The Doctor finds himself on a sinking nuclear submarine. And then the Ice Warrior attacks

By Darren Franich
Updated April 14, 2013 at 02:01 AM EDT
Credit: Adrian Rogers/BBC America

So there’s a Russian nuclear submarine in the North Pole, circa 1983. It’s a tense moment in American-Soviet relations: Evil Empire, Grenada, cruise missiles, Contras, Reagan, Antropov, Thatcher, WarGames. The submarine is preparing to launch its missiles. The crew includes Davos Seaworth from Game of Thrones, Brutus from Rome, and Bad Guy From TRON. Bad Guy From TRON is singing along to “Vienna” by Ultravox. Captain Seaworth is annoyed: “We were about to blow up the world, Professor,” he deadpans. “Again?” responds Professor Bad Guy From TRON. Lieutenant Brutus wants to run the drill again: The NATO exercises have him spooked. Tensions are running high, which is never a phrase you like to hear with regards to a nuclear submarine.

It is, in short, an auspicious moment in human history. It is also the specific moment when a massive fist punches its way out of the giant block of ice downstairs, and a monstrous walking metal man-thing begins to run amok on the lower floors. (“Run amok” is another phrase you never want to hear w/r/t a nuclear submarine, metal man-thing or otherwise.) The sub begins to sink, 200 meters, 300 meters, 400. Alarms are sounding. Water is pouring in. And then a blue box materializes in the middle of the control room, and a man wearing a smart purple coat and Studio 54 Sunglasses walks out, yelling “Viva Las VegaAAAAHHH!”

So began last night’s episode of Doctor Who, which sent the Doctor and Clara into an enclosed space with a monster and a couple nuclear missiles and watched the sparks fly. The Doctor sprang into action quickly, telling the Russians that they could save themselves if they took advantage of their sideways momentum. The Lieutenant figured it was an American trick; the Captain didn’t care, and executed the Doctor’s plan, and the sub wound up perched on the edge of an undersea cliff. But the trouble was just beginning. The Doctor informed Clara that they had landed at a precipitous flashpoint in the world’s history, a moment when time could be rewritten — or erased — just by casually pressing a single button. “It’s the ’80s. Everything’s bigger,” he explained. To drive the point home, Captain Seaworth grabbed the Sonic Screwdriver, the TARDIS disappeared, the sub dipped to the side, and Clara fell underwater, unconscious.

When she came to, she was modeling a snazzy Soviet uniform over her Vegas-appropriate cocktail dress, and the Doctor was trying to explain himself to the Captain (played by Brit journeyman actor Liam Cunningham.) Things were tense, and breath is a precious commodity on a sinking submarine, so the Doctor opted to cut to the chase: “We’re time travelers.” Right about then, the monstrous walking metal man-thing walked up behind the Doctor to say hello. The Doctor recognized it immediately. It was an Ice Warrior, a native to the planet Mars. “We go way back,” he explained.

The Ice Warriors have been a part of Doctor Who mythology since the early days; they first appeared in 1967, in an episode that also involved a Martian in an ice block. This particular Martian had been lying dormant for five thousand years — the sub found him while digging for oil. But this particular Martian wasn’t just any particular Martian. This was Grand Marshall Skaldak, Sovereign of the Something or Other, Vanquisher of the Something or Other, Greatest Hero the Martian Race has Ever Produced.

This was a moment for soft diplomacy. Alas, this was also the moment when Lieutenant Brutus attacked the Martian super-soldier with a cattle prod.

NEXT: The Songs of the Red SnowThey chained up Skaldak in a dank corner of the submarine, while the Doctor gave everyone a quick tutorial in Ice Warrior history. They’re a race of Martian reptiles who transformed themselves into bio-mechanoid cyborgs so they could exist in the cold; a sudden increase in temperature makes them go haywire, which is why the Cattle Prod attack worked on him. If they had just let Skaldak go, they would have all been safe. But that was before the attack by the Lieutenant. (Played by Tobias Menzies — who, coincidentally, is also from Game of Thrones, since he’ll pop up this year as Edmure Tully. Scientists estimate that the entire population of the British Isles will be cast on Game of Thrones by 2018.) Ancient Martian Code does not abide attacks — the lives of everyone onboard the submarine were forfeit.

