The Ice Warriors made their debut in 1967-68’s Season Five, often remembered by fans for its iconic monsters the Cybermen, the Yeti, and the eponymous Martians of Brian Hayles’s story.
The season as a whole saw the shift away from the early series’ original, more educational remit becoming complete, as historical adventures like the preceding season’s The Highlanders became a thing of the past, to be replaced by base-under-siege stories and more of the BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) that series creator Sydney Newman had hoped to avoid. However, remnants of the intention to teach younger viewers more about speculative science survive in this story, with its talk of glaciers being controlled by technology, a future Ice Age held at bay by the dedicated scientists at the Brittanicus Base and their computer.
Despite the story’s title, the main human characters are given as much emphasis as the monsters in The Ice Warriors. Leader Clent has a constant limp and a walking stick, which, along with reliable twitchiness from TV stalwart Peter Barkworth in the role, suggest volumes of back story that we aren’t made privy to. He bristles at any mention of his AWOL colleague Penley (Peter Sallis), a brilliant but maverick scientist who seems to have left them all in the lurch and at greater danger from the encroaching glaciers. He’s a man for whom the expression ‘thinking outside the box’ would require too much thinking outside the box, and who is over-reliant on the base’s computer for decision-making; “He’s got a printed circuit where his heart should be,’ Penley says of him, and he struggles to collaborate with those who don’t adhere strictly to convention, which makes for an interesting clash of personalities when the Doctor becomes involved.
Clent’s senior control technician Jan Garrett (Wendy Gifford), who doesn’t appear to have overwhelming faith in her boss’s judgment despite her loyalty, and senior scientist Arden (George Waring), an ex-archaeologist who clearly wishes he was still digging up the past rather than fending off glaciers, make up the rest of the human ensemble. They are convincingly written and played as real people under pressure in a technological workplace, regardless of the fact that they’re more Beatles’ Apple than Steve Jobs’. The psychedelic swirls on their tunics conjure up garish memories of 1990s World Cup Mexican goalkeepers, and the heady mix of late 60s extravagant kitsch and cod futurism isn’t a million miles away from the visual style of Nigel Kneale’s contemporary The Year of the Sex Olympics.
The malaise amongst Clent’s employees, plus Penley’s absence from the base, suggests that the Leader rubs up everyone the wrong way. In fact, a deeper theme of this story is that of conformity vs. outsiders, evident in the ideological clash between the authoritarian Clent and the two scavengers outside the base, Penley and the rat-like Stor (Angus Lennie), who lurk on the fringes of this fridge as an observer and a hunter respectively. Like the Doctor, Penley is something of an iconoclast (‘Nothing’s sacred to you, is it?’ Stor tells him), and these two can be equated to the hippies in the forefront of the public eye in 1967 – social dropouts.
In addition to richness of character, The Ice Warriors boasts some decent production values for the time, including some relatively convincing snowscapes, all on studio sets but melded convincingly with stock footage, and an evocatively eerie atmosphere, signalled by unearthly wailing vocals over the opening credits. The Brittanicus Base is actually an old mansion encased in a protective dome – a lovely concept that allows for both a futuristic element and a traditional feel.
Director Derek Martinus, an undervalued hero of early Doctor Who in my opinion, had already proven his hand at striking snowbound scenes featuring alien invaders in The Tenth Planet, and he works superbly with both actors and visuals in this one. The first sight of Varga the Ice Warrior, his visor frozen behind ice, is an unforgettable moment reminiscent of The Thing from Another World. Costume designer Martin Baugh’s memorable designs ensured that the Ice Warriors are still remembered as one of the series’ best monsters. The creature’s hissing voice was apparently Bernard Bresslaw’s idea, and it was an inspired one, becoming the standard vocal style for all subsequent Ice Warriors until Skaldak in the recent Cold War. Bresslaw/Varga’s mocking ‘Sss-ss-sss’ in response to the Doctor’s plea at the start of part 5 (‘But if you do that my body will explode!’) suggests a wonderfully sadistic sense of humour for the ruthless Martian. This version of the creatures is more organically reptilian and furry than Skaldak, and more ruthless, being less concerned with Martian concepts of caste and honour than later, more fleshed-out Ice Warriors would be. There’s plenty of retro fun to be had trying to imagine a face like Skaldak’s under Varga’s helmet – it’s more difficult than you might think.
