(A delayed post – I started writing this last year, then suddenly it’s the day before a new Ice Warrior story. So here it is with a quick final edit, for those of you who want a taster for what went before.)
Given they only ever had four televised stories (until tomorrow), it says a lot about the Ice Warriors that 38 years after their last televised adventure, they are still a popular alien race. They’ve been given a lot of life beyond those original TV tales with numerous appearances in comics, novels, and audio plays. Here I’ll just concentrate, in as non-spoilery a way as possible, on their televised appearances.
I think the key to the Ice Warriors’ popularity is that they are a rare race within the Doctor Who universe in that their plans and motivations are different in each of the stories in which they featured. While Daleks and Cybermen have more appearances, their stories are substantially less varied – those creations stopped being a race of aliens and became monsters – whereas the Ice Warriors changed organically over the course of their stories.
Given that Brian Hayles wrote all four stories featuring the reptilian baddies, full credit must go to him for actually expanding their range. Some writers create a monster, and then every story they write featuring them becomes a collection of tropes, with the occasional interesting wrinkle or addition. It’s not just the creators who are guilty of this, of course, many’s the time another writer is guilty of doing little more than constructing a best-of story chock full of classic tropes. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, in fact it can work incredibly well, but it adds little to the mythos.
When talking about the Ice Warriors, one can’t downplay the part Bernard Bresslaw played in defining them in their first appearance. He took basic descriptions and elaborated on them. They’re a race of reptiles, so he tried to extrapolate on that idea. The hissing talking, the laugh, and the odd side to side head movements they sometimes showed were all him. And while some elements didn’t survive the first story, it was Bresslaw’s take that defined how the Martians would be portrayed from that point on.
The costumes are the other visual element. Originally they were to be more cybernetic in nature, but that was toned down so that they wouldn’t merely appear like a Cyberman rip-off. The clamp hands and built in wrist guns are a legacy of that original vision, and actually help to define the Ice Warriors. There’s also a lot of confusion as to whether their shell-like armour is natural or not, which I think adds to their appeal. The not-knowing helps keep them slightly alien and removed.
The two Peladon stories, in which the Ice Warriors made their final appearances in the original series, work at expanding their range by being stories about Peladon that just happen to feature the Ice Warriors. You can’t call them Ice Warrior stories any more than you can call them stories about Alpha Centauri. But it’s this use of them, redefined against the planetary politics of Peladon, and the greater landscape of a Galactic Federation, that shows them to such good effect.
So, here’s a quick and dirty run down on their main television appearances –
The Ice Warriors – The main theme of this story is that science and technology are a fabulous tool, when properly controlled, and taking charge and making the decisions you have to make. To that end we have Clent, who won’t do anything without the computer giving the go ahead, and Varga, who makes his decisions on the fly. One of the things I like about this story is that most of the Martian’s decisions hold together. Wake up in a strange, potentially hostile place, find someone to act as local guide, locate your comrades, evaluate threats, see what condition your ship is in, figure out what to do next…
When Brian Hayles first came up with the idea of the Ice Warriors, one of the ideas he had in mind was to base them on Vikings. Hence their brutal, pragmatic nature, and Varga’s tendency to laugh. While the laughter seems a bit silly at times, it’s kind of nice to have an alien that seems to enjoy life. It’s a story about a small force stuck in a hostile land, and what they do to survive. It could easily be rewritten with the Ice Warriors as the main protagonists.
A lot of people see the story as anti-technology, which is ridiculous. It’s actually pro-technology, and anti-ignorance – ignorance in this case also being represented by blind obedience to the computer. And if Clent’s level of obedience to and need for the computer to help him make decisions seems unrealistic, I draw your attention to the regular reports about people who drive into walls and rivers, while blindly following the instructions of their GPS.
The Seeds of Death – This is probably the weakest of the Ice Warrior stories, being more of a standard alien invasion piece, but it’s still got some interesting ideas – using T-Mat (teleport) to send out the seeds needed to terraform Earth into a more Martian friendly environment is quite clever, for a start. We also have more of that common sixties idea about how modern technology doesn’t solve all problems, it replaces them with new ones.
The Ice Warriors here are more of a standard military force. From the outset they have a plan that they are working towards in stages. What this story brings to the mythos is various classes or castes of Martian, with clear differences between them. One background element is the Ice Warrior breathing. The upper classes don’t seem to hiss as much, and when a lone warrior is moving around an area with a lower oxygen level because of their terraforming efforts, he moves noticeably quicker and more easily than the Warriors we see in other locations throughout the story.
The Curse of Peladon – If the two sixties stories were about the place of technology and humanity in the world, the two Peladon stories are about European/UK politics.
I don’t want to say much about either of these, because even talking about the Ice Warriors’ roles in them gives away some surprises. What I will say is that in Curse we learn that the Martian’s are also political beasts – still pragmatic and warriors at heart, but with an understanding of the importance of a multi-world political system and the place that has to play in diplomacy.
It’s also the story that gives us Aggedor, and Alpha Centauri, the hermaphrodite hexapod.
The Monster of Peladon – Set 50 years after events in Curse, it gives us even more background to the Ice Warriors when we discover they have different political factions, with their own ideals and goals. Because they’ve already been fleshed out as a race through the previous stories, this feels entirely credible.
We also get a brief mention of them in Waters of Mars.
There’s a lot more that can be said. They are, after all, actual aliens instead of just more bloody monsters, but I’ll leave it here for now. You’ve got a small taste for them, either as an entree or dessert, to go along with Cold War.
PS – The Ice Warriors is an incomplete story, with episodes two and three missing. There was a video release that condensed those episodes into fifteen minutes using audio and telesnaps, but if you can track down the the full audio, or full episode reconstructions, there’s some nice stuff in there that subtly fleshes out a couple of characters.
For details on how to experience incomplete stories, go here.