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Posts Tagged ‘Ice Warriors’

Hey, I’m big enough to admit when I get something wrong – my idea that this current run of Doctor Who was systematically revisiting the triumphs of the 2005 season was clearly totally erroneous. No, in the wake of this week’s episode (close-to-the-present-day confined-space setting, and old enemy  which a) reveals a new side to itself b) appears chained up at one point and c) believes itself to be the last of its kind) one can only conclude that the series is actually selectively revisiting the triumphs of the 2005 season: Cold War and Ice Warrior aren’t that far apart as titles go, and it would’ve made the parallels between this episode and Dalek even more explicit.

Having said that, I’ve no real desire to overstress the point, as Dalek remains one of the best episodes of 21st century Who and Cold War… isn’t. It’s not awful, and it’s a lot better than The Rings of Akhaten (but then it would take shocking mismanagement and a truly heroic effort to produce anything substantively worse), but it just felt, at best, terribly safe – almost like snap-together modern Doctor Who, well-machined bits assembled into a sturdy whole, but without much in the way of imagination or wit. Think of some of the other stories using this kind of structure outside Doctor Who – the monster-in-the-ice story surely started with Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, as I’ve argued elsewhere – compared to most of them, this was just a bit plodding.

Perhaps this is being a bit too kind to the script, which really felt scrunched up to fit the 40-minute time slot, and as a result came fully stocked with some excruciating plot contrivances – the junior crewman deciding, apparently of his own initiative, to take a welding torch to the block of ice, the crew not seemingly feeling much surprise at people appearing out of thin air on their sub, the whole business with the TARDIS vanishing (invoking the Great God of Continuity References doesn’t cover this, especially when the reference in question is to – for crying out loud – The Krotons), and so on. And how exactly did the Ice Warrior end up frozen at the pole? I admit I’ve only watched this episode twice so far, so I may have missed it, but I think that sort of fairly essential background information should be a bit more prominent.

Another victim of the running time was Liam Cunningham’s character. Modern Doctor Who being what it is, it’s rare to get more than two even partially-developed characters, and one of those is usually the villain. Cunningham certainly seemed to lose out to David Warner in the development stakes – I suppose the professor’s presence was essential to the plot, but he didn’t add much to it. A shame, as Cunningham’s a solid performer (he was even okay in Outcasts).

'Mention the Host Force again, Doctor, and I'll nut you.'

‘Mention the Host Force again, Doctor, and I’ll nut you.’

And the script really lacked the bravery and innovation of Dalek, which took the Doctor and the old enemy to completely new and shocking places. Consider: deciding that the entire human race deserved to die, as Skaldak did here, is clearly not the action of a remotely fair-minded or rational individual. Putting the Martian down would obviously be justified in the circumstances – and yet we had the Doctor refusing to directly threaten it, opting to potentially kill himself and everyone else on the sub instead. Consider the version of this episode where the Russians, wanting Martian technology, and Clara, not understanding the situation and filled with compassion for the creature, both want the Ice Warrior alive, but the Doctor – understanding just how lethal the Martian can be – insists that it must be killed. Wouldn’t that have been a more interesting  and potentially dramatic story, and done more to re-establish the Ice Warriors as a significant menace? One should review the story-as-made, not the version in your head, of course, but still…

The Ice Warriors came out of their revamp better than the Silurians did theirs, at least – and I suppose you have to admire the efforts Mark Gatiss went to in order to square the circle in terms of reconciling the two takes on the monsters we’ve seen in the past – the classic monster version, from – let’s be honest – the vast majority of their screen appearances, and the ‘noble alien race’ interpretation from The Curse of Peladon and many, many apocryphal stories. Bravo to the designers, who clearly realised that the classic armour design was clearly not broken and resisted the urge to ‘fix’ it too much.

