A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013
The chief protagonist of The Ice Warriors is neither human nor alien; it’s a glacier. This is entirely apt. For as the cold, white vastness of the story rolls inexorably on, you find yourself powerless to resist its numbing creep. First, your higher brain functions begin to slow. Are there six episodes? Sixty? And, as you watch what must surely be the same handful of scenes play over and over, a loss of motor control soon follows. Your jaw drops slackly open, drool stringing to your chest. The soporific drone of the dialogue is drowned out by the thump-thump of your own heartbeat in your ears. And then – thump-thump – even that – thump – gradually gives way – thump – to silence… Weeks pass unheeded. Months. Five thousand years or more slip by, until, one day, a plucky adventurer disentombs your frozen body and puzzles at your fate. Why the expression of horror? Why is one hand desperately clawing out in front of you? And then he’ll see it: tragically just out of reach of your outstretched, frigid finger. The off switch.
The Ice Warriors should be pure gold. It bears the hallmarks of a cherished era of Doctor Who: the now rare and precious middle Troughtons. There’s a lonely outpost of harried humans under threat from alien incursion. There’s a monster menace that will come to be considered one of the all-time greats. There’s even a moral message hidden away in there: that individual free will is no less valuable – and can sometimes be even more valuable – when it cuts against what is considered the common good of society. But, despite this distinguished provenance, The Ice Warriors fails to shine. Key characters are blandly written and some are gravely miscast to damaging effect. The message is mixed and muffled. There’s just about enough storyline to fill an egg cup, and even that is repeatedly sidelined to make room for tedious debate about the correct way to operate a made-up machine. In fact, the majority of the story distracts itself with a conjectured threat that turns out, after five episodes of to-ing and fro-ing, never to have existed at all.
The TARDIS delivers the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria a dozen or more centuries into the future. This Earth, this realm, this England – the whole blessed plot – is disappearing under a thick mantle of snow and ice. Now you might think, reasonably enough, that glaciation is an unlikely subject for a fast-moving drama; but these glaciers, scorning even their own idiom, move like greased lightning. Attempting to halt their onslaught is the staff of Britannicus Base (a stately home under a protective dome, like a snow globe where the snow falls outside) and their Ioniser machine. When the Doctor and friends arrive at the base, there’s mention they might be evacuated to Africa, so that’s clearly where the rest of the population of Britain has scarpered – although presumably the most patriotic held out at least until Cheltenham was chest-deep in Chinstrap penguins. A few of the most bloody-minded still scavenge a meagre existence out on the tundra, stalked by wolves, bears and a mysterious, unseen soprano.
The Ice Warriors is desperate to play its scenario for real. To that end, every scene at Britannicus involves an earnest, worthy and generally tiresome debate. There are arguments about proper procedure, arguments about respect for management, arguments about whether one should play it safe in hope of moderate gains, or play the buccaneer and risk all in hope of the big prize. To sell his ‘real’ world to us, writer Brian Hayles co-opts the voice of the business soap opera. This format thrived on TV in Britain in the 1960s and on into the 80s, through such hit series as The Plane Makers, The Brothers and Howards’ Way. The dialogue of the business soap consists, almost exclusively, of the frequent and urgent declamation of the current state of affairs, preferably backed up with spurious facts and figures. “But you can’t argue with facts, John! Output is down by 13%. If this continues, we could lose everything!” or “Damn it, Jan! Frere Holdings now has a 51% share of Wilde Mouldings!” or “Don’t be a fool, Joan! You realise what’s at stake here? Failure is not an option!” The Ice Warriors further attempts to plug into this kind of ‘reality’ through the casting of Peter Barkworth as Leader Clent. Barkworth had made his name in the mid-60s in The Power Game, a popular soap anatomising the travails of running a family building firm. In The Ice Warriors he is playing, to all intents and purposes, the troubled managing director of Ioniser Incorporated, who vents his daily frustrations upon his loyal secretary Miss Garrett. “If we fail, the whole programme for glacier containment is in danger!” yells Clent. “It’s out of phase! Seven point two four!” “We cannot afford to make mistakes!” “Activate all circuits, woman!” It’s urgent, bang-your-fist-on-the-desk stuff – and there’s reams of it – but we are emotionally untouched. We’re told the stakes are high, but however much they shout and sigh, it’s impossible to feel anything in response other than a dull tension headache. One thing’s for certain, however: if melodrama could melt glaciers, then just one blast from this script would surely drown us all.
