The Cold War

New Who, Series 7

Mark Gatiss fizzles, Jenna-Louise Coleman sizzles in ...


The Cold War

Clara meets death. Screenshot, Doctor Who: The Cold War.Clara meets death. Screenshot, The Cold War. Doctor Who copyright © BBC 2013.

April 19, 2013, OTTAWA — I don't have a helluva lot to say about the plot of "The Cold War" that hasn't already been said (warning: all spoilers, all the time) by Patches365 at Livejournal.

Set aboard a Soviet Submarine somewhere under the Arctic ice-cap during the 1980s, "The Cold War" sits painfully on that very thin line between perfectly adequate and laughably awful. Which rates this episode as a solid B-minus in the Moffat era (coughpirates, anyone?cough).

On first viewing, Mark Gatiss' story shamelessly cribs from any number of monster and spy movies, but the narrative moves along at a good clip, with director Douglas Mackinnon lending a competent hand behind the camera. But on second look ...

It seems almost a requirement of Moffat-era Who that the stories make no sense. "The Cold War" is no exception; its narrative crumbles in the face of logic as easily as the Berlin Wall seemed to far-off observers to breach in the face of popular protests in 1990.

The idiot-plot starts right at the beginning, with a cheat. Amid tense music, we see a Soviet submarine Captain give the order to launch his boat's nuclear missiles — and World War Three. Only — phew! — it's just a drill!

Which we learn through the sudden arrival of an unkempt and absent-minded professor, who wanders onto the bridge wearing a Sony Walkman and singing along with a pop tune from the era. (Does a submarine have a bridge? Dunno. Better we should ask: does a nuclear-armed attack submarine usually carry an eccentric and dishevelled science officer among its complement?)

Onwards. After the professor's interruption inexplicably puts an end to the drill, there is an equally inexplicable — and inexplicably heated — debate between the Captain and what I presume is the boat's political officer, which results, er, in the decision to run the drill again tomorrow. Why this is of such (let alone of any) import is a question never answered.

Meanwhile, the TARDIS pops in and the Doctor and Clara pop out. Standard consternation and threats ensue.

And meanwhile, a sailor set to guarding the melting block of ice finds a blow-torch and decides to speed up the process. (Did I mention the block of ice? Like some sort of aquatic Starship Enterprise, our scientist-ferrying nuclear attack-submarine, is also blessed with the ability to, somehow, cut out huge blocks of ice from the Polar Cap and bring them aboard (presumably via a secret Soviet transporter beam) whenever the eccentric science officer spots what he believes to be a frozen mammoth — even though said ice-cube is in no way mammoth-shaped.) (Did I mention the plot makes no sense?)

Sorry. The urge to snark really is strong. Suffice it to say that "The Cold War" is a dumb story, if not without its charms. Long time fans while surely cheer the return of the Ice Warriors, small children will find reasons to hide behind their sofas, and gents (and ladies of the Saphic persuasion) will marvel at Clara, splendid in naval epaulets.

And speaking of Clara, this reviewer will at last be able to come to the point, the most note-worthy aspect of the episode, Jenna-Louise Coleman herself. Not because she looks good in naval blue, but because she is proving to be one hell of an actor.

Jenna-Louise Coleman shows, Mark Gatiss tells. Video excerpt from Doctor Who Series Seven episode #8, "The Cold War." Doctor Who copyright © 2013 by BBC. The excerpt is a fair use under copyright law.

Take the scene that starts around the 27:00 minute mark (see video at right). The Ice Warrior has slaughtered — forensically "dismantled", the Doctor explains — two of the submarine's sailors, giving Clara her first visceral experience of bloody carnage.

Following an off-stage scream, the Doctor leads Clara and the professor to a cabin in which we are shown only a bloodied arm and hand. Coleman's expression tells us everything else we need to know. Eyes darting, body nearly immobile, Coleman's Clara is a woman in shock, struggling not to break. Watch her sway as the oblivious Doctor brushes past her, and how she stumbles a little, when the professor doubles back to guide her from the gore-filled cabin.

In the next scene the Doctor still doesn't notice that Clara is reeling. "Stay here," he tells her, "don't argue."

"I'm not," Clara replies, reiterating in two words the horror of what she has just witnessed. The scene could have ended there, or with Mackinnon showing her shrug off her fears to carry on.

