TV When you’ve been a Doctor Who fan for long enough, you begin to see patterns, patterns in narrative perhaps which is something we'll talk about in a moment, but also patterns in production. As is often the case when a Doctor Who excutive producer is a few years into their tenure and looking and sounding a bit raggedy around the edges in interviews, talk turns to who’ll be replacing them. Various names have been proposed lately for Steven's replacement. Toby Whithouse, Phil Ford or god help us Chris Chibnall (whose stock has risen in the past six weeks thanks to six episodes of Broadchurch) (no I haven’t seen it) (no spoilers purlease). Personally I’d prefer Neil Gaiman, the Douglas Adams of the modern era, but he’s unlikely to want to have to deal with the bullshit which comes with the job.
Enter Mark Gatiss, the next executive producer of Doctor Who. During the preview of Cold War in the party newsletter, he mentions that he was at Cardiff and on set for much of the shoot whilst simultaneously writing for his next one The Crimson Horror. “For the first time in my life I’ve had a sort of office job” he says whilst reminding us he’s around the set of Sherlock quite a lot too, being co-executive producer on that. Looking across the history of the show, this is exactly the procedure, new producers and script editors shadowing their predecessors while they learn the ropes before deciding to torch them and make new ones. He's like a man who’s in the process of getting used to an immense job, and like Davies and Moffat before him, one that he’s been building towards his entire life.
He’s also turning out scripts like Cold War and last year's Night Terrors. Of all the writers, everyone is able to sum up what a Gatiss story will be like, mostly because he tends to have turned out similar things across his Who writing career, oscillating between Victoriana and post-WWII nostalgia. Which is a tad unfair because when writing novels, he was also paying homage to his favourite eras of Doctor Who, notably in Last of the Gaderene (also had the distinction of being plugged when The League of Gentlemen appeared on Danny Baker’s radio show at a time when the existence of the merchandise was anathema to BBC mainstream broadcasting). But the point is we tend to always know what to expect with Gatiss, even if we all have our own idea of what that this.
Cold War (and Night Terrors) looks like Gatiss trying to show he’s quite capable of doing other things, that if he took over the show it wouldn’t all look like The Unquiet Dead or as he indicated during his contribution to the classic Wilderness Years roundtable in Doctor Who Magazine, an Earthbound Pertwee-alike, he is capable of producing a fairly generic piece of Who of the kind a head writer has to turn out beyond the stuff they’re otherwise used to doing or really interested in. Take his name off The Idiots Lantern and you could certainly make a pretty accurate guess that it’s by him. Take his name off Cold War and you wouldn’t necessarily immediately assumesame. But because we know it is a Mark Gatiss script we immediately start looking for familiar elements anyway.
There is still a smattering of nostalgia. Different time period perhaps, the 1980s, and generally on the fringes in prop terms. But it is a rare example of an non-contemporary television adventure set roughly within the production era of the programme (not including stories set in the future like The Tenth Planet). Without checking the TARDIS Datacore, I can only think of Remembrance of the Daleks and Father's Day. After consulting AHistory and Twitter (thanks everyone), I’m reminded of The Impossible Astronaut and to an extent Blink. Perhaps Mawdryn Undead and The Eleventh Hour but they were still within the same generation and not “historical” in this sense, in the sense of setting a story in a different historical period for the purposes of commenting upon it. Only Remembrance and now this.
Cold War would never have been made in the Davison era. Not quite. Warriors of the Deep covers similar ground but it’s firmly set in the future. I like this new approach and it’s set to continue with next week’s story Hide, set in November 1974, a week or so after I was born. But it is another quirk of the franchise that a man who owns a time machine largely experiences this period in chronological order, rarely doubling back, the production team of the 80s uninterested in setting a story even a decade or two earlier, living memory not deemed a budgetarily pointless move which is strange considering this is a kids show and to youngsters even a decade earlier feels like the olden days. Then again, during the 70s, the production team were trying to pretend that it wasn’t so Pertwee was unlikely to make a return visit to the Inferno Club creating a fix point.
