Sunday, September 15, 2013

Green Peace

Ice Warriors! On a submarine!

A combination guaranteed to beat Dinosaurs On A Spaceship any day of the week. And Cold War, penned by Mark Gatiss, manages that at the very least.

This episode was a treat the first time round, plus or minus a few quibbles, and to be honest not much has changed on a second viewing. Except the surprises have diminished and the quibbles have taken on marginally greater significance. But that’s a fairly natural progression. All it means is I didn’t really notice anything new on a rewatch, but I had a feeling that would be the case. The episode does exactly what it says on the titanium hull.

It sets out with an ambition of being a back to basics monster story, sticks to its guns and delivers. The guns fire blanks in the end, but for the most part after the ambitious Rings Of Akhaten this proves that sometimes simple is best.

It helps that I love the Ice Warriors. They look fantastic in their scaly armour and they worked successfully both as monster and full-fledged alien race. Even if not much background detail was provided in the TV series, they fired the imagination and there was always more to them than we saw on screen. By which I mean culturally as much as what manner of creature lurked under the armour.

Here, Gatiss and the production team conspire to reveal some of the latter and a hint or two of the former. With a degree of subtlety that’s well-judged, using the shadows of the sub interior and some very RobertHolmesian language in the Martian history references. (Vanquisher of the Phobos Heresy, songs of red snow etc.) That subtlety is blown out of the water with the full face reveal at the end. It’s an odd decision, since I would’ve thought the greater impassivity lent by the helmet would have served to the scene’s advantage. Surely, the suspense lies in the illegibility of the opponent – what will the other guy do? It’s at the core of the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) policy which Gatiss makes his theme.

If it’s done to show the Grand Marshall’s personality, that he’s ‘not so different to us’, then it fails because the face isn’t that great. What we see lacks character or expression, which is a shame and feels like a wasted opportunity.

Fortunately, other modifications and enhancements to the design are innovative (remotely operable armour, data probes – ooer, missus – in the fingers) and very welcome. Gatiss’s script also does a good job of rendering a single Ice Warrior menacing and a dangerous, credible threat – much as Rob Shearman did for the solitary pepperpot in Dalek.

Since that was clearly the aim, we can award pats on backs all round because the story succeeds on that level. Up to a point.

However, there’s a sense of greater potential that lies under the surface throughout and it remains untapped.

The episode doesn’t really make the most of its setting. It’s a rather impressionistic take on the interior of a Soviet SSBN (ballistic missile submarine, to you and me) that seems founded on a few viewings of The Hunt For Red October and Crimson Tide. Tom Clancy isn’t known for the depth of his characters but his technical knowledge of naval vessels verges on intimate and he can use that to create situations and develop tense scenarios that evolve and progress. Stories set in confined spaces need to generate movement in alternative directions. A little research goes a long way and maybe Gatiss did more, but there’s scant evidence of it in the finished production. At one point as they hunt the alien through the ship, I’m sure I heard the captain declare, “It’s in the walls.” Which just sounded wrong.

Even the crew seem constructed from borrowed templates. The captain might easily be mistaken for Ramius, Stepashin is a political officer modelled on Peter Firth’s in Red October. The delightfully quirky professor is a Doctor Who staple, but when he first steps into view I assumed he was an eccentric sonar officer stepping out of one of those submarine movies. Luckily, they’re all saved by the fact they’re played by a triumvirate of great guest actors: Liam Cunningham and David Warner, especially, bring tremendous presence and empathy to their roles, while Tobias Menzies brings some of the same qualities he showed in Game Of Thrones.

The middle of the episode riffs on Alien, of course – handful of crew stalked by solitary alien, attempting to turn tables on the intruder and hunt it down. Much of it is suspenseful and urgent, countered by too much screen time given over to lingering shots of claws playing over victims’ faces. Coupled with duplicated explanations to clarify the global situation in the early 80s.

The writer frees up a lot of time by having Clara fall unconscious, skipping the part where the Doctor has to explain his and her presence on board and moving the situation on. So it’s a shame so much of that time has to be used up in history lessons. Context is important and there’s no easy way to show that – without the presence of an enemy (i.e. American or British) sub, say – but I’m not sure we need to be told it quite as many times as we are here.

Removal of the TARDIS from the equation is a glaring contrivance, sweetened with a touch of nostalgia by use of the HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System), which fans will remember from The Krotons. So it feels a bit of both clumsy and neat.

And that’s as good a summation of my impression of the episode now I’ve taken the time to watch it again. Never mind why a Soviet SSBN would be drilling the arctic ice for oil (clumsy), an Ice Warrior on a submarine is a terrific setup (neat). Overall, it’s more neat than clumsy and sometimes that’s good enough.

It’s the ending that really lets it down.

That’s where the movie switches from Alien to The Abyss.

Helmet on or off, negotiations with a Martian feel anticlimactic. Matt Smith does his utmost to inject urgency and tension into the scene, but at the end of the day it’s just an argument about whether or not one side or the other should press a button. Which is about what the Cold War amounted to, but in dramatic terms it’s another weak ending to an episode that deserved better.

It’s by no means a crippling blow and a relatively minor disappointment. There’s enough lateral thrust to save the story from sinking altogether.

Next Time...



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