With a lead character whose strength lies in his ability to travel anywhere and anywhen, Doctor Who doesn't often do “bottle episodes,” those one-off stories where everything is limited to a single location. "Cold War" is one such episode, and while it has a pacey structure, an iconic enemy and some truly superb guest stars, it can't help but fizzle out by the end.
The story opens on a Soviet nuclear submarine (no “wessel” jokes, please) patrolling the Arctic Circle in 1983. They're running launch drills and it's clear right from the start that Lieutenant Stepashin, the second-in-command, is rather more keen on the idea of mutually assured destruction than the more sensible and seasoned Captain Zhukov. The drill is interrupted by the doddering Professor Grisenko with a taste for British pop music, and it's through him we learn of the frozen thing in the hold. Cut to an impatient Russian sailor who decides to use a welding torch to speed up the thawing process.
That's a mistake, as their find is not a mammoth but an Ice Warrior, a member of a militaristic Martian race of reptilian cyborgs. It's been frozen for five thousand years and wakes up grumpy, going on a rampage that leaves the ship plummeting towards the ocean floor.
Enter the Doctor and Clara, expecting to find themselves in Las Vegas (The Doctor's navigation skills rival those of Bugs Bunny) but instead popping up in the middle of this terrible paranoid situation. It's a classic Doctor Who set up – with saber-rattling soldiers on either side and the Doctor as the sole voice of reason in the middle trying to come up with a peaceful solution.
This makes the Ice Warriors an interesting choice of enemy. Unused since 1974, when they clashed with Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor in "The Monster of Peladon," they're not dissimilar to Star Trek's Klingons. Driven by honor and glory, the sub's unwitting stowaway is Grand Marshall Skaldak, a war hero and ruthless combatant. After a quick witted sailor electrocutes him mid-negotiation, much to the Doctor's annoyance, the story then takes a detour into Silence of the Lambs territory as Clara volunteers to act as a neutral intermediary between the Russians and the Martian warlord in the brig.
That doesn't last long, and it's here that the episode starts to become less interesting than it could have been. We discover that the hulking Ice Warriors can leave their chunky and rather cool looking armor, which Skaldak immediately does. Loose on the sub once again, Skaldak makes like a xenomorph and begins skittering and scuttling in the shadows and pipework, appearing mostly as a rubbery pair of claws that lunge out of the darkness and hold people's heads very carefully.
OK, there's no point criticizing Doctor Who for rubbery monsters but the way it hurriedly turns Skaldak from an intellectual threat to a predictable Alien knock-off is disappointing. It's here that the story starts to come apart, as the promising set-up gets squandered in a race to the end credits that leaves almost all of the episode's best elements unexplored.
For a story where the drama revolves around the threatened launch of nuclear missiles during the Cold War, there's not a lot of tension or confrontation. Presumably Skaldak was able to escape from his chains at any time, since his armor has no problem doing so and returning to him once he's gathered the information necessary to launch the sub's payload, but the resolution does feel arbitrary. Skaldak threatens to plunge Earth into nuclear war. The Doctor and Clara ask him to be honorable and not do it. Skaldak decides not to. Even with the allegorically rich Cold War setting, there's no real heft behind this scene, no sense that this small confrontation reflects the real world situation above the ice, or tells us much about our characters. The most interesting aspect of it is that, once again, it's Clara who succeeds in talking the enemy down rather than the Doctor. After displaying similar negotiation skills in last week's "The Rings of Akhaten," are we seeing an important clue here regarding her mysterious existence?
All the other characters, sadly, get short shrift and that's unforgivable given that this episode had one of the best supporting casts the show has ever enjoyed. Game of Thrones' Liam Cunningham is stoic and compelling as Captain Zhukov, but he's given no depth, no life beyond the confines of his boat. Come the end, he steps aside and lets the Doctor and Clara do everything. Since Stepashin (played by Tobias Menzies, another Game of Thrones alumni) gets killed off-screen, there's not even a meaningful resolution to his ideological clash with his hardline lieutenant.
Even harder to forgive is the squandering of the wonderful David Warner in the ultimately pointless role of Professor Grisenko. He gets plenty of fun moments, mostly to do with his fondness for Ultravox and Duran Duran, but he's superfluous to the story and it beggars belief that a huge genre legend like Warner, with credits in everything from Tron to The Omen to The Man With Two Brains, was needed to fill such a trivial hole in the cast. I kept waiting for Grisenko to step up and drive the story forwards, but he's literally there as background color. What a waste.
And that's "Cold War" in a gloomy, chilly nutshell. It has all the makings of a great thriller, with multiple threats that never get cranked up. With the sub itself stranded and creaking under pressure, and political paranoia running rampant, the introduction of aliens and time travellers in such an enclosed and fraught environment really should have given us something with more urgency and tension. The premise cries out for The Thing meets The Hunt for Red October, a combination that should get any geek salivating. Instead, we got an amiable romp with no real teeth.