But Gatiss has to pile on exposition, making redundant Coleman's performance. "Clara," the professor asks her, "what is it?"

What IS it? the viewer wants to scream. Have you forgotten the "dismantled" corpses in the next room! You dumb shit! What do you mean, 'What is it?'

Coleman struggles nobly with the idiocy, but the inanity of the ensuing dialogue shows all you need to know about the flaws in this story, and of the level of story-telling craft demanded by show-runner Steven Moffat.

At this point, Jenna-Louise Coleman is the best thing about the program. Since Clara has already been set up as a Mystery, we are almost guaranteed that we will never get the chance to know who Coleman's character is as a person. Or at least not this series. At best, we can only hope that at least Neil Gaiman's episode, "Nightmare In Silver", will give her one script worthy of her talents.

Post-scriptum: The accompanying video is the first I've "created" myself, rather than yoinking it from someone else's Youtube account. However, presumably because I didn't try to disguise its provenance, it was flagged for review for copyright violation by Youtube the moment I posted it.

I've disputed the claim on the basis of fair use, but who knows how that will play out; if it stops working, please use the contact form to let me know. If necessary, I'll host it here on Rex and let the Beeb argue with me directly if they will.

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The accompanying video ...

The accompanying video ... was flagged for review for copyright violation by Youtube the moment I posted it.
... if it stops working, please use the contact form to let me know.

Unfortunately, it has. ("This video contains content from BBC Worldwide, who has blocked it on copyright grounds.")

Re: The accompanying video ...

Thank you for the heads' up, Lisa H. An upgrade to my system is on the agenda. Youtube seems to presume that copyright holders are always right, and pays no attention to such things as fair use. I'm looking forward to being able to tell the Beeb to sue me, instead of getting canned replies from Youtube's ostensible investigation unit.

Thanks for killing any slight

Thanks for killing any slight temptation to watch these newer episodes. It doesnt sound like anything has changed since 2005, sadly. I sorely wish that they would hire a frontrunner who has a strong knowledge of sci-fi, fantasy and horror litterature. New stuff just reminds me of like a Michael Bay film or some kind of fanfic in tv form - which is not what I would want to see when watching Dr who. I guess others beg to differ, oh well.

Re: Thanks for killing any slight

I don't want to say "you're welcome" on account of that would sound either sarcastic or as if I take pleasure in the debasement of a show I've loved and still feel (far more than I should) invested in.

That said, I take issue with your contention that nothing has changed "since 2005". Whatever his flaws, Russel T knew how to tell a story and, especially in his first two series, I think he told some very good ones.

Don't get me wrong, i think

Don't get me wrong, i think russel is a top quality human being and he obviously has a huge heart and soul but all his dr who episodes were the same over the top mix of eastenders type drama stuff and hollywood type action flicks in my eyes - and I can't stand that sorta stuff - it just made me feel frustrated and annoyed, saw moffats 1st season and felt the exact same way too - so I gave up on it, and from what I see they even got hollywood style posters this year. Was gonna watch that rings episode and this one but your reviews lead me to believe it wont be something I'd enjoy at all - Sorry if I worded my sh!t badly wernt, it wasnt meant to sound insulting or anything.

Re: Don't get me wrong, i think

First, you didn't sound insulting to me; you (and anyone) are perfectly free to disagree with me here. Stay away from ad hominem and I'll be glad of your presence.

That said, I think you're wrong about Davies'. At least, I think you're wrong about his time as show-runner (you'll note that I cast aspersions on Moffat for "The Cold War", even though the script proper was written by Mark Gatiss; a good show-runner, like a good editor, will re-write when necessary), particularly in the first two series.

And for that matter, except for a cop-out at the end, his work on Torchwood: Children of Earth was really rather exceptional, I thought.

Still, there's no question both Moffat and Davies went more in for action than did the old show, presumably because there was now sufficient budget for it. Done right (eg, the Dalek/Cyberman battle scene in "A Parting of the Ways", which I still look back upon as also being a powerful emotional drama), I can quite enjoy that sort of thing. But if you look askance "actions flicks" period, I don't blame you for giving up on it.

(Though, just maybe, you'll want to give last night's episode a chance. I admit, I've only watched it the once, so far, but I liked it quite a lot on first go-round and can say with confidence, it isn't a Hollywood action flick. Nor even, a Hollywood-style ghost story. But I want to watch it again before I say more.)

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