Sunday, 14 April 2013

Doctor Who: Cold War

“I’m always serious… with days off.”

Mark Gatiss. I’ve reviewed a fair number of his scripts by now, but I’ve never really expressed a direct opinion of his work. That changes now. After all, everybody else seems to have an opinion. This is mine.

The opening scene is a nice microcosm of what I’m going to talk about: the contrast between nostalgia and innovation. It’s essentially a tribute to the opening titles to The Ice Warriors as broadcast back in 1967, but complete with modern camera movements and “non-diegetic” text, to use a big word what I learned from Graham Kibble-white in the latest DWM, which is something we’ve seen a lot in recent Doctor Who. Here we have a contrast between pastiche, a nostalgic reverence to the past, and the sort of metatextual playing with narrative structures, the sort of thing we associate with Steven Moffat. Gatiss is not like this. He’s a highly competent writer, but he prefers to work with an established style and structure, honouring the past without adding to it. It’s a more limited approach than Moffat’s, but one that can work in the right context. He’s very good at ghost stories for example.

This story is a direct pastiche of the “base under siege” stories of Patrick Troughton’s second season. A submarine is the perfect setting for this sort of thing. Even little details like the Doctor’s decision not to use his psychic paper and the suspicious first officer are little nods to this. In many ways this works, and gives us quite a good episode. And yet, as many have pointed out amongst my Facebook friends, the forty-five minute format makes this feel rushed. Ironically, however, as my girlfriend also pointed out, the need for suspense causes things to drag somewhat. Even a nice little touch, such as the Ultravox loving professor, doesn’t prevent the story from dragging.

The Doctor is as brilliantly portrayed as ever by the mercurial and superlative Matt Smith, but we have little further with which to judge Clara. She’s shown to be feisty and brave, but otherwise could just be any generic companion. Still, this is only her third episode as a companion, and perhaps an episode such as this, based largely on suspense, was never going to be characterisation heavy.

Where this episode succeeds massively is in its depiction of the Ice Warriors, an old monster who, to be brutally honest, I always thought were fairly rubbish. But this Ice Warrior, supposedly a legendary figure, is much chunkier, scarier and, well, cooler. Little scraps of dialogue hint at a cultural hinterland, while the honourable values of the Ice Warrior are shown in a way that doesn’t just make it look like a Klingon. The 80’s setting is also pleasingly evoked, given the shortness of the episode, with a nice use of 1983 as a setting, the year the world nearly ended.

Best of all, though, we get to see a naked Ice Warrior, and what it looks like under the shell. Its face, dragon-like, was a punch the air moment. Gatiss is a rather more limited writer than the likes of Moffat, but a script like this, nostalgic and working within a defined structure, plays to his strengths. Usually, I find his best scripts are his ghost stories. This one isn’t far behind. It isn’t brilliant, but it’s very solid.

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