Monday, May 6, 2013

Cold War

As I mentioned in Rings of Akhaten, there's a New Who tradition of giving the new companion an adventure in the future and an adventure in the earth's past - The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, The Shakespeare Code, The Fires of Pompeii, Victory of the Daleks, and Vampires In Venice. But while I like the future ones, the past ones is the half of the tradition I'm not a huge fan of. With the exception of the excellent Fires of Pompeii, they tend to be servicable but completely unmemorable.

Though, to be fair, part of my problem may be that a lot of them are written by Mark Gatiss. It's not that Gatiss writes bad scripts - they're perfectly competent. They just aren't interesting. At all. When I have liked his stories, it's because a director like Euros Lyn or Richard Clark gave them enough atmosphere and enough sense of drama that they worked. And even Lyn, one of the best directors to ever work on Doctor Who, couldn't make anything interesting out of The Idiot's Lantern.

Even by Gatiss' standards, though, Cold War doesn't accomplish or attempt anything interesting.

Let's start with the Ice Warriors. The Ice Warriors are in that category of Classic Who monsters beloved not because they were particularly interesting - the only thing separating them from the Yeti was that they occasionally growled words - but because they looked cool. (Well, that, and Troughton and Pertwee each fought them twice, and three of those times were six-parters, meaning they actually had more episodes than the Sontarans.) And they really do look cool. But, like the Zygons, they really don't have much else going for them.

That doesn't mean there's no reason to bring them back. First, you could always add something to them - flesh them out, expand on their culture and their individualities. Gatiss doesn't do this. But there actually was one fantastic aspect to them: in their third story, The Curse of Peladon, they turned out in a pretty great surprise twist to be good guys. In all of Classic Who, they were the only monsters that started evil and turned good in a later story, and it pulled it off 15 years before Star Trek got around to redeeming the Klingons.

Granted, it's hard to write a new story about that, and Gatiss doesn't generally go for anything challenging, which really only leaves two worthwhile things about them. The first would be to have fun reconciling the idea that they come from an advanced civilization on Mars and the fact that Mars turned out to be a lifeless desert where the temperature rarely makes it above freezing at the height of summer. But that would probably be expensive, and with a season with so much visual spectacle, you've gotta cut costs someplace. So you get one Ice Warrior on a small, simple set.

Failing all that, the only thing left, I guess, is to give your Ice Warrior a really great characterization and dialogue. That still wouldn't give a reason to bring them back, but at least it would be entertaining. What we get, unfortunately, is the Xenomorph from Alien, except instead of a horrific being of sheer visceral terror, he occasionally growls a few vague threats. Yes, the updated version looks very cool, and they manage the very difficult feat of taking his mask off and still making him look cool.

But that's it. The whole episode is just an alien with no personality going around killing everybody off. And without anything going for it besides an alien runninig around killing people in a tight space, it can't help but be compared to Alien. Douglas Mackinnon is a fine director, but he's not Ridley Scott. There's a little bit of claustrophobic atmosphere here, but not much. There are a few moments of minor suspense, but nothing to really get your pulse moving.

But Gatiss is the real culprit. Not only does he fail to do anything interesting even within the very basic concept of "monster chasing people on a ship", but he writes a staggeringly stupid script. Right from the beginning, it's just dumb. Seriously, how stupid is that guy who thaws out the Ice Warrior? What possible reason would he have to do that? Even by the standards of stupid people doing stupid things to drive horror plots, that's pretty dumb. Even in Friday the 13th sequels, the idiots aren't trying to bring Jason back to life.

It extends to every aspect of the story, including, tragically, the Doctor himself - within the same breath, he says that the Ice Warrior is so powerful he could easily kill all twelve of the living people in one go, and that their best chance of surviving is to split up into teams of two. Which, naturally, results in the crew's decimation. Again, if these scenes were scary, or if the characters were anything other than generic cardboard, it might be at least moderately forgivable, but it's all so totally standard.

And in this scenario, the Doctor stopping the captain from shooting the Ice Warrior to negotiate falls flat. It makes the Doctor seem even more foolish. In any half-decent horror yarn, the idiotic authority figure getting everyone killed would meet a richly deserved death (or, if it was a really good horror movie, they would see the error of their ways and be racked with guilt).

And the ending really sinks the whole enterprise. The Doctor gives a big speech. Which fails. Again. It's one thing for the Doctor to fail on occasion, but up to this point in this season, he's had four companion deaths out of three companions; Clara solved two stories after he, The Doctor, failed to give a compelling speech, and two more basically because he showed up (and she was already more or less dead, once because of the Doctor's own stupidity); Amy and Rory solved another after he failed; and his solution to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was to straight-up murder the villain after stopping the hunter from shooting him with a tranquilizer gun because it's a gun, and guns are bad but killing is totally okay. Oh, and he solved Power of Three by waving the Sonic around and apparently getting all the human victims on that spaceship killed (or sucked into a plot hole). As clever, Doctorish solutions go, he's only got A Town Called Mercy and Bells of St John out of nine stories. And he's been kind of a creeper to Clara. If I was basing it solely on this season, I don't think I'd be cheering for this guy as the lead; I'd be hoping he'd get killed off so Clara could take over the show.

And the whole thing with the TARDIS flying off to the South Pole? Gatiss manages to end the episode by making even Sexy herself seem brain dead. It was dumb enough reviving the long-dormant Krotons bit about the TARDIS flying off to the nearest "safe location" when you're on a submarine and they could easily just be, you know, locked out of that room, but why would she fly off to Antarctica?

The result is an episode insulting to the audience's intelligence, the characters' intelligence, and the abilities of some very fine actors. And the combination of that with the usual bunch of cliches without style or invention is the single most boring episode since... Timelash? Man, that sucker came out two years before I was born. And at least that was cheesy enough to provoke a couple of unintentional laughs. And, you know, had the Doctor actually solve the plot and do Doctorish stuff here and there.

Besides the Ice Warrior costume, there is one good thing about the episode - Clara. In her fifth appearance, she's still not a fully-developed character as such, but she's gradually getting more layers. I like how genuinely scared she is when the Ice Warrior threatens her, and then how quickly she jumps from being scared to diving back into the action - "I'm okay! I'm okay! Where did he go?" At some point, I'd like to see her as fully fleshed out as the other companions, but even without that, she's consistently fun.

 But in a black hole like this, it doesn't count for enough.


* ½

It gets an extra half-star for Smith doing little moments like this, though.


  • Wait, we're in Clara's third story and the Doctor hasn't explained the whole languages thing? Why didn't this happen last episode?
  • I guess I didn't talk about the whole Cold War aspect, but honestly? It didn't really have anything to do with the episode. It was just an excuse for the lone alien to be able to blow up the whole planet, because we haven't had an alien threaten the entire Earth before. The Soviet soldiers are awfully quick to accept that the mysterious strangers who showed up on a nuclear submarine aren't some kind of sabeteurs or spies or anything of the sort. There's no sense of the fear and paranoia that pervaded even ordinary lives, let alone those manning a submarine that could end it all. Just a satisfactory exploration of that would have largely redeemed the episode. Unfortunately, none of these characters were more than the dullest cardboard.
  • Whatever its flaws, I've gotta give some praise to the production team - this sucker looks good and expensive, even though it's probably the cheapest or near it of the season.

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