The Doctor and his companion(s) have an extensive history of bad luck when it comes to travel destinations. Whether they end up where they want to be or somewhere completely different, chances are they’ll be greeted by a whole heap to trouble regardless. It’s a never-ending catalogue of either right place, wrong time; or wrong place, right time. Remember The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, when sunny Rio de Janeiro was replaced with Cwntaff? Sure, the Doctor’s arrival in Wales was accidental, but luckily he was around just in time to stop the Silurians going to war with humanity.
Plot-wise, Cold War draws several parallels with The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. For one thing, the Doctor and Clara’s appearance in Cold War was also unintentional; they’d planned to be in Las Vegas. For another, both story-lines involve a dormant reptillian race abruptly awakened from slumber by curious humans, and the resulting conflict between them. But this time, instead of the Silurians, we have Ice Warriors.
Or rather just the one Ice Warrior, named Skaldak.
Here’s the set up: it’s 1983, the midst of the Cold War, and a Soviet (don’t let the English accents fool you) nuclear submarine is performing drills around the North Pole. Sometime during this trip the crew managed to uncover a strange figure frozen in a block of ice. Uncertain of what it is, they plan to take the ‘specimen’ back to Moscow to be thawed, but of course nothing ever goes strictly according to plan on this show. An overly eager scientist melts the ice with a blowtorch and is promptly killed for his trouble. Then, the newly freed Ice Warrior rampages through the sub, causing it to sink.
Enter the Doctor and Clara, cue additional mayhem and world saving.
Cold War is very self-contained; nothing obvious happens in regard to the main series arc, and we see little in terms of character development for the Doctor and Clara. Yet this isn’t entirely a bad thing. The episode is a nice change of tone from the previous week’s The Rings of Akhaten (which already did a good job of providing Clara with some backstory), and it doesn’t try too hard to astound and amaze us with complex twists and turns. Every now and then a more straightforward story is actually more enjoyable, and can double as a well-placed palette cleanser. But therein lies the downside; while Cold War is a decent episode, it’s also fairly generic.
While the enclosed setting and constant threat of danger are reminiscent of episodes such as Midnight, Cold War doesn’t quite capture the same intense, claustrophobic atmosphere. If anything the middle section when Skaldak begins picking off the crew one by one plays out like a bit like an unintentionally hilarious B-Horror. I’m willing to concede that maybe younger kids might be scared by Skaldak’s spindly green arms grabbing onto people’s heads, but I struggled to take it seriously. Probably because his arms just reminded me of the Once-Ler from The Lorax.
The main flaw, however, isn’t found in the plot or the setting. Rather, it stems from the lack of interesting characters. A gruff captain, a by-the-books first mate, and a quirky professor round out an unremarkable crew. None of them are given much by way of personality or backstory. All of them can be adequately described using a single noun and a single adjective. Skaldak the Ice Warrior enjoys a more detailed history, but his preoccupation with martial law and honor make him little more than an echo of a Sontaran.
Despite these shortcomings Cold War is still a pretty good filler episode, but that’s about it. The lazy ‘Time Lord ex Machina’ method of bringing in the Doctor and Clara, the focus on conflict in favour of fleshing out the characters, and a forgettable villain unfortunately prevent it from being anything else.