Perhaps I’m ruminating on this because even though I lived through it, this version of 1983 still feels like a historical period. I was nine and didn’t even know there was a cold war on, barely cognisant of the Falklands War the year before thanks to all the union jacks in neighbours windows. Setting the piece in a relatively alien environment for most humans, the impeccably recreated Russian submarine interior and the stunning CGI plunge through the ice to greet Mike Tucker's prop Russian submarine exterior (a prop!) both introducing an extra distancing effect. But still not as distancing as the moment in Oxfam yesterday when I was buying the TARGET novelisation of Time-Flight and the student behind the counter looked at the cover and said, “It’s weird seeing him as the Doctor when he was young.” No it bloody well isn’t, I didn’t reply.
As well as the 80s, Cold War is another homage for this 50th anniversary series to the Troughton years of the 60s, particular the monstery season five, which also featured the Great Intelligence and remodelled Cybermen. In all of these stories (I think) the Doctor turns up at a moment of crisis brought on by the appearance of some alien entity, then has to convince the locals, usually in some base or other, that they’re just the people to help sort it out. Watching, coincidentally The Ice Warriors this morning, I was struck by just how closely the model has been followed since, either unconsciously due to the subliminal memory of the writer or oh so very consciously as here. As in that story, during Cold War the Doctor gets most of the crew onside when he offers them some information he couldn’t possibly know that quickly.
In the opening scenes of Cold War, the axis is in place: David Warner’s Professor Grosenko, the scientist who sees the Doctor as a kindred spirit, a mirror and so has absolute belief in him (though he’s a relatively ambiguous figure for reasons we’ll talk about in a minute). Tobias Menzies’s Lieutenant, arrogant, self serving, paranoid, assumes the Doctor must be bad news from the start (he’s usually the reason the Doctor ends up in a cell but there wasn’t time for that here). Finally Liam Cunningham’s Captain, whose belief oscillates between the two depending on how well everyone is doing. Notice how, once Menzies is offed, the Doctor’s given much greater responsibility for the fate of the ship. That happens a lot too, though in a classic story, that figure’s usually buggering around for at least four episodes first.
Gatiss knows all of this, which is why he’s using it, just as this is oh so very consciously a base under siege story. He’s also looking outside of the franchise to other versions of that format especially Alien as a way of killing off the human fodder on the base from above and The Abyss or even 2010 and how they injected an alien influence into this particular geo-political soup. Which sounds like me trying to say that this wasn’t the most original of Doctor Who stories, and in truth my main criticism of the piece is that, with one or two exceptions, there isn’t one section of it which couldn’t largely be predicted ahead in some form. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that exactly, but it is surprising (?) to see this version of the show being quite so trad, so far from gonzo infused madness.
Which isn't to say it's not a very good episode. It is a very good episode for what it was, Gatiss working the playbook to his advantage within the brevity of the running time, utilising the Doctor's knowledge to underscore just how dangerous this example of the Ice Warrior race supposedly is before setting him loose in a confined space. Director Douglas Mackinnon bathes his submarine set in the customary red familiar from Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October which cleverly diffused the bright green of the Ice Warrior in and out of his armour keeping his reveal for as long as possible (Mat Irvine probably loves this) ("That's what we should have done with the Myrka...") (I feel like I've done that joke before). Jenna-Louise also shows us her bedraggled fear, her wide-eyed reaction to not knowing what's going on, pure Newt from Aliens. ("Ripley!") ("Ripley!").
Which brings us back to the shifty old professor. It’s great to see David Warner finally in television Who after all these years as a Big Finish regular (just this month as the antagonist in the Fourth Doctor adventures) but his character has an ambiguity. Like Arden in The Ice Warriors, Grosenko’s pulled a preserved specimen from the ice, and knows perfectly well it isn’t a pre-historic beast, at least that’s how it seems at the beginning. It’s almost as though an earlier draft of the piece had him as the KGB equivalent of the Paul Reiser’s Weyland-Yutani representative from Aliens but the need for some Hartnellesque fuddy-duddery led to all that being lost, the darkness being given to Tobias Menzies’s Lieutenant. I don’t know. Beautifully played, but something didn’t quite add up about Grosenko.
Not that that the Doctor notices. Someone on Twitter earlier suggested Matt Smith is phoning it in now and I don’t think that’s true at all. I think it’s just that he’s reached that moment that comes to all Doctor actors, some quicker than others, when they’ve grown to understand the parameters of the role and what their version of the character is “like”. Eccleston was there in Rose. Tennant was there in Casanova. Troughton wobbled initially but was in full flow once his double act with Frazer Hines flourished. Tom came and went. Colin wasn’t comfortable until he was on audio for some reason. There’s also a moment when the writers begin to write for that actor’s strength, which either means they’re less challenged or have to work doubly hard to keep it fresh.
