Doctor Who Project: The Ice Warriors

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It’s good to know things, even when they’re dead.

Somewhere, buried in the design specifications for every base ever constructed, a TARDIS attractor can be found penciled in next to the obligatory nuclear reactor and the customary too-powerful-for-humanity piece of technology. Or so the past two seasons of Doctor Who would have us believe. At least “The Ice Warriors” (Story Production Code OO), Brian Hayles’ take on the mini-genre of bases under attack, adds an extra layer of danger by placing the base in question on the edge of a glacier (ɡlæs.i.ər in proper British pronunciation) steadily advancing as the vanguard of the Second Ice Age.

The titular enemies, the Ice Warriors, make for a menacing foe, with the helmets, sibilant hissing threats, and barely prehensile claw hands, but since they can be defeated by turning up the thermostat and throwing stink bombs at them, it’s for the best that Hayles focuses the six episode story on the dangers of trusting computers to make decisions best left to people. Indeed, far from being the monster-of-the week, the real enemy in the “base in danger” stories of the Second Doctor’s tenure to date has been unthinking obedience to authority in all its guises. Only independent decisions by People of Action can save the day. Here, the mod squad of scientists and bureaucrats running an Ionizer base holding back the glaciers in what appears to be northern Great Britain take no action at all unless confirmed by the Great World Computer, a machine with a voice that can barely be understood thanks to its squeaky, squawking oscillations.

TARDIS slightly askew.

And the Doctor has no truck with computers, treating them with undisguised contempt. He’s also rather poor at landing the TARDIS, which winds up on its side next to the Ionizer base (shades of the botched landing in “The Romans“), forcing our time travellers to clamber out of the blue box with all the grace of a comedy routine. It’s very little fun and games thereafter, though, as the glaciers continue to menace the base and a curious scientist in the field digs up what he thinks is a Viking. It’s Varga, actually, commander of the Ice Warriors and an all-around disagreeable chap. Did we mention the claw hands?

Varga, Doctor. Doctor, Varga.

Once more, the Doctor and his companions wander right into the thick of the plot. The wonky TARDIS landing doesn’t keep them grounded or even prove noteworthy; the Doctor is merely curious upon seeing a giant dome surrounding the Victorian manse that serves as the Ionizer base, and after a perfunctory warning from Victoria to keep out of trouble, the Doctor jumps in, saving the day by diagnosing a fatal flaw in a reactor merely from the noise it makes. He’s not accepted immediately, as has been typical in “base in danger” stories, here having to solve a timed puzzle posed by Leader Clent to prove his worth. The puzzle serves as a nice piece of exposition, explaining that Earth’s Second Ice Age came about through a massive decrease in carbon dioxide due to the expansion of human living area over fields made redundant by the invention of artificial food.

Caution, Mad Scientist at Work

The dating of this story remains uncertain, though the strong suggestion is the near future, say a hundred years or so from 1967. The advent of the Second Ice Age—and the destruction of most plant life—happened within recent memory for the people in the story, and the Victorian mansion seems in quite solid repair, and yet already a clear societal division exists between “scavengers” who exist outside the purview of the Great World Computer and those in its employ. The Great World Computer has the ability to order “scavengers” sent to a refugee reserve in Africa, but the society does not seem to be authoritarian in the strictest sense, as Penley, an individualistic scientist at the Ionizer base is allowed to leave when he can no longer function in the restricted world of the base. You can tell he’s an individualist because he doesn’t wear clothes straight off of a presumably unfrozen Carnaby Street.

What all the fashionable Ionizer base scientists wear.

The conflict between obedience to authority and received knowledge, symbolized by Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth), a career-minded bureaucrat, and creative individuality, symbolized by Penley (Peter Sallis), a brilliant if erratic scientist, serves as the crux of the story. The Ice Warriors, unlike the Cybermen or the Daleks, play a perfunctory role, no more or less threatening than the glaciers. With the Cybermen, you have the existential crisis of bodily perfection; with the Daleks, a single-minded drive to conquer and eradicate all that is not Dalek. The Ice Warriors, Martian by origin, pretty much just want to get back home after several thousand years frozen in a glacier, albeit with the side goal of conquering Earth. And not even contemporary Earth, since the Earth they landed on was inhabited by prehistoric humans. Hayes starts Varga out as calculating but not bloodthirsty, using Victoria as bait but essentially just trying to figure out why and how he (?) woke after centuries in a strange place. One of Varga’s first concerns is for the remainder of his crew, hardly a portrait of a monster.

