Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I Never Had a Life Like That (The Ice Warriors)

Deborah Watling frantically calls for the producer to
point out that doing little green men for black and
white television is a bit naff if you stop to think about it.
Just a quick note that, in preparation for going on vacation for ten days in June, starting now and continuing for a few weeks I'm working on building a backlog of posts and scheduling them to update automatically. This won't affect the posting schedule at all - new content should be up on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the foreseeable future. However, it means that the sense of the present in the entries is steadily going to drift. Monday's entry on The Enemy of the World, for instance, is extremely likely to be written before The Almost People airs. So if a post comes along that fails to make a spectacularly obvious point comparing the most recent episode to whatever episode I'm looking at, it's probably because I wrote it a week before you read it.

It's November 11, 1967. The Foundations, a British Motown group, are at number one, because these things happen in the UK charts. Two weeks later it gets unseated by Long John Baldry's "Let The Heartaches Begin." Knowing nothing about this song, I listened to 90 seconds of it. Look, we all make mistakes in life. But on week two of this rather unfortunate moment in pop history we can already see relief riding triumphantly up the charts, arriving decisively when The Beatles "Hello, Goodbye" shows up. What are the UK charts going to do when they don't have The Beatles to save them from their own ill-advised taste?

Whereas in real news, the Vietnam War continues to be a massive problem that is seemingly about to bring down Johnson's Presidency via a Primary challenge, the value of the UK Pound finds itself a cliff and leaps off of it with impressive zeal, and the Concorde makes its debut. Of these, the devaluation of the Pound is of the most interest to us, as it is a part of a larger economic recession hitting the UK in this period, and setting a fair amount of the national mood firmly on "pessimistic."

Whereas on television we have the Ice Warriors. Regular readers of this blog will note that I have been getting increasingly exasperated with base under siege stories. But I haven't entirely dealt with why. So since The Ice Warriors is a quite good piece of storytelling with only a few particularly overt flaws (of which the title characters are probably the biggest), it seems like the perfect place to look at the underlying problems here.

The easiest way to see the difference is to fire up The Rebel Flesh (which by the time this posts is hopefully on iTunes) and compare it to this story. Both of them are bases under siege. In fact, as the good folks at Tachyon TV pointed out (and to be fair, so did I, but they had the good sense to do it in public so they'd get credit for it), The Rebel Flesh feels like a Troughton story. The thing is, if you look at The Rebel Flesh next to The Ice Warriors, there's no competition. Even if you allow for advances in editing technology and budget, The Rebel Flesh still schools The Ice Warriors.

Why? Because The Rebel Flesh feels like it has people in it. What's interesting about this is that The Ice Warriors, as 1960s bases under siege go, tries hard on this front. It uses the social realist techniques we talked about before to give a sense of its world. The Doctor doesn't show up for six minutes, and instead we get a clear picture of what the base is like - much as we do in The Rebel Flesh's precredit sequence. An extended opening credits sequence with stock footage of icy caverns gives a sense of the world that's the nearest thing the show could do in 1967 to the opening shot of the island. And an all-star cast was assembled for The Ice Warriors, which gives everything a serious edge that is lacking in other stories. And yet despite this, The Ice Warriors feels miles less human than The Rebel Flesh.

The difference can be seen in the nature of the first scene. The Ice Warriors opens with a crisis - people pounding on control panels, flipping switches, and responding to alarms. It's all well acted, but it's important to accurately describe what it is happening here - people who are in charge of something are dealing with a looming, external crisis. Whereas at the start of The Rebel Flesh, we have working class people encountering an industrial accident. And that's the heart of the difference. The Ice Warriors creates a world full of big, important people. The Rebel Flesh creates a world of ordinary people.

In fact, the approaches are almost exactly backwards. By the end of the first episode of The Ice Warriors, we've gotten an explanation of this world. It's an insane explanation (excessive harvesting of plants has reduced carbon dioxide levels across the world leading to a second ice age. So yes, this one comes off a bit oddly in 2011), but it's an explanation nevertheless. Whereas an hour into The Rebel Flesh and we still have no idea what this acid they're mining is for, what other uses of the flesh exist, or what the world outside this monastery is like.

