Some episodes of Doctor Who give you the feeling of being thrown into one of those carnival funhouses where every turn takes you into a room that is both connected to the rest and completely stand-alone, confusing in its own right. There are the rooms with mirrors, the tunnels that spin, the floors that shift and shake. You may never know what you’re in for, but you know you’ll be confounded by the end, only finding clarity when you have solid ground to stand on.
Like I said, that’s some of Doctor Who.
However, that was not tonight.
“Cold War” is a pretty standard episode of the show. There’s a monster. It has unknowable and likely menacing intentions. The Doctor must somehow save the day by both helping the monster think reasonably and shielding the people whom the monster is threatening. This time the monster was an Ice Warrior named Skaldak, who has found his way onto a Russian submarine in the midst of the Cold War. He threatens to send a missile off, all awhile frightening the crew of the submarine who are trapped deep underwater, waiting for a rescue ship to arrive for assistance.
The Ice Warriors, however not familiar to most fans of the modern Doctor Who incarnation, may have sparked the memories of those who watched the original series. They first appeared in the episode “The Ice Warriors” in 1967.
In an interview with RadioTimes, Doctor Who’s current showrunner, Steven Moffat explained his own hesitation about resurrecting the Ice Warriors who haven’t appeared in an episode of Who since “The Monster of Peladon” in 1974. Moffat said, “I’ll be honest: I thought they were maybe the default condition for what people thought of as rubbish Doctor Who monsters – things that moved very, very slowly and spoke in a way that meant you couldn’t hear a word they said.”
There was something certainly kitschy about “Cold War” and the resurrection of the Ice Warriors. Maybe it was the space-suited Skaldak, or the puppet-looking lizard-like green claws that came from off-screen, grabbing at the heads of innocent victims. It had an aura of the nonsensical, the silly stop-motion Godzilla-esque villain that may have seemed menacing before the general public became immune to traditional monsters.
Skaldak was scary, sure, but he certainly had nothing on the Weeping Angels, the Silence, Vashta Nerada (one of my personal favorite) or a number of other supernatural villains of the newer Doctor Who.
I don’t think that was the point, however. The next episode, “Hide” (as seen in previews), seems to have a more fear-inducing bent, but what I consider the best attribute of “Cold War” was the reflection on the loneliness of fighting a battle by yourself.
Whether signified through the submarine itself (alone underwater carrying its crew without any back-up to speak of), the Doctor and Clara stranded without the TARDIS or Skaldak, who believes that he is the last of his race when they do not come to his rescue – the real message of this episode wasn’t how the Doctor saved the day from a scary monster, but how that monster was actually not so dissimilar from the Doctor.
“There is nothing left for me except my revenge,” Skaldak said toward the end of the episode. Like the Doctor, he believes he is the last of his race. Yet, unlike the Doctor, he is feeding off a desire simply to kill and avenge his comrades deaths, rather than help pacify other races so they don’t come to the same terrible ends that Skaldak belives the Ice Warriors have.
To put this in perspective, if the Doctor were as vengeful as Skaldak, then his only goal might be to destroy the Dalek race (seeing as they destroyed the Time Lords in the Last Great Time War). And while the Doctor does have a tendency to feel little pity toward the Daleks, he certainly doesn’t always have them at the forefront of his mind.
We, as humans watching this series and putting it into our own personal social contexts, can consider the Doctor as a stand-in for ourselves. We may have enemies, we may on occasion feel alone, abandoned or betrayed, but a life worth living is one that doesn’t focus on those who wronged us, but those for whom we can do right.
Skaldak is eventually found and summoned by the Ice Warriors (who have not ceased to exist), and shows mercy on the submarine that he terrorized by not releasing the missile as per his threat. It may not be the most thoughtful conclusion, but it does give Clara and the Doctor the opportunity to feel a sort of solidarity that – after losing Amy and Rory quite recently – the Doctor seems to need. “Saved the world, then,” Clara said. “That’s what we do.” We.
Though it wasn’t any sort of mind-blowing expedition into psychologically confusing territory, “Cold War” did two things really well: it introduced us to an old Doctor Who monster and brought us closer to our new companion. That’s enough for me not to feel any sort of sadness at the lack of a funhouse.