Doctor Who has a mixed track record when it comes to bringing back monsters from the 1960s and 1970s — sometimes the show misses the point of what made a monster great back in the day. But with tonight's return of the Ice Warriors, the show more or less got it right. This is how it's done, people. Spoilers ahead...
There are two main problems with Doctor Who's habit of resurrecting the classic baddies:
1) Sometimes, you get a weaker, derivative version of the original, like the alternate-universe Cybermen. Or the writers miss the point of what made the monster great, and subsume them in a blah "car GPS systems are secretly evil and Sergey Brin is a dick" storyline.
2) The show has generally put too much energy into reinventing old baddies, and not enough into creating the next generation of Sontarans, Cybermen and Ice Warriors. We're on to season seven, and the only new monsters with any real staying power are the Weeping Angels. (And maybe the Silence, I guess, but they seemed to run out of steam as a direct threat, after the "Astronaut/Moon" two-parter.)
The reintroduction of the Ice Warriors in "Cold War" doesn't do anything to solve problem #2, but it provides a bit of a template of how to avoid problem #1.
The Ice Warriors were introduced in 1967 (their first story is finally coming to DVD soon) as a merciless Martian warrior race. In their first appearance, they just want to get home and don't much care about humans one way or the other. In their second appearance, they try to invade Earth and turn it into a new Mars. In their third story, they were actually noble and decent, and in their fourth they were a rogue evil faction. There's actually a goodly amount of material there.
And "Cold War" makes pretty good use of this wealth of potential. The Ice Warrior Skaldak is a noble warrior, who's not interested in invading the Earth per se, but he is also filled with menace, and he has the whole "warrior's code" thing going on. And the turning point in the story is when he decides that his people are all dead, and he's the only one left after his 5,000 years under the ice — so he might as well wreck some shit.
The story is mostly a recapitulation of the first ever Ice Warrior story, except set aboard a nuclear submarine — and with the stranded Ice Warrior deciding to unleash World War III in retaliation for some of the humans cluelessly attacking him. (He attacked one of them first, but never mind.) Grafting a much faster-paced version of the plot of "The Ice Warriors" onto a climax involving nuclear missiles actually works quite well.
There's nothing clever in "Cold War," which is part of what makes it refreshing — except maybe for the concept of juxtaposing the Ice Warrior's warrior values with precarious relations between the Soviets and the United States and Britain in the early 1980s. There are just enough interesting points of convergence and difference between the 1980s Cold War and the Ice Warrior's own eagerness to kill — in particular, the Ice Warrior's conversations with the bloodthirsty young Lt. Stepashin, who is eager for real battle, to keep it interesting.
And yes, the thing of revealing that the Ice Warriors, under their cool Viking armor, are just standard-issue CG gremlins is kind of blah. I guess it's sort of to be expected, especially after the show did something similar with the Silurians — and the goal is clearly to turn the slow-moving, bulky Ice Warrior into something smaller that can creep around and menace from the shadows. But still, not really a fan of that aspect of this story, even though it mostly works and provides another way for Skaldak to keep the Doctor and the crew off guard.
The bulk of the story is a good, old "creature in a dark confined space" story, with the Doctor trying to avoid bloodshed and work things out with Skaldak — and there are obvious homages to some classic Who stories set in similarly cramped quarters, plus movies like Alien.
Clara is great in this story, particularly the bit where she goes in alone to speak with Skaldak. Just like last week, she's at her best when she's being brave and resourceful, and trying to make connections with others that the Doctor can't or won't make himself. She also gets some fantastic scenes with Professor Grisenko (David Warner, stealing the episode! — although the whole cast this time around is fantastic, including Davos and Edmure Tully from Game of Thrones.)
The other great thing about this story is the way it telegraphs the deaths of various characters — particularly the lovable Grisenko — and then serves up a curveball instead. There were a few times when I thought I knew where the story was going, and then it went a slightly different direction instead.
Oh, and there are two great shout-outs in this story: first, the Doctor sets the H.A.D.S., last seen in 1968's "The Krotons" — a completely rubbish defense mechanism which causes the TARDIS to disappear inconveniently the moment there's any trouble. And second, Professor Grisenko is obsessed with the band Ultravox, some of whose members lent their talents to the completely rubbish Doctor Who charity single "Doctor in Distress" in 1986. (Oh, and the use of pop music in this episode, with Grisenko teaching Clara to sing Duran Duran in moments of fear, is great and reminded me a smidge of Adventure Time, which is the highest praise possible.)
All in all, "Cold War" does a great job of honoring what worked about the Ice Warriors in the past, while bringing something new to them as well, and also finding a way to slot them into a "clever" story without letting the cleverness overwhelm them. Plus it's a nicely tense, creepy story that keeps the level of menace high while still serving up enough fun candy. It's a love letter to old-school Doctor Who, but still feels fresh enough to stand on its own too.