Hayes, perhaps mindful that the story drags on a bit at six episodes, abruptly turns the Ice Warriors into evil creatures, unwilling to parley fairly and ruthless with those who do not serve their ends. They turn from conflicted soldiers far from home into men in big lumbering plastic suits chasing Victoria through ice tunnels made of styrofoam. Lacking any nuance, the Ice Warriors serve merely as a plot device, and one feels few qualms when the Doctor turns a sonic weapon on the Ice Warriors that may well kill them. Indeed, to save the Ionizer base (and, admittedly, the planet) from the onrushing glacier, he assists the scientists in destroying the Ice Warrior spaceship, a striking contrast to the Doctor who bargained with the Chameleons to rescue the tiny teens and to rehabilitate their species. Sometimes he won’t take “no” for an answer; here, it’s ask if he can help once and then blow them up.

Running through Ice Corridors

Interestingly, the Doctor knows nothing of the Ice Warriors or their civilization on Mars. He was similarly unaware of the Daleks, though he knew, to some extent, of the arrival of the Cybermen. There would hardly be a story if the Doctor had enough foresight to prevent the Ice Warrior from being awakened from its frozen slumber, of course, but it seems odd that the Doctor was singularly unaware of (and, in this story at least, entirely uninterested in) their existence on Mars for ten thousand years. I suppose the Five Hundred Year Diary doesn’t go back that far.

The decision to destroy the Ice Warriors comes about by rejecting the Great World Computer’s authority and, crucially, is not made by the Doctor. True, the Doctor sets the stage for the decision to be made — fixing the Ionizer and providing necessary knowledge about the Ice Warrior spaceship — and strongly suggests it as the right course of action, but he forces Clent and Penley to make the decision themselves. Clent refuses to act without the computer approving the decision to fire the Ionizer, given the risk of a nuclear catastrophe if the Ice Warrior ship is destroyed in the process of halting the glacier, The computer cannot reconcile the risk and goes haywire. Penley shows no such qualms. He knows he might be wrong—and Hayles spends some time setting up his mental instability to suggest he could be wrong—but he makes the decision anyway:

Penley: This is a decision for a man to make, not a machine. The computer isn’t designed to take risks, but that is the essence of man’s progress. We must decide.

So the mod squad turns the Ionizer to full blast, the Ice Warrior spaceship explodes with minimal damage to the outside world, the glacier’s progress halts, Clent expresses his admiration for Penley, Penley looks forward to working on the team once more, and the Doctor…well, the Doctor slips away again, quiet as can be, and the story ends with a dematerialization sequence, quiet save for the low thrum of the TARDIS engines.

And we are left wondering just what happened. There’s no tidy overthrow of the world government, no suggestion that the Ice Warriors contacted Mars to signal their survival, no pithy overview of the adventure in the TARDIS control room (and indeed, we do not see the interior of the TARDIS at all in this story, a real rarity), just end credits and the BBC announcer telling us what’s on next (ten minutes of news, followed by “Dee Time” with Simon Dee).

The larger issues in this story remain on the surface despite six episodes in which to explore them. It’s a different Doctor Who than we’ve come to expect thus far, as philosophical debates, while still integral to the plot, are not integral to the story. Earlier stories would have featured a coda suggesting that the experience here will drive human beings to take the reins back from their benevolent computer overlords. But with this new habit of just disappearing once the exciting bits are over, we have no resolution beyond the monsters being gone and the immediate threats resolved.

It’s a version of the show that fits the current companions, certainly. Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling both put in workmanlike performances here, but they are effectively children, particularly in comparison to the Doctor. They’re not an introspective bunch. Jamie and Victoria do banter over the shortness of the women scientists’ dresses, showing one of the strengths of having companions from non-modern eras. Beyond that moment, however, Victoria merely serves as bait and gets to run and scream a lot. Then the Doctor just orders her to go into the TARDIS for the final showdown with the Ice Warriors and we don’t see her again. Jamie spends two episodes flat on his back and asks questions that the Doctor dismisses out of hand. They could have been anyone, basically, and the story doesn’t play to their strengths as characters at all.

The Doctor himself plays his absent-minded professor role to the hilt, drawing formulae on the floor as he attempts to fix the Ionizer and generally being quite pleased with his cleverness. Patrick Troughton has absolutely settled into the role at this point, and he allows silence to fill space rather than trying to be central to the proceedings at all times. He’s less given to moralizing, too, and though he urges the scientists and bureaucrats to utilize the Ionizer at full blast, he does so not in order to show up the Great World Computer as a fraud but to save everyone in the Ionizer base. Practical and pragmatic, this Doctor is, but one cannot help but want a just a little bit of the scold as well.

It's snow. Just go with it.

That feeling of slight disappointment pervades “The Ice Warriors,” a story with a grand set-up, potentially fascinating enemies, and an execution that is about as convincing as the styrofoam snow on Troughton’s head.

(Previous Story: The Abominable Snowmen)

(Next Story: The Enemy of the World)

Post 40 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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