Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Ice Warriors

It seems strange that the nemesis in both this, and the last entry, have recently been given a revisit in the new series; whilst The Abominable Snowmen may not have returned per se, the Great Intelligence certainly has, appearing in The Snowmen (which is only one word away from being an identical title), The Bells of Saint John and the incredible season finale, The Name of the Doctor.  The 50th anniversary is due to reintroduce the fan favourite, the Zygons.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in Season 7b, Cold War saw the return of one of the most popular races in Doctor Who, the Ice Warriors.  Doctor Who’s love/hate relationship with the creatures from Mars began here, in November 1967, in The Ice Warriors.

The Ice Warriors is one of those rare serials which open with its own unique opening credits; here, the name of the serial fills the entire screen, and creepy incidental music accompanies these opening title cards.  The music is reminiscent of early Star Trek incidental music, in fact, and is typical Dudley Simpson, with jarring sound effects clashing with some orchestral majesty.  It’s a lovely piece.  Also unique about this serial is the loss of the word “episode” or “part” – instead, the number simply looms across the screen. 

The opening scenes are wonderful too – there is an interesting juxtaposition of old and new, as the Victorian decorations and architecture are home to enormous computer banks and ultra-modern costumed characters.  In contrast to his futuristic costume, Peter Barkworth is magnificent as Leader Clent from his first appearance, hobbling around the room and barking orders.  Sadly less impressive is Roy Skelton’s voice work as the computer – later named ECCO in the novelisation – as it mumbles robotic nonsense in a barely audible manner reminiscent of WOTAN or countless other computers in Doctor Who. 

The discovery of the Ice Warrior, Varga, is magnificent – seen through the fantastic set design, shimmering and imposing, he looks wonderful.  There is a slightly ropey moment where a mixture of stock footage and live action are merged and it becomes unclear what is happening where, but ultimately it is a pleasing scene, and the quality of the direction of the live performances is unquestionable – Derek Martinus is always capable of creating a sense of wonder in his serials, and this is no different.  As with his work on The Tenth Planet, the scenes outdoors are some of the best, and it helps to create an impressive sense of scale.

The eventual arrival of the TARDIS, some ten minutes into the episode, is a wonderful moment of physical comedy for Troughton, Hines and Watling, as they are forced to climb the vertical floor of the TARDIS and out, over the ledge.  The scenes in which they enter the base are similarly very humorous, as the crew are mistaken for scavengers.  The scenes which follow, with the Doctor following Clent around the room unnoticed by the scientists, and then interfering and saving the day, are brilliant, and Troughton is back on his comedic form, playing the wise-cracking clown to Clent’s uptight scientist.  I simply adored his line that “Nobody’s perfect”, and again we see Troughton thoroughly enjoying himself.  After such a serious serial before this, it is refreshing to see Troughton bounce back.

The scenes in the main Ioniser control room are filled with techno-babble, but there are some absolute gems in the script too – Clent’s line that “suddenly, one year there was no Spring” is haunting and evocative, and drives the point home in a direct manner.  After this, we have something of an info-dump, as the back story of Penley’s leaving the project is explained.  Clent’s response to the mention of Penley’s name earlier was wonderful – he is all gruff bravado on the surface – but his mention here of the name is more reverential, and he clearly sees the Doctor as a potential replacement.  Although he doesn’t like computers, Troughton’s Doctor is evidently a scientific genius, and even Clent has to acknowledge his abilities.  It’s been quite some time since Troughton was so commanding in the role.

The cliffhanger, and its subsequent resolution in the following episode, is rather spectacular, as Varga is gradually being revived thanks to the low current running through the ice and his casing.  Whilst he thaws out behind a curtain, things seem to be getting steamy in front too, and Hines is on top form as he discusses the scantily-clad female scientists and suggests that Victoria could pull off a similar look; Victoria’s disgust is palpable, and is a nice little reminder that she is as out of her own time as Jamie, and those Victorian principles evidently die hard.  It is the first sure sign that there is something passing for a libido within the TARDIS, and whilst Victoria may be too stuffy and uptight to respond, within the next few stories we’ll be meeting a scientist named Zoe who is precisely the kind of responsive flirt Jamie evidently needs.

Episode 2 also seems to see the death of the Victoria character we knew.  I’ve mentioned in my last few blogs how surprised I am by the vigour and drive with which Watling’s character responds to situations.  Whilst she may scream from time to time, she was nowhere near as unbearable as I seemed to remember, instead seeming proactive and looking for trouble.  This seems to be the precise moment at which things change, though; she goes from go-getter and thrill-seeker to whining, screaming girly girl seemingly overnight.  Whilst episodes 2 and 3 are missing, with the audio track, narrated by Fraser Hines, and the opening moments of episode 2 sees Victoria scream “Jamie!” desperately, before she “collapses in a dead faint.”  From this moment on, there seems to have been an irrevocable change in her, and she’ll never be the same again. 

