Brrr, it’s cold in here! There must be some 1983-era Soviet submarine soldiers in the atmosphere! Kids, it’s the Cold War, and sub-side, a crew gets ready to blow up the world “for motherland.” But a New Wave-loving walkman-wearing Professor interrupts their tactical nuclear war games. The Captain shuns his overly-aggro Lieutenant (no running of the exercise again for you, Sparky) to chat instead with the Professor about a mammoth they picked up.
In another chamber, one of the sailors is impatient like a kid on Christmas day to see this mammoth! I mean, let’s add a stinky defrosting massive prehistoric mammal to an already smelly submarine space, right? So he blowtorches a hole into its block of ice, as one does, and the Not a Mammoth shoves out a metal-covered fist to choke him to death. COLD!
When the Doctor and Clara burst from the TARDIS (wrong way to Vegas, baby), the submarine’s under attack and sinking fast. Water rushes in, everyone panics, and military protocol gets tossed aside so the Doctor can help land the sub on a ridge, arresting their descent.
Clara and the Doctor are searched while the soldiers gawk (Clara’s a girl, and the soldiers haven’t seen one in ages! The Doctor has a Barbie doll in his pocket, and that’s kind of creepy!). The Doctor gives Clara some VH1’s I Love the ’80s context about the actual weapons of mass destruction on board with them: “Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the 80s; everything’s bigger”. More water rushes in, the Sonic Screwdriver is flung away, and Clara collapses underwater as the TARDIS just up and leaves like a big blue boxy jerk.
People who love the Hunt for Red October type of adventure cum Trapped-with-a-Monster-on-a-Submarine tropes: I hope you all wriggled your toes with glee when you realized we were getting that flavor of generic mash-up for this bottle episode. While the Doctor reveals all to the Captain (“no dissembling, no psychic paper”) about his time traveling ways, the crew shrinks back, because of course the monster’s right behind the Doctor. Awkward! “Finally, seeing sense,” he grumps, before he realizes there’s a Juggernaut looming over his shoulder. “Ah. It never rains but it pours,” he muses.
Turns out Mister Juggernaut’s an Ice Warrior, a reptilian native of Mars. “I am Grand Marshall Skalduk,” the thing intones, and according to the Professor, he’s been frozen for five thousand years. Before the Doctor can impress upon the crew that this soldier is “the greatest hero the proud Martian race has ever produced,” and worthy of their respect, the jerkwad Lieutenant zaps Skaldak with a cattle prod. What now? “Lock him up,” the Doctor advises.
How awesome was Skaldak back in the day? Well, his enemies “honored him so much they carved his name into their own flesh before they died.” Now that’s respect! Yikes. While the Doctor and the Captain bicker, Skaldak growls, “Find me my brothers” and sends out a signal from one of his armor-scales to his Martian pals. The Professor catches wind of this through his walkman, but Clara blurting out that they’re not spies and hey, she doesn’t even speak Russian (“Now, we have to do this now?” the Doctor asks, aggrieved; you could have told her about the TARDIS translation matrix before, buddy) doesn’t endear her to the suspicious Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant, apparently the only ideologue on board, pooh-poohs the idea the creature is anything but a Western weapon, and wants to contact Moscow about what they’ve found. But the Captain and Professor make fun of him for not agreeing Skaldak’s a Martian, then diss him for being a stuck record and repeating his “the Cold War won’t stay cold forever!” catchphrase.
By zapping Skaldak, they’ve gotten him all wrathful, and as the Doctor explains, the Martian motto is “harm one of us and you harm us all.” They’ve got to talk him out of bringing Martian wrath down on their heads, but the Captain insists the Doctor go through him. “A soldier knows another soldier; he’ll smell it on you,” the Doctor disagrees. “He wouldn’t smell it on you, Doctor?” Touche! I always want more talk of the Doctor’s grim Time War days
Given Clara’s the only one who doesn’t reek of battle (honestly, I’m impressed people can smell all the soldierl-i-ness amid the stench of men trapped for ages in a big metal tube), she’s the obvious choice to chat with Skaldak. To add to the already claustrophobic air of the episode, we get the Doctor talking on microphone in a kind of fish-eye lens shot while Clara dons big ol’ headphones to get communication while she tries to talk down a mighty vengeful chained-up warrior.
Clara tries out the salute and formal address the Doctor supplies her with (“by the moons I honor thee”) just like they rehearsed, but Skaldak doesn’t really appreciate being chained up, and at Clara’s whispered, “Doctor, what do I say?” he bites out, “Yes, Doctor, what should she say?” “I think he wants to speak to the organ grinder, not to the monkey,” the Professor comments. COLD!