Immediately, the double meaning of this episode’s title became clear: We were watching a story set in the Cold War, but we were also watching an allegorical exploration of the Cold War, with two sides who only wanted to defend themselves leading each other into an apocalyptic game of brinksmanship. (In the makeshift brig, Skaldak set off a distress beacon: “Find me, my brothers, if you are still out there.”)

Clara is still learning the ropes of this whole time-space-adventure thing — the Doctor had to explain to her that she was currently speaking Russian, thanks to the TARDIS’ translation matrix. But she happily volunteered for a dangerous duty. The Doctor wouldn’t let the Russians speak to Skaldak; he would smell the Soldier on them. The same applied to the Doctor, of course. “I don’t smell of anything,” said Clara, “To my knowlege.” A look flashed across the Doctor’s face. A look that said, “Actually, Clara, you smell like ‘curious temporal phenomenon that has somehow created the same single human being in three different time periods, if not more.'”

But soon she was walking to Skaldak’s lair, flashing the Ice Warrior fist-over-the-heart salute. She parroted the Doctor’s delicate diplomatic overture: “This isn’t what you deserve. You are not our enemy.” Lurking in the shadows, Skaldak rhapsodized about his final moments pre-permafrost. Fighting side-by-side with his daughter. “We sang the songs of old times, the songs of the red snow.” Five thousand years had passed, he knew: “My daughter will be dust.” He sounded like a man/reptile with nothing left to lose. And worse, he was loose: The armor was empty. Clara fled to the door; when the Doctor opened it, a shape quickly moved past her and the crewmen outside. “I’ve never seen one outside of its armor before,” said the Doctor. Wouldn’t that make it more vulnerable? “No,” he said darkly, “It’ll be more dangerous.”

Elsewhere in the submarine, Lieutenant Brutus was inspecting the shadows when the shadows started inspecting him. Long reptile fingers encircled his skull. The Lieutenant made a pitch to his Martian assailant. “We can form an alliance to win the Cold War.” He gave Skaldak a quick rundown of the history of Mutually Assured Destruction, which made the space-lizard positively purr with pleasure. Exit Brutus.

Meanwhile, the Doctor was giving Clara a quick lesson in time travel rules. “The world didn’t end in 1983,” Clara protested, noting that there was no way an Ice Warrior could have ignited a global conflagration just two years after the Most Important Leaf in the World inadvertently led to Clara’s creation. “History is in flux,” the Doctor explained. “It can be changed. Rewritten.” This is a defining tenet of the Steven Moffat Doctor Who era; it’s a conception of time that sees time as a geographical map, with different time periods reimagined as states with hazy borders who occasionally attack each other. Ambient Theorizing: If time can be “rewritten,” can it also be plagiarized? Will that somehow factor into the Mystery of Clara, an apparently unique individual who exists un-uniquely across space and time? Could there be a “Clara” in each time period? Are they multiplying? Will everyone across space and time become Clara Oswin Oswald? And is that a problem the Doctor will have to “solve”?

NEXT: Skaldak goes all Alien on the SovietsClara started bonding with Professor Grisenko (Bad Guy From Tron, a.k.a. the great David Warner — this episode is a serious contender for Best Cast of British Character Actors in this Doctor Who season.) She was feeling a bit scared. He recommended she cheer up by singing one of his very favorite songs: Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” In context, some of the lyrics may have been inappropriate. “In touch with the ground/I’m on the hunt I’m after you/Smell like I sound I’m lost in a crowd/And I’m hungry like the wolf.” — Pause to imagine those lyrics being sung by a seven-foot-tall slinky reptile-alien. Clara knew all the lyrics; “I do it at karaoke on Hen Night,” she explained. (That’s a decent populist choice, although true karaoke connoisseur know “Ordinary World” is the more bold option.)

They came across a couple Soviets who had been torn apart with forensic precision. “It’s all got very real,” Clara noted. Monsters who live in the internet, evil demon-stars, speaking Russian without realizing it: That’s all in good fun. But seeing a couple dudes torn to pieces was bringing things home for the Doctor’s new Companion. To make matters worse, it looked for a moment like the Professor was going to go a bit crazy. “So you’re from another time?” he asked, stalking forward. “Can you tell me what happens? Can you tell me? Ultravox! Do they split up?” The two shared a little laugh. (FWIW, Ultravox is currently back together, and will be playing a few shows in the UK this November with Simple Minds. In other news, I’ll be unavailable this November.)

