Doctor Who Reviews: The Ice Warriors

1967: Hippies. Flower power. Psychedelic designs that would fry the eyeballs of anyone without groovy '60s shades. It’s funny how your parents tell you that the late Sixties were all about freedom of speech and expressing yourself. Conformity and following the crowd were, like, such a drag, man.

In the middle of all this right-on anti-sheep hullapalooza was an unlikely champion. TV’s very own Doctor Who, with its anarchic central character is the embodiment of railing against the rules and authority. Not only that, but if you look just deep enough, then a lot of the late '60s stories are nicely in tune with this mantra. The Macra Terror dealt with the danger of conformity. The Krotons dealt with a group of brainwashed dopes who believe that a gaggle of lumbering Brummie boxes are their saviours. Then there’s The Ice Warriors – traditionally one of the best-regarded monster tales, which in fact, like all good Doctor Who stories, works on more than one level.

On the surface, The Ice Warriors’ main function is to terrify kids into submission. The towering, wheezy Warriors make an instant impression as they loom over their victims, hissing demands in that creepy, unearthly manner. It’s fair to say that this is really the only story in which the Ice Warriors manage to be genuinely freaky. They’d be the goodies in The Curse Of Peladon, and whilst they are the bad guys in The Seeds Of Death and The Monster Of Peladon, somehow they lack that unnerving presence that comes across in their début. A lot of this is down to the unusual but inspired casting of Carry On legend Bernard Bresslaw, unrecognisable under layers of green armour as the leader Varga. Bresslaw is excellent, conveying real menace through his rasping, sibilant voice. The way in which Varga’s unearthly voice never matches his mouth movements is also a good move and only highlights how alien the Ice Warriors are.

Another point to make is that this is the only Ice Warrior story in which their weaponry is seen to have any real effect. In subsequent stories, victims are just seen to move their arms around a lot and gurn as they ripple like funfair mirrors. In this one, however, the force of the Warriors’ guns has a genuinely devastating effect as characters like Storr and Walters give piercingly girly death screams. Victoria, too, predictably screams her head off at just the sight of a reptilian claw, but for once, her non-stop shrieking actually works in context, as it heightens the threat of the Ice Warriors further.

So that’s the appeal of The Ice Warriors for the kids. The adults can relate to it, not only as a good old-fashioned adventure story, but also as a study of more grown-up issues. On the surface, The Ice Warriors is a warning about the dangers of computers. Basically, the staff at the Brittanicus Base are dependent to the point of slavery on the ioniser computer. The computer is a bizarre, revolving, talking lump of metal that looks like a giant dying Pac Man. Rather than thinking for themselves, Leader Clent and his stern assistant Miss Garrett make their decisions about the glacier problem in Britain only with a computer. As is so often mentioned in Doctor Who, computers are no more than stupid tin boxes which react to human orders with lightning speed – but they don’t have that all-important human instinct or thirst for life. You might as well be governed by a speak-your-weight machine.

So what’s Hayles saying about computers? Ban them for good? Tempting, for sure – I’d guess though that Hayles is trying to say that computers have their place in the world, just as long as people don’t become too dependent on them. Just look at Clent – a man who looks and sounds like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He’s so reliant on computers that it’s become a habit. Anybody that refuses to think like Clent does is out on their ear – Penley, of course, is one man that has fallen foul of Clent’s militant-style regime. His insistence on thinking for yourself shows up how limited Clent’s take on dealing with any crisis is. So when in the last episode, Clent squeals: “Computer says no!” like a hyperactive Carol Beer, it’s down to Penley and his non-conformist attitude to save the day. It’s not so much computers that are the problem, it’s the refusal to think outside the box and actually use the brain instead of taking an easy short cut with a machine.

