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The Ice Warriors

Video review by Bevan Lewis

What do a fifties B-movie and a prehistoric creature have in common? Both provided the inspiration for one of Doctor Who's most fascinating stories. My negative preconceptions of this story (my first viewing of the story was of a very poor quality multi-generation copy) were blown out of the ice (groan!) by the superb restoration released by the BBC last November.

Brian Hayles had a strong track record for creative and thought-provoking scripts, already supplying the surreal The Celestial Toymaker, and The Smugglers, described in The Television Companion as “a lively and entertaining yarn”. Hayles' first attempt at what was becoming a Second Doctor cliché (the remote base under siege by aliens) produced a story that easily stands up next to other classics of the season. The inspiration for the story was derived from two sources - a newspaper article Hayles had read describing how a prehistoric mammoth had been found preserved in ice, and Howard Hawks' 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World. The film concerns a scientific expedition in the Arctic, members of which are threatened by the ‘thing” they thaw out from an ice-bound spaceship. This was the film which first featured the famous “Watch the skies!” speech. Hayles does not ape the film, and creates a story packed with wit, deft characterisation and a fascinating range of themes.

From the completion of the title sequence, the story bursts straight into excitement with scientists desperately running around a futuristic control room, part of Britannicus Station, an ioniser base in the Arctic, trying to stop the advance of another Ice Age. Hayles' story has a solid and plausibly imagined scientific basis, prophesying a climatic change precisely opposite from our Greenhouse Effect - a dramatic drop in CO2 levels which causes global cooling.

The theme of environmental catastrophe is an undercurrent to the familiar sixties concern with technology; computers and science and a fear of its power. The story resurrects concerns already raised by stories like The War Machines, but in a far more sophisticated manner. Here the computer shows no sign of thinking for itself (in fact that's the problem!), yet the story is still infused with the fear of humans becoming slaves to technology. Although this fear of the unknown may now seem naïve it is of course still manifest today both in computers winning chess games against humans and in the mounting panic about genetic engineering of food. Hayles makes his point in the Doctor's succinct exchange with Miss Garrett: “Here we are completely computerised.” The Doctor replies, “Well, never mind.” (I feel that the Doctor's statements satirising technology contradict his familiarity with and frequent use of it however.)

The computer is held in quasi-religious awe, as reflected in Miss Garrett's almost biblical line in the final episode: “We trust the computer. It is our strength and our guide.” Yet she is also aware of the computer's limitations, and indeed she confronts Leader Clent with the inability of the computer to solve the dilemma of whether to fire on the Ice Warriors' ship and risk destruction. Clent is forced to admit: “I'm pinning all my hopes on the Doctor.”

In a way The Ice Warriors is a very humanistic story, as demonstrated by the rebel Penley's comment about Clent: “He's got a printed circuit where his heart should be.” The contrast between Clent and Penley is interesting - not only do they represent belief and disbelief in the power of the computer, but they can also be seen as analogous to the late sixties struggle between conformity or ‘straightness’ and the freedom of thought of the hippy generation. Clent is an efficient individual, clean and clinical in his white outfit, ruthless in his competitive desire to beat the other ioniser stations. Penley by contrast is bearded and haggard, with an acerbic cynicism about the world. Yet Clent does have some sense of self-realisation and respect for human qualities, as seen in his emotion as the Doctor goes forth prepared to sacrifice himself to save Victoria (something the Doctor must be getting quite used to by now!).

Clent argues fairly explicitly in favour of conformity - “Don't spit your stupid liberty in my face, Penley.” Yet Hayles resists the temptation to present conformity and non-conformity as a black and white issue. A fascinating and quite brilliant paradox in the story is the fact that the Ice Warrior is only discovered in the first place because Scientist Arden ignores Clent. Arden deliberately switches off his communicator to avoid advice from the computer so he could ‘have a bit of fun’ and engage in his hobby of amateur archaeology.

The story also presents human qualities as the only means of success in the face of computer-driven inaction. In episode five there is a brilliant scene when Penley argues that they must do something. Clent responds, “I'm afraid there's no hope.” Penley responds, “You mean hope is inconvenient.” Near the end, when the Ice Warriors are forcing Miss Garrett to shut down the ioniser, there is a brilliant moment of self-realisation for Clent as the Ice Warrior asks him what his value is. He claims to be the leader, the one who makes the decisions; a claim he knows is empty. Without humanity, he is redundant. His frustration provokes a superb little exchange as Clent blusters “You'll live to regret this”, and Varga, the Ice Warrior leader, responds “At least I'll live to regret it.” At the conclusion of the story, Clent's sense of victory is tenuous - his only real triumph is that only he has the ability to write a report on the affair. The fact that writing speeches and reports were the only functions Clent did not entrust to the computer shows the bureaucratic distortion of his priorities.