Right then, a couple of reptile hands flashed down from the ceiling. The Professor unslung a six-shooter and fired at the Ice Warrior: “I don’t just like western music!” he exclaimed, right before the martian grabbed him.

I figured the Prof was a goner, and that the rest of the episode would unfold Alien-style, with the crew slowly being picked apart by Skaldak. But Doctor Who zigged: Skaldak lingered on the ceiling above the Professor, the man’s life in his hands. His red eyes glowed in the shadows. He told the Doctor he only needed one missile: “One missile to end this Cold War.” (Ice Warrior, Cold War: It’s a simple joke, but an effective one.) Skaldak preferred the nihilism of global destruction; there was nothing left for him. “There is something left for you,” the Doctor argued. “Mercy.” The idea that “mercy” is the most powerful move to make in the game of warfare is one of the central running arguments of Doctor Who. It’s also not an argument that made sense to Skaldak or to Captain Seaworth, who preferred to negotiate using the Churchill method: “Negotiate, but from a position of strength.”

Skaldak let the Professor live, but the Martian — re-armored now — made his way to the control room and hacked into the missile launch bay. “Now, there will be a second red planet,” he said. He further clarified: “Red…WITH THE BLOOD OF HUMANITY!” But the Doctor continued to plea with him. Five thousand years ago, Mars was the jewel of the solar system, and mankind was just emerging from prehistory. Let the humans have their moment. Skaldak wasn’t moved. So the Doctor tried another tactic. Skaldak was a great soldier, but what he was about to do was simply mass murder. “Show them there is honor in mercy,” the Doctor begged. Like the protagonist of an old biblical fable, Skaldak refused for a second time.

NEXT: The Doctor makes his closing argumentSo the Doctor made a final plea: Stop now, or I blow us all to smithereens. He held up his Sonic Screwdriver and promised to explode the submarine. “Mutually Assured Destruction,” Skaldak said, cackling a little in his alien tongue. He took off his mask, revealing a not-unattractive lizard head. (The Ice Warrior’s face looked a little bit to me like a more groomed version of the Locust from Gears of War.) “Which of us shall blink first?”

It was a nifty reimagination of Cold War détente — interrupted by the sudden arrival of a Martian ship, which kindly tractor-beamed the submarine up to the surface and then teleported Skaldak away from the submarine. There were a tense few moments: Skaldak was still locked into the submarine’s controls. For luck, Clara sang “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Duran Duran won the day: The missile bays closed, and the Martian ship left.

The world was saved. But whither the TARDIS? The Doctor explained that he’d been tinkering with the old Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS), a security system which always seems to activate at the worst possible time. He had a reading, though. It was at the Pole. Unfortunately, it was at the South Pole. “Can we have a lift?” he asked Captain Seaworth, who laughed and laughed and hopefully said yes.

I dug “Cold War” quite a bit, even if the ending felt a bit rushed. (I’m skeptical of any climax that depends on the sudden appearance of an alien spaceship.) I liked what we saw of the Ice Warriors through Skaldak: They’re a warrior culture, with a genuine (if twisted) moral code that sets them apart from the Cybermen and the Daleks. (They share a voice, though: Nicholas Briggs, who has provided the vocals for the Daleks and Cybermen ever since 2005, essayed the Voice of Skaldak in tonight’s episode.)

It’ll be intriguing to see if they pop up again, especially since Mark Gatiss, who wrote “Cold War,” is an espoused fan of the Martian race. Could the events of this episode have a long-term impact on Ice Warrior culture? If Skaldak has learned a lesson in mercy from the Doctor, will that make him a better soldier? Or would his fellow Ice Warriors consider him weak? Are there any Ice Pacifists?

But let’s save that for the future. What did you think of the episode, fellow Who viewers? Were you sad the cast didn’t join together in a Duran Duran dance party? Were you wishing that one of the actors would attempt a bad Russian accent, a la Sean Connery in Red October? Also, feel free to unleash any and all ambient Clara theories, unless your theory is “She was Gorbachev all along!” Actually, that theory might work, too.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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