If this week’s episode of Doctor Who can be summed up in a way familiar to fans of the show, it’d be the “mid-season” episode. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just that it does nothing to establish, conclude, or advance the overall plot of the season. What it does do is bring back a long lost classic Who baddie and make a spiritual homage to Alien, except with way, way less overtly phallic imagery.
Well, I said this episode owes a lot to Alien, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we open with the crew of a pressurized ship in a hostile environment and far from home. It’s a Russian sub running a nuclear missile launch drill near the North Pole in 1983. Although, if you initially assumed it was a British submarine, you could be forgiven, seeing as how everybody is speaking with a British accent. This will eventually be lamp-shaded as an effect of the TARDIS’ translation thingy (even though the TARDIS is not present for the majority of the episode): the Russians think the Doctor and Clara are speaking flawless Russian, Clara hears everybody speaking English (The Doctor hears Gallifreyan, perhaps? Man, has it ever been established that the Doctor can speak English or has it been the TARDIS this WHOLE TIME?). Nevertheless, though I welcome this convention for the Doctor and Clara (I’m looking at you, “The Rings of Akhaten”), I wish it had been presented to the audience differently. Frankly, we already have a cinema convention for “though this dialogue is in English we are to understand that these characters are speaking different languages,” and that’s an applicable foreign accent (actually there are a lot of ways to do this that would have been less initially confusing, choosing any one of them would have been nice).
Although, the more I think about this the more I wonder whether this is just a confusion I had as an American. Did this seem less confusing across the pond? Feel free to let us all know in comments.
Anyway! The drill scene establishes that this is a sub with a pacifist captain (Zhukov), a hot headed “first mate” of some sort (Lieutenant Stepashin), and even a nutty professor, Grisenko, who loves British New Wave rock. They’ve been up in the Arctic drilling samples to find oil, and uncovered an unusual specimen. “What is it, Mammoth?” “…Probably.” That’s not ominous at all! Especially now that an unfortunate sailor (who I’m just going to think of as “Intern”) gets impatient with not knowing what that clearly not a mammoth at all shape is in the ice and thawing it out. Poor Intern. You’re the just-before-the-main-credits-shock.
And here’s where I paused to imagine what an Alien/Doctor Who crossover would be like, and concluded that I’d already pretty much seen it, and it was “The Waters of Mars.”
When we come back after the break the sub is in a bad way, sinking fast to a depth at which it will implode. Which is precisely when the TARDIS shows up, apparently intending to arrive in Las Vegas, but the poor thing keeps taking that bad right at Albuquerque. Unlike other Who episodes that usually have at least one moment of the companion pointing out the to Doctor just how terrible of the time pilot he is, this one pretty much skips it. Man, Clara really does take this stuff in stride. Which is good, because just as soon as the Doctor gets Captain Zhukov to steer the sub onto a rock outcropping that will keep it from embarking on an emplodey self destruct, the sub lurches and the TARDIS disappears, without so much as a “VWORP, BITCHES, I’M OUTIE.”
Clara winds up in a chivalrously offered military jacket to cover her “I was expecting Nevada” dress, and the Doctor and Captain Zhukov begin agressive negotiations about who he and Clara are and what they’re doing here. You know, the usual. The argument is interrupted by the arrival of the Ice Warrior, and my favorite line of the episode, which goes to the Doctor: “I’m always serious, with days off.” Our Ice Warrior is informed that he’s been frozen for five thousand years, and identifies himself as Grand Marshal Skaldak. We are informed, by the Doctor’s reaction, that this is bad for some reason. Then somebody electrocutes Skaldak. The Doctor also thinks this is bad, and he tells Captain Zhukov to have him restrained.
The Doctor explains that Skaldak is “the greatest hero the proud Martian race has ever produced,” and if they hadn’t injured him, they might have been able to interact without bloodshed, but now Skaldak is culturally honor-bound to consider himself at war with the crew. The situation might still be saved by clever negotiation, however, and the Doctor and Captain Zhukov get into an argument over which of them will do the actual negotiating. The Captain, accepting readily that the Doctor is a vastly advanced alien time traveler, tells him he is too valuable to their survival to risk his life. Lieutenant Stepashin thinks the Doctor and Clara are spies, storms off when the Captain insists they can be trusted. Clara volunteers, the Doctor gets very unhappy about this idea, and then thankfully we just cut right to Clara walking into the room where Skaldak has been chained up.
Skaldak has taken the interim time to begin sending an SOS to his Martian descendants that the Doctor assured him were out there in the universe. Through Clara, the Doctor tries to talk Skaldak out of bringing the might of the Ice Warriors down on them, and now that we get to hear a bunch of Skaldak’s voice I’d just like to get it on record that whatever combo of voice acting and sound editing is going on here, it’s really working. That is a good villain voice. Skaldak is very angry at everyone and on top of that is having some serious cryogenic angst (maybe Steve Rogers or Phillip Fry could sit down and talk with him) about his family, including a daughter, having been dead for thousands of years.
And that’s when we find out that Skaldak’s armor is actually empty and he’s been sneaking around the room the whole time, looking for a way to sneak around the ship and get some idea of what humanity is really made of (pretty much literally). It’s definitely time for Clara to get out of there, and as soon as she opens the door, Skaldak xenomorph-speeds down the hall past everybody else, and loses them in the submarine’s passageways. He’s turned off his SOS signal. He thinks the Doctor was lying about the Ice Warriors still being around. He’s got nothing left to lose. And he’s on a Russian nuclear submarine in the middle of the Cold War.
