Previously on Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten.
Waking up the beast is a bad, bad idea. Good thing then that Eleven mostly runs hands-free, doesn’t he? He can save the universe using a
kettle Barbie and some string, and look at him, he’s wearing no vegetable but Elvis shades.
Shoulder pads, nukes—it’s the Eighties! Everything’s bigger!
Aha! And the TARDIS is now translating for Clara, which didn’t work last week, when Doreen “barked” at her and we heard her actually bark back. The TARDIS has a history of being slightly averse to anomalies in space and time—remember when she ran all the way to the end of time just to shake Jack off? Clara must have done something right in the meantime, then.
She did well with Skaldak, too, and that’s good. But then the things happen that always come up at some point. Clara ran off with an alien she hardly knows, and life on the TARDIS is fine and dandy until it becomes… real. Until there’s body parts lying around and a soldier from Mars threatening to eviscerate the planet because someone had a twitchy trigger finger.
I’m always serious. With days off.
This episode has all the makings of a great tale: a Soviet submarine, a closely confined space, stuck on a rock in the ocean below the North Pole, with no chance of escape or immediate rescue, nuclear warheads ready to launch at the press of a button. Next, an Ice Warrior, desperate with grief for his race and its glory, and his daughter, a hero without a home, and with a deadly conscience; picking off his victims one by one while the countdown is running. Him, being pitted against another soldier, for what it’s worth, equally desperate with grief, a hero who burnt his home to ash, and with death weighing on him like about a million mammoths drilled out of the ice. The Doctor doesn’t like references to his being a soldier, but that’s what he is, with immeasurable killing on his hands, albeit one that is willing to make every sacrifice to keep humanity safe.
And it is that great tale until about mid-episode, and then… it sort of loses itself in the pacing, it becomes too much talking, not enough running for ten minutes. That might not seem much, but in a 40-minute episode, that’s a significant portion. The claustrophobia of the sub doesn’t quite come out, it doesn’t feel like the walls are closing in on them as time is running out. As a kind of locked-room mystery, this is almost a prelude to next week’s Gothic ghost-busting operation, but it doesn’t explore the space as it might have done, nor the waning of oxygen. The pep talk the captain gives becomes a summary of the situation rather than the overture to a great rescue and defence mission.
Perhaps it’s because there’s not much mystery about it. Knowing the enemy so early on is good because it gives us insight into a great foe of Classic Who; but at the same time… it’s not really a hunt, is it? The captain questions the Doctor: that’s it? That’s the plan? Find him before he gets to the bridge and.. stall him? And then, the Doctor treats Clara like a silly girl asking silly questions a lot of the time this week—which is very First Doctor of him, Susan had to take a lot of flak sometimes from the old man.
It’s the curse of the format that hostage situations like this must end with either a shoot-out or a talking-to, and the Doctor isn’t really one for blowing stuff up this series, at least not on board of a nuclear sub. Somewhere along the way, it loses its momentum a little, and then only picks up again when the Doctor tries to talk Skaldak into showing mercy. In a twist that is owed to the format of the drama and the show itself as a family event, and which is very similar to the one last week, Clara hits the right note to remind Skaldak of his daughter and the innocent lives that are going to perish if he doesn’t find his compassion under all that armour, repeating a lot of what we already knew back to us. The anxiety that the Cold War brought (and still does in the memories of those who lived it) plays nicely into the Martian code of war, and the Doctor and Skaldak mirror it with their stances of mutually assured destruction, and it serves to ramp up the tension sufficiently to only have me partly disappointed that we didn’t get to see the full view of Skaldak out of his armour (though the face is impressive!). The situation could have gone back and forth like that for ages if the Martian ship hadn’t turned up. Perhaps, it could have turned up a little sooner, we could have met the council, it could have taken on a bigger scale to keep the suspense up. This episode is much, much better than the last two weeks’, but it fell a little flat. Or, at least, it felt that way to me. I love Mark Gatiss’ Who scripts, and I love that he did a submarine drama, I’m a sucker for those; and I love this episode, but it wasn’t quite The Hunt for Red October, it didn’t quite give me enough to talk about. Wanna know how I know? This review has 920 words.
I enjoyed the claustrophobia of this episode but I agree it did get a bit too talky in places as we shoehorned in the Ice Warriors’ back-story and some character development for Clara. It was also a bit too reminiscent of Dalek for my liking, although like that story it was a great demonstration of an individual foe being more scary than an army. Also liked that Skaldak wasn’t painted as a pure villain, merely one following a combination of deep personal grief at thinking itself to be the last of its kind and its own code of honour – a bit like the Doctor, in fact. This moral ambiguity – not a baddie, just different – echoes the originals too. A nice touch.
So, good bordering on very good – but a little short of great.