DOCTOR WHO viewers have already experienced “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” so why not an “Ice Warrior on a Submarine”? Following a pair of run-ins with both the Second and Third versions of the Doctor, the Martians have not been seen on TV screens in 39 years.
The Ice Warriors are a reptilian race who were forced to become cybernetic to survive when Mars began to get cold. The giant green armor helps the Ice Warriors to live and fight, and while the carapaces may not be sleek and sexy or as menacing as a Cyberman, the Ice Warriors are definitely cool.
It’s 1983, and a Soviet submarine is plying the waters beneath the North Pole with a cargo of nuclear missiles aimed at the West and a scientific specimen the crew assumes is a mammoth frozen in a block of ice. An impatient crewman melts the ice, freeing the Ice Warrior who was trapped within. The Martian’s escape causes chaos and the hull is breached, sending the submarine plummeting into the depths of the ocean. The TARDIS arrives on the bridge just in time for the Doctor (Matt Smith) to advise Capt. Zhukov (Liam Cunningham) to move the ship laterally to stop her descent. Amid the chaos, the Doctor sees the TARDIS dematerialize by itself and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is knocked unconscious. She awakens to the Doctor and Zhukov arguing, but suddenly the Ice Warrior appears and identifies himself as Grand Marshall Skaldak (voice of Nicholas Briggs) — a name the Doctor recognizes as a storied and feared military leader. Just as the Doctor is close to defusing the situation, Skaldak is attacked from behind by a sailor with a cattle pod. The unconscious alien is wrapped in chains. When he awakens, the Martian activates a distress call, but it goes unanswered.
The Doctor guides Clara via radio as she approaches Skaldak to make peace, but the alien refuses and declares war on Earth. He uses a temporary blackout to flee his armored suit and move about in the sub, killing crewmen and studying their corpses to assess the weaknesses of mankind. Skaldak grabs first officer Stepashin (Tobias Menzies), and learns from him about the sub’s cargo of nuclear missiles and the concept of mutually assured destruction that keeps East and West from launching their missiles. The crew deaths rattle Clara, but the older and charismatic Prof. Grisenko (David Warner) tries to take her mind off it by asking about the future of his favorite band, Ultravox. When Skaldak tries to grab Clara, the professor shoots at the Martian, causing him to drop Clara and grab him. She begs Skaldak not to kill the old professor, and then the Doctor arrives. When Skaldak insists his people have not rescued him because they are dead and he has nothing left to live for, the Doctor suggests one thing: demonstrating mercy to the human race. But Skaldak summons his armor remotely and drops Grisenko to climb inside.
Skaldak goes to the bridge and uses his sonic technology to arm the sub’s missiles for launch. A desperate Doctor counters that he will use his own sonic tech to destroy the submarine and everyone aboard in order to prevent war. Skaldak is fascinated by this display of mutually assured destruction. The Doctor and Clara try to convince the Martian of the nobility of not destroying everything. Skaldak hesitates just long enough for his people to arrive. They raise the submarine and teleport Skaldak away. The Doctor is horrified to discover that Skaldak still controls the missiles and can still destroy the Earth remotely. But Skaldak decides to show mercy and relinquishes control of the nukes as the Ice Warrior ship leaves Earth. The Doctor is later disappointed to learn that the TARDIS’ HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System) has transported it to the pole — the South Pole!
While I was elated to see an Ice Warrior again, especially with modern costuming and visual-effects techniques that updated the man-in-suit look without compromising the historical integrity of the original design, the story was not perfect.
Things felt awfully familiar to the Martians’ very first appearance in the Second Doctor story “The Ice Warriors”: In both cases a Martian is found frozen in ice, assumed to be a mastodon/ mammoth and thawed out prematurely. The worst thing about this tale is that it relied on an “Idiot Plot” – meaning, someone had to do something massively stupid for no other reason than getting the story rolling. Here, why did Piotr insist on thawing out the specimen with a blowtorch? (Saying, “Life’s too short” is not a rationale.) What was he going to do with a defrosted mammoth corpse on a submarine?