Which is right about the point where the Doctor says that infamous phrase: “It couldn’t be any worse,” and Skaldak starts going full grab-you-out-of-the-darkness-and-eat-you on isolated members of the submarine’s crew. I’ll give him this over xenomorphs: at least he has the courtesy to burst out of no one’s chest but that of his own armor. While, Captain Zhukov gives a Captain Speech about stopping Skaldak from getting nukes while Skaldak grabs Lieutenant Stepashin, who attempts to put the smooth talk on him about an alliance between them and just so happens to in the process give Skaldak a lovingly precise description of mutually assured destruction, which seals the deal on the Ice Warrior’s plans. Now it’s not just the crew that know he could destroy humanity with one fired missile, it’s Skaldak too.
Clara wants to know why they should be worried about a nuclear apocalypse when she’s from from the future and knows that it didn’t happen. The Doctor tells her “history’s in flux, it can be changed. Rewritten.” Man, I miss the days of “this is a fixed point in history.” The Doctor suggests splitting up and systematically searching the submarine, you know, the thing that happens right before things become irrevocably bad in every horror movie.
And so we get two concurrent scenes: a couple of crewmen getting xenomorphed by Skaldak, and Clara and the nutty Professor Grisenko chatting nervously as the Doctor goes somewhere else because plot. The Professor sings songs to stay brave, but Clara isn’t into it. Skaldak makes “forensic studies” of the crewmen, I suppose because he wants to know what a nuclear bomb is going to do to them? Or just to make Clara very scared. “This all got very real,” she tells the kindly Grisenko, and has the “are we gonna make it” conversation with him, which sets off all my “character with low life expectancy alarms.” Unsurprisingly, Skaldak comes after them next. He attempts to grab Clara as the professor is looking at her, in contrast with every grab from behind on an unwatched person he’s made so far, and so the Professor understandably unloads a couple bullets in him. Skaldak releases Clara and then he just grabs Grisenko instead, monologuing about how he has nothing left except his revenge.
The Doctor and the Captain’s group arrives and muddles things with yelling and brandished weapons, at which point Skaldak’s armor arrives, having been summoned by his sonic signal, breaking its chains, and robot-ing over to his location. He releases the Professor, gets back in his armor, and begins to interface with the nuclear launch systems of the submarine. The Doctor begins talking him down, but they wind up in their own state of mutually assured destruction: if Skaldak tries to launch the nuke, the Doctor will use the sonic screwdriver to blow up the sub. (I’m sorry, sonic screwdriver, for implying last week that 90% of what you do is open doors. Please don’t blow me up.) Mutually assured destruction. Of a sort. At this point Clara gets in on the negotiations, bringing up Skaldak’s long lost family. He finally shows a moment of empathy, and then…
The submarine is gripped by some kind of an alien beam and brought to the surface! It’s Skaldak’s people, so yaaaay? Not really. Skaldak gets teleported right out and nobody’s sure if they’ve convinced him not to blow up the human race, except now with advanced technology. Will Skaldak show mercy?To drive home the tension, Clara finally starts singing to keep her spirits up (the song is “Hungry Like the Wolf,” so, Bad Wolf conspiracy theorists, start your engines). Then Skaldak unarms the missile. Hooray! Humanity is saved!
Since the sub is at the surface, Captain Zhukov, the Doctor and Clara go up for a sight see around the ice, which made me laugh because we’re in the Arctic and Clara and the Doctor are dressed for Las Vegas. Sure, go out without your coats, guys. Just don’t lick the submarine. Or touch it with your bare hands. Clara finally asks about where the TARDIS is and the Doctor confesses that he’s been tinkering with her. This could be intended as a reference to some of the TARDIS difficulties that have been cropping up this season, or just a joke. “I reset the hostile action displacement system.” But it’s alright, now that they’re safe, the TARDIS will come back for them. Except that in true TARDIS style, it’s rematerialized at the South Pole. The Doctor asks Captain Zhukov if he and Clara can have a lift there, and everybody laughs like it’s the end of an after school special but I’m actually interested in how this is going to resolve. And then the episode ends, so we might never find out.
This is the closest thing we’ve had to a standard episode all season. You could have swapped any companion in here, really (I don’t mean this pejoratively, there are a lot of episodes that fit that bill). But I still feel like I don’t have a handle on Clara’s personality. She’s just… companion-y. This episode doesn’t even establish whether she’s travelling full time with the Doctor now or still going on “day trips.” But this is perhaps an unfair judgement to level on what’s only the third episode of the season. On the other hand, perhaps this episode would have been better placed later on, when we know Clara a bit better, so we didn’t wind up craving more info on her.
I think part of why I a bit detached from Clara might be withdrawal from Rory and Amy, and by that I don’t mean that we’re all pining for them or that I particularly miss them more than any other former companion. But it’s worth pointing out that for about two seasons in total we’ve had two companions, where most episodes, particularly the memorable ones, were ones that evolved or involved their relationship in its various stages of existing, ending, reuniting (0r dying, or forgetting, or aging). This extra nexus of character interaction added a nice extra layer of emotional complexity to the show that’s missing now, where all we’ve got is the Doctor being Doctor-y and Clara being companion-y. In fact, most companions have shown up on the show with a host of new secondary characters. Rose had her mum and Mickey, Martha had a family, Donna had her mum and Wilf, Amy had Rory. I don’t think we’ve seen the entirety of Clara’s character yet, and I hope that when we do, it injects some of that complexity back in, and maybe even ads some supporting cast.