The danger of being a Companion becomes all too real for Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) in “Cold War.” Image via Doctor Who Wikia.

The mystery behind Clara is put aside this week, but her education in the ways of Companionship takes a big leap forward in “Cold War,” the strongest episode by far of her tenure.

Writer Mark Gatiss, a reliably steady hand on both this series and Sherlock, not only moves the action from outer space to deep under the sea, but he wisely centers the episode on Clara landing far, far outside her comfort zone for the first time, and not just because she’s in a Russian submarine on the verge of a fatal descent.

Even better, he takes her there without The Doctor being around to guide her through the worst of it. Instead, it’s Professor Grisenko (David Warner), a New Wave fan — though, really, if we’re going to talk Ultravox, let’s begin with “All Stood Still” — who assumes the role of kindly mentor figure when Clara confesses that it’s all “getting a bit real” after seeing that this new adventure she’s on can have fatal consequences.

Meanwhile, Eleven is busy containing the awakened Grand Marshal Skaldak, mightiest of the Ice Warriors. It’s not a full-bore return for these old foes of the Doctor — his Second and Third incarnations, anyway, at least on television. But the history between them is given the appropriate amount of weight by both Gatiss and Matt Smith, and there’s enough meat to the marshal’s characterization to make ample use of body/voice tandem of Spencer Wilding and Nicholas Briggs, respectively (and along the way, Briggs gets to add another great portrayal to his repertoire, already overflowing with Daleks, Judoon and Cybermen).

For his part, director Douglas Mackinnon makes able use of the episode’s cramped setting, keeping the tension just out of sight until the very end, even the episode errs a little too heavily on the side of Checkov’s homing signal for the endgame. But along the way, Clara makes all the right moves without much hand-holding from the Doctor, and this is the kind of episode her character sorely needed.

[Image via Doctor Who Wikia]

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