Doctor Who: Cold War

April 21st, 2013

Yes, I’m a week late with writing this one, but that’s because it’s quite difficult to find much to say about it.

It’s Trad, Dad!

Sometimes, Mark Gatiss is just what you need.

This may seem a surprising statement, given that of Mark Gattis’ previous scripts one (The Idiots’ Lantern) is agreed by general consensus to be the second-worst of the 2006 series (and when the worst is Fear Her, that’s pretty bad), one (Victory Of The Daleks) is agreed to be the worst of the 2010 series, and the one that most people actually like is the one where he gave so little thought to the subtext that it came out as a vicious attack on asylum seekers, more or less by accident.

But to see why Gatiss’ episode comes as a relief, we have to go back to the fandom wars of the 1990s (in which I was a non-combatant, spending my teenage years without access to the internet or to a bookshop that sold Doctor Who books, but I have heard the tales of those who still bear the scars).

There were two major divisions that were made (neither of which were actually particularly useful in practice) in Doctor Who fandom at that time, something like the political compass — you were either ‘rad’ or ‘trad’, and either ‘frock’ or ‘gun’.

These divisions are mostly history now. The frock/gun division — essentially a division between those who want fun, inventive stories with a sense of humour and a little bit of camp to them, and those who wanted grimungritty action adventures with the sex and the swearing and the things blowing up — was pretty much conclusively won by the ‘frock’ camp, and a good thing too.

But there was also a supposed split between ‘trad’ and ‘rad’ writers. ‘Rad’ writers were those, like Lawrence Miles or Paul Magrs or Jim Mortimore or a handful of others, who wanted to keep Doctor Who moving forward and trying new things. The ‘trad’ authors, on the other hand, were those who wanted to write stuff that was exactly like old TV episodes, without any new ideas — rather missing the point that those old episodes, at the time, weren’t ‘trad’ at all, but were mostly radical departures from what had gone before.

As anyone who has read my stuff before will realise, I am unapologetically on the rad/frock side of this particular debate, but the post-2005 series has rendered that debate mostly null and void, by doing something that is neither like the old series, nor much like the stuff the ‘rad’ writers were doing (though Russel Davies is clearly a fan of Paul Magrs, and Steven Moffat equally obviously desperately wants to write like Lawrence Miles when he grows up). Certainly, while all the 90s writers it has employed have been ‘frocks’, there have been both rad (Paul Cornell) and trad (Gatiss) authors used.

In fact, Gatiss might be the single most ‘trad’ writer there is. To quote from this piece by Lawrence Miles, talking about one of Gatiss’ novels:

When an acquaintance lent me a copy of The Last of the Gadarene eight years ago, he made me tell him what it was about before I’d actually read it. He did this by asking me questions about the plot, and encouraging me to give the most predictable answers I could think of. ‘It’s a Third Doctor story, so where do you think it’s set?’ ‘Erm… England in the 1970s?’ ‘And who do you think the villains are?’ ‘Well, I suppose… aliens who want to invade Earth.’ ‘Yes, but how?’ ‘By infiltrating an institution of some sort?’ ‘And?’ ‘Um, disguising themselves as something normal and then smothering people.’ And so on, right up to the “twist” where it turns out that one of the characters is the Master in disguise.

At the time, one of the review magazines gave The Last of the Gadarene full marks for being a “perfect Pertwee”, yet the irony here is that Barry Letts would never have commissioned a story this banal in the actual, bona fide 1970s.

And that’s largely true of this story. It’s a rehash of a lot of previous stories — it’s a ‘base under siege’ story like the whole of Patrick Troughton’s second year, featuring the return of the Ice Warriors, who were the monsters in two of those stories. It references Alien (a favourite film of Gatiss and one built around the same basic plot idea) and The Thing From Another World (the template from which all the base under siege stories were created) and even calls back to Warriors Of The Deep (one of the two or three worst Doctor Who stories of all time, but one that fit the formula very, very well).

But the thing about this kind of formula — its one saving grace — is that it’s impossible to completely muck it up. Writing a base under siege Doctor Who story is like playing a twelve-bar blues — hit all the right chords in the right order, and you’re going to sound more or less OK.

