All in all I’d say this was the strongest episode of the three thus far this season. It was nice to see an episode focused on The Doctor, first of all, and more concerned with the plot itself than obsessing over the conspiracy plotline surrounding the Companion. And there’s no question writer Mark Gatiss knows Doctor Who extremely well, having written for the series numerous times (and appeared as an actor several as well).
Here, he reaches into the past for the Ice Warriors, probably the most important of the original series monsters not to have appeared in the reboot. Gatiss captures the essence of the Martian warrior race quite well here, and even manages to toss off some canon references like the HADS system (which dates way back to “The Krotons”, from the Troughton era). The series also benefits from a tremendous cast, with the likes of Liam Cunningham (Davos on Game of Thrones) as the Captain of the stranded Soviet nuclear submarine that serves as the setting for the episode, Tobias Menzies (Brutus in Rome) as his war-mongering Lieutenant, Stepashin, and the great David Warner as the New Wave-loving Professor. We also get Nicholas Briggs doing his usual yeoman work with alien voices as the Ice Warrior, Grand Marshall Skaldak.
Gatiss’ script here is confident, balanced and taut – there’s not the over-reliance on humor and conspiracy that have been too common a theme in Moffat’s tenure. The story is a sort of cross between Das Boot and Alien, with the frozen Skaldak turning up on a 1980’s Soviet sub after they mine him from the ice near Antarctica. There’s some commentary on the high-tension Cold War era mutually-assured destruction, though it never reaches the level of preachiness. Stranded subs are always a good setting for drama, and there’s solid tension and even a few scares as this story plays out.
What I’d say more than anything endears “The Cold War” to me is that it feels more like a classic Who episode than almost any in the reboot. It’s not trying too hard – to be current, to be clever, to be confusing. It’s just happy to spin a good yarn, show The Doctor at his ambassadorial best, and give us some creepy moments. We could use more episodes like that.