It’s telling that both Penley and The Doctor are the same sort of character. Both have the same, shambling sort of appearance. Both refuse to conform to authority. And both have the same brilliant mind that leaves Clent reeling. No sooner has The Doctor first entered the base, he casually takes charge of the situation in the control room, running around like a whippet on speed, barking orders and dealing with the immediate crisis. An already impressed Clent then grills him on how to halt the ice surge in only 45 seconds. Despite his initial fluster, The Doctor rapidly comes up with the answer like a man on University Challenge. Clent would make a good Paxman.

It seems that Clent only learns late in the day how to rely on human judgement rather than conforming to a supposedly infallible ideal. Right at the end, he welcomes Penley back into the fold, rather charmingly saying that it’s a privilege to work with him. Part of Clent’s refusal to take Penley back is down to his own stubborn pride, but finally, after he’s been proved wrong, does he concede defeat.

Not thinking for yourself is also shown to be fatal. Just look at poor old Storr, Penley’s buddy. Storr is a cross between Andy Stewart and a talking wig, and initially you think that because he’s Penley’s friend, he’s not one for siding with any Tom, Dick or Harry. Well that’s true, but unfortunately, he chooses to try and make friends with the Ice Warriors. He wishes to be like them, and to help them, just to get back at the scientists. The problem is, he hadn’t bargained on the Ice Warriors seeing right through this, and you can tell early on in the scene that Storr’s life expectancy is about as long as a man cutting his hair with a sword. Despite Storr’s pathetic pleas, the Warriors brutally kill him. Just goes to show, siding with the enemy never works.

All of which combines to form a classic Doctor Who story. The problem with Season Five is that there’s classic after classic to be had, so singling out a favourite is one hard task. Unlike most of the other stories in the season though, at least it’s possible to judge The Ice Warriors on proper televised footage rather than mostly stills. Episodes Two and Three are gone, but these have been recreated using animation. Not only is the script well up to scratch, Derek Martinus’ direction is again, first rate. The production values are generally strong with lots of memorable set pieces – the discovery of Varga; the ice avalanche; not to mention the confrontation with a real live bear! The designs are excellent – not only the sets, but the Ice Warrior costumes and also the psychedelic tie-dye patterns for the base staff. Dudley Simpson also turns in a memorable score with groovy organ sounds and a memorable timpani motif for the Ice Warriors.

Again, Martinus’ shrewd casting choices pay dividends. Peter Barkworth is magnificent as the highly-strung Clent. Interesting choice of making him walk with a limp and a stick. The implication to me is that Clent was involved in some sort of terrible accident, which accounts for his moments of panic frequently bubbling up to the surface. Peter Sallis is just as good – it’s easy to take for granted that he was the voice for Wallace, but his characterisation of Penley is carefully studied and well thought out. Even the other minor roles such as Miss Garrett and Storr are well acted by Wendy Gifford and Angus Lennie.

This is one of the best stories for the Troughton team. Troughton himself is on top form. His bumbling personality again contrasts well with his commanding presence. Just look at the way he meekly enters the domain of the Ice Warriors. His initial cowardly “Oh my word” becomes a businesslike, fearless confrontation with Varga. Just the little touches like The Doctor dialling up a plastic cup of water instead of some fantastic solution or his incompetent attempts at getting the stopper out of the chemical tube highlight what a great Doctor Troughton is.

The two companions get a good deal too. Deborah Watling’s Victoria gets some good scenes with Troughton, in particular, her fake sobbing in Episode Five as she plans a diversion for The Doctor. Frazer Hines is also on top form, as Jamie braves the fear of possible paralysis, fighting the Warriors and also flirting with any girl that he sets his eyes on. “She doesn't want to know, Jamie,” chuckles The Doctor as Jamie’s pathetic attempts at wooing a leggy base worker fall flatter than a chat-up line on Blind Date.

The Ice Warriors is so much more than the typical ‘Monster Story’. The themes of non-conformity and excessive reliance on computers may come on a little too strong, but they’re certainly well-intentioned. The pace doesn’t flag, the action holds up well and the Ice Warriors are among the most memorable baddies of the Troughton age.

* The computer age is, however, good for Kindle ebooks, including mine on 1970s Doctor Who!