On paper, this sounds like the Ice Warriors would be the better story, but surprisingly, it doesn't work out that way. Because in The Ice Warriors, the world remains just that: an explanation. When any of the crises in which "the ionizer is failing" or "the glaciers are advancing" flare up, there's still no context for it. We have no sense of where the people in this world are, what they do, or how their lives will be impacted by the glaciers. Sure, we get great poetry like Clent's line about how one winter, spring never arrived, but what we never see is any sense of the human consequences. The glaciers and the ice are just this week's binary computational blocks - the meaningless technobabble people shout about when it's time to be excited.

And that's where far too many of these bases under siege fall flat. The appeal of the base under siege story is the same as the appeal of the film Twelve Angry Men - the fact that if you want interesting drama to occur, taking a bunch of people and stranding them somewhere with a problem is one of the easiest ways to construct it. The Ice Warriors goes further towards that than anyone is going to give it credit for. It creates an effective triangle of loyalties among Clent, Penley, and Garrett. It has the end crisis be about humans solving an internal conflict inside the base, not about shooting aliens. It's trying very, very hard to make this a serious drama about characters, and the people involved - in particular Peter Bryant, the script editor soon to be promoted to producer, and Brian Hayles, who, on his second outing, reveals himself to be actually a quite solid writer and making one wonder what The Celestial Toymaker was like before it lost two of its three supporting characters and got rewritten by Gerry Davis, but also to Derek Martinus, by this point an old pro at the series (he directed Mission to the Unknown, The Tenth Planet, and Evil of the Daleks) - deserve real praise for coming out miles ahead of every previous iteration of the base under siege.

But in coming out ahead, oddly, the story ends up exposing its faults even more clearly. Once we see all the parts of this story working as well as they possibly can, we can finally see what doesn't work in sharper relief. Yes, this is an interesting drama about three people, but there's no stakes and no world. The same three people could be having the same argument in any setting. The base under siege is suddenly revealed as an arbitrary container into which a drama gets slotted, as opposed to a story. There is literally nothing that constitutes a reason why this plot has to be the one that happens at Britannica Base while the last one had to happen in a monastery. Which is a problem given that the appeal of the base under siege story is that it gives you high concept settings and memorable monsters to market. When it turns out both of those are completely irrelevant to what makes the story work, the whole thing stumbles.

Though perhaps we should thank God this story doesn't depend on the Ice Warriors, given that they're the sorriest excuses for recurring monsters the show has come up with yet. Cybermen with more annoying voices, if we're being honest, the fact that they are literally green reptile monsters from Mars has to mark the point where the show has simply given up on monsters and concluded that the audience will accept anything. Unlike last time, when this sort of complete ambivalence to all notions of quality in monsters at least left us with a crowning monument to insanity, here it leads to what are easily the most obvious and uninteresting monsters Doctor Who ever thought worth recycling.

While on one level this is a good thing - the story is forced to work on other grounds, and so you get things like actual tension among the crew, or, in my favorite scene in the story (and one of my favorites in Doctor Who thus far), Clent praises a subordinate for his dedication in volunteering for this mission, only to embarrassingly find out the guy was drafted. Things that give us at least the feel that there is some outside world. Or the most interesting idea the story has, Storr the scavenger.

But Storr ends up being yet another exhibit of how this story almost, but not quite, figures out how to tell itself. The idea here is perhaps the most magnificent in the story - the idea that, in this ice age, there are people scrambling about trying to survive who don't give a toss about these expensive efforts to "Ionize" the glaciers, they just want to figure out what they're doing right now. In other words, Storr is a character that does exactly what this story needs - gives us a human way in.

Except they don't follow this idea to its full potential. Instead, Storr is just the ultra-luddite who exists to shore up the moral credibility of the story. Because the story ends up hinging on the base crew rejecting the computer and thinking for themselves, it needs a character like Storr who is obviously wrong in completely rejecting technology so that it can end up holding a suitably milquetoast middle ground. And so the most interesting idea it has - actually asking what a new ice age would be like for people - gets killed off in episode four because we need to establish that the Ice Warriors are dangerous. Again.

Part of the problem here is also, if we're being honest, the TARDIS crew. I've noted before that the TARDIS crew has no audience identification characters anymore. The three roles originally set out - ordinary man, ordinary woman, and starchild - have been reduced to their crassest plot functions - action man and peril girl. Neither of them bring any sense of the ordinary, and in fact the major source of alienation they should be having - the fact that both of them are from Britain's past - is usually ignored save for a token scene for each of them, usually Jamie calling something a metal beastie and Victoria being prim about something. So where before when we introduced a major monster like the Daleks, we could focus on Barbara's terror at them, now when we have Victoria in her major peril scene we just revert to classic Laura Mulvey male gaze territory. About which we should probably just video blog.


