Viva Las Vegas!
Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the Eighties. Everything’s bigger.
This episode, written by Mark Gatiss, combines elements of Das Boot, Alien, The Thing, and probably other films I don’t know about, into a gripping cold war thriller. The setting is claustrophobic, a Soviet nuclear sub under the Arctic ice in 1983, during the height of the Cold War. The Doctor and Clara burst out of the Tardis expecting Las Vegas, only to find themselves in the sub’s control room, disrupting a training exercise in pushing the button for WWIII.
The Russians are understandably peeved at the interruption, particularly the gung-ho second-in-command, whose name I didn’t get. I have a thing about Russian names, my brain won’t process them properly. Never mind. He shall be known as General Ripper, from Dr. Strangelove. The Doctor and Clara are suspected of being spies, and it doesn’t help that the Tardis swans off on its own, leaving them in a dire situation. It gets worse. The sub hits a submerged reef and plunges out of control until fetched up by another reef. Then there’s the specimen the civilian professor on board has discovered trapped in ice, while searching for oil. A crewman, for inexplicable reasons, decides to melt the ice it’s encased in before they get back to Moscow. Revealing a thoroughly pissed-off ice warrior. And not just any ice warrior – this one is Grand Marshal Skaldak, a proud leader and a hero to his people. You insult him at your peril, because he will take out your entire planet to avenge the dishonour.
You could also apologise nicely and hope he’ll forgive you, but that’s no longer an option when General Ripper attacks him from behind with a cattle prod. They have to chain Skaldak up for everyone’s safety.
The rest of the episode is taken up with how Skaldak gets free and tries to launch a missile to start WWIII, because he thinks his brother ice warriors aren’t coming for him and he has nothing to lose. Being frozen for 5,000 years, he knows his daughter is “dust” and mourns her. General Ripper is also keen to start WWIII, offering to collaborate with Skaldak, who gets all the information he can out of Ripper and then kills him. As he does to another crewman to find out what his enemy is made of. Literally.
But he loves his daughter and can feel some empathy for these humans. Once again, it’s Clara who reaches out to the threat and neutralises it. She reminds Skaldak of what it is to lose someone you love (multiplied by billions where the Earth is concerned), and he disarms the weapon before flying off with his rediscovered brothers. True, the Doctor is prepared to destroy the sub and Skaldak’s ship in the Arctic version of a Mexican stand-off, but it’s hard to say which has the most weight in affecting Skaldak’s decision.
I like it that Clara is an equal in these adventures: “Saved the world then. That’s what we do.” This after a spontaneous hug with a slightly embarrassed aftermath. Clara is actively trying to live up to what she imagines as the Doctor’s expectations, seeking his explicit approval. And he trusts her to negotiate with Skaldak.
There are the usual grace notes in this as in most Moffat episodes. Great supporting characters, with the professor standing out as an Eighties pop music-loving, avuncular figure, who takes an interest in Clara and worries about her feeling unhappy after seeing the crewman’s body. I enjoyed the way he wanted her sing Hungry Like A Wolf, by Duran Duran, and she was too embarrassed to do it. Except at the end when everything depended on Skaldak changing his mind. I had to google it, but the song adds something to my appreciation of him.
Skaldak is a superb character. Not a villain or a monster, but a lost, proud, lonely ice warrior, stressed beyond measure and forced to the greatest dishonour of all, being seen without his armour. This is where the new series is so much better than the episodes from the last century. Aliens get some respect as characters and some money spent on their portrayal. With his armour, Skaldak is troubling enough. Out of it, he becomes downright scary. First we see the hand, with its long, scaly, probing fingers, then the glowing eyes in shadow and a suggestion of mouth. Finally, in response to the Doctor’s taunt, “Look into my eyes, Skaldak, face to face,” we see the whole head. But he’s also allowed to be more than his features suggest.
I have a couple of niggles. Clara’s accent seems be wandering between northern and RP. I hope she settles on one or the other. Then there’s the Doctor’s pronouncement that “History’s in flux. It can be changed, rewritten.” Pompeii? Why couldn’t the Doctor get more people out, as Donna wanted, when Vesuvius erupted?
Beyond that, I think this episode is superb, one of the high points of the season. Perfect ending, too, with Clara making the Doctor admit that his tinkering with the Hazard Avoidance Detection System has sent the Tardis to the South Pole. Never mind, the sub will give them a lift.