Technology, the environment and The Ice Warriors (1967)

ice warriors

Climate change skeptics rejoice! The Ice Warriors is here to back you up. The future will not be about catastrophic global warming, but catastrophic global cooling! See, you knew it was all bunkum, right? Now where’s that Doctor Who story that shows the moon landing‘s a fake?

Ah, I shouldn’t be so hard on The Ice Warriors. It’s fifty years since they made it out of polystyrene, fibre glass and some old manor house sets left over from a period drama. And even if writer Brian Hayles set his thermostat in the wrong direction, he focused in on a concern we still have today; that our degradation of the environment will bring about worldwide, deleterious changes in climate. In fact, this could well claim to be Doctor Who‘s first story to comment on environmental issues.

The Ice Warriors has a lot to warn us about the future, not just that glaciers are coming to crush us all. It’s set in a world where humans have been robbed of their ability to make decisions, having outsourced that function to computers. As a result, they have grown impotent and must faff around for scene after scene, prevaricating about various crises until the computer tells them what to do. It’s a peculiar kind of technophobia, and a bit like the climate change angle, we see this differently today. These days we’re worried that robots will take our jobs and AI will eventually do away with us. Back in 1967, Hayles was more worried we’d stop thinking for ourselves and become slaves of the mind.

Interestingly, his next script, The Seeds of Death, is another variation on this theme. In its version of the future, humans have outsourced another of their critical functions, namely movement from place to place. Having adopted the T-mat system for travelling everywhere, they have lost the knowledge and equipment to travel by any other means. Their over-reliance on the system, like Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth) and Miss Garrett’s (Wendy Gifford) dependence on the decision making computer, leaves them vulnerable when it breaks down.

Doctor Who‘s fifth season is often unthinkingly categorised as the monster season, where bases were under siege and aliens played by tall men towered over a supporting cast of desperate humans. But The Ice Warriors and a few of its contemporaries start introducing a couple of new concerns about humans and the world around them. The first is that it’s possible to meddle with the world to disastrous effect. There’s climate change here, and in The Seeds of Death, and in The Enemy of the World  Salamander can manipulate the natural world to produce earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The second idea is that when threatened, the planet will bite back. In The Ice Warriors, this is represented by the relentless march of the glaciers. In Fury from the Deep, when humans start mining for gas, a mysterious sea weed creature emerges to strike back. So these are not just schlocky monster mashes, but the initiators of themes which will be explored in stories like Inferno, The Mutants and The Green Death, touchstones of 70s Doctor Who.

Not everyone in The Ice Warriors has bought into this brave new world. As a counterpoint to the sterile, authority driven characters of Clent and Garrett, there’s Scientist Penley (Peter Sallis) and  Storr (Angus Lennie). They have chosen to abandon the base and live out in the wilderness, eschewing the artificial life within the base. It Storr’s case, it’s because of a natural distrust of anything which doesn’t come from the natural world. For Penley, though, it’s because he was incompatible with a system which suppresses individuality and creativity. In a world of conformity to a global computerised autocrat, Penley wants to think for himself. This sets him on a collision course with Clent.

DOCTOR: This chap Penley.

CLENT: Best man in Europe for ionisation studies. As it turned out, hopelessly temperamental.

DOCTOR: Temperamental or individual? Creative scientists have to be allowed some head you know.

CLENT: Creative? Poppycock. When he walked out of here he proclaimed himself to be criminally, criminally irresponsible.

DOCTOR: It couldn’t have been just a simple gesture of protest?

CLENT: He was always protesting. And he has a really unconvincing beard! Have you seen it? It’s ridiculous. Like someone with a black texta has mistaken his face for a colouring book.

OK, I may have made that last bit up. But there’s a part of this story which is really about an ongoing office tiff between Penley and Clent which has got out of hand. However, it’s also a new take of the familiar obsession of the Troughton era, that outside influencers will rob us our individuality and freewill. In The Ice Warriors, this has already happened, and the result is a society like that on Britannicus Base, where individuality is crushed, freedom is lost and everyone wears one piece plastic jumpsuits. Penley stands out as the one who has refused to conform. Naturally enough, it’s him we sympathise with and he who eventually saves the day, taking the risky decision to use the Ioniser on the Ice Warriors’ spaceship, even though it might destroy them all. He triumphs when the computer is useless and Clent is paralyzed with indecision.

Into this world of man, machines, the world around us and how they all interact, stumble the Ice Warriors themselves. Surprisingly, they are the least interesting thing about The Ice Warriors. They are generic alien grunts blessed with better than average costume design. In future stories, they will develop a backstory which will make them more intriguing, but here are just sort of present to stomp around and loom over people. The Daleks are nightmarish vision of the results of nuclear war, the Cybermen an expression of what humans may become as technology advances. Even the Great Intelligence and its Yeti henchbots can be seen, if you squint, as reactions to contemporary concerns about the horrors which might be unleashed if you expand your consciousness.

The Ice Warriors have no such allegorical background. They are just big old bad guys, and in truth, they don’t really fit with the rest of the story’s themes. They should really be more, well, Silurian. If they weren’t Martian invaders, but bestial remnants of our own world, who thrived during the first Ice Age and now are coming back as a result of our monkeying around with the climate, then that would fit nicely. Or if they acted illogically and unpredictably, confounding the computer’s ability to exercise its authority, and necessitating a return to human leadership. Anything really, to link them to the story other than, “it’s cold, so we need a monster who likes the cold.”

LINK TO The Unquiet Dead: snowy exteriors and Victorian houses.

NEXT TIME: Knock knock! It’s Knock Knock.

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