(Although I have to say I fear for the future of Grand Marshal Skaldak – was that really a Martian ship rescuing him at the end of the episode? Given that the Ice Warriors attacked Earth at some point in the 21st century, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise if there are Martians operating in the Solar System in the 1980s (the events of this story may explain how UNIT know what a Martian looks like in The Christmas Invasion), but they seemed to be absent from Mars itself when the UK sent numerous missions there only a few years earlier (The Ambassadors of Death). They seem to have gone by the time of The Waters of Mars, too, and the Doctor certainly talks about their civilisation as if it’s long-defunct at that point.

And then there’s the level of technology displayed – Skaldak’s rescuers had some kind of transmat system, which the Ice Warriors have never been depicted on TV as having. It appeared to have an extremely short range, so there isn’t necessarily an inconsistency with their need to hijack the human transmat systems in The Seeds of Death during the following century – but even so, this put their technology well in advance of Earth’s at this point, which doesn’t appear to be the case in the Galactic Federation stories – though those are admittedly set at least a few centuries, and probably much further, in the future. Either way, I suppose, Skaldak’s a big boy and seems capable of looking after himself.)

This story got quite a bit of advance publicity, mainly on the strength of the iconic returning monster, but in the end I’m not sure that was entirely warranted: there were a lot of little niggles and issues with this episode, but no terminal problems – however, there was nothing really memorable or outstanding going on either. This was really Doctor Who by the numbers, and that’s never going to produce anything more than, at best, basic competency.

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So, there I was, smack in the middle of the summer of 1982, school holidays just having started, going about my business quite happily of (I think) a Tuesday night, when the shout went up throughout the house: ‘Quick! Doctor Who‘s on!’

I was astounded, appalled, taken totally by surprise: never mind the several months advance notice of any new episode we enjoy these days, back in that dim and distant past there was not only no internet, but the BBC was briefly in the habit of wheeling out vintage Doctor Who as summer schedule filler material at extremely short notice and with virtually no advance publicity. So it was with Doctor Who and the Monsters, the brief repeat season which first acquainted me with The Curse of Peladon (barring the first six or seven minutes, anyway) and Genesis of the Daleks (although, to be fair, for a while it did feel like if you watched any BBC channel for long enough you would eventually find yourself watching a repeat of Genesis), and got me properly acquainted with the traumatic delights of Earthshock.

Missing the start of some vintage Doctor Who left me nearly as distraught as Adric snuffing it. What I missed was some scene-setting stuff on the distant planet of Peladon at some point in the future*, where the technology level is mediaeval and the dominant trend in fashion is glitter camp. The planet is negotiating to join the Galactic Federation, against the better judgment of High Priest and royal advisor Hepesh. His apprehensions seem to be well-founded when his pro-Federation colleague Torbis is struck down by a mysterious and hairy apparition.

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Well, the Doctor inevitably turns up, in one of his first adventures beyond the bounds of England in the 1970s (or is it the 1980s?), and is conveniently mistaken for the Earthling chair of the Galactic Federation committee (we later learn that the real chair is a rather shouty woman, but no-one seems to have been told in advance who else was coming, which hints at curious lines-of-communication in place within the Galactic Federation). Needless to say, the Doctor throws himself into the role of chairman and sets about solving the mystery of the ancient curse which is apparently threatening the planet’s entry to polite galactic society, while his assistant Jo finds herself on the end of some rather plaintive wooing from the youthful king of Peladon…

There are some things about The Curse of Peladon which very obviously date it to 1972, in production terms at least: King Peladon appears to spend most of his time in David Bowie’s cast-off stage outfits, including hot pants, while some elements of the plot are rather primitively handled – I’m thinking here of the subplot about Jo being propositioned by the king, which is very melodramatic and a bit overwrought considering the two people involved have only just met one another. (The actual story only takes place over the course of a day or so, but at times one gets the impression writer Brian Hayles thinks it’s unfolding over a much longer period – ‘You once told me…’ says the King, which is an odd way to remind someone of something they said only a couple of hours before. But this is being super picky.)

