In Slate’s Doctor Who TV Club, Mac Rogers discusses the Doctor’s travels via IM every week with the show’s bloggers and fans. This week he’s chatting about “Cold War” with Frank Collins, who edits Cathode Ray Tube.
Mac Rogers: After a 38-year absence from Doctor Who, a proper Ice Warrior! Were you glad to see him?
Frank Collins: Skaldak doesn’t bear any resemblance to the Grand Marshall we saw in “The Seeds of Death,” who looked more like an Ice Lord down at the local disco.
Mac: Things have changed a bit; certainly Grand Marshall Skaldak is a lot more formidable than these guys. What do you think accounts for the lasting popularity of this villain? Is it nothing more than a clever design, or do the Ice Warriors tap into something deeper?
Frank: The new design is sleeker and stronger and, unlike previous attempts to update iconic monsters, it remains very recognizably the classic Ice Warrior we saw back in 1967. I think they’ve lasted because they emerged during the so-called “monster season,” Season 5, as a very original design, with a familiar lumbering gait and hissing voice young viewers could easily imitate. We know very little about them and so far have seen them as aggressive but honorable warriors as well as erudite diplomats. It’s an interesting dichotomy, which is certainly echoed in “Cold War,” along with a much stronger sense of their bio-mechanoid origins, particularly now that we’ve seen how they can leave their armor and their rather nifty extendable fingers.
Mac: I was definitely thinking the hands got a much-needed upgrade!
Frank: Those clamp hands of old would have been responsible for a nuclear accident.
Mac: So in “Cold War” the Doctor and Clara land on a Russian nuclear submarine in 1983—a “flashpoint,” as the Doctor says, in hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union: “Hair, shoulder-pads, nukes—it’s the ‘80s: Everything’s bigger!” But this submarine has ill-advisedly brought onboard a mysterious creature frozen in ice. I have to say, after a run of episodes in which the threat posed by the bad guys was often metaphorical or spiritual in nature, I enjoyed Mark Gatiss delivering a more conventional, meat-and-potatoes Doctor Who thriller. Grand Marshall Skaldak won’t upload you or drink your memories; he’ll rend you limb from limb if you cross him, and it created a sense of immediate peril I’ve been missing somewhat. And expanding from there, the threat to the Earth—nuclear holocaust—was a good deal more potent than deadly snow-nannies.
Frank: We needed something to clean the palate after the first two Clara-heavy episodes this season. This back-to-basics formula, with its origins in the Troughton era, suits Matt’s Doctor very well. It nicely reflects the fears of both Communist infiltration and nuclear war present in many science-fiction films of the 1950s, as well as the very real nuclear fear of the 1980s, with The Thing a particular reference here. Invasions from the red planet Mars have always been a major metaphor for perceived physical and psychological attacks from the alien Other. In a neat reversal, “the big green man from Mars” Skaldak is demonized by the Soviets just as we demonized them.
Mac: How great was it to have David Warner on an episode of Doctor Who? As the sub’s resident eccentric zoologist Grisenko, Warner has to do extra duty in establishing the time setting by listening to ‘80s hits on a Walkman and singing along at inopportune moments. This might be a cheesy device, but if you’re going to give any actor a cheesy device, it should be David Warner. This is a man who’s acted opposite Scooby-Doo, George C. Scott, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Dustin Hoffman—he can pretty much roll with whatever.
Frank: I loved the opening scene, where his rendition of “This means nothing to me!” from Ultravox’s “Vienna” (as Captain Zhukov and his crew reach the climax of their nuclear drill), pretty much sums up his attitude to all the testosterone flying about in confined spaces. The moment also reminds us that nostalgia for the 1980s is not just about pop cultural quotations from the likes of Ultravox and Duran Duran, but is also about the geopolitical map of the world being far less complicated and dangerous than it is now. With all the saber-rattling that’s going on between North and South Korea at the moment, the specter of escalating nuclear conflagration has re-emerged, so this theme is in some ways quite contemporary. As the Doctor says, “it would only take one tiny spark.” So just to have Warner in the episode, forgive the pun, disarming the situation is great.