Here, Gatiss completely does away with any advancement of the overall series arc (apart from a mention that ‘history is in flux’), or with any of the character development stuff, and just tells a straight story, competently. Everything is obvious (the Ice Warriors are from Mars, a red planet, so obviously one is on a Russian ship, because the Russians were ‘reds’, and it’s during the Cold War because he’s an Ice Warrior, DO YOU SEE?) but the obvious can work sometimes.

What we end up with, here, is a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book version of a Troughton six-parter. If you don’t have three hours to spare to watch (or actually to listen, since most of the video from those years has been destroyed) Troughton battling Ice Warriors, Yeti or Cybermen, this will do as a substitute. It’s no surprise that it sees the return of the Ice Warriors, the most generic of all Doctor Who villains (they actually are green men from Mars).

Cold War has no ambitions beyond trying to make forty-five minutes of TV that feel like a children’s TV programme from 1968. It gives Matt Smith some good moments, it has David Warner in it, which is always a good thing, and it finally gives Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character enough dialogue that I noticed her London accent was fake and she’s really from the North.

When everyone else is trying to do too many things and failing to get any of them right, sometimes the best thing you can do is stick to a winning formula.

9 Responses to “Doctor Who: Cold War”

  1. New Doctor Who post on Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] In which I discuss last week’s Doctor Who in terms of an overly-reductive false dichotomy from fan… Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Iain Coleman Says:

    Surely the template for all base under seige stories is Beowulf?

  3. RetroWarbird Says:

    David Warner can make anything watchable: See Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of Marketing Children’s Toys. I think he’s the only example of a character in Star Trek who wasn’t “these old-timey humans sure have some bad habits!” to have ever smoked cigarettes on-screen.

    There’s a post-90s stigma attached to the phrase ‘back to basics’ I think, and those fandom wars might be Who-specific but are hardly specific to Who. Or serialized television. How often does ‘back to basics’ get bandied about but mean absolutely nothing to anyone as writers get all self-important instead of self-aware, and start committing every novice writing sin known to authordom? Hell, we’re all committed to noticing it in the funnybooks.

  4. RetroWarbird Says:

    And vividly vivisecting the culprits. Hack the hackneys.

  5. PapaPopGuru Says:

    Something really seemed amiss with the plot to me. I know it’s a bugger to hum and haw on what they “should have done”. But the early beats with certain characters reallllllllly fell flat as soon as ol’ Skaldak came out of his shell. You had some top actors like Liam Cunningham and Tobias Menzies had arcs with about as much gravity and resonance as a shit plopping to the bottom of a toilet bowl. Perfect cathartic moment would have been for Skaldak to go on a bit of a suicide-run style distraction with the doctor and co, while Tobias’s character comes in an tries to drop the nukes. Liam’s character has a momentary dilemma about loyalty and shoots him. Guest Actors get a role that works for the plot, The Ice Warrior goes out in a way that doesn’t feel like a cop-out, and then the Doctor gets to voice over to the denser members of the audience: “Nuclear Obliteration’s not okay, alright?” Everyone wins, including the audience.

  6. Illusionator Says:

    I agree that this was the first vaguely OK ep this series.

    Must say I had more problem with the blatant rip off of Alien than anything else (the bit where Harry Dean Stanton goes searching for Jones the cat and gets abducted by the creature in Alien is recreated down to the water cascading on the prof’s face before Iceboy reaches down for him). Made me think of your comments last week re originality being a trait Who fans generally look for, successful or not.

    That said the younger members of the household were gripped (for the first time this series), so I guess that target was met…

  7. Nick Smale Says:

    I noticed her London accent was fake and she’s really from the North

    “Child Clara” from the “Bells” preview had a very pronounced northern accent, which leads me to conclude that this is deliberate…

  8. David Golding Says:

    Pointless sidenote from me: I was on rec.arts.drwho back in the day, and even ran a Frock/Gun Homepage (as one did in the 90s) for a while. I’m not sure I’d categorise Gatiss as a frock. This is based on reading only his two New Adventures, but then the discourse was centred on that series. Gatiss now avows a Moore-style bad mood at the time.

    As a schema, such things aren’t very useful, but as arguments within writer-/fandom, I’d say they were important to the development of the books.

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