Skaldak remembers standing in battle next to his daughter: “we sang the songs of the old time, the songs of the red snow”. But it’s 5,000 years later, and “now my daughter will be dust, only dust” and ain’t no one remember that old tune now. Huh, all of these parent-child references from last episode and this; anyone else feel like we’re building to a more familial vibe between Clara and the Doctor rather than a romantic one?
Whoopsie, when Clara pokes at Skaldak’s helmet, it’s empty of reptilian guy! Skaldak’s on the loose. The Doctor’s never seen an Ice Warrior out of his armor before, but he knows he’s more dangerous that way. The absolute best parts of this ep are the unseen-monster bits: un-armored Skaldak scuttles around in the room with Clara, and then scurries by/above the Doctor and Captain outside the hatch. It’s always so shiver-inducing when you can’t see the monster yet.
Meanwhile, Clara wants to know if she did okay, and the Doctor tells her kindly that she basically got top marks. The needing reassurance thing is a lovely moment: why would Clara immediately be acclimated to unsuccessful alien negotiations? It’s another point in the parental column I mentioned above; the Doctor’s gentle “Really,” to Clara’s unsure “Really?” is quite sweet. Ah, but no time for sweetness now — the Professor no longer picks up Skaldak’s signal on his headphones, so the Martian now has no hope of rescue. “He thinks he’s been abandoned,” and here’s where the real danger comes in, as the Doctor and the director emphasize in a dramatic well-lit turn: “He’s got nothing left to lose.”
How bad can it be, the Captain wants to know, if Skaldak’s in the same boat (tee hee!) as the rest of them? Dude, they’re in a nuclear submarine, “fat with” missiles.” “It couldn’t be any worse,” the Doctor points out, at which point, of course, the ridge supporting the submarine begins to crumble, water pools in, and everyone’s in way more danger than before.
“Hello, who’s there?” the Lieutenant calls out, alone in a chamber with dripping water and hissing noises. If you’ll just sign your generic death warrant here, and then here… Hey, I’m not usually one for submarine settings and bottle episodes myself; the washes of red light and the feeling the actors keep running down the same corridor multiple times starts to make me a bit bored and antsy. But Mark Gatiss uses the genre to good effect when only the claw of the monster reaches down to grab the Lieutenant’s skull; the trapped feeling is so powerful at that moment. THE CLAW! *shivers*
As the Captain delivers a pep talk to the crew, Skaldak continues to grasp the Lieutenant, wringing from him a desperate offer of alliance as well as a quick explanation of the “mutually assured destruction” bit that theoretically keeps the Cold War from ending in total devastation. I actually LOVE the idea of Jerkwad Lieutenant and Skaldak forming a horrible team of vengeful zealots, but Skaldak’s only fishing for info to exact his revenge, aww. *kicks things*
Clara bops around in the Doctor’s wake while he fiddles with controls and tries to seek assurance that the world can’t end in 1984 “or I wouldn’t be here.” Time for the History is in Flux speech, Clara! Okay, the Doctor’s got a plan — they form small teams and split up, so Skaldak can murder the sailors more easily. Nah, he’s trying to be efficient, but that Alien-esque strategy will just never end well.
The Professor scoops up the formerly lost Sonic Screwdriver from the submarine floor, and just in time! “I could kiss you!” the Doctor exults. “If you insist,” the Professor says stalwartly. “Later,” the Doctor promises, ho ho!
Clara trails around with the Professor, so we can get a “whenever I feel afraid, I whistle a happy tune!” moment, except with Ultravox and Duran Duran. She refuses to join in when he starts up “Hungry Like the Wolf” even though she’s sung it at hen night karaoke. On another part of the sub, two chatty sailors do the creepy scene where one disappears while the other’s still talking, because the monster’s already nabbed him, dun dun DUN!
When the Doctor and the others run in, of course the two chatty sailors have been mauled, but the Doctor points out it’s “not savage” but forensic, so Skaldak can learn how to better rip humans apart. I suppose, but he seems like he’s already doing a bang-up job of it. “It’s all got very real,” Clara confesses to the Professor, explaining why she’s unnerved. Okay, yes, good to have a reaction, but I want more discomfort and estrangement from these alien situations from Clara at some point, not merely an underplayed mention of how shit just got real.
“It’s in the walls,” the Captain realizes as Skaldak slips by a great, because of course it is! The Doctor finds the Lieutenant’s ID, just to verify that Skaldak tore him limb from limb after gleaning fun facts about Cold War tactics. Clara’s wary when the Professor demands information about the future, but it turns out he just wants to know if Ultravox stays together. He’s quirky! He’s also a good shot, firing at Skaldak’s CLAW when he tries to nab Clara “See, I don’t just like Western music,” the Professor points out, jauntily twirling his gun.
