Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part three)

The original run of Doctor Who was a case where there was a lot of received wisdom and orthodoxy about the show’s past because, due to the BBC’s policies against repeats, so little of it was able to be seen in the seventies and eighties when fandom started organizing and writing articles and features and getting magazines and books published. This wasn’t a case like Star Trek, to use an obvious example, where the show was in constant rotation everywhere and was released on home video not long after VHS tapes were on every shelf.

This was a time when only five of Patrick Troughton’s 21 serials existed in full. There was no binge-watching then, and no jumping-on point. For many years, only two of those five were in any way available to most British viewers: “The Krotons,” which the BBC repeated in 1981, and “The Seeds of Death,” which was among the first stories to be released on home video in 1985. These two stories explain why the second Doctor got the reputation – reinforced by “The Three Doctors” – as “the clown.”

These are the stories with all the “Great jumping gobstoppers” and “Oh my giddy aunt” lines, and, of course, this episode has the famous showpiece in which Troughton runs and flails and throws his hands up and makes silly faces while some Ice Warriors lumber around the moonbase chasing him. “You’ve got no orders to kill me. Your leader will want to speak to me,” the Doctor says. “Your leader will be angry if you kill me. I’m a genius!”

Eventually, the other three stories became more readily available, and the orphaned episodes from incomplete serials became more widespread, and, best of all, about another eighteen episodes were recovered and returned. Everybody’s now got a much better picture of Troughton being able and willing to take things deadly seriously, but there’s still a sense of that reputation lingering. The chase in this episode is a comedy aside, a chance for the actor to do something silly and fun in a story much more lighthearted and child-friendly than, say, “The Macra Terror” or “The Enemy of the World.” It’s an adorable diversion, but it never should have defined the second Doctor in the way it did.

But let me tell you: this diversion was timed absolutely perfectly. This episode scared the pants off our son and boy, did he ever need the Doctor to clown around and take the edge off. The two principal Ice Warriors in their original serial were so sadistic and mean, and even though these guys are, by comparison, character-free grunts who just look neat, they just freaking shoot down everybody who isn’t obeying orders. He is seriously worried about everybody other than the Doctor. He loses consciousness after having a Martian seed pod blow up in his face, so all the other characters are sitting ducks in his eyes. He enjoyed the comedy runaround, but things fell apart again. “That was so creepy,” he grumbled, clarifying that he does not mean fun creepy, but “scary creepy.”

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part two)

Egad, it’s even worse than I remembered. They get this rocket fueled and our heroes briefed in maybe a couple of hours. There’s no sense of time at all. Director Michael Ferguson brings a lot of visual flair to this story, but he can’t salvage this for adult viewers. I can more easily believe a machine traveling in time and space than this rocket getting launched so quickly. That’s doubly true since they spent almost as much screen time on two old men yelling back and forth about whether it can be done. The lying old coot who built the rocket could have just said “It’s actually been completely ready for months. I run a four-hour diagnostic systems check every day. We just need to program the navigation. Let’s get this show on the road!”

But then again, I’m not the target audience. This went over extremely well with our son, who was literally hopping with excitement during the countdown. And he lives in a world without any real media attention paid to rockets. Imagine the kids of 1969, when Apollo launches were television events, watching this. We’ve seen glimpses of this past when we watch the original Thunderbirds, and see how in that show’s 2066, worldwide TV audiences tuned in for hours in the buildup to Sun Probe or Zero-X taking off. At this point, the Ice Warriors are secondary to the story. This is about a rocket to the moon, four months before we landed there.

The thrilling launch was bookended by two scenes of real suspense and terror as an Ice Warrior searches the moonbase for a technician who is hiding in a storeroom building weapons and a radio to call Earth. This had his teeth on edge and a blanket held high for safety. It’s not that he was necessarily concerned for that guy’s welfare; it’s just that he knows how mean Ice Warriors are.

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part one)

Back to Doctor Who and a six-part serial called “The Seeds of Death” that was originally shown from January to March 1969. Compared to the rest of this troubled season, “Seeds” was a pain in the neck but possibly the least problematic of the year’s seven stories. They’d always planned for Brian Hayles to write another six-part story with the Ice Warriors this year because the costumes had been so expensive. Nailing what that story would be took a while, and in the end, Terrance Dicks ended up writing most of the serial himself without a screen credit.

It seems to be set some years after Zoe’s time of 2068, during a brief period where Earth is no longer exploring space, but sinking funds into improving a transmat system that ships food and cargo around the planet, and which is controlled from the moon. A lot of this is going to get sped up, sacrificing the suspension of disbelief for drama. The Ice Warriors take over the moonbase, and in almost no time at all, the entire planet is panicking and rioting for a lack of food, and, in part two, they will compact the weeks it would take to get a prototype rocket ready for launch into twenty minutes of screen time and maybe the better part of the afternoon in TV-time. It’s also badly dated by its views of the future. Nobody thinks in terms of reusable travel in space, but the rockets of the Apollo program. Apollo 9 was launched just two days after this serial concluded; the actual landing on the moon would come in four months’ time.

