it. He wagers that the Ice Warrior is confused due to being frozen for 5,000 years and asks its name. The Doctor is shocked to hear that this Ice Warrior is the legendary Grand Marshall Skaldak.
The exchange is stopped when Stepashin knocks the grand marshall down with an electrical charge. After chastizing the lieutenant, the Doctor recommends that Skaldak be locked up. He then explains who the Ice Warriors are to the captain, unaware that Skaldak is signaling his people to save him.
Stepashin wonders if the travelers are western spies, prompting Clara to learn about the TARDIS translation circuits. Captain Zhukov dismisses the lieutenant’s concerns and tasks him to lead damage control efforts. He then talks with the Doctor about the war his lieutenant just declared on the Ice Warriors. In the end, Clara volunteers to act as ambassador to negotiate peace.
The Doctor coaches her through an audio link as Clara talks with the general, but Clara soon discovers that the armor is empty. Skaldak is free and wandering the ship, swearing to retaliate against his enemies. The Doctor recognizes that leaving its armor is one of the most dishonorable things an Ice Warrior can do, therefore the general is now incredibly dangerous. The Doctor retrieves Clara – she is ecstatic over this encounter – and then tries to impress the pressure of the situation on the captain.
The submarine slips on the seamount, adding even more danger to the situation. Meanwhile, the Ice Warrior finds Stepashin and extracts knowledge of the Cold War and the theory of mutually assured destruction from his mind.
Captain Zhukov gives the heroic speech to his crew: The reactor is down, they only have battery power, and they’re running out of air. All of that aside, they still have a mission to stop the Grand Marshall before he gains control of any of the nuclear missiles. They are all that stands between him and the destruction of the world.
Clara and the Doctor talk about the nature of time, realizing that history can be changed and rewritten, so world destruction is still a possibility. The Doctor agrees to help the captain search for Skaldak, happy to have his sonic screwdriver returned. Clara teams up with Professor Grisenko – the professor has a cattle prod to ward off polar bears and a wants to sing Hungry Like the Wolf – as the Doctor tinkers ahead of them. This team rushes when they hear screaming, coming across the bodies of two crewmen who were dismembered as Skaldak tests human weaknesses.
The Doctor gets a fix on Skaldak and orders Clara to stay put. He’s surprised that she doesn’t argue, leaving her to chat with the professor as he moves on. Clara admits that she was bothered by the bodies and the deaths.
The chase continues through the submarine. As the professor and Clara exchange small talk, Skaldak doubles back and grabs Clara. When Grisenko shoots the Ice Warrior, he shifts to the professor and declares his intent to destroy humanity. Since they fired on him first, he has every right under Martian law to obliterate them.
As Skaldak signals his armor through sonic signal, the Doctor attempts to negotiate. The grand marshall enters his armor when it arrives and heads for the control room. There he begins the launch sequence for the warheads, but the Doctor pleads with him, appealing in the name of mercy. When Skaldak doesn’t yield, the Doctor threatens to destroy the submarine in order to stop him.
In the face of mutually assured destruction, Skaldak faces the Doctor and opens his helmet, wondering who will blink first. Clara steps in and pleads for compassion. Her case is won when the submarine is snared by a spaceship that raises it to the surface. The Doctor asks him to leave in peace, but is worried when the Ice Warrior is transported away while the warheads are still armed.
The situation ends when the launch systems are remotely disarmed, prompting a celebratory hug from Clara to the Doctor.
The Doctor, Captain Zhukov, the professor, and Clara go to the bridge to gaze upon the Martian ship. Clara asks the Doctor what happened to the TARDIS, of which the Doctor confesses that he reactivated the Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS). Even though he hasn’t used it for a while, he knows that it will pop up eventually. On cue, the sonic reports that the TARDIS has fled to the South Pole.
Embarrassed, he asks the captain for a lift and they all laugh. The Doctor offers a salutes the Ice Warrior ship as it flies away.
As a former submariner, I tend to keep an eye on certain things while watching submarine-based works like this. I was pretty impressed with the technical accuracy in this one with one exception.
The Firebird initially looked like a Typhoon-class ballistic missile sub, which is usually what one thinks of with respect to Cold War Soviet boats. I mean, look no further than The Hunt for Red October (both the novel and the film). But the Firebird was actually a Soviet Delta – either a Delta II (Project 667BD Murena-M) or a Delta III (Project 667BDR Kalmar) depending on which source you look at – a class of boats that was introduced in 1973 and are still in service under their third and fourth designs today.
The technical exception was the maximum depth of the Delta hull. The Firebird grounded out at around 700 meters (3000 feet), but the Delta can only go to 400 meters (1300 feet) as far as we know. From experience, the depth in this story is really deep and unrealistic for a nuclear-powered submarine.
(I was also impressed with the crew accuracy. At this point in submarine history, the silent service was still a “boy’s club”, so Clara was rightfully the only woman in the episode. We haven’t seen that in Doctor Who since The Power of Kroll.)
Also, this point in history was a hot one for a cold war. The Able Archer 83 exercises, which simulated a DEFCON 1 status and a coordinated worldwide nuclear attack, terrified the already paranoid Soviet Union. They honestly believed that the simulation was obscuring a real attack so they placed the East German and Polish forces on alert. There were other close calls throughout the year, including one famous incident where the world should have been destroyed except for one cool-headed Soviet radar operator who correctly interpreted a missile on his screen as an equipment malfunction.
The paranoia in the story was reality.
Technical stuff aside, this story played well with that paranoia and was a well-crafted suspense thriller that balanced body count against a very tightly focused plot. Let’s face it: Not much really happened in this story, but it still adequately filled the runtime.
It was also chock full of powerful guest stars. I know Liam Cunningham best from Game of Thrones, David Warner from Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Batman: The Animated Series, and TRON (and, of course, Dreamland), and Tobias Menzies from The Crown, Outlander, and Star Wars: Rebels, but all three of these men have extensive histories in film and television.
That’s not even mentioning Spencer Wilding (The God Complex and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe) and Nicholas Briggs (pretty much every revival era Dalek, Judoon, Cyberman, and Zygon, as well as various creatures, having been around since Rose).
That powerhouse cast really propelled this story beyond its thin plot to a fun time overall.
It’s good to see the Ice Warriors back. At this point, they’d been absent for 39 years. Amusingly, theplot device of thawing out a Martian was also used in the debut of the Ice Warriors. It was fun to expand on them a bit with the armor mythology, which also served to boost Clara’s character as she negotiated with Skaldak.
I also really liked the threat of extermination in this story. Time is not concrete and this incident was not a fixed point in time, so if the Doctor and Clara had failed then the Earth would have been destroyed. I dig the fact that they have worldwide stakes to deal with.
I just hope that someone told the Doctor that he and Clara are sailing for another 10 to 20 days. They’re definitely going to need fresh clothes and a shower when they get where they’re going.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
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The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.