Peter Sallis Wins Again

As a fan who came quite late to Doctor Who – first time round I just caught the tail end of Sylvester McCoy, which means I actually saw some pretty good stuff on first broadcast – the Ice Warriors had always been something of enigma to me.  I was vaguely familiar with them from the New Adventures and suchlike, and was somewhat aware of their reputation for a strict code of martial honour which I can find no evidence for in any of the few media I’ve encountered them in (take Cold War, for instance, in which Grand Marshal Skaldak bangs on about honour but has no problem trying to vaporise an entire planet’s worth of non-combatants).

What always confused me about them is why, as such well-designed and interesting villains – and, indeed, as one of the few ‘monster’ races which is capable of sufficient depth that they can, as in the Peladon episodes, individually occupy either end of the moral spectrum – they are so infrequently used.  Perhaps it’s because they aren’t as archetypal as, say, the Daleks and the Cybermen – whose racial histories as Space Nazis and RoboStalinists respectively are easy to comprehend, and who have additional clout in the horror genre as disgust blobs and bodyshock ex-humans.  Perhaps it’s because, with the Sontarans in the picture, the existence of another “supreme martial race” was considered superfluous (the Sontarans, whose first appearance postdates the Ice Warriors’, have appeared more regularly in the TV medium and have a more involved backstory; they also reappeared first and more often in the New Series).  Perhaps it’s simply that everyone knows Mars is dead and likely always has been, and so a backstory involving their origins on Mars is as redundant as the Victorian speculative fictions positing “Selenites”, or moon-men, has become following the actual Cold War and associated moon landings.

For whatever reason, the Ice Warriors have been sidelined as a Who species for much of the show’s tenure, which, since they have a pedigree nearly as long as the Cybermen’s, is a definite oversight.  It’s particularly annoying because The Ice Warriors as a serial is actually rather good.  It’s a Patrick Troughton story so naturally it’s a base under siege, but this one comes with a twist – the base is under siege not just from an alien threat, but also from the remorseless forces of nature herself.  An oncoming glacier, its onslaught promoted by manmade environmental catastrophe that, fifty years later, looks just as likely if not moreso to come to pass, is carving its way through civilisation and Brittanicus Base is the only thing standing between it and the devastation of humanity.  In the midst of this struggle between mankind and the unintended consequences of its own environmental depredations, the Ice Warriors are almost an innocent party, emerging from permafrost to be caught up in events beyond their control in a manner not far removed from the Doctor’s own habit of winding up already half-dipped in that week’s turbulent affairs.

Furthering the essentially environmentalist theme of humanity being undone by its own industrial excesses rather than by alien menaces, the other big threat to the safety of our intrepid de-icers is internal: the threat of paralysis brought on by bureaucratic incompetence.  The base’s chief administrator, Clent (a wonderful performance as an inveterate shilly-shallier from Peter Barkworth), is completely unable to act without advice from his computer – without, that is, the “proper consultation process” so beloved of shows such as Yes, Minister that poke fun at the hidebound protocols of civil servants and other paper-shufflers.  His lack of initiative unarguably jeopardises his team and brings the success of the entire mission under threat.  The Doctor finally has to take matters into his own hands and act against the advice of Clent and his surrogate brain, and it’s interesting to note that The Ice Warriors, broadcast in the “Summer of Love” year of 1967 and in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the increased surge in public protest on nuclear and environmental issues, has the Doctor come down on the side of direct action instead of waiting for the official channels to grind their way to a decision.

But there’s more to The Ice Warriors than some idiot with access to a typewriter reading political overtones into a fifty-year-old, half-missing piece of family drama.  What’s striking about it, apart from the eponymous new enemies and their subplot, are two of the performances.  Firstly, the late Debbie Watling.  Her character Victoria is, in this serial, possibly the worst-served female companion of all time.  If you have ever sat through an episode of Classic Who watching Leela or Sarah Jane Smith or Ace McShane and wondered whence came the stereotype of the companion being a screaming girly who gets kidnapped and stands about squealing until the menfolk rescue her, then wonder no longer.  All poor Victoria gets to do in this episode is be carried around by menacing aliens squeaking her little head off.  None of this is Ms Watling’s fault, of course, since she didn’t write the episode, but it was depressing to see one of the iconic companion characters having so little actual character.

The other interesting performance belongs to Peter Sallis.  When I was growing up, Peter Sallis was beloved by the nation as an elderly chap who tended to be the most reluctant man in the village to climb into a bath and roll down a hill.  Then for a bit he was beloved by the nation’s children as a gurning plasticine moron with the world’s best dog.  But in The Ice Warriors, Peter Sallis turns out to be something else entirely: a powerful dramatic actor.  Giving unquestionably the finest performance of the entire serial – no small feat in a Patrick Troughton episode – Sallis invigorates the serial whenever he’s onscreen.  His character, Penley, is a scientist who gets frustrated by Clent’s idiot insistence on adhering to the rule of the computer.  It’s a different take on the scientist, who in science fiction cliché is too often portrayed as a myopic boffin with no grasp of the wider wold outside his lab; Penley is set against Clent because, as an expert, he sees the urgent need for decisive action and Clent is incapable of taking it, but all too capable of stymying it with his endless dithering.  That the two are reconciled at the end of the serial shows that Penley understands the difference between Clent the person and Clent the administrator, and this is an act of human empathy that is again too infrequently ascribed to television technicians.  Sallis expertly portrays the chiaroscuro with a performance that, though frequently (and not unreasonably) angry, never tips over into nastiness or bombast that would alienate the audience.

Though sadly incomplete, The Ice Warriors is a serial that sits alongside The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Enemy of the World as key evidence in the argument for those who still say – not without some justification – that Troughton was the finest of the Doctors.