Mac: Warner unfortunately did have to share my least favorite scene in “Cold War,” the moment when Clara breaks down and admits how frightened she is. Referring to the men killed by Skaldak, Clara says to Grisenko, “Seeing those bodies back there … it’s all got very real.” She seems to be evaluating the situation based on how well she’s performing in her own hero journey rather than focusing on the dead men themselves. This doesn’t seem like the compassionate Clara we’ve been getting to know.
Frank: I would have to slightly disagree. I’m not averse to companions feeling self-doubt and fear and perhaps not thinking they’re good enough in these terrifying situations. It underlines their function as the viewer identification figure. Jenna-Louise Coleman and Warner play those intense scenes together well. The Professor’s demanding to know about the future allows Warner to beautifully defuse the situation with a plaintive cry of “I need to know! Please! Do Ultravox split up?” That comedy turns to the horror of Skaldak seizing her and then the Professor. It’s a classic setup.
Mac: That moment was terrific, no doubt, and whatever my reservations about the scene, Coleman and Warner played it beautifully. And as we discussed earlier in terms of peril, the fact that Skaldak’s long green fingers have just mutilated trained Soviet soldiers amps up the peril of that moment: We know he can kill her, and how he’ll do it.
Mac: You’ve talked about the original “Ice Warriors” as being, “along with much of the series output in the mid-1960s, all about the idea of survival born out of strategic analysis.” Do you think Moffat and Gatiss picked up on this theme in Cold War?
Frank: I do think “Cold War” is about strategies, the personal and the political, and a reflection of the bluff and counterbluff between the nuclear powers at the time. The climax is a simple metaphor for the improvement in Soviet and American relationships that occurred when Gorbachev came to power in the late 1980s, a story about soldiers on both sides of the divide finding a mutual way to solve their differences without losing face. “Cold War” concludes with Skaldak and the Doctor reaching their own nuclear stalemate, each of them devising a strategy that threatens to wipe out the other. The Doctor calls Skaldak’s bluff and threatens to instigate his own form of Mutually Assured Destruction, while Clara appeals to Skaldak’s sense of compassion, asking him to remember his daughter and the honorary code of the Ice Warriors. Clara’s rhetoric reminds the Ice Warrior of his capacity for mercy and honor, qualities that of course can’t be controlled by strategic analysis. Her humanity, rather like Rose’s in “Dalek,” is contrasted with the Doctor’s unflinching threat to blow the sub up and sacrifice them all. The Doctor’s quite dangerous here because you’re not quite sure if that was all bluff.
Mac: It’s interesting how influential “The Curse of Peladon,” and its depiction of Ice Warriors who have renounced violence, has been in their subsequent depictions. As Phil Sandifer wrote on TARDIS Eruditorum, “The Ice Warriors, after all, are one of a kind—they’re the only species originally introduced as a straightforward ‘monster’ that has ever redeemed itself.” Why do you think this aspect has endured, rather than the more straightforward villainy of the Troughton episodes?
Frank: That’s why the Ice Warriors have endured: because they’re not just the monster of the week. They’ve evolved. And rather interestingly, their evolution seems to have gone hand in hand with a number of stories reflecting political concerns contemporaneous with their appearances on Doctor Who: The U.K. joining the EU is at the heart of 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon,” and the miners’ disputes of the mid-1970s seems to inform 1974’s “The Monster of Peladon.”
Mac: Finally, no Doctor Who chat would be complete without a loony fan theory, so here’s mine: I feel like since the introduction of Clara, Doctor Who Season 7 is undergoing what I’ll call “Troughton-ization.” The Doctor’s facing all the key Patrick Troughton Second Doctor villains: the Ice Warriors, the Great Intelligence, and the Cybermen (who really came into their own in his era). Before we met the current incarnation of Clara, we met a Zoe version (in “Asylum”) and a Victoria version (in “The Snowmen”).
Frank: Is the present Clara the Polly version then? She’s just fought off alien wireless technology emanating from a London landmark.
Mac: I’m wondering if all the callbacks to Troughton are clues to how Season 7—and the Clara mystery—will resolve?
Frank: Well, we all know how the Troughton era was resolved. He was captured by the Time Lords and forced to regenerate. Just sayin’.