What fun is to be found at Britannicus Base depends on how one feels about Clent. Barkworth’s performance has long been fêted as one of Doctor Who’s great guest turns, but it can hardly be said to be an exercise in subtlety. Like when Tony Hancock played Hamlet with a crutch and a parrot, Clent’s not altogether convincing limp was Barkworth’s own idea, and he had to be talked out of throwing in a stammer as well. Of course, Barkworth may be making a sincere attempt to tickle-up what he recognises as page after page of repetitive dialogue, but what we’re left with is a twitchy, immodest performance of the kind that’s normally the preserve of the prime suspect in an episode of Columbo. By that measure, it comes in at a healthy 8 out of 10 on the Patrick McGoohan scale. (Converted back into Doctor Who units, that’s about two Roger Lloyd Packs, but merely half a Paul Darrow.) Gifted by the costume designer with a silver-topped Perspex cane – his eyes must have lit up at first sight of that – Barkworth wildly tripods about the place, wailing his woes and pulling focus like a proper old ham. He’s at his most peculiar in Part Five when required to carry a clipboard. The cane has to go under one arm, and the resultant stiff-legged strut makes Barkworth look like he’s had an accident in his onesie. It’s also notable how the vigour of his showboating is in direct ratio to his distance from the show’s real star. Patrick Troughton does everything by doing almost nothing, and when he comes close he acts as a dampening field upon Barkworth’s full-spectrum broadcast.
Much of Clent’s squawk is on the subject of Penley, his top scientist. Penley’s the only man who knows to how to operate the Ioniser properly, which is surely a serious recruitment oversight given that the future of mankind is at stake. Controlling old Clent has squeezed Penley until his pips squeaked, causing him to run away and shack up with a scavenger called Storr in, of all places, an abandoned greenhouse. The Ice Warriors is lent an unexpected undercurrent thanks to the way Penley and Storr bicker like a middle-aged married couple. When we first meet them, Storr is injured in an avalanche, and Penley leans in to gently brush polystyrene from his cheeks, so we immediately sense a certain tendresse underlying their relationship. (This feeling can be enhanced, if you care to play along at home, by shouting “Go on, just kiss ’im!” every time the pair appear on screen.) Playing Penley and Storr are Peter Sallis and Angus Lennie, fine actors both, but here they’re comically miscast in roles that are poorly written to begin with. Penley, surely, is supposed to be about 20 years old; the firebrand young genius of Britannicus, rebelling against the old, ‘bad’ science that’s brought the Earth so close to its doom. Scavenger Storr should be in his 50s, a Grizzly Adams wise man of the mountains, showing how a trust in Nature herself will ultimately heal the world. Storr should be Penley’s hero. Instead, Sallis and Lennie give us a morose middle-manager beset by his shrewish wife. “You wouldn’t know what to do without me!” shrieks Storr when Penley suggests he might leave him, and it brings to mind McKellen and Jacobi in the sitcom Vicious. “We’re just friends,” covers Penley to a colleague later, but don’t believe a word of it. Storr is a whining, depressive idiot; so it must be love, or Penley would never put up with him. Furthermore, Clent’s own rage – a fury at his own impotence coupled with a burning obsession with Penley, which has prompted the put-upon Penley to fling himself into the arms of another – makes The Ice Warriors feel like a study of a doomed love triangle. You may scoff, but at least this whimsical reading lends a human element to the whole affair. Otherwise, our supposedly heroic Penley is no more than a needy egotist who’s willing to leave the whole planet to freeze just because he can’t get along with his boss.