I’m watching the newly released DVD of this serial, which actually has the episodes animated in the stead of the usual linking narration, but rather than focus on the animation, I’m watching the two in sync, so rather than focus on the sterling animation created by Qurios Entertainment, I focus on the serial itself, and what Martinus seems to pull off using the resources of the time, instead of what we’re able to see thanks to the animation.

Clent’s reliance upon technology is contrasted with the lifestyle of Storr and Penley, and Hayles is clearly trying to send us a message that technology is responsible for everything bad happening to the world; the message, however, is undermined somewhat by Storr as a character.  Angus Lennie must be the campest savage ever, and the conversation about a “whatdoyacallit – a tomato?” is painfully contrived.  Meanwhile, Hayles is similarly criticising the militant minded, and this is more successful – as Varga, Bernard Bresslaw is magnificent with his rasping tones and his staccato laugh.  Where the character shows his flaws is in his paranoia – whilst he is off with Victoria, he shows that he is too capable of fear, as he plots in a measured and calculated way the downfall of the humans, simply because he is concerned for the safety of his people.

Of course, this is the point of the Ice Warriors; they are a fascinating race precisely for all of these intricacies.  After this serial, though, they become far more interesting, showing different levels of a hierarchy, represented through their caste system.  When we next meet them, they are trying to conquer the Earth from the moon using a fungus sent via the Trans-mat system in The Seeds of Death.   Opposite Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, they appear in the two Peladon stories, representing ideas of peace, representing the Galactic Federation.

Episode 3, whilst still missing from the archives, is where the story begins to slip for me.  Whilst the whole thing sounds magnificent, and the linking narration from Hines helps to sell it too, I can’t help but feel that it’s all show, and no meat behind the story.  It begins to feel like, 3 episodes in, nothing has actually happened yet.  The entire plot seems to surround two groups of characters doing what they are doing for no reason other than fear.  And whilst that usually wouldn’t bother me, here it frustrates me terribly, as ultimately the entire serial is a complete run-around, with no serious danger to anyone.  But more on that later...

There are some lovely little moments, including the scene between Peter Sallis’ Penley and Wendy Gifford’s Miss Garrett.  Ultimately, this scene is a waste of time, as it achieves nothing, yet still it is played wonderfully, and the exposition allows the characters some growth.  It does frustrate me how stubborn and narrow-minded Penley is, though.  Miss Garrett pleads with him to return with her to save the day, yet he point-blank refuses to.  Never mind that the world is at stake; it seems he is doing it just to stick two fingers up at the establishment... or namely, Clent. 

Similarly brilliant is the scene between Jamie and Arden and the Ice Warriors who mercilessly gun them down.  Clent’s resistance to send them off – because of the enormous workload Penley is still refusing to help with! – saw Jamie volunteer himself to save the damsel in distress.  That they should get so close, but then seemingly fall at the final hurdle, is horrific, and one can only imagine how children would have reacted to it when it first aired.  It sounds horrifically brutal, and even though Arden hasn’t been the most likable character – he’s single-handedly responsible for the return of the Ice Warriors and at least one fatality due to his negligence on the ice cap, let us not forget – it is still tragic that he gave his life up to try and redeem himself, and save the world.  Jamie is saved by Penley, who takes him back to his hideout, much to the chagrin of Storr.  Again, Lennie and Sallis sell the scene like a bickering old gay couple, and it is intolerable.  As Storr mutters “Ach, I don’t trust anyone from that base”, we are reminded of the two polar extremes seen here, between the extreme faith in science of Clent and the extreme disdain held for it by Storr.  Both are stubborn and pig-headed, and neither is right – which lends some depth, at least, to their characterisation.

Troughton doesn’t seem to have a great deal to do in this episode, still pottering about doing research and arguing with Clent about his reliance upon computers.  The scene when Victoria finally makes contact with them again, and Clent is too concerned about the ship to care about Arden and Jamie’s death, is rather unnerving; he seems to dismiss their deaths rather brusquely, although it certainly sounds like there’s at least a slight degree of remorse there.  Regardless, his cries of “Keep calm, girl!  We want facts!” seems rather tactless.