I know it sounds like I'm very down on this story, but I'm not. It's just that this story requires one of those strange things you have to do with Doctor Who every once in a while - praising with faint damnation. I'm always wary, lest I turn into late career Lawrence Miles, of criticizing a story for not being something other than what it sets out to be. But here that's necessary. The problem with The Ice Warriors has nothing to do with anybody working on it, and everything to do with the fact that it's an episode of a show that has, by this point, given up on trying to surprise the audience. It has collapsed entirely into the standard action serial mode and made its home there. Its primary virtue is that despite this, it has enough people trying to make it good that it reliably ends up being far, far better than a standard weekly action serial needs to be. The show has essentially given up on producing A-quality storylines in exchange for avoiding ever producing complete duds, reasoning that it's better to be a show that gets a B consistently than one that gets an A occasionally and a C or lower a lot too. More than anything, at this point in the show, one finds one's self wishing for something like The Gunfighters - a glorious, misguided mess. One finds one's self desperately wanting to admire the ambition of a story instead of the execution. Especially here, because the execution is so solid that it is at times actively painful to see everyone wasting it on this.

Still, we can start to find a silver lining here. We're seeing the opening seeds of what's going to elevate the series out of this eventually. Writers like Brian Hayles are, even if only out of the need to pad their stories two episodes each, learning to give us fleeting glimpses of ordinary people. Writers like Haisman and Lincoln are beginning to key onto the idea that if we're going to make it so the TARDIS crew has no identification figures we need to make them larger than life mythical heroes. Both of these are major steps towards a mode that works. (And if you look at The Rebel Flesh, note that the Doctor is a mythical hero and we get ordinary people.)

But hey. On Monday we get David Whitaker, who has by now established himself as the best writer the series sees in its first five seasons. So we probably have something good happening there. And after that, we get a change in producer, which is probably needed around now. (Not that I think Innes Lloyd has been bad for the show - I honestly think his reign is, on balance, pretty much all good things. But I do think that we're rapidly reaching the end of new ideas he can bring to the table.) If the show were always this good when it was going through a bad patch, it wouldn't have been cancelled.

Do you own The Ice Warriors on DVD yet? Well, if you're in the US there's a perfectly good reason for that. You can only buy it on VHS, and that link there will let you do it (and, as usual, give me a nice kickback). But if you're in the UK... well, it's still not on DVD, actually. But you can buy it on VHS there too through our brand new UK affiliate option! 

5 comments:

  1. I have to admit, I love this blog series, and I'm currently noodling around the idea of trying something similar for Babylon 5, though that show only being on for a relatively short time would rather lose some of the sweeping historical feel that you manage to achieve here.

    Hence the noodling.

    That all said, the main reason I'm commenting is that you've got the Video Log set to private so no one else can watch it. :)

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  2. Whoops! Good catch. Fixed now. :)

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  3. That ice warrior certainly moves with (appropriately) glacial slowness. Why on earth can't she outrun it?

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    1. Humans would not gain the intellectual aspect of "reasoning" until post-modern times. Even then, emotions can still take over autonomically... that's my guess.

      Or it's bad writing... "The Ice Warriors" has some impressive critters but the humans are all walking stereotypes that can't make up their minds if they should love or loathe their Tandy computer there...

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  4. This is another one of those times when I'm going to take issue with the 'base under siege' moniker as needlessly lazy.

    I suppose you could argue the glaciers are putting the base under siege. But the Ice Warriors? Not a chance. I spent my time waiting for this 'siege' to take place, only to discover that they made ONE overt move against the base, and then walked inside it to talk.

    The goal of the script isn't to create a siege, it's to create a complex problem which the computer isn't capable of solving on account of the unacceptable risks.

    I personally find the script's approach to the computer issue to be excessively heavy-handed. But what it's trying to do is clear, and it is most definitely NOT trying to construct a siege. In fact there are numerous references to the opportunity for evacuation. It isn't that they can't get out. It's that they have a reason for not wanting to.

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