The tributes to Classic Who in the anniversary year’s run of episodes are really coming thick and fast now. It’s hard not to see Mark Gatiss’s latest effort as a celebration of Patrick Troughton’s era. He’s brought the Ice Warriors back — those lumbering, hissing, giant humanoid tortoises that were iconic villains of the Troughton years. And the base-under-siege format employed fondly here by Gatiss is very reminiscent of the reams of Troughton stories that utilised the format. It all makes for an episode with a very classic and 1960s feel to it, albeit injected with a generous dose of New Who swagger and fast-paced excitement.
The Ice Warriors are re-introduced in style, with the old slow-moving tortoise shells adapted effectively for the new series. They’ve pulled the same trick employed in Dalek in featuring just one of the revived monsters and portraying what just one can do. It’s an effective way of conveying the threat of the Ice Warriors to a modern audience, especially when the lone Ice Warrior in question is Skaldak, whom I gather is supposed to be like the Chuck Norris of the Ice Warriors. The genius of Gatiss’s re-introduction of the Ice Warriors in this script, though, was in getting Skaldak out of his armour. No longer the hulking, lumbering product of 1960s production values, the Ice Warrior takes on genuinely terrifying form as it skulks around the shadows, extending its scaly, clawed hands to grope unsuspecting Soviet naval officers. Its picking off the crew one by one lent a real air of menace and claustrophobia to the situation. The eventual revelation of what the Ice Warrior looked like under its helmet was impressive, but I feel somewhat that some of the magic and the menace of the Ice Warriors is lost now that we know what they look like. I suppose it’s well enough that only the head of the ice warrior was shown.
The sinking Soviet submarine made for an effective setting, and really made compelling the threat of the Ice Warrior, a villain I’d imagine would be difficult to get right. The Cold War setting made possible the captivating standoff between Skaldak and the Doctor in the submarine’s control room. It’s meaningful that Skaldak was swayed from his resolve to destroy the world by Clara’s appeal to his compassion, whereas the Doctor thought only to threaten Skaldak with mutually assured destruction. This echoes The Beast Below, where it was similarly portrayed how much the Doctor needs the human anchor of a companion.
Both the Doctor and Clara were great in this episode, and I’m pleased to see that Matt Smith is back on form after his lacklustre performances in the previous two episodes, with his intense and authoritative portrayal here. Also deserving of praise was David Warner as Professor Griskenko, a wholly charming character performed endearingly by Warner. The last word goes to the comedy of this episode, which, far from being incongruous with the solemnness of the situation, injected a bracing, refreshing element of human realism into what could have been a very Hollywood-artificial sci-fi runaround. I particularly liked Matt Smith’s barbie doll (was that supposed to be Rose?)