|“Sorry, sorry, I’ll sing ‘Rio’ instead.”|
It’s April 13th, 2013. Duke Dumont is at number one, with Pink, Justin Timberlake, Nelly, Bruno Mars, and Bastille also charting. In news, things are mostly sleepy. There’s a beautiful entry on the Wikipedia list of historical events reading “Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley decides to tax the rain,” which apparently really just means that there’s a new tax on homes to help fund preservation efforts of the Chesapeake. The entire Paris Brown silliness happens, which probably speaks volumes about the tenor of UK culture right about then, though what it says is certainly open to interpretation. And Margaret Thatcher dies a few days before this, which had the sort of cultural impact you’d expect given what she came to represent in popular culture.
On television, Doctor Who proves a bit too prescient, launching its 80s themed story in the wake of all of this. I’m sure there’s a reading that’s long on synchronicity to be made here, but I feel like 2014 isn’t the time to make it. Let’s instead focus on what this story is doing, because I do think that’s interesting in this case. On paper, the pairing of Gatiss and Mackinnon seems like it should be perfect in every regard except for quality. Both are people one describes with the backhanded compliment “workmanlike.” Gatiss’s scripts are, as we’ve by now thoroughly established, long on nostalgic recreations of things that worked in the past. Mackinnon, who we’ve not really talked about at great length, is a functional director with a weakness for colored lighting. Taken together, one expects a bog standard episode of Doctor Who, which is not strictly speaking an inaccurate way of describing Cold War.
Since a running theme so far in our coverage of Season 7B has been its early historicization, it’s perhaps worth looking at Mackinnon’s contributions to Season Eight, since he directed 25% of it, and it gives a better sense of what he’s capable of than The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky and The Power of Three. His episodes are generally quite good – Listen is a very credible pick for season’s best. I was critical of the direction of Time Heist, and I stand by the claim that its attempt to mask its use of the same corridor through rapid changes of lighting color was a weakness in an episode without any major strengths. But even Listen is a functional job in which Mackinnon’s main job is to make the five settings feel distinct so that the episode is easy to follow. And Flatline is smart and efficient, much like its script. One can argue that this makes him as good as his material, but the other way of looking at that is that he can reliably get his teeth into the structure of a story and sell the big moments.
Similarly, Gatiss has approached this particular bit of unabashed nostalgia with a sort of steely determinism. The production circumstances are, in this case, revealing. Moffat initially took the view that bringing back the Ice Warriors was a bad idea. This is not an unreasonable assessment, given that they are a bunch of green lizards from Mars named the Ice Warriors. And thus the script looks like an attempt to convince a skeptical audience that this is worth doing in the first place. But notably, that audience is Steven Moffat, not some paranoid conception of the general public. And so the case is delivered with a certain degree of persuasiveness that broadly similar stories sometimes lack.
Given this, the Gatiss/Mackinnon pairing ends up having their major flaw counterbalanced. With both of them, the biggest problem is that they stop with their first idea. But in this case, the most obvious ideas are generally pretty good. What are the things that have worked about the Ice Warriors? They’ve got a good voice, they’re fun in shadowy close quarters, and they’re not always bad guys. The episode is designed around all three. The base under siege is translated to the Cold War that it always represented anyway. Dim flashing lights and wide angel lenses give a good visual aesthetic. Raiding the cast of Game of Thrones was inevitable, and it’s worth noting that they hired Gatiss for a small part the next year. And, of course, there’s the Ice Warrior outside of its armor, which is one of the most obvious twists you can do, and yet nevertheless a good one that meshes well with all the other choices.
Another way of putting this is that, as with The Unquiet Dead, Gatiss is picking on good material. Much of 2013 (and New Year’s Day of 2014) makes somewhat more sense if you know that The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were recovered, simply because it explains why the Troughton era was on everyone’s mind. Cold War is tangibly a clinical dissection of why those stories worked. He keeps the focus on two things Doctor Who can reliably do well: spooky corridors and above average British actors having moral debates. And he keeps the pace up with some decent gags and a good instinct for how to balance lampshading the plot holes and reveling in a line like “My world is dead but now there will be a second red planet. Red with the blood of humanity!”
Notably, though, where Moffat responded to The Web of Fear by nicking an obscure recurring villain and a mood, Gatiss took equally from Enemy of the World and David Whitaker, recalling that when Doctor Who works best is when it attempts to do serious drama with slightly ludicrous stakes. Big green lizard men are going to blow up the world, so let’s have an urgent debate about violence as a cycle. The result is something that, it has to be admitted, understands why stories like this were so common in 1968 and hits the highlights efficiently. This is a configuration of ideas and themes that has proven to be able to withstand doing multiple times. As a result, it is perfect for Gatiss.
In a sense, the other real influence is Robert Holmes, who was always a specialist at taking a premise and running through its most obvious configurations and set pieces. This skill is at the heart of the Gatiss/Mackinnon collaboration and why it is such a good pairing. Cold War is written as an exercise in ticking the boxes of “what makes a good Ice Warriors story,” and Mackinnon is at his best when given a list of big scenes to accomplish.
