Thursday, September 19, 2013

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors DVD review

Much like the titular villains of the piece, “The Ice Warriors” serial (or rather what remains of it) has finally been thawed out and unleashed on the public – along with some “suspended” animation to help fill in the missing parts. The first and only other time “The Ice Warriors” was released commercially was back in 1999. That was on VHS, and included two versions of the missing episodes 2 and 3: A linking narrative montage made up of telesnaps and bits of dialogue that ran for about 15 minutes, and a CD featuring the complete audio for both of the episodes. No need for either anymore since, as with “The Invasion” and “The Reign of Terror” before it, the DVD release of “The Ice Warriors” offers up the most complete visualization of the serial since - any repeats aside - its initial broadcast back in the winter of 1967.

In the distant future, Earth battles a second Ice Age brought on by man’s foolishness. Due to a shift away from organic foods and the presumably out of control population having moved onto the planet’s farmlands, plant life has become all but extinct, resulting in a loss of carbon dioxide, which led to the glacier threat. Control stations are set up across the planet to combat the moving glaciers with ionizer devices; the story takes place in and around the Brittanicus Base (naturally). Meanwhile, in the midst of trying to save the world, the scientists discover what looks to be a Viking warrior encased in a block of ice. They take it back to the base to thaw out, only to reveal a cunning warlord from Mars, who soon enough releases more of his frozen comrades. The Martians want to conquer and enslave the planet, while the scientists want the Martian tech to aid in the cessation of the Ice Age. Into all of this the TARDIS materializes –on its side! – and the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) climb out of it, and into a wintry, frozen world of one danger after another.

As I’ve said numerous times in various ways, a Patrick Troughton-era classic Doctor Who DVD release is always something to be excited about, and “The Ice Warriors” is no different in that regard, especially as it features the debut of one of the more recognizable villains from the classic series. The introduction of the Ice Warriors to modern audiences in the sublime “Cold War” earlier this year makes this DVD all the sweeter.

The story itself – spread across six episodes – has quite the sense of adventure about it, and the production does a nice job of presenting a seemingly immense scale to the whole thing, aided in no small part by some filming at Ealing Film Studios (and the occasional bit of cleverly placed stock footage), in which fairly impressive icy exterior environments were created. Costuming is also another big plus, depending on your tolerance for 60s-era psychedelic fashions. It seems unlikely that the people of the future will dress like this, but to view it within the context of this old British sci-fi serial, it’s simply and wonderfully groovy. And the score! Oh, the lovely, haunting score from the mighty Dudley Simpson, including a wailing banshee of a voice that opens the first episode, adds appropriate aural texture from start to finish. The cautionary stance the tale takes is sort of perfect, and although it’s likely technically bonkers from a scientific standpoint, enough thought was put into it that it at least feels like a potential reality - no doubt, in my mind anyway, supported by the climate change arguments we debate today.

Peter Sallis as Penley
But it’s the cast of guest characters and the actors who play them that help to make “The Ice Warriors.” Particularly engaging is the game of push me pull you that goes on between Base Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth) and the scientist Penley (Peter Sallis, who would someday voice the human half of Wallace & Gromit in addition to starring in the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine). Clent thinks like a machine and relies on the computer. Penley believes in the power of the human mind and its intuitive nature. (Guess which one Doctor Who favors?) Both actors turn in scene-stealing performances, and are the stars of the serial alongside Troughton, whose Doctor attempts to broker a meeting of their minds. Credit also has to be doled out to hulking actor Bernard Bresslaw (at the time best known for the Carry On films) as the Ice Warrior leader Varga. His work is impressive and it seems he played a big part in laying the groundwork for all the Ice Warriors that came after. 

“The Ice Warriors,” by Brian Hayles, is a surprisingly dense story with complex characterizations and situations - for the “base under siege by monsters” era of the series, anyway. I sat through it a second time after deciding I hadn’t quite cracked it the first. Indeed, after that first viewing, I also felt as though there wasn’t enough story for six episodes, but after the second, the entire affair seemed much tighter, yet merely sprawling in its narrative. I still feel as though there are nooks and crannies of the tale I’ve yet to discover.

If you’ve seen and were underwhelmed by its inferior sequel “The Seeds of Death” - which has been available on DVD since 2004, and even managed to snag a special edition double-dip last year - do not write off “The Ice Warriors.” (Of course, if you dig “Seeds,” then this is a must-see.) This is likely the shiniest classic series outing for the Ice Warriors, as post-“Seeds” they were relegated to being part of the ensemble casts of the “Peladon” stories of the Jon Pertwee era, and of course after that they were absent from the TV series altogether until the aforementioned “Cold War.”

DVD Extras: Yet another new style of animation is on display this time around. It’s much “cleaner” and less artsy than what was done with “Reign.” There’s no question that there’s some cutting of corners going on here and there, bits of which take time to adjust to, but I eventually grew to find it all fairly seamless.  Though this style works for one or two episodes, I don’t think I would want to view an entire missing serial this way.

Beyond the near miraculous ability to view an entire serial previously only available in part, the rest of the extras are all a very average “nuts and bolts of the classic series DVD range” affair. The commentary tracks are all hosted (because I’m bored with using “moderated”) by Toby Hadoke. Episodes one, four, five, and six feature Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling, Sonny Caldinez (Turoc, the Ice Warrior), designer Jeremy Davies, and grams operator Pat Heigham. The animated episodes also have commentaries, but they go for a slightly different approach this time around. Episode two features bits of audio interviews (and in a couple instances, actor recreations) of over a half a dozen other folks who worked on the serial, including Bresslaw, Barkworth, and Hayles. (Peter Sallis is nowhere to be found in the extras!) And finally, the animated episode three features a conversation between Hadoke and Michael Troughton, son of Patrick, who recently wrote a book on his father. At the close of the episode, Hadoke promises more of the conversation on “a future Patrick Troughton DVD release” – which presumably will be “The Moonbase” or “The Underwater Menace,” or maybe even both.

“Cold Fusion” is an adequate, 24-minute making of doc. Though “Beneath the Ice,” a look at the animation process for this serial, is no great revelation, I’ll give it kudos on principle, because in the past I complained that there aren’t enough behind the scenes featurettes on the production of various aspects of the DVDs themselves. At the top of this review I mentioned the montage of telesnaps and dialogue that was used to fill in for the missing episodes on the VHS incarnation – that is also presented here for posterity, along with an introduction by Frazer and Debbie (so if you’re still hanging on to that tape, you can finally part with it.) There’s also archive footage of a Blue Peter Design-A-Monster contest, as well as Part Two of “Doctor Who Stories – Frazer Hines” (the first part can be found on “The Krotons” DVD). An original trailer for “The Ice Warriors” has been given the animation treatment, and there’s a photo gallery, the production notes subtitle option (present only on the extant episodes), Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Scream of the Shalka.”