Monday, 22 April 2013

Nice Warrior

Doctor Who
Cold War
Series Seven, Episode Eight

You pretty much know what to expect from this one.  There's a monster loose on a nuclear submarine.  So, that's slithering in corridors, crew picked off one by one, and a desperate scramble to stop the bombs from flying.  It's a monster movie, and it's competently done, but that's about the nicest thing you can say about it.  It's written by Mark Gatiss, and you pretty much know what to expect from him, too.

Gatiss wanted to bring back the Ice Warriors.  Fair enough: the list of recurring monsters in Doctor Who's history dwindled dramatically after we got Daleks and Cybermen, and the Ice Warriors haven't had a story all to themselves since the '60s.  He goes about this quite sensibly, giving us just one (like in Dalek) and having it run amok in a confined space (like in Dalek).  The costume's the same as ever, only more badass.  (See Dalek.)  The thing is strangely beautiful to look at, and yet completely intimidating, especially in close quarters.  (Dalek!)  It's covered in chains at one point, and...  Okay, it's safe to say Mark Gatiss saw Dalek.  But that approach worked before, so it ought to work again.

At least, to an extent.  Whose bright idea was it to throw away what little we know about Ice Warriors and say hey, the armour's just a robotic suit, and really there's a slithery wee alien inside?  Sure, this works for the Daleks, but isn't that precisely why you shouldn't do it all over again?  It's like when the Daleks randomly started converting people into Daleks, immediately (one would hope) prompting a strongly-worded letter from the Cybermen's legal department.  It's been done!  It really is a shame, as the one thing you might conceivably wonder about an Ice Warrior what it looks like without the helmet has already been revealed, in their first New Series adventure.  On top of which, it looks like complete rubbish.

Anyway, this crew of Soviets are running nuclear drills.  (They're also drilling for oil, which seems like a completely random job for a nuclear sub, but maybe that's just me.  Perhaps the Soviet motto is something like: "If it involves drilling of any kind, keep us Soviets in mind!")  They have in their possession a Thing From Another World-style ice block, and in a spectacular example of assigning the wrong man for the job just to advance the plot, an over-zealous crewman is asked to watch over it, and then decides to de-frost it with a blowtorch.  Oh, idiot crewman, we hardly knew ye.

Once the Doctor and Clara arrive, skipping spiritedly through the who-are-you-and-how-did-you-get-heres, it's a question of finding out what the Ice Warrior wants and trying to stop it blowing everything up.  In other words, Dalek, with tracts of Alien and (to use a dusty old Who reference, which I'm sure Gatiss would appreciate as he dredges up the TARDIS's wacky HADS system from 1969), it's a bit like Horror Of Fang Rock.  That's a Tom Baker story where a bunch of people are trapped in a lighthouse with a monster.  It's like this one, except scary.

There's very little wrong with all this.  Well, it's worked before, hasn't it?  The trouble is, there's little to mark it out from anything else.  Mark Gatiss's perfunctory dialogue doesn't help: you've seen and heard it all before.  ("He's finding out your strengths... and your weaknesses."  Darn.  Who else had "and your favourite colour"?)

Take Clara, who's still going through the companiony motions.  TARDIS translates foreign languages?  Tick.  History can be changed?  Tick.  Travelling with the Doctor means dead bodies by the truckload?  Tick.  Yes, it's necessary, but we've been there, so very done that.  Jenna Louise-Coleman attacks it with her usual cute-as-a-buttonness, particularly in the less-than-convincing "this is all getting a bit real" scene, but it still adds nothing to my understanding of what Clara is like as a person, or what really marks her out from Amy, Donna, Martha, Rose and the rest.

On top of which, she feels like a third wheel.  The bit where she takes it upon herself to speak to Grand Marshal Skaldak (le Ice Warrior) requires a torturous bit of chin-wag between the Doctor and the sub's Captain an obvious, desperate bid to find something for her to do.  Why not just have the Doctor talk to him instead?  Matt Smith, incidentally, is in a mostly comedic mood this week.  This is fun to watch, but he's capable of a lot more.  He really isn't challenged often enough these days.

In Clara's defence, how cute is that salute?
The monster goes downhill as soon as the, er, genie's out of the bottle.  Creative camerawork is used to keep it out of sight, but is this done to heighten the tension, or to disguise its rubbishness?  With its silly rubber arms and not-particularly-memorable CGI head, I'm leaning towards the latter.  At least it kills a few people  actually kills them, dead, in modern Doctor Who! but even that feels like small potatoes in the shadow of nuclear war, not to mention the tonally bizarre ending.

Okay, so Skaldak is about to launch the nuke when the Doctor tries to convince him that mankind is young and innocent, and deserves a second chance.  (We saw that before in The Christmas Invasion.)  Then Clara uses her companiony pixie dust to remind Skaldak of his daughter, and how much he misses her, and how proud she'll be if he turns the other cheek.  (I think I saw that in my nightmares.)  Then a spaceship full of Ice Warriors beams up the Grand Marshal and, after much impotent wishing and hoping from the Doctor, graciously disarms the nukes as well.  (Smith And Jones hops to mind.)  The Warriors go on their way as our heroes smile, crack jokes, and nod heartily to their new alien friends.

Uh, guys?  Didn't Skaldak murder at least six people?  Are we really saying he's an all right sort of guy just because he couldn't be bothered to obliterate the Earth?  By Cold War's end, you just don't know if you're supposed to be afraid of the Ice Warriors.  That's an understandable message in a war story, but it's a seriously damp ending, and it robs them of future menace.  (Something similar, only much better, happened in The Curse Of Peladon.  In that one, however, they left all the murdering and monstering to the stories where they really were the bad guys, because y'know, it sort of muddies the issue.)

So what's to like?  The Ice Warrior looks awesome, if only on the outside.  Nick Briggs does a decent voice, even if it is a bit like a Juddoon crossed with Stock Grizzled Monster Noise.  (With added lisp.)  All the Alien-y corridor scenes are tense, if familiar, and easily let down by the sight of those silly rubber claws.  (Oh no!  Not rubber claws!) 

Perhaps the greatest asset is the cast.  Liam Cunningham brings the required level-headedness to the sub's Captain.  Tobias Menzies does what he can with The Slippery Lieutenant Destined To Get Killed.  But never mind all that: David Warner's in it!  It's great just having him here, which is just as well, as his character has almost nothing to do.  (He's supposedly a professor, but other than knowing how long Skaldak's been in the ice he could easily be the janitor.)  Warner has a warmth and exuberance that makes every scene more fun to watch, and makes me wish he still had a shot at playing the Doctor.  In his scenes with Clara, when he's not yammering on about Ultravox, he could be a more rough and tumble Patrick Troughton.  It's a waste of talent, undoubtedly, but it's a marginally better episode because of him.

Cold War's based on such a familiar, tried-and-tested framework that it can't entirely miss, in a meat-and-potatoes sort of way.  For some people, no doubt, this kind of bog standardness is exactly the point of Doctor Who.  There'll certainly be more like it.  For me, that vital spark isn't there – quite possibly because Mark Gatiss is – so it's not one I'll revisit.  Oh well: it's still better than last week's.

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