The serial is directed by Michael Ferguson, who had helmed “The War Machines” in 1966 and would direct another serial in each of the next two seasons. Guest stars include Harry Towb, making the first of two Who appearances where his character would meet a grisly death in the first episode of the adventure, along with Louise Pajo and Ronald Leigh-Hunt.

Our son was not completely thrilled with this one. The revelation that there are Ice Warriors on the moon was met with much discussion of the Warriors’ square eyes and scaly skin, but this does have an awful lot of people talking about complex problems, and old men being fuddy-duddies. It will improve, and I think he’ll enjoy it more, especially when we get some more opportunities for Patrick Troughton to run around, be a genius, and hide from waves of foam.

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part six)

In the fall of 1967, just a few weeks before “The Ice Warriors” was shown, there was another, more famous bit of television drama about a computer going bananas when confronted with an insoluble problem. It was “The General,” an episode of Patrick McGoohan’s ITC series The Prisoner, which ends with a supercomputer short-circuiting when asked “Why?” And here, the computer that runs the base, and which Peter Barkworth and Wendy Gifford’s characters practically worship, “goes mad” and shakes side to side because it can’t decide between two risky alternatives, either of which could end in its destruction. So it takes Peter Sallis, who’s been representing humanity’s impulsive and true side, to make the decision.

I’m not sure what was in the air in the UK in 1967, but some TV people sure were leery of computers then.

This is a really good finale. Obviously the emotional core is having Peter Sallis save the day by being practical and human, but there’s plenty of great acting throughout. The standoff between Peter Barkworth and Bernard Bresslaw’s Varga is an extremely watchable and quite long scene, with plenty for both actors to sink their teeth into. Sallis is just awesome, identifying the problem from outside the room and immediately finding a way to wage guerrilla warfare against the Ice Warriors. It’s true that the Doctor’s companions get pretty sidelined in the climax – and really, throughout this adventure overall – because the focus is all on the big-name guest stars, but this really was a fun serial, incredibly entertaining throughout.

Our son was really confused, however, by the destruction of the Warriors’ spaceship, which happens offscreen. Not even a miniature set, much less a big boom of a sound effect for the actors to hear and comment upon. Other than that, he really liked this story and can’t wait for the Doctor’s next adventure, which we will watch after Christmas. I told him that it is called “The Enemy of the World,” and he was a little aggravated with me that I wouldn’t tell him the enemy of the world’s name.

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part five)

I wasn’t sure what to write about this episode at first. I suppose the obvious thing would be to switch gears and talk about how the slow-moving plot of the squabbling humans is such a fascinating character drama, and how the estranged former colleagues played by Peter Sallis and Peter Barkworth finally meeting and confronting their old wounds is actually more of an emotional core to this story than anything with seven foot-tall aliens. But then something adorable happened.

I almost always write these posts right after we finish watching a program together, even if I occasionally compose some rough notes for the more detail-packed stories ahead of time. But this evening, Marie’s aunt Victoria is in town and we only had time to watch the episode before going to meet her and have dinner. When we came home, our son first showed our guests his Mixels and his Legos – because those are the most important things in the world, of course – and then he showed off both the Dalek that lives on one of my shelves, and all of the original series DVDs. (There really are an excessive number of them; a collection of original series Who takes up a stupid amount of space.)

This was quite a sight to see. We’re only on his third story, and he was talking enthusiastically about Daleks and Ice Warriors and the TARDIS and reenacting the cliffhanger to part two of “Power,” croaking “I AM YOUR SER-VANT!” in his little Dalek voice. Not quite Peter Hawkins, but close enough.

It really was the cutest darn thing ever. Children are always Doctor Who’s biggest fans.

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.

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part three)

Tonight’s episode is the last animated one that we’ll be watching for some time. There are two more that we will watch a few months from now, but as much as I appreciate the hard work put into these – and I think Qurios did a terrific job – these simply don’t have the budget for all the body language that actors put into their roles, and it will be nice to step back into live action. Victoria is rapidly becoming a screaming mess, terrified by her horrible situation, and Deborah Watling’s cartoon doppelganger doesn’t have the same impact as the actress will have in the next part.

And that’s especially true since in almost every six part Doctor Who serial, there’s one episode that really marks time, and that’s the third part of this story. There are some important plot beats, but it really feels like very little actually happens. Unsurprisingly, our son was not inspired to share any of his thoughts about the show with us, beyond just saying that he liked it and the Ice Warriors are creepy. I hope he’ll be even more impressed when we see Bernard Bresslaw and Roger Jones in full costume tomorrow night.

The most notable thing is the underlining of the central conflict between Clent and Penley, the technocrat against the humanist. It’s all so dated, but I love this look back at what people were worried about and expressing in science fiction fifty years ago. Doctor Who is still doing stories where dangerous alien menaces are putting companions in danger and killing supporting characters – in fact, the Ice Warriors themselves were back in an episode just three years ago doing exactly that – but they don’t really address fear of computers much anymore. (Although, for a very good modern take on the subject, I’d recommend a 2014 novel by Dave Eggers called The Circle.)