He’s also in transition. He’s a professional actor, obviously, but having built up chemistry with Karen and Arthur and all evidence shows they were very close, he’s essentially having to find his feet again with someone else which has either barely happened before in the show's history, or happened well. Arguably, Hartnell went into decline after the initial team had all gone. Troughton left with Frazer and Wendy. Pertwee decided to leave when the UNIT family became displaced. Tom soldiered because he had that kind of personality. Davison gave it three years because Pat told him to. Colin was shoved but was with Nicola Bryant for his entire tenure. McCoy and Aldred are still inseparable. Friendships stick on and off screen and I realise I’m straying off actually talking about tonight’s episode but I think the point needs to be made. Give him time.
Matt was at least given something brand new to work with, the first appearance of an Ice Warrior sans armour and unfortunately from the moment his massive claws fixed themselves around the Lieutent’s skull my thoughts turned to xenosexuality and to Stacy Townsend whom connoisseurs of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures will know is the only known human in the Whoniverse to have married an Ice Warrior, Ssard, both of them companion to him in Gary Russell’s Radio Times comic strips before their wedding his novel Placebo Effect. As I recall, Gary keeps their privacy and rather pointedly glosses over the interspecies aspects of their relationship, so it was quite surprising, at least to me, to start wondering about that while Skaldak went about threatening and murdering the crew of the submarine.
But those claws are unexpected, the rest of him perhaps less so, other than the disappointment of Skaldak being created in CGI and CGI which isn't much more sophisticated in articulation than Cassandra, albeit with more dimensions. Meanwhile I was quickly going over in my head the mechanics of Ssard’s friendship with the Doctor and his relationship with Stacy. Cold War suggests he musn’t have removed his armour at all while he was in the TARDIS, at least not when the Doctor was around. What about Stacy? Did she accidentally stumble into the bathroom when he was taking a shower but despite his embarrassed modesty as he reached for a towel found what she saw intriguing? Did his reptilian skin muster a blush? If ever there was a companion team worth revisiting in this anniversary year…
Anyway, it is nonetheless interesting that we haven’t before seen the interior of the armour, especially given the franchise’s propensity to want to show us the interiors of its monsters. Even in spin-off fiction, or what I’ve read of it, it’s left to one side, which is especially odd in Lance Parkin’s The Dying Days, were one of them becomes king, and I like to remember, the crown is placed on top of his helmet. When the Doctor says here that it’s a disgrace for them to remove it, he’s not kidding. The Dying Days, by the way, still remains one of the best uses of the Ice Warriors, largely because they’re given the full alien invasion treatment. Let’s hope that like Dalek, for which this was also an influence, this is just a precursor to their full-scale return in some capacity.
Yes, Dalek, for as Clara enters the den with Skaldak covered in chains, it’s Rose’s dalliance with the Dalek in Dalek that springs to mind. Clara continues to intrigue. She’s simply becoming the perfect companion, but in the slightly wrong way. She’s asking the right questions, brave, capable of great insight and diplomacy and doing everything the Doctor tells her too. He’s surprised when she stays put with Grosenko when he asks her too. When she asks him how she did with the Ice Warrior, he tells her that it wasn’t a test, but she treated it as such and so did he (which makes me wonder if it’ll be revealed he was hiding in the TARDIS listening in to her conversation with Merry in The Rings of Akhaten, that he is in fact testing her all the time, much as he did Ganger Amy previously.
This is Gatiss following the narrative of his showrunner, though given their dynamic on Sherlock, we might wonder how that changes when he’s writing on Doctor Who and how much collaboration goes on. Cold War was apparently all his idea. But again, that’s part of the process of learning how to be a showrunner on this kind of franchise machine. I could be wrong about all of this, of course, reading more into what we’re being told. For all we know, the reason Neil Cross is suddenly writing for the series is because he’s being primed to take over once Luthor’s finished. Or it’ll be someone none of us have heard of. But just as Moffat was the heir apparent even before the end of the first Eccleston series, Gatiss will be next. Maybe.