And so, thank goodness for Penley’s colleague Arden, who finds a scaly alien frozen into the glacier, drags him home and accidentally thaws him back to seven-foot-something of hissing crocodilian life. Varga the Ice Warrior steals the show, and there’s no denying that he’s an impressive specimen of monsterkind. It’s the details that make him so appealing. The leatherly lips, which fail to quite synchronise with the hissing voice, are oddly unnerving. The huge Lego hands – which must at least make the Ice Warriors the dominant race in the galaxy when it comes to carrying mugs of coffee over long distances – look like they could really do you a mischief. It was Brian Hayles’ avowed intention that his Martians should come across as individuals rather than a series of interchangeable drones like the Daleks or Cybermen. Hidden under Varga’s latex and fibreglass, Bernard Bresslaw makes a spirited effort to find and portray Varga’s unique and troubled soul, but the necessary raw material simply isn’t there in the script. The Ice Warriors’ place in the upper echelon of Doctor Who monsters will be earned through later encounters, chiefly thanks to actor Alan Bennion – the man behind thrice an Ice Lord – who delivers one of Doctor Who’s transcendent monster performances, right up there with Michael Wisher’s Davros.
The Ice Warriors are hissing about from Part Two onwards, but sadly our enjoyment of their company is severely limited by the fact that they share almost all their scenes with Victoria, who is, by a long chalk, the most disagreeably shrill of the Doctor’s many companions. When Varga holds his sonic cannon to Victoria’s head, promising: “Sss – I will burst your brain with noise – Sss”, one’s dark half thrills to the thought. Sadly, there’s no hiding from the fact that if anyone is going to burst a brain with noise today, the smart money has to be on Victoria.
The Ice Warriors crashes itself to a standstill when the Doctor, Clent and his team leap to the conclusion that there might be a spaceship hidden in the glacier with an engine that might explode if the Ioniser is used near it. It really is the most awe-inspiring bit of scripting flounce, as they skip from “There’s a man in the ice!” to “There’ll be five decades of nuclear fallout!” in about 15 seconds flat. Without a single fact available, Clent and company talk up a brilliant excuse for inaction, and three episodes then pass with nothing much happening at all. Everyone bickers interminably, until eventually even Varga asks his lieutenant: “Why are they – sss – so interested in our engines?” But just as you’re shouting back at the screen “We’re not! We’re really not!”, the Ice Warriors dispiritingly start to wonder what kind of power supply the humans might have. As everyone ponders the possibilities of each other’s nuclear reactors, Clent’s computer insists that any action that might be construed as interesting or dramatic should be avoided at all costs. Clent readily agrees, so Varga takes the initiative and freely wanders into Britannicus Base with his men. It’s then that he issues the least scary command ever given by a Doctor Who monster: “Run down that machine as quickly as is safely possible. Sss.” As catchphrases go, it definitely lacks the snap of “Exterminate”.
In the end, despite all the wringing of hands and fretting about engines and reactors and computers, Penley steps up and, encouraged by the Doctor, fires the Ioniser on full power at the Ice Warrior ship and blows them all to kingdom come. The message of the piece proves to be: sometimes you’ve just got to go with your instincts and hang the consequences. “Only a small explosion!” reports Miss Garrett. “We’re safe!” And so, after all that worry, there was never any danger at all. The Doctor quietly slips away, and The Ice Warriors, after stringing us along with six episodes of shaggy dog story, immediately shuts itself down in embarrassment. Sadly, we don’t get to see Clent finally confess his love for Penley and melt into his manly embrace like a freshly ionised glacier. But they surely married in the spring.