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part two)

We’re back to animation for two posts, because episodes two and three of “The Ice Warriors” are missing. The BBC wiped their copies of this serial in the 1970s. Film copies of the other four parts were uncovered when the BBC was moving out of an aging facility and somebody asked “Hey, has anybody ever looked behind this filing cabinet?” The serial was released on VHS in the 1990s with the missing episodes handled by making an edited fifteen minute “bridge” mini-episode of the key plot moments, using “telesnaps” and the original audio. In 2013, the episodes were animated by a British company called Qurios. It was one of the company’s final projects, unfortunately. They closed down in December of that year.

I really like the animation, actually, although I worried that the Ice Warrior would lose most of its impact with our son when (a) it’s a cartoon, and (b) I am having to read the alien’s dialogue from the subtitles, because our son can’t understand what it’s saying. So I’m doing the voices of Roy Skelton (the computer) and Bernard Bresslaw (the Ice Warrior) right now! But in a happy surprise, he thought the Ice Warrior was incredibly creepy. “I did NOT like him!” he told us, clarifying that he doesn’t actually like “creepy things,” despite all evidence to the contrary. After we watched this morning’s episode, he asked Mommy to tape the cardboard slipcover of the “Power of the Daleks” DVD on his wall, like a pin-up poster. I just throw those things out; this is a much nicer place for them!

The science in “The Ice Warriors” is as wonky as can be, and it was made in a time when computers were these weird and questionable things that the public didn’t understand. As I was writing the previous post, our son went upstairs to play with Legos and blocks, and he came down with a rocket that he announced “will go 100% far in space.” That makes more sense than a single expert programming the single computer which is connected worldwide and which will calculate how much ionization is needed to melt glaciers without flooding the world. Training another guy to do this would take months. This story is supposed to be set in the year 3000. Nothing dates faster than our predictions of technology and design.

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part one)

I had been wondering whether, when the great big Martian Ice Warrior that some scientists find in the glacier starts to come back to life in the big base that’s about to be under siege, our son would think it was creepy enough to send him behind the sofa. It was! Just as the end credits started over this memorable cliffhanger, he stood up and gingerly walked behind us for safety. It didn’t faze him too much, but he announced “that was so scary when the monster started moving its arm! And instead of an arm, he had a claw!”

“The Ice Warriors” is the third serial from Doctor Who‘s fifth season, shown in November and December 1967. “The Abominable Snowmen,” the second, is largely missing. The story is by Brian Hayles, who had written two serials for William Hartnell’s Doctor, and many other TV episodes and films like Warlords of Atlantis, which I hope we’ll watch for this blog one day. (I need to land a copy!) It’s directed by Derek Martinus and includes in its cast three really big guest stars: Peter Barkworth, who was in between seasons of the successful ATV drama The Power Game, Peter Sallis, who would later co-star in a hundred seasons of the comedy Last of the Summer Wine, and Bernard Bresslaw, about whom more in another chapter.

Anybody interested in some really clever additional reading about Doctor Who should check out the first six volumes of About Time by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles, published by Mad Norwegian. The books really try to place Who in a contemporary cultural context, and the authors constantly come up with really interesting observations that I’d have never caught. Here’s a great one: Who fans tend to just think of this story as the first of four serials featuring the big Ice Warriors, but that’s not what this was at the time. The Martians that we meet are secondary to this story’s real plot, which is the dynamic between Barkworth’s character, an overworked scientist-bureaucrat, and Sallis’s character, a computer expert upon whom everyone and everything relies, but who stormed off six weeks ago to take his chances outside the base. Miles and Wood suggest that Barkworth was cast because of his work in The Power Game, which was the sort of human drama that producer Innes Lloyd really wanted to make. I may be watching the interplay of these characters more closely, and paying a little less attention to Bresslaw and the Ice Warriors this time around.

But also of great note: the hilarious exchange between Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling just before the cliffhanger. Because they’re in a 1967 vision of the future, everybody wears rubber costumes, and all the ladies are in miniskirts. Jamie starts talking about the fashion, to Victoria’s displeasure, and then cheekily wonders aloud whether his prim-and-proper friend might like to wear something like that. “We will now change the subject,” she replies.

About Victoria: this story immediately follows the events of “The Abominable Snowmen,” which in turn seemed to closely follow “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” There seems to be some consensus that “Tomb” is set right after the story that introduced her, “The Evil of the Daleks.” I don’t buy it, and here’s why. Certainly “Tomb”s opening scene in the TARDIS is immediately after “Evil,” because the Doctor and Jamie are introducing her to the ship, but I think that there must be a gap before they join the expedition in “Tomb.” See, there’s a bit in part three where the Doctor asks Victoria whether she is happy with them. Not one single decent thing has happened to her in that hour of screen time. I like to suppose that they spent a few weeks traveling and not getting into danger, seeing some beautiful sights and actually having a great time before the poor orphan started getting guns shoved in her face and locked in weird closets. Otherwise she would have been more likely to reply “No, I am most certainly not,” you know?