The Ice Warriors is not too simplistic, however. As well as the paradox mentioned above, the story does highlight the benefit of science and reason when conducted with humanity. The two missing episodes contain further exploration of the relationship between Penley, the moralistic scientist, and Storr, the Scavenger. Storr is mindlessly suspicious of knowledge: “I trust no- one - no more. Human emotions are unreliable.” This points to another clever paradox: Storr prefers to put his trust in the inhuman Ice Warriors - “They're against scientists and the ioniser - that's good enough for me.” This blind negativity is his downfall, however, as the Ice Warriors make manifest their inhumanity, describing Storr as “only a local native, useless and unnecessary”, and kill him - I won't go into colonialist subtexts!

Inevitably, in a story written in the Cold War era, metaphors with the development of atomic energy are apparent. Not only do Clent and crew fear that the Ice Warriors' ship may be nuclear-powered, but the contrasting views on the ioniser are also metaphorical. Clent and Miss Garrett see it as a scientific instrument for the benefit of humankind, while the militaristic Ice Warriors are only able to see it as a weapon with the ability to melt rocks. This can obviously be seen as mirroring the nature of nuclear power as both beneficial (as long as it doesn't leak of course!) as a source of electricity, and deadly as a weapon.

The superb characterisation extends beyond the increasingly desperate Clent. Episodes two and three contain much in the way of filling out the characters. Unlike some writers (such as David J Howe in The Handbook: The Second Doctor), I did not find this boring. It is this attention to detail which sets the story apart, and I think that a story which ‘fills’ by spending a bit of time with characters is far more memorable than endless set-piece battles with monsters which do nothing to advance the plot, prevalent in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the video reconstruction of these episodes excludes Miss Garrett venturing forth from the base behind Clent's back to ask Penley for help - he refers her to his papers. This shows her realisation that Clent doesn't have all the answers - it was she who pointed to Clent the ‘Catch-22’ situation the computer faced; it could not make a decision because of the risk attached to both firing and not firing the ioniser.

There are also great moments of humour in the script. Jamie and Victoria's discussion of Jamie's opinion of the young ladies working in the control room with their tight-fitting white outfits is great. The combination of humour as he wonders whether Victoria could see herself in one of these outfits, and tension as the Ice Warrior thaws in the background makes for a tense cliffhanger. When Jamie wonders about the origins of the Ice Warrior, the Doctor responds with a wonderful “Well he didn't come by Shetland pony, Jamie!”

As well as a meaty script, the production is imaginative and innovative in virtually every detail, well up to director Derek Martinus' usual standard. He brought a wealth of directorial experience to Doctor Who and disappointly directed only one more story, Spearhead from Space. The Ice Warriors brings an almost cinematic quality to the camera work, and although television was not ‘edited’ in the filmatic sense at this time, the cutting from camera to camera is outstanding. A deep impression is created right from the opening montage of ice scenes, accompanied by Dudley Simpson's The Saint-like eerie wailing theme and the bold block captions.

The snowstorm effects and film work at Ealing is superb, with fast, riveting cuts between stock film, model work and studio sets. Jeremy Davies' set design makes an important contribution. The ioniser base is an interesting concept, a combination of Victorian-like corridors that the travellers first encounter and the white modernistic equipment in the control room. This juxtaposition of the futuristic and traditional reflects the conflict between technology and traditional human values at the heart of the story. The design of the computer is quite innovative and apart from the flashing lights does not look as dated as many others of the era (e.g. WOTAN in The War Machines with its wall of whirling reels). The ioniser's shape and positioning at the center of the room reinforces its role as a virtual altar, a futuristic deity. The set is used for some powerful camerawork in episode five as Miss Garrett and Clent argue over her claim that the computer is playing for time. The camera pulls out astonishingly swiftly for a long shot (subverting the convention of using a long shot only at the beginning of the scene), followed by a sharp swift succession of close-ups.

The scene of Victoria escaping through the ice caves from the Ice Warrior is realised brilliantly. The lighting creates luminosity and translucence in the ice (you'd hardly know it's polystyrene!). The fantastic succession of quick cuts (Victoria's terrified face, an Ice Warrior approaching from her point of view, hiding as the Ice Warrior breaks through the ice), looks as though it was painstakingly story-boarded. As the Ice Warrior catches her, Victoria screams and the scene cuts to the scavenger's den, the sound of her screaming fading gently, reinforcing the frustration and contrasts with Jamie sleeping through her terror.