Also, this isn’t the first time a species learned the concept of mutually assured destruction from humans while trapped deep beneath the surface of the ocean. The Silurians and Sea Devils picked up that trick in “Warriors of the Deep,” a violent and sad story featuring the Fifth Doctor.
I suppose I can be generous and consider the plot an homage in the same way that the green “shellsuit” did not change so much as get a new coat of… er, Turtlewax. But I did expect something more from writer Mark Gatiss, who has reportedly been pitching the idea of reviving the Ice Warriors for years, so I might have expected his story to be airtight. Or, at least, watertight.
But, as it is, just how did the greatest military hero in the history Mars end up frozen alive in a block of ice on Earth? One would assume the professor would take samples of any interesting stuff he found in the ice, but all he brought back was one (rather tiny) “mammoth.” It was a little too convenient that the unfrozen Ice Warrior was Skaldak, but I suppose it did serve as a bit of story shorthand, allowing the Doctor to condense the exposition. Plus, it immediately set up a conflict; the Third Doctor knew the Martians to be a proud, stately race that had outgrown the warlike, militaristic society the Second Doctor battled, so the 11th Doctor probably would have greeted Skaldak with open arms and spent the first half of the story trying to convince the Soviets that the Ice Warriors are actually very friendly – only to discover that this one was a throwback. And such a mistake probably would have ruined the Doctor’s credibility for a 45-minute story.
The final point that really bothered me was how Skaldak got out of this armor. Sure, the lights blinked for a moment, but the armor was still wrapped tightly in chains, so Martians must be more jellylike and malleable than it would seem.
But all was not lost. The production design was masterful, and the scenes suffused in scarlet light were very atmospheric. I don’t think there was a single scene after the sub sank that didn’t feature constant streams of dripping water. And the interiors really did look like a proper (if roomy) submarine (except the floors).
Guest star Cunningham, easily recognizable as GAME OF THRONES’ Davos Seaworth, was not only excellent casting but a sly wink at the genre audience. I believed him as a submarine captain just as much as I bought David Warner as a professor of… something or other. The way he hesitated before replying “probably” when the captain asked if their cargo really was a frozen mammoth told us the professor didn’t believe that explanation. And while liking music is a character trait, liking Ultravox at his age is characterization.
Clara’s horror at finding the dissected bodies quickly brought home the fact that traveling with the Doctor can be very dangerous. But aside from her very human reaction of fear of disgust, viewers learned nothing new about Clara, the girl twice dead.
Gatiss did show remarkable restraint in not even mentioning the Last Great Time War when the Doctor talked about mutually assured destruction. The Doctor really did seem anguished at the thought of having to once again destroy both sides of a conflict. I like how Smith almost seemed to be hyperventilating as the Doctor yammered on about being really, really serious about destroying everyone in order to save the planet. I like to think that came from his realization that his genocidal tactic didn’t work at the end of the Time War; the Daleks survived (oops, spoiler!) and the Time Lords almost managed to escape the war’s time lock. All the Doctor’s anguish and bitterness were for naught. There must be a comment there about the fruitlessness of war.
- Professor Grisenko is singing the Ultravox song “Vienna” when he first appears. He later performs a bit of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” (as does Clara, even later).
- The Doctor’s pockets held his sonic, a ball of string, a Barbie-like doll and a lollipop, continuing the tradition of his pockets containing a puzzling array of stuff and nonsense.
- The HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System) is an automatic defense system that allows the TARDIS to flee a threatening situation on her own, whether the Doctor is aboard or not. It has not been seen in action since the Second Doctor story “The Krotons.”
- Skaldak and his civilization employed sophisticated sonic technology; last episode, the Doctor was also nearly stymied by advanced sonic tech.
- How are the Doctor and Clara to retrieve the TARDIS from the South Pole?