Credit also has to be given to Andy Pryor, who does well with the three Russians. Liam Cunningham brings a Nicholas Courtneyesque twinkle to the commanding officer, Tobias Menzies is perfectly willing to just be as hated as the part calls for, and David Warner is one of those Philip Madoc bits of Doctor Who casting: never the wrong move. Gatiss’s script is mindful that forty-five minute episodes do best by rapidly pairing off actors in a “variations on a theme” approach as opposed to slowly exploring a character’s change of heart, and so all three, along with Nicholas Briggs, who’s called upon to once again come up with a way to act in monster voice, and the two regulars have to be on form.
As for the regulars, Jenna Coleman’s clearly arrived ahead of her character arc at the moment, but is clearly enjoying finding a new set of ways to do Doctor Who companion things each week. Her performance is the most obvious thing to have benefitted from a year’s distance, because in hindsight you can watch how she put together the character she played in Season Eight. Her decision to keep reinventing her take on “generic companion” (and it’s worth remembering that this was filmed well before The Snowmen, and ages before Bells of Saint John and The Rings of Akhaten) had the price of looking inconsistent in Season Seven, but it fit well with both the Impossible Girl arc and the “movie posters” idea, and ended up giving her a uniquely flexible character once the underlying consistency of the performance started to solidify and then get paid off in characterization. She pounces upon the little moments the script offers her, and even when they’re clearly built as somewhat forced “what haven’t we had a companion do yet” moments (“Sing Duran Duran!” “Actually not run off!”), she makes something of them. Her scenes with David Warner are delightful in this regard, and in some ways a template for the Twelfth Doctor era: Jenna Coleman and an older actor playing stock characters with a slight twist on them. In this regard, it’s telling that they’re the only place in the script where Gatiss is going past the most obvious idea.
Which in turn highlights the biggest problem. Jenna Coleman doesn’t spend this one with the Twelfth Doctor. She spends it with Matt Smith, who has a rough time with this one. He picks up once the peculiarities of his relationship with Clara start giving him new things to do, but with this as the only story of the eight to have nothing whatsoever to do with the Impossible Girl arc and shot as only his second story with Coleman, he’s in an awkward place where he’s clearly missing Gillan and Darvill, but doesn’t have anything to replace them with in his performance yet. The degree to which Cold War can also be read as an attempt to do Warriors of the Deep correctly is ironic, as Smith is reduced to the same sort of thing Davison had to do with bad scripts, which is to just emote desperately and ineffectually until the plot runs out. You can almost see the moment when he finally runs out of ideas in the climax. It’s a rare episode where he’s the weak link, and there really is the sense that he’s reached the end of what he can do with the character. Which, fair enough. It’s fitting that, of all the episodes in his third season, it should be the unabashed Troughton homage that demonstrates why his suggestion that three years in the part is about right holds so much merit.
As with all Gatiss stories, this comes perilously close to being a review blog. That is in some ways inevitable with Season 7B, and indeed worth doing again now, while the era is still relevant to the present of the show, but freed from the gnawing terror of “is it going to stick the landing in November?” The movie posters approach is explicitly putting this series in the realm of pop music. The concern becomes “what’s the big statement this week,” with a series of Doctor Who being an exercise in owning a chunk of culture for a few months. There’s a delicate balance to this, with every story having to make a case for itself in contrast with the ones around it while contributing to the greater idea of Doctor Who. Everything has the weight of a definitive statement. Reviewing feels natural in response.
But let’s try to avoid that in favor of another way of looking at this in the context of Doctor Who’s Fiftieth Year. This is one of the few stories in 2013 you can point to as a reason why Doctor Who has made it this far in the first place. Which isn’t just that the basic premise is good, but that the show has a strong back catalogue that justifies its existence at any given moment. You don’t get to fifty years without a back catalogue worth raiding. The fiftieth anniversary was rightly concerned about being careful to look forward as much as backwards, but it would have felt painfully incomplete without a story that unabashedly offered a greatest hits parade. (In some ways, the Duran Duran bits exemplify the approach taken.)
But if it is necessary to let this become a review blog, let’s make it unambiguous that this is a positive review. I have been harsh on several Gatiss stories, and I stand by that, but it’s also the case that Gatiss-bashing has become a shibboleth for certain fan ideologies to an extent that’s undeserved. This story demonstrates the worth of the skills Gatiss brings to the toolbox. If you’re going to do Doctor Who specifically, a half-century on, you really do have to justify it by showing that the old standards still have legs. In many ways, the biggest problem with those Gatiss stories that have gone awry is that he’s the only one who bothers to put in some effort in perfecting old standards, while directors and actors phone it in and figure that this is one of the filler episodes. Give Gatiss a director and a set of actors who are up for the same game of carefully curating the past for its best moments and showing why they were good, however, and you get stuff that the season would genuinely be weaker without.