Episode 4 is, thankfully, still in the archives, and after two episodes of almost nothing happening, it is refreshing that we can focus once more on what we can see.  Not that the plot is really up to much; this is a typical fourth episode where nothing really happens.  Victoria finally escapes, but is captured again by the end.  Storr plans on selling out the human race to the Ice Warriors, but is killed for his trouble.  The Doctor says that he is going to go and see the Ice Warriors... and goes to see the Ice Warriors.  There’s never really a sense of urgency in episodes like this, despite Clent and Garrett, back at the base, who are clearly terrified by the graphic of lumps moving towards a U-shape building, presumably the base and the Ioniser. 

The opening of the episode is equally dissatisfying; the cliffhanger was needless in the last episode, since no sooner do they pull out the sonic weapon, they then re-sheath it, deciding instead to let Victoria tell the Doctor and co even more.  Not that Victoria is really of any use in this episode either; instead, she simply stumbles around in the worst attempt at a break-out ever, and screams shrilly enough to cause an avalanche, burying the equally inept Ice Warrior that was stumbling after her. 

There is a lovely and touching scene, between Clent and the Doctor, when the Doctor announces that he is going to leave the base to become captured by the Ice Warriors – Clent has not seemed so human at any point, and between this speech – “I’ve come to regard you as Penley’s replacement” – and the scene at the end when he gulps back “I’m pinning all my hopes on the Doctor” as he realises that it is potentially too dangerous to use the Ioniser, he really wins the audience over.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to a key word in that last sentence – potentially.  Everything seems to be on hold because the Ice Warriors ship might have a nuclear reactor, and as such the Ioniser might react and destroy the base, and with it the hopes for the future of Earth.  But after 4 episodes, we need to see something more than a group of people worrying about what might or might not potentially happen if something does or doesn’t happen.  Whilst there are some lovely character moments, this serial is one where it is simply 2 episodes too long.  Hell, this could’ve been a 2-parter with some major exposition cuts, yet still have been a tense affair with a little padding. 

Storr finally gets his comeuppance, and it didn’t happen a moment too soon; the guy’s bullish technophobia was enough to drive me mad, and the moment he informs Penley that he is planning to “befriend the aliens” I was practically screaming at my TV willing someone to kill him.  As Penley attempts to persuade him that they need to head back to the base, he turns his back on him and mutters “you’re trying to trap me!” and with that the paranoid, delusional fool abandons his – possible – lover and stalks towards certain death, his filthy hair blowing in the wind.

The direction, however, is wonderful, and Martinus actually makes me want to like this.  Ultimately, though, it is Hayles’ script that falls a little short.  The scenes where the Doctor is framed through the ice, a wobbly silhouette discovered by Penley, is magnificent.  Likewise, the sets are excellent.  The cliffhanger is something of a damp squib, though, as the Doctor is trapped within an airlock until he tells the Ice Warriors his name, simply down to pure stubbornness.  As the titles for episode 5 roll, we are forced to relive this bland sequence all over again.  Varga gives the Doctor 10 seconds to answer his questions, but then, rather than asking any questions, he begins to count down, before the Doctor... simply gives in. 

There are some wonderful little titbits of dialogue throughout this serial, mostly either delivered by, or aimed at, Troughton – and the moment that Varga determines that the Doctor cannot really be a scientist because “you look more like a scavenger” got a genuine giggle out of me.  So, too, did the moment that the Doctor finally comes face-to-face with the Ice Warriors in their defrosted glory; his double-take, before attempting to escape, really brings home the shock of these creatures, and their wonderful (for the most part) design.  The casting of such giants (again, for the most part) as the Ice Warriors to appear opposite intentionally short actors as the humans of the base is all well and good, but here it is even more striking, as the 2nd Doctor’s diminutive frame is overshadowed by the Martian monsters.  As a note, I say for the most part since Turoc, played by the usually imposing-looking Sonny Caldinez (of The Evil of the Daleks) looks rather squat in comparison with the others, dumpy and lumbering in comparison to the gargantuan appearance of Bresslaw and co. 

The scenes between Penley and Jamie are likewise rather lovely, and the fondness with which Penley speaks of Storr is very touching.  That said, this does seem like something of a wasted serial for Frazer Hines as Jamie – all told, he’s barely spent half an episode in the 5 that have gone before stood upright.  He comes across as brash and courageous, but ultimately is simply laid there either unconscious or paralysed for a great amount of time.  The intercutting of stock footage works to an arguable degree – whilst I’m sure a grizzly bear, in the wild, would be a threatening and imposing image, the stock footage of a baby bear is hardly bone-chilling, and there is very little tension in the scene in which it charges at Penley and Jamie, armed only with a tranquiliser gun.