With Parts Two and Three of The Ice Warriors having been tragically misplaced – and likely in a pretty permanent sort of way – their surviving soundtracks have been matched on this DVD to specially commissioned animation. Now, your reviewer must admit to feeling perplexed as to why cartoons have come to be seen as a natural way to present missing episodes – especially here, where a full set of telesnaps exist and DVD is the perfect medium to present them correctly timed to the audio. However, this animation is a huge improvement upon that presented on the recent Reign of Terror DVD. The likenesses are strong and captured in crisp and simple lines, though quite why the Doctor has been given a darkening five-o’clock shadow, in the manner of Homer Simpson, is a mystery. It’s like he’s just rolled in from the boozer. (Happily, Leader Clent’s toupee is altogether more convincing in animated form.) The characters feel subtly alive, rather than dead-eyed and uncanny, thanks to the clever way their eyes seem to keep their point of focus even as they turn their heads. It all works best when the action is in mid-shot, and luckily that’s an arrangement favoured by the majority of Doctor Who’s screen time between 1963 and 1989, and certainly in as talky a piece as The Ice Warriors. Wider bodily movement feels less natural – it’s a little too loose-limbed, as if elbows and knees are jointed with brass fasteners – but then again, one can only feel sympathy with the animator tasked with bringing vérité to Leader Clent’s uptight waddle.
A supporting documentary, Beneath the Ice, offers an insight into the animation process from producer Chris Chapman and members of his team. It’s clearly a pre-emptive strike against the major criticisms levelled at the Reign of Terror’s animation, although it’s polite enough to not mention that project by name. “The challenge is to limit ourselves to what was possible at the time,” says Chapman, drawing out attention to the specifics of shots and the timing of cuts detailed in The Ice Warriors’ camera script. This devotion to accuracy is entirely laudable. And how far off, one wonders, is our first entirely photo-realistic recreation of a missing episode, cast and performed by computer-generated actors? Surely the necessary processing power and algorithms are only – what? – five to ten years from our grasp? These missing instalments of The Ice Warriors, along with all the rest, will be made again before too long. In fact, the computers will likely be too clever, and many hours of human effort will be required to make the episodes look precisely bad enough.
Sonny Caldinez – who played balloon-headed Ice Warrior cohort Turoc – is the star of the production documentary, Cold Fusion. He vividly conveys the small agonies of life as a Martian. “Whoopee-doopee-doo!” is apparently the sound he made when he fell over, and the costume sliced upwards into his crotch – although one suspects that’s a polite rephrasing of his actual words. Caldinez is also to be found on the commentary to the surviving episodes alongside Frazer Hines (Jamie), Deborah Watling (Victoria) and grams operator Pat Heigham – whose job it was to play sound effects into the studio during recording. It’s not the most edifying of chats, but it’s kept trundling along thanks to the skills of moderator Toby Hadoke. Responding to the ecological issues in The Ice Warriors, resolute climate change sceptic Hines argues that, should the icecaps melt due to global warming, the hot sun will also turn the water into steam, “so the melting ice will just make up for the water we lose as steam.” Where he thinks that steam might be going is anyone’s guess. But then, the episodes Hines is watching are no less of a muddle. Even the Doctor gets confused, boldly claiming at one point that plants produce carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. For that he deserves a rap on the knuckles with Ian Chesterton’s springiest ruler.
The 1967/68 Blue Peter ‘Design a Monster’ competition is a real treat from the archives. Before the winners are revealed, John Noakes is sternly chastising. “We were quite disappointed that some of the entries were copied,” he huffs. That’s rich! You can hardly blame the kids. Doctor Who itself wasn’t exactly fizzing with fresh ideas at the time. The Ice Warriors was the third story in a row with an icy/snowy setting, and the creatures’ reptile form was an eleventh-hour redesign from Brian Hayles’ original idea of a cyborg soldier: a sort of ‘cyber’ ‘man’, if you will. The panicked change came so late in the day that bewildering references to ‘electrical connections’ and ‘tin hats’ still muddle the broadcast script; and someone really should have fixed that. Happily, Noakes’s co-presenter Peter Purves proves less minty, and hints that the winning Blue Peter monsters might even appear on Doctor Who itself. While that promise proved empty, the three finalists still have more surviving screen time – thanks to this clip – than either the Macra or the Chameleons, so that’s a kind of immortality. And as the credits roll, one is left to ponder who would win in a scrap between the Steel Octopus (fronds, feathers, lovely lips), the Hypnotron (a forlorn, shuffling eyeball), and Aquaman (who, with those cankles, really shouldn’t wear Bermuda shorts); but we can never know for sure. You’d hope for it to be settled in a Big Finish audio, if only any of the buggers could talk.