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The Ice Warriors | Graham Sleight

The Ice Warriors | Graham Sleight

Although they have not appeared in the series for more than 35 years, the Ice Warriors are one of the most fondly remembered of Doctor Who monsters. Their first appearance, in The Ice Warriors+ (1967) is pretty clearly their strongest, even though two of the story’s six episodes are missing from the archives. Their subsequent stories, The Seeds of Death (1969), The Curse of Peladon (1972) and The Monster of Peladon (1973), are perfectly adequate pieces of Doctor Who, but not on the same level.

The premise of The Ice Warriors is a near-future Britain where climate change has caused a new Ice Age. (In fact, the story suggests that this might be caused by mass deforestation, exactly the opposite of current climate change fears. But that’s a minor point.) At various points around the globe, the glaciers are held back by ionisers, devices best understood as heat generators. The story is set in and around one of these bases. Much of it, in fact, does not revolve around the monsters, but around the personal dynamic between two men: Clent, the commander of the base, and Penley, formerly one of his colleagues, and now surviving in the icy wastes outside. The human story is that of Clent gradually realising that he had dismissed Penley’s expertise too readily, and admitting him back into the base. At the story’s climax, it’s Penley’s expertise with the ioniser, rather than Clent’s, that saves the day.

That, however, is a long way off when, early on, one of the Base’s scientists discovers what seems to be the body of an armoured warrior entombed in the ice nearby. The body of the warrior is brought back and slowly defrosted. By now, the Doctor and his companions have arrived, and the Doctor argues that the warrior cannot be human, since it has electronic components embedded in its head. It soon becomes clear that this creature is one of a Martian race known as the Ice Warriors, that there are more of them buried deeper in the ice, and that they also have a spaceship in the glacier which they want to reactivate.

It has to be said that a great deal of the appeal of The Ice Warriors lies in an extremely effective production. The creaturesthemselves have costumes crafted out of fibreglass sothat they do indeed appear impregnable. The fibreglass issculpted and ridged, however, to suggest a creature like a crocodile, suggesting without saying directly that these creatures are reptilian in origin. This hint is picked up by those playing the parts of the Ice Warriors, particularly Bernard Bresslaw (of Carry On movie fame) as their leader Varga. He adopts a sibilant, hissing delivery that both evokes a snake’s hissing and suggests that the Ice Warriors are uncomfortable in Earth’s atmosphere.

The script and the performances also combine to give the Ice Warriors a strongly martial culture. Varga and his band have the camaraderie of soldiers who have served together for many years. They fight for each other, and are visibly affected when one of them dies. The whole enterprise of trying to rescue their ship is a collective one. But they are also willing to put other creatures at risk to achieve their ends, and it’s in order to safeguard the humans at the base that the Doctor ends up opposing them. The ways in which they evoke snakes also evoke that creature’s mythical deceptiveness, though not as strongly as in the stories featuring the Mara . Their eventual defeat only arrives when their plan to free their spacecraft threatens the whole of the base and therefore the land it’s holding back the ice from. Creatures of ice end up being defeated by heat, with the base’s ioniser, now in Penley’s hands, being used against them.

The Seeds of Death is a more conventional alien invasion story, and though the Ice Warriors are as visually impressive as before, it’s not nearly as memorable. It’s set in a near-future where space travel has been rendered obsolete by a system called T-Mat, which provides instant matter transmission across the Earth or between the Earth and the Moon. An Ice Warrior invasion fl eet is poised to strike at the Earth, and before they do so they capture the T-Mat system and use it to distribute spores which will spread across Earth removing the oxygen from the atmosphere. The Doctor and his companions are required to recover the lost art of space travel in order to reach the stricken T-Mat stations and turn back the Ice Warriors.

In terms of the mythos of the Ice Warriors, The Seeds of Death does introduce one complication to the picture alreadyshown. In addition to the warriors themselves, who appearmuch as in their debut, we’re also introduced to anothergrouping within the species, the Ice Lords. These seem to be an officer caste, lacking the weapons or the great height of the warriors, and commanding them in battle. This distinction, between the officers and the ranks, is one replicated in Warriors of the Deep, where the Silurians are seen in command of their ‘brother’ Sea Devils.

The Curse of Peladon marks one of the most interesting uses of monsters in the series’ history. It occurs mid-way through the Jon Pertwee era, when the Doctor is making his first halting steps in using the TARDIS despite the Time Lords’ blocks on his knowledge of its function. He and his companion, Jo, arrive on the dark and windswept planet of Peladon, where the king is overseeing a difficult political debate, essentially one of change versus stasis. Should Peladon, which is depicted as being a relatively primitive, almost feudal, society join the larger group of the Galactic Federation? Given that the story was broadcast around the time of the UK’s admission to the European Economic Community (as it then was), there’s an obvious political subtext here. As the Doctor arrives, a number of aliens have gathered to try to infl uence Peladon’s decision. Among them are several Ice Warriors. When a series of ‘accidents’ occur, causing suspicious deaths, the Doctor’s first suspicions fall on the Ice Warriors. But they turn out to be innocent, and indeed to be loyal supporters of the Doctor’s actions. The real villains are forces of conservatism within the Peladon court who wish to block accession to the Federation at any cost. In this story, the Ice Warriors’ culture of military values is seen from another side. Their loyalty and ferocity, as well as their skill at fi ghting, become formidable assets when used in a good cause.

If The Curse of Peladon was a rare occasion when Doctor Who played its monsters against type, The Monster of Peladon reverts to type. Again, it’s set on Peladon, some decades after the earlier story, and again there’s a political problem that can be easily read as a parable of contemporary events. The premise is that Peladon is a source of the valuable mineral trisilicate, but that tunnelling under the royal palace has been disrupted because of visions of the semi-mythical royal beast Aggedor. Trisilicate is a vital ingredient in supplies for a war the Federation is currently waging against Galaxy Five. So the miners are refusing to work, an obvious parallel of the industrial unrest in the UK mining industry around the same time. Again, there’s a Federation delegation on the planet, including an Ice Warrior named Azaxyr. Though his purpose appears to be to aid the Federation, Azaxyr’s real role is as a supporter of Galaxy Five. Along with a human collaborator, Eckersley, he is conspiring to disrupt the fl ow of trisilicate.

Azaxyr is the first Ice Warrior in the series to indulge in what might be seen as treachery. It’s a portrayal that goes very much against the way the creatures have been depicted up to this point. And although The Monster of Peladon is not a popular story, certainly it’s over-long and drably directed, Azaxyr is one of the more interesting features in it. Above all, his presence indicates that the Ice Warriors are creatures who can choose how they act. If they can choose to be benevolent and honourable, as in The Curse of Peladon, they can also choose to be deceptive, as here. These four stories take the Ice Warriors progressively away from what made them most distinctive in the first place, such as the reptilian overtones of Bresslaw’s performance. In the process, though, they make the creatures more human, more nuanced and less monstrous. Of all the monsters in Doctor Who, they are the ones I’d find most fascinating to see more of. ■

British science fiction writer, editor and critic Graham Sleight is editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction and the author of The Doctor’s Monsters: Meanings of the Monstrous in Doctor Who

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This entry was posted on August 8, 2012 by in Who Watching.

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