Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part four)

We asked our favorite five year-old critic what he thought of the Martian villains in this story. He said “The Ice Warriors are the meanest enemies in Doctor Who I ever saw! They’re even meaner than the Daleks and the Cybermen.” Then he spread his arms as wide as he could and said “They’re THIS mean!”

His is probably not a majority opinion, but there is a downright nasty and cruel streak to Varga and Zondal, the two villains with speaking parts, which he hasn’t really seen before, and which the Ice Warriors of later stories wouldn’t display. This was a huge and pleasant surprise to me when I finally saw this story.

The surviving episodes of “The Ice Warriors” were recovered in 1988, by which time I’d seen the other three stories with these aliens from their airings on American PBS stations. I was familiar with how the actors Alan Bennion and Sonny Caldinez moved and spoke as the Martians in those serials. Weirdly, though, these earliest episodes didn’t soon find their way into the VHS tape trading circles that I knew, and we had to wait for somebody to buy the British PAL VHS from Forbidden Planet mail order or something when it was commercially released, and take it to a video production and editing company in Roswell to make second-gen dubs in the North American NTSC format.

Here’s what surprised me the most about “The Ice Warriors”: Bernard Bresslaw, who plays Varga, moves like a reptile. It’s a really fun performance. Bresslaw, who stood 6’7″, was very much a casting coup for the story. He was best known for his many comic roles, principally – when this was made – among the ensemble cast of the venerable sitcom The Army Game. In the years before he taped “The Ice Warriors,” he had joined the cast of the Carry On films for the first two of what would be fourteen appearances in those movies. He was hilarious in a Goodies that isn’t on DVD, and unfortunately kind of awful in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

So what’s a tall comedian doing playing a sadistic alien in a crocodile suit? Well, like most actors, he wanted to take some parts that expanded his range, and was interested when his agent said there was a part in Doctor Who for a tall prehistoric warrior frozen in the ice. The script for part one, referring to Varga’s helmet, compares it to a Viking’s. Apparently he had no idea he was going to be playing a reptile when he accepted the part. Still, all credit to him: he jumped right in with both feet. As Varga, he moves his neck and head like a snake, constantly rolling back and forth and occasionally ducking down between the shoulder blades of the big suit’s torso. He’s acting without being able to use his eyes or his mouth, but it’s just so darn fun to watch him and Roger Jones, who plays Zondal, moving like a couple of sinister snakes.

Overall, my impression from the later three serials were the Ice Warriors are a case of a design triumph failing to really thrill onscreen. Ice Warriors look great, but they’re just lumbering and slow, like a lot of Doctor Who monsters. In this first story, though, they’re lumbering and fast, and that is much more fun.

And mean, of course. Mustn’t forget that.

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