The scenes in the Brittanicus Base are great here, too.  Too easily could Clent have been drawn like one of the typical Base-Under-Siege managers, like Hobson in The Moonbase and Robson will in Fury From The Deep.  Ultimately, the downside to such formulaic stories is that we essentially end up with a stock-supply of one-dimensional caricatures, and the manager/leader/boss is inevitably a shouty, stubborn man who distrusts the Doctor despite evidence to support what he is saying.  Here, though, Hayles writes Clent’s wonderfully, and Barkworth mines the character for all he can.  The scene in which he criticises the computer’s self-preservation is wonderfully underplayed, and likewise his ‘banter’ with the other staff, and they way in which he draws himself up after being put down by one of his employees, is spot on.

The most electrifying moments come between Clent and Penley – finally back together again.  The tension is palpable, and the way in which he confides in Miss Garrett is really rather touching, gulping hard as he admits that, if he tries to pull anything, he will have to do the inevitable and prevent him.  When Penley finally arrives, the bluster and bravado is explosive, and whilst Penley’s references to Clent being more a machine than a man have become tiresome, seeing Barkworth’s responses to this insult are magnificent.

The final scene of the episode, with Troughton trying desperately to remove the lid from the stink-bomb is very funny, and Victoria’s attempts at distraction are equally ridiculous.  The final image, of the blinded Martian hitting the controls for the sonic weapon despite the best efforts of the Doctor and Victoria is a genuinely rather nail-biting moment, and by far the most satisfying cliffhanger of the serial.  Of course, the attack was merely a warning shot, and did no major damage in the opening of part 6, as the Ice Warriors finally arrive in the base and discuss their “needs” with Clent and his staff.  The moment when they shoot down Walters with their sonic weapons still gives me goose bumps, although that is principally because I simply love the special effect used, the warping whining screen and accompanying noise are magical.

As the Doctor and Victoria rush against time to find a way to stop the Ice Warriors, the Doctor’s throwaway line that “there is a vague risk that it might kill everybody” is delivered with a wonderful deadpan by Troughton – and Victoria’s response of “Jamie?!” is a lovely moment showing the bond between the TARDIS crew.  Following the sonic attack aimed primarily at the Martians, Victoria, off-screen, is sent back to the TARDIS to wait the final showdown out.  This is comforting; here we have Troughton taking a back seat to the story, and the touch of realism here is wonderful.  Whilst we’ve had a number of serials where the Doctor and crew have been in the right place at the right time to avert disaster, here he is too far away to help, and has to place the fates of everyone into the very human hands of Penley and Clent.

Ultimately, this is a story about man v nature, and the role therein of science, and as such it is refreshing, then, that really the Ice Warriors have nothing to do with the climax either.  It is simply Clent, Garrett and Penley, and the Ioniser.  It is also telling that it is Penley – the only one who showed the courage to walk away from science – who stands up to the computer and, in doing so, saves the day.  While Clent was busy posturing, trying to justify his value to the Ice Warriors, it was Penley being the realist who knew what had to be done.  The final death of the computer is something of a damp squib, bawling like a spoilt child and making that damned awful racket as it does so. 

The serial ends, however, with one the most anticlimactic moments of Doctor Who history, as it is declared that it was “Only a minor explosion!  We’re Safe!” and we realise that everything that has been discussed at length for the last 6 episodes was all meaningless posturing, and that there never really was any risk to the crew, the base or the world after all.  That the Doctor and his TARDIS crew slink off off-screen, and the sounds of the ship taking off are heard over the top of the final discussions, adds to the idea that really, the Doctor had no effect in any of this; even without his presence, it is likely that the world would have been saved.  This should be a good thing – it should reinforce to the viewer that humans are, when pushed, capable of saving themselves.  Sadly, it doesn’t quite pull that off.  Instead, it simply feels like a bit of a cop-out.

All told, I realise that this blog entry is something of a mixed bag – and that’s as it should be.  There are a number of moments of excellent characterisation throughout, and Barkworth as Leader Clent is particularly outstanding, but all told, between Hayles’ insistence of pushing his anti-scientific mantra at us, and the ultimate redundancy of the Doctor and his crew, it somehow falls short.  What it does do, however, is to introduce us to the Ice Warriors, some of the most infamous and exciting villains the show has brought us in years.  Their portrayal, thanks principally to a sterling effort from Bernard Bresslaw, guarantees they remain so, and their recent reappearance in the series shows that even after almost 50 years, they have not lost any of their appeal.

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