Saturday, April 13, 2013

Doctor Who: 1967

Episode 181: The Ice Warriors, episode two
First broadcast: 5.25 pm, Saturday 18 November, 1967
<< back to 1966

Varga the Ice Warrior menaces Victoria
The Ice Warriors, episode two
Tonight, the Ice Warriors return to Doctor Who in Cold War - their fifth story, and their first since 1974. I've chosen a moment from their debut story to talk about something clever the show does to disguise its limited budget. It's something that also means it better gets into our heads...

Doctor Who has all sorts of tricks for making it seem more expensive than it really is. In reality, there are a limited number of sets, set-ups and actors, but the producers reuse sets and costumes, or film different episodes (set in different times, even different planets) in a single block, and use effects to fool us.

When the Ice Warriors made their first appearance in 1967, the clever producers had also established a formula that made the most of the limited studio space available to the show at the time. Almost every week, the Doctor would be trapped in a control room with a group of terrified humans while monsters tried to break down the door.

Yet, those adventures still suggested an extraordinary scale. The first episode of each story quickly sets up that we’re somewhere strikingly different, usually with location filming. In The Tomb of the Cybermen, we cut from the interior of the TARDIS (shot on film and looking amazing) to a multiracial expedition of archaeologists setting off explosives on an alien world. In the next story, we see Doctor Who’s first location filming in another country, as a Welsh valley doubles for Tibet. Then it’s The Ice Warriors, in which glaciers roll over Britain in the future. The next story begins with a helicopter chase on a beach in Australia, like something out of a Bond film. They’re all big, vivid worlds created very quickly (and economically) before we get locked in a control room.

We deal with big concepts, too: a world war that changes which nations are super powers or climate change run out of control. The Wheel in Space riffs off the near-future realism of 2001: A Space Odyssey - which had its premiere two weeks before the broadcast of episode one.

But these big images are grounded in simple, cost-effective reality. The Web of Fear manages to convince us that London is deserted by showing us a newspaper billboard and the power being off in the Tube.

This season is all about inexpensive tricks done with maximum effect, such as when the Doctor turns out to be the spitting image of the wicked Salamander. Previous stories had shown us doubles of the Doctor, but this is the best example yet. We’re not always sure who we’re watching – our hero or the villain – right up to the neat twist at the end where Salamander tries to steal the TARDIS.

Another neat trick is bringing young Professor Travers back two stories later but as an old man. And is it conscious that this season even plays with its own ‘base under siege’ format? In The Enemy of the World, the Doctor needs to rescue people from their underground base.

But the moment I've chosen from The Ice Warriors because of a line of dialogue. Often, the most vivid moments of Doctor Who are things we never see: the silent gas dirigibles of the Hoothi mentioned in The Brain of Morbius, World War Six as described in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Time War between the Doctor's people and the Daleks that has haunted the show since it came back in 2005...

It's not just big events, either. Varga the Ice Warrior threatens Victoria, but she doesn't recognise the device he's holding. "Sonic gun," Varga hisses - and we'll see it used to kill people in this and the Warrior's next three TV adventures (and perhaps tonight as well).

It's a pretty boring prop, just a tube with a light in the end when it's fired. There's then a wobbly effect over the person being killed and the actor cries out and falls to the floor. It's not much different from any other sci-fi killing, except that I find the deaths by sonic gun particularly vivid and horrible, because of a line of dialogue describing something we'll never see. I think it colours every future death inflicted by the Ice Warriors, and makes them a far more chilling monster.

Varga warns Victoria: "It will burst your brain with noise."

Next episode: 1968

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