Other innovative steps included bringing a live bear into the studio. I don't know whether the shaky camerawork as Penley and Jamie make their way through the snowstorm and encounter the bear was deliberate, but it does create that ‘Real TV’ feel with which contemporary viewers are all too familiar.

Finally, any discussion of the production must mention Martin Baugh's costume design. The camera script (quoted in A Book of Monsters) describes an Ice Warrrior as “what appears to be a helmeted warrior. The helmet is hood-like and ominous... where the ice has fallen away from its helmet [revealing] bare metal.” Baugh visualised their reptilian nature from the name Ice (hard, cold) Warrior (armoured), contrary to Hayles' and actor Bernard Bresslaw's expectations. Baugh took the revolutionary step of having the head and body cast from fibreglass. The idea of having the Ice Warriors tower over the other actors presumably came from Martinus, who had already used the idea with the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet. The Ice Warriors create an imposing presence as they enter the control room in the final episode, brushing the top of the doorway and overshadowing Clent even though he is in the foreground. Minutes later comes the gripping climax as Varga decides to shoot the by now pathetic Clent. A beautifully edited sequence follows as the Doctor fires the sonic cannon and the agony of the Ice Warriors is expressed visually through a shuddering hazy montage of views.

Overall, dynamic camerawork and attention to detail with design work is superb, with not a scratch or sound dropout to be found. The visual and aural montage covering episodes two and three is brilliant and sets new standards for future releases of incomplete stories. It is definitely worth listening to the accompanying CD as there's plenty of incident and character development that adds to your appreciation of the story, although you'll need to concentrate!

I can't get away without discussing performances in this story. Helped of course by Hayles' great scripts, the regulars are on a roll. The Doctor is brilliant, and Troughton of course is well settled into the part. You'll find representations of all the oft-discussed aspects of the Second Doctor in this story. His first major scene is the brilliantly bluffed and blustery takeover of the control room. I was on tenterhooks as the Doctor grappled with Clent's sixty-second test, and the scene at the end of episode four as the air is pumped out of the airlock is brilliant: Troughton covers the range of emotions from arrogant bluff to sheer terror in about fifteen seconds.

There are plenty of examples of Troughton's fantastic comic timing, especially in the incident with the chemical dispenser, but perhaps his most ‘Chaplin-esque’ moment is when he divulges his plan to knock out the Ice Warrior guarding him and Victoria. “Ammonium sulphate, but that's a stink bomb,” replies Victoria. The Doctor urbanely responds, “Ah, yes, the benefits of a classical education.” He proceeds to struggle to remove the bung from his test tube, hopping about desperately as we anticipate the Ice Warrior turning around.

Deborah Watling performs well as Victoria, helped by an unusually restrictive output of sobbing and pathetic weakness. Although Fraser Hines performs adequately, he spends most of his time lashed to a stretcher.

The Ice Warriors is often cited as an example of the fruition of the plan to use Troughton to attract better-known actors to the series. The story features Peter Barkworth as Clent (who made his name on the popular early sixties series The Plane Makers), Peter Sallis (later of Last of the Summer Wine), and Bernard Bresslaw (who was in The Army Game with William Hartnell). Overall, the secondary characters show no signs of the usual hamming and in some cases show considerable subtlety. Miss Garrett, played by Wendy Gifford, is great; her seemingly unshakable belief in the computer conflicting with her knowledge that it cannot solve their problems. Walters has a great little scene (I suspect added in as a filler, evidenced by the sudden change in sound), where Clent patronisingly says “I bet you volunteered” followed by Walters' deadpan “I didn't”. Bernard Bresslaw's performance as Varga is helped by the costume design that allows authentic lip movement, accompanied by brilliantly innovative, hissing pre-recorded voice-over. Apart from one flub at the beginning of the last episode, the synchronisation of the Ice Warriors' voices is astonishingly accurate.

Clent is the highlight of course, his pronounced limp adding to the air of the desperate bureaucrat striving for control (helped of course by the delightfully kinky vibro-chair!), and conformity in a situation where it couldn't be more inappropriate. Penley's resigned cynicism is overcome gradually throughout the course of the story, as he is confronted by the reality that he cannot stand back. Sallis's performance is only let down by his terrible stubble, which looks suspiciously like Marmite!

Overall, watching The Ice Warriors was a pleasant experience of having preconceptions challenged. The restoration and the packaging combined to make for a great 35th anniversary celebration.

This item appeared in TSV 58 (September 1999).

Index nodes: The Ice Warriors