Soon enough, the Professor is in Skaldak’s CLAW-ly clutches while Clara pleads for his life. “Martian Law decrees the people of this planet are forfeit!” Skaldak claims. He now understands only one missile can start worldwide destruction (thanks a lot, Lieutenant). Though some of the other scenes felt a bit rote (another hatch, another wash of red light, another dripping corridor), this moment’s pretty effective as the Professor remains trapped and horrified in Skaldak’s clutches, and all we can see are Skaldak’s red eyes somewhere near the ceiling.
While the Doctor turns up to try his hand at talking down a vengeful reptilian warrior, the Captain rushes in, ready to shoot (gosh, every time the Doctor tries to be reasonable, those wacky Russians come in with guns and/or cattle-prods a-blazing). But the Captain can’t “negotiate from a position of strength” for long, because it turns out Skaldak can remotely summon his armor (handy, that) to re-protect himself. “My world is dead, but now there will be a second red planet, red with blood,” Skaldak growls.
The Doctor pleads with Skaldak: where’s the honor in condemning millions to their death, particularly when they’re Earthlings just barely out of their caves? Even if Skaldak has nothing left, he can show mercy, the Doctor argues. When Skaldak seems more inclined to start World War Whatever with a missile launch, the Doctor threatens to blow up the sub to stop him. “You would sacrifice yourself?” Skaldak asks, surprised; here’s the mutually assured destruction of which he’s heard tell. The Doctor orders Skaldak to look into his eyes, and we finally get a look at Skaldak uncovered in all his reptilian true guise.
Clara points out Skaldak hesitated when he held the Professor’s skull in his CLAW, and reminds him of his daughter and those “songs of the red snows.” Skaldak’s people show up to rescue him; luckily for everyone else, to do so they have to pull the sub to the surface of the water, saving everyone. “Please, go in peace,” the Doctor pleads as the Martians beam up Skaldak.
Though Clara’s relieved “We did it!” the Doctor waits, tense, muttering “Show Mercy, Skaldak.” In the fraught atmosphere, Clara sings a few lines of “Hungry Like the Wolf” and hey. HEY! You know, any wolf reference on this show has to relate to Bad Wolf for me; are we getting hints of a connection Clara has to Bad Wolf? The missile hatches close at last, showing Skaldak took the Doctor’s and Clara’s words (and perhaps her Significant Karaoke Skills) to heart.
Clara jumps up and hugs the Doctor; he looks suitably confused and alarmed, heee! “Saved the world, then?” she asks off-handedly when she’s collected herself. Indeed they have. “That’s what we do,” she says, pleased and a little coy, though I’m still getting the very close kind of parental vibe here more than a romantic one — agree, disagree?
As the crew look out of the surfaced open sub, they see the Martian ship, which is pretty freaking fantastic for a brief special effect at the end. “The TARIDS!” Clara finally remembers to ask, and after some petulant admission that he’s been tinkering (“I’m allowed!” the Doctor says like a true grumpus), we hear the Doctor’s been messing with the Hostile Action Displacement System, so that the TARDIS will just up and disappear whenever danger’s afoot. What a terrible idea.
“It’s bound to turn up somewhere,” the Doctor insists when Clara’s exasperated, and whew, it has indeed, at the pole. Whoopsie, it’s at the South Pole! “Can we get a lift?” the Doctor asks the captain, and ho ho ho, everyone chortles! I like that the Doctor did a cranky mock-laugh to dispense with the weirdly sit-com-ish potential of ending all their shenanigans in laughter. As the others head below, the Doctor takes a minute to watch the Martian ship, delivering the salute he taught Clara before it takes off. It’s a nice serious moment, and I wish there had been a bit more of it, of the Doctor’s ongoing tension of respecting aliens even when they sometimes threaten destruction.
Whooo weeee awwwoooooo thoooo! You know, I kind of like having a stand-alone episode in the mix, particularly when we haven’t been learning much about Clara’s mystery other than the brief check-ins that she is, indeed, mysterious. It was fun to get an alien-of-the-week that actually hails from Classic Who, and great to watch good turns from Davros Seaworth Liam Cunningham as well as from the always lovely Doctor Who alum and the always memorable David Warner. Still, I’m really looking forward to next week’s haunted house episode, “Hide”, to see if we’ll learn more about the Ghost of Past Claras then. Please do join me then — and let me know what you thought of “Cold War”!