The TARDIS crew of Troughton’s Doctor, Fraser Hines’ Jamie and Deborah Watling’s Victoria make a tight-knit family. Troughton is hilarious – note his perfect comic timing on entering the Ice Warriors’ spaceship and then noticing their overpowering physicality and numbers: ‘Thank you, that’s very civil of you … my word!’ The following, innocently naughty exchange between Jamie and Victoria is also a gem:
Jamie: Did you see how those lassies (the base’s female crew) were dressed?
Victoria: Yes, I did. And trust you to think of something like that.
Jamie: Couldn’t help thinking about it.
Victoria: Well, I think it’s disgusting …
Jamie: Oh aye, so it is, so it is. (Pause) You don’t see yourself dressed like that, then?
Brilliantly and famously, this Doctor can’t hide his dislike of computers – in fact, he positively revels in it, and not only does this create moments of humour (Miss Garrett: ‘Here we are completely computerised.’ The Doctor: ‘Well, never mind!’), but also demonstrates another theme of Hayles’ story, that of ordered rationality vs. intuition, with Clent and the computer on one side, and the Doctor and Penley on the other.
The base’s main instrument for holding back the Ice Age – the ioniser – is similar to the Gravitron in The Moonbase; it controls environmental conditions on Earth and both drives the story and stalls it, though this device is slightly more interesting, thanks to its burbling voice. The Doctor and the base staff want to use it to halt the advancing glaciers, but dare not in case it and the Martian spaceship’s propulsion unit react badly to each other and kill them all in a huge explosion. There is no simple solution, and while Clent defers making a decision until he knows more about the spaceship and the probable consequences, those around him urge action.
The Ice Warriors need similar information about the base’s reactor before they can take off in their ship. The story then becomes about the perils of over-cautious decision-making, of inaction leading to a hopeless stalemate or, even worse, greater danger, and it seems likely that Hayles was influenced here by the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years earlier, in which the Soviet and American powers endured a 13-day Cold War confrontation thanks to the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.
After the required risk is taken, prompted by Penley and the Doctor, Clent is at last able to recognise Penley’s usefulness and his own: ‘Penley, you are the most insufferably irritating and infuriating person I’ve ever been privileged to work with … Can’t write a report, though, can you?’ He’s always done the latter without computers, he says, showing he will survive without the base’s computer to tell him what to do.
This story is full of terrific lines and moments, notably that haunting sentence from Clent: ‘Suddenly, one year, there was no spring.’ The cliffhanger to part one, when Varga awakes, clenching and unclenching his pincer-like fist, is a corker. But if I have to pick out one best moment, it’s the scene where Stor meets the Ice Warriors. He tells them how, like them, he hates the base, thinking that means the Martians will be on his side; what he doesn’t realise is that Varga only keeps humans alive if they are of any value to him, and as Stor admits that he doesn’t know anything about the base’s technology – information Varga needs - he’s immediately killed. The irony is that if he’d been one of the base’s technicians, one of those he despises, he would have lived.
The Ice Warriors relies on atmosphere and intelligently written and performed characters and dialogue for its kicks; the pacing isn’t the fastest, and what action there is mostly consists of interminable scenes of Victoria, Penley, Stor and the Ice Warriors pursuing/being pursued by each other through ice caves. Hayles is even guilty at one point of putting horribly expositional dialogue into Penley’s mouth: ‘I only ask questions – it’s in my character, I suppose.’ In short, it doesn’t have the same in-your-face excitement of Tomb of the Cybermen or The Web of Fear, but it has subtlety and finesse in spades and is arguably one of the finest of the series’ early achievements in terms of stylish direction and intelligent writing and acting.