Online reaction to Mark Gatiss episodes always seems very mixed, which surprises me in this case because, to my mind, this was the first genuinely good episode of the current half-season.
I think a big part of the reason why this episode worked, when so many haven’t, is that it’s a very simple story. In a lot of ways, it’s a call back to the original series. At it’s heart, this is a “base under siege” story, with a small group of humans in a single location dealing with an incursion by an extra-terrestrial threat. In this case, it’s a Soviet sub in the North Atlantic during the early 80s, which makes the mistake of thawing out an Ice Warrior just as the Doctor and Clara arrive. The Ice Warrior picks off the crew until a small band of survivors make their final stand. The only thing different from an original series story (and, to be honest, most of the new series) is that the Doctor, for once, actually reasons with his enemy instead of setting up an elaborate death trap.
The Ice Warriors are an interesting choice for a returning monster. While they have a handful of appearances and a good visual design, they’re not exactly a top tier monster. So it’s impressive that relatively few changes to update them were made and took the form of expanding on the original appearances rather than offer us a “new subspecies” or “parallel universe versions.” They’re an interesting choice as well because they are of the small handful of classic series monsters that escape the “evil race” presentation that most sci-fi shows exploit. Ice Warriors are usually “bad” but not necessarily so; it depends entirely on the needs of the story.
The only real weak spots in the story are that Jenna Louise Coleman isn’t given much to do and the jokey and forced references to 80s music. Clara is just sort of…around, which is nice in that we’re spared any blatant foreshadowing about what her big secret is. But after turning in such a good performance in the previous episode, seeing her reduced to the standard companion-in-peril role is disappointing. Giving her a more active role would have been more satisfying than a little question and answer session about whether or not she passed the Doctor’s test. The 80s music references feel somewhat like a necessary evil to establish time and place; a shorthand way to remind the audience that “hey, this is the 80s” given that a good chunk of the audience wasn’t born yet.
I think I’m going to end this on the semi-depressing realization that the 80s were far enough back in time that they now qualify for a historical story…