‘Doctor Who’ Cold War Recap: An Old Enemy Returns

Credit: BBC America

More on tonight’s Doctor Who, after I finish downloading this Ultravox/Duran Duran playlist.

Now then. Hopefully, those who were disappointed by last week’s outing, The Rings of Akhaten, were satiated by the Doctor and Clara’s claustrophobic trip to the epicenter of the Cold War — that is, a heavily armed Russian submarine in the middle of the North Pole. This being 1983, a time when worldwide paranoia was at an all-time high and “mutually assured destruction” seemed almost inevitable, why not reintroduce one of Doctor Who‘s most trigger-happy villains?

Bless the heavens that the writing was so damn good this week, as Grand Marshall Skaldak of the ancient Ice Warrior race — who had previously not been seen on the TV iteration of Doctor Who since 1974 — deserves the grand, Hunt for the Red October-esque introduction we saw on Saturday. The last time we met the Ice Warriors they were silly, low-budget looking things (especially to our 2013 eyes), but Commander Skaldak was a complex, honorable, and ultimately worthy opponent with some badass body armor. And unlike last week’s bland sun-star villain, Skaldak actually inspired a sense of fear or at least uneasiness in the watcher, which was only made more intense by the claustrophobic setting. (Aside: Claustrophobic settings can make anything scary. See The Descent, Buried, 127 Hours. Shudder.)

Also, in the end, Skaldak’s show of mercy hopefully taught the equally hateful and distrusting (minus Professor David Warner, who has been in every classic blockbuster movie you’ve ever seen) Russians a thing or two about forgiveness, and when not to pull the trigger. So put together an engaging plot, a viscerally disturbing setting, and some powerful acting (especially from Jenna-Louise Coleman and David Warner), and you’ve got a hella fun episode of Doctor Who. I mean, the Ice Warriors aren’t exactly the Weeping Angeles or the Silence, but not every opponent needs to be terrifying and evil to make a great episode.

We opened on an ICEBERG, RIGHT AHEAD (sorry, I had to say that since David Warner was in Titanic), and sank down to the inside of a submarine commanded by Ser Davos Seaworth the Onion Knight that was ready to attack! Just kidding, it was actually just a drill. Despite speaking English we knew right away that they were Russian, as they said “For the Motherland!” before they fake blew up Amurikah because I guess that’s part of the procedure. Some handsome young fellow came in and told Ser Davos (I’m sorry but I’m also recapping Game of Thrones this weekend so he doesn’t get two names, especially when one is Russian and hard to spell) that they must re-do the drill because Americans are the worst, so we knew that he was going to die. (And were okay with it.)

Now, while the Russians had been running drills and doing… other Russian-like things, the Professor had been drilling for… stuff. It’s really not important. So he found this creature preserved in a giant block of ice (presumably a mammoth), and wisely decided to break it out once they got home, not in a claustrophobic little submarine at the bottom of the Arctic ocean. But the annoying youngbuck ain’t one for waiting, so he thawed it out… and PUNCH! The Ice Warriors are back! Roll credits.

So this being an angry Ice Warrior in unfamiliar territory, he instantly started tearing s**t up, causing the sub to severely malfunction. In popped the TARDIS, and with it its Doctor and his Clara, who were just on their way to a Vegas vacation. (Which Vegas hotel do you think the Doctor would stay in? I bet the Bellagio, just for the fountains.) The Doctor was sporting some sunglasses, which were, actually, quite cool. Unfortunately, instead of 110 degree weather and girls in 5 inch lucite heels they got a crappy, now-sinking submarine and Ser Davos pointing a gun in their faces, so. Vacation over.

Sensing the urgency of the situation and knowing that lying about their identities when they just appeared out of thin air would be useless, the Doctor made things simple: “We’re time travelers. We arrived out of thin air, you just saw it happen.” But honesty doesn’t get you far with Ser Davos, who was still waving his gun around like Shagga with an axe. (Game of Thrones joke, sorry sorry.)

The Doctor started trying to save everyone’s hides, and was rambling on like his usual self when the menacing Ice Warrior appeared directly behind him. And when the Doctor puts on his “Oh F**k but I’m sort of excited at the prospect of this adventure” face, you know things are serious. “It’s an Ice Warrior,” he said, with a permeating sense of gravity. “A native of the Planet Mars. And we go way back.” Understatement! They go like, third Doctor back. But despite seeing two people (err, one person one Time Lord) appear in a submarine out of thin air, then witnessing a giant creature in body armor that is clearly not of this Earth, the stubborn Ser Davos STILL cried fowl. Ugh. The worst people in like, horror movies and sci-fi stuff are the ones that NEVER ACCEPT WHAT IS CLEARLY HAPPENING RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM. I hate those people. I also hate Ser Davos Seaworth because he’s boring, so I’m just in a hate-y mood right now. Sorry.

But Davos’ distrust of the martian situation in front of him did lead to an amazing line from the Doctor: “I’m always serious. With days off.” Ha! Things got even MORE serious when the Doctor realized that this wasn’t just any old Ice Warrior, it was Grand Marshall F**king Skaldak of the West Virginia Skaldaks. Skaldak had been frozen in ice for 5,000 years, and you don’t have to be a warrior from a militia species to be devastated at the news that everyone you have ever loved is now long dead. Just ask Captain America.

Skaldak, to his credit, did not attack first. That honor went to some idiot Russian, who hit him with a cattle prod. The Doctor was NOT happy that they tazed “the greatest hero the proud martian race has ever produced,” as Skaldak would likely have let them go peacefully had he not been threatened. And in case you were wondering how badass Skaldak is: “The Ice Warriors have a different code. He’s a hero. His enemies admired him so much they’d carve his name into their own flesh before they died.” So basically he’s like the Dolph Lundgren of the Ice Warriors.