In terms of popular culture, it’s also instantly obvious that the arrival on British screens of Star Trek has had an influence on the SF end of Doctor Who – this is a story about a Federation and interplanetary power politics, after all. But it has had a special Doctor Who spin put on it, or at least it is framed in terms very familiar to long-term Doctor Who viewers: the opposition at the heart of the story is between the reactionary and the progressive tendencies on Peladon, with the progressives being the good guys. What’s also very definitely Who-ish is the way this is coupled to a conflict between superstition and rationality – the villains attempt to use the legend of the curse to further their goals, but the Doctor instantly dismisses this and starts looking for a more concrete explanation. These sorts of plot structures are deeply embedded in the DNA of Doctor Who nowadays, but it’s interesting to see them so fully-formed much earlier in its history.

I suppose one is obliged, when discussing either of the Peladon stories, to discuss their topicality in terms of real-world 1970s politics. Well, unless you take the view that the series was coming out as very pro-entry to the Common Market (as it was then known), then it’s a novel touch but not much more. I think the reason it gets as much attention as it does is because most Doctor Who from this period has relatively little to say about real-world concerns, with the exception of the ecological angle to The Green Death and a very atypically critical look at the back-to-the-land movement in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. It is slightly curious that arch-miscreant Hepesh chooses to garb himself almost exclusively in purple, the same colour adopted by the anti-EU UK Independence Party nowadays – has Nigel Farage got anything he wants to share concerning his inspirations?

Of course, The Curse of Peladon also plays with its Star Trek influences in the way that the various Galactic Federation delegates are not actors in face-paint, light prosthetics and half-masks, but proper monsters, many of them non-humanoid. It may be this embarrassment of riches that led to this show appearing in the 1982 Monsters repeat season ahead of, say, The Time Warrior. Even so, the aliens in Curse are so memorable because they are scripted as diverse individual characters with their own attitudes and agendas. And it’s here that we find one particular reason why I like The Curse of Peladon so much.

The Doctor these days is, virtually, an infallible moral touchstone: if he makes a serious misjudgment in terms of either behaviour or someone’s character, it’s a major narrative beat (see, for example, A Town Called Mercy). Yet it is quite central to the plot here that he jumps to the wrong conclusions with regard to the motives of the Ice Warriors (albeit for understandable reasons): assuming they are the villains, when in fact their intentions are entirely honourable. This is not quite a shot heard round the world in terms of Doctor Who’s treatment of morality – reformations remain thin on the ground, and indeed it seems that individual characters are much more likely to turn over a new leaf than whole races – but it is one of the series’ most explicit affirmations that morality is an expression of personal choice rather than intrinsic nature. And I genuinely think that Alan Bennion’s performance as Izlyr is one of the overlooked masterpieces of masked acting in Doctor Who.

For all these reasons this is a story I have an enduring fondness for – certainly much more than its sequel, The Monster of Peladon, despite the many similarities between them. There’s a lot in here that is very much of the time in which the story was made, both technically, culturally, politically, and in story terms. But there is also a lot which is classic, timeless Doctor Who. All together it seems to me to be a very endearing and highly enjoyable package.

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*The Apparently Now-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

Nothing approaching an on-screen date is given in either of the Peladon stories, which either makes dating it accurately very challenging, or just adds to the fun. Earth is a member of the Galactic Federation at this point in history, and presumably has friendly relations with the other members. The Federation members at this point, curiously enough, all seem to originate from the same area of the galaxy – Sol, Alpha Centauri,and Arcturus – so it isn’t necessarily a very distant future.

Anyway, I tend to agree with the consensus that Earth can’t have an Empire at the same time that it belongs to the Federation, which rules out the half-millennium between the 26th and the 30th centuries (presumably the First Great and Bountiful Human Empire is the one we see in Frontier in Space and The Mutants). My own personal sense of history is that empires tend to turn into co-operative groupings rather than vice-versa, so – and I am aware this is rather boring – I am inclined to agree with the majority view, which is that this story happens at some point after the 30th century, although possibly rather earlier than the 39th century dating suggested by Ahistory.

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