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Mutually Assured Duran Duran: "Doctor Who" -- "Cold War”

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | April 17, 2013 |

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | April 17, 2013 |

Following last week’s “Rings Of Akhaten,” “Cold War” is quite the contrast. We go from the grand interplanetary vistas of an alien star system that purports to hold the origins of all life in the universe to the claustrophobic walls of a submarine trapped at the bottom of the ocean. The focus shifts from the infinite possibilities of what might have been for a life cut tragically short to the much simpler finite duality of living or dying in the moment. Survival is the only goal in this story, and the antagonist is one of the older recurring Doctor Who enemies, an Ice Warrior, back in its first television appearance since the 1970s.

With its limited scope and familiar yet reliable plot beats, “Cold War” did not thrill me beyond the average episode of Doctor Who, but judging from online reception, some of you did not like last week’s installment as much as I did, and some of you liked this one much more than I did. There is so much variance in the adventures of our favorite Time Lord that it is of course impossible to please all of us all the time.


The Doctor and Clara pop in on a 1983 Soviet submarine, armed with a nuclear arsenal and not lacking in its share of the itchy trigger fingers of the day. Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham - “Davos” from Game Of Thrones) greets the passengers with suspicion, but Professor Grisenko (David Warner in an entertaining turn lighter than that of his best known stodgy villains) is more receptive to the unusual visitors. The other unintentional stowaway on the submarine is Ice Warrior Skaldak, recently excavated from a five thousand year Arctic Circle slumber. The Russians irk Skaldak by physically subduing him, and Ice Warrior honor cannot allow that sort of aggression to stand without retaliation.

For fans of classic Who, it is fun to see the Ice Warriors back in action. In a new development, Skaldak opts to shed his armor in order to dart about the shadows of the submarine and attack the passengers. Considering the exceedingly slow manner in which the old Ice Warriors lumbered around in that armor, this was a good choice for the faster-paced new Who. Reptilian claws reach out from the corners of the frame, and we are finally given a rewarding glimpse of an Ice Warrior face at the end of the story. They are cuter than you might have expected - certainly cuter than the frequently helmeted and similarly militant Sontarans.

Clara continues to find her “sea legs” as The Doctor’s companion. She learns about the TARDIS’s translation matrix, which - fortunately for the ears of us viewers - kicks in through our televisions before the TARDIS arrives, allowing the Russians to speak in British-accented English and also operating in spots on the sub where The Doctor and Clara are not present. The Doctor also briefs Clara on the potential of rewriting the future; just because she was alive thirty years later does not mean that civilization as we knew it could not still be destroyed in 1983.

Clara’s early dynamic as a companion seems to be an unusual one relative to the ones we have seen before. The other two incarnations of Clara we met were defined by sass and confidence, and this version of Clara has exhibited those qualities as well, but perhaps that attitude was something of a facade. She is eager to please The Doctor, as she frets over whether her questioning of Skaldak was a good enough contribution for a member of the TARDIS crew. In an amusing moment, she willingly stays in one place at The Doctor’s behest instead of wandering off, as is the usual companion M.O. She saves her insecurity for conversation with Professor Grisenko, though, instead of sharing it with The Doctor himself. Doubtless she does not want to jeopardize the opportunity for adventures through time and space, but perhaps she also wants to live up to The Doctor’s memory of the person (or “persons” - a distinction she does not yet realize) that inspired him to take her aboard, even as she insisted to him that she is her own self and no one else.

The story reaches its climax with Skaldak threatening the Earth by putting his finger on the trigger to launch the submarine’s missiles. The Doctor in turn threatens to blow up the submarine himself by way of sonic screwdriver before the missiles can be launched. The stand-off ends when an Ice Warrior ship, having received Skaldak’s distress call, arrives to drag the damaged submarine from the ocean depths and transport Skaldak aboard. Skaldak’s ultimate choice to be merciful perhaps hints at the more peacefully evolved race that the Ice Warriors would later become when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered them centuries later.

For those wondering about Grisenko’s inquiry about what the future holds beyond 1983, Ultravox has broken up a couple times over the past few decades, but presently as of 2008 they are officially active. Also, I did not know that “Hungry Like The Wolf” band Duran Duran is officially still active in 2013. I am now curious what those lyrics would sound like in Russian without the TARDIS translation matrix.

Final piece of trivia for you: 6’7” Spencer Wilding was the actor in the Skaldak costume. He also appeared in Doctor Who as the minotaur in “The God Complex” and the Wooden King in “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.”


Classic Doctor Who Bonus:

On my viewing schedule for this week was “The Seeds Of Death,” the second encounter for Patrick Troughton’s Doctor with the Ice Warriors. (The BBC failed to keep the first serial intact.) There is some dated cheesiness in this production and more than the usual amount of suspension of disbelief required, but like much of old Who it falls into the “endearingly cheesy” category instead of the “eye-rollingly cheesy” variety.

Set in the late 21st century, “The Seeds Of Death” gives us an Earth that has become reliant on “T-Mat” technology. It’s like the telepods from The Fly have been successfully implemented as an industry to transport matter all around the Earth and between the Earth and the Moon. Reliance on this advancement, which is limited to that Earth-Moon range, has left rocket travel to fall into stagnation as a mere museum exhibit. Humans are complacent to stay put for the time being.

The Ice Warriors hijack the Moon T-Mat station and attempt to take over the Earth by way of an oxygen-depleting fungus that they will transmit to the various T-Mat stations on Earth.

Highlights include a Patrick Troughton running montage in episode three and the cool sound effect used for the Ice Warrior sonic weaponry. This is one of those rare instances in which The Doctor takes up arms, as to outduel them The Doctor invents his own solar-heat gun that he himself uses to kill some of the Ice Warriors. Also notable is the fact that The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe take a rocket ride from the Earth to the Moon, because the TARDIS is too unreliable for such a short trip. The modern Doctor has his occasional missteps in targeting time and place, but in those days the adventuring was much more random in nature, as evidenced by the fact that The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe duck out at the end without saying goodbye, leaving the Earthlings to debate the merits of T-Mat.

This isn’t the best of classic Who, but our surviving Troughton installments are limited, and as a slice of 60s science-fiction vision and Doctor Who lore, this one is worth checking out, if you have the patience for a six-parter and a hankering for nostalgia.

C. Robert Dimitri had a cynical outlook in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War. His mother had a bumper sticker with the motto “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.” He once told a friend on the playground that it didn’t matter if Reagan or Mondale won; we were all doomed to nuclear armageddon. It wasn’t long after that he saw Doctor Who for the first time. Optimism - or at least occasional optimism - followed.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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