So now they were in this terrible situation where yes, Skaldak was chained up, but surely it wouldn’t last for long and they were sinking and running out of oxygen. All of that is terrifying. And the Ice Warriors have this Three Musketeers-like creed where if you attack one of them you attack ALL of them, and thus E.T. had totally phoned home for backup. The Doctor wanted to reason with him, but since Skaldak would sense that the Russians were warriors and be hostile, in went Clara to have the big bargaining talk because CLEARLY a woman could never be a threat. (Just kidding, Skaldak’s daughter was a mighty warrior. Doctor Who is not a sexist show.)

Side-Note: Did anyone else think it strange that Clara — the Doctor’s so-called most clever companion — took this long to question why she could understand what anyone and anything ever was saying? Like, say, on Akhaten or on whatever strange adventure they were dressed for when the TARDIS crash landed in this submarine s**thole? I enjoyed the comedy of the Russians looking ridiculously confused when she said “I don’t speak Russian” while outwardly speaking Russian, but still.

Clara went in alone to speak with Skaldak, but with the Doctor telling her what to say through extremely large ’80s headphones. She did the super-special Ice Warrior salute and expressed their sincerest apologies and reverence — because, as we know, the only way to satiate a macho man is to appeal to his ego. But Skaldak saw right through it, and when Clara approached him against the Doctor’s wishes, she saw that the lizard-man had EXITED HIS ARMOR!

Now, you have to understand: an Ice Warrior never abandons his armor. That’s like asking a Kardashian to go outside without 50 lbs of makeup, or my roommate without a fake tan. (She doesn’t read these, so it’s cool.) The Doctor realized that Skaldak’s people had not responded to his call, so now they were dealing with an Ice Warrior on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Plus, he was PISSED. To hammer in this point, the Doctor slowly turned around, and Matt Smith brilliantly executed the line: “He’s got nothing left to lose.”

So the stupidest move of the week award goes to the first guy that Skaldak, in his natural form, managed to find. He wrapped his large, reptilian talons over the dude’s head from the vents above, and the guy started nervously bumbling, saying that they were all warriors and could work together in the “mutually assured destruction” of the Cold War. You know what’s like, the number one thing you don’t tell an insane alien warrior who has been frozen for 5,000 years and thinks he’s never going to see a member of his own race again? That you have missiles aboard capable of causing mutually assured destruction! “Cold War” and “Ice Warrior” go together like Jackie Tyler and velour tracksuits, so this was surely an exciting proposition.

At this point everyone split up — Clara, the Doctor, and the Professor went one way, Davos another, and two unknown guys yet another, so you knew they were toast. Skaldak got them pretty much right away. RIP, randos. Clara became frightened when the Doctor told her something from the Companion Handbook that she had clearly skimmed over, which is that time can be rewritten — this is the first adventure for Clara that could have severely altered her way of life (or, you know, ended it), and it hit her hard.

The Professor tried his best to comfort Clara, which was adorable and sweet and funny all at the same time. Jenna-Louise Coleman and David Warner were fantastic in their scenes together, and you had to laugh when he grilled her about Duran Duran and Ultravox, then inspired her to sing “Hungry Like the Wolf” when she was afraid. (PS, I’m going to try that next time I’m stuck in the subway. That s**t is terrifying.) Though Clara exited the episode strong and proud (saving the world is what we do!), I’m curious to see how “Cold War” might change her outlook going forward.

Side-Note 2: I loved it when the Doctor told Clara to stay put with the Professor and not to argue, to which she replied with a sense of bewilderment, “I’m not.” That was a clear wink-wink on companions past — particularly Amy Pond — who never listened to the Doctor when he told them to stay put.

Annnywayyyyy, Skaldak found and loaded the missiles, obviously. Grieving, he decided that since his life was over, the planet that trapped him and ruined his should be, too. And since sending one missile to America would signal the end of the world, as things were during the Cold War and probably still are now (sad), all it would take was one push of a button to signal the beginning of the end. Basically, the gang was in dire straits. 

Thankfully, in his own way, Skaldak is a “man” of honor. Though he could turn Earth into “a second red planet… red with the blood of humanity” is he wanted to, the Doctor pointed out that there was no honor in killing a young, primitive (thanks) race — but there washonor in teaching this new race the honor found in mercy. If Skaldak pressed the trigger he wouldn’t be a solider, he’d just a murderer. A murderer of billions.

It’s tough to say whether or not Skaldak would have gone through with it had his people not returned and beamed him up to the mothership. I’d like to think the best, and this option is reinforced by the fact that Skaldak still could have deployed the missiles from up above. Instead he let Earth go, and even gave the doomed kids in the submarine a ride to the top, effectively saving everybody’s lives.

In the end, the world was saved (again), and both Clara and the Russians learned some valuable lessons. The former finally saw the severe danger she had put herself in when she chose to travel with the Doctor, the latter learned about mercy and the many ambiguities of war. Also, Clara/Doctor shippers were probably excited when Clara and the Doctor shared their first affectionate moment (a hug), but luckily the Doctor still gave his “humans are icky” face and looked severely uncomfortable during the whole exchange. Oh Doctor, never change (too much).

What did you think of Cold War, fellow Whovians? Were you pleased with the return of the Ice Warrior? Do you like the direction this series is taking? Let us know in the comments!

Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna

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