Back in 1967, the Doctor Who producers faced a problem. The Daleks, the show’s most enduringly popular monster, were set to vanish in a bold, but ultimately doomed, attempt to conquer America. Given their patchy track record in conquering Earth and other planets, you’d imagine they’d have thought twice about it.
But this left the series with a big, monster-shaped hole in its storylines, despite the popularity of the Cybermen (already everyone’s next favourite baddie). The hunt was on for more nasties and led to what was to become fondly remembered as “the monster season”.
Patrick Troughton’s Doctor took on Cybermen (twice), weed creatures on a North Sea gas rig, a double of himself (in that year’s only monster-free story) and the glorious Yeti – both in their Himalayan backyard and in the London Underground. But the monster that would make the greatest impact hailed from Mars...
The red planet has long held a fascination for science-fiction writers so it was only a matter of time before Doctor Who turned its attention to our neighbour in space. Writer Brian Hayles devised a race of armoured reptilian cyborgs, dubbed “Ice Warriors” by the scientist who finds the first one entombed in a glacier. This first story took place not amid the red dust of the dead planet itself but on a future Earth in the grip of a new Ice Age. A world where, in the beautiful pop poetry of the script, “suddenly, one year there was no spring”. A bit like this year, in fact.
Enormous, green and scaly, the first Ice Warrior, Varga, was played by 6ft 7in Bernard Bresslaw, who brought this new baddie to imposing life just after shooting, ironically enough, Carry On Doctor! The idea of the creatures’ hissing voice seems to have originated with Bresslaw, hinting both at their reptilian origins and their difficulty coping with Earth’s atmosphere.
A big hit with the audience, the Ice Warriors returned for a rematch in The Seeds of Death (1969), which introduced a different tier of Martian society, a slimmer “Ice Lord” (as they became known), fleeter and more articulate than their lumbering predecessors.
In 1972, third Doctor Jon Pertwee faced the creatures in the fondly remembered Curse of Peladon, a tale of intergalactic politics on a medieval planet. We discovered, in a brilliant twist, that they’ve become the good guys! Two years later, a sequel, The Monster of Peladon, saw them revert to type.
And that was that. Despite appearing in fan lists of top monsters, the Ice Warriors stayed firmly in the show’s past for nearly 40 years. Until now...
I must admit I’d been badgering Steven Moffat for years to let me bring back the Ice Warriors. He’d been nervous about their possible return as they seemed almost the embodiment of the slow-moving Who monster of legend. But I kept trying and, as I’d always wanted to set a Doctor Who on a submarine, one day I said, “How about an Ice Warrior on a sub? And there’s something else about them. Something new...”
The "something new" got us both excited and so this Saturday’s episode, Cold War, was born. En route to Las Vegas, the Doctor and Clara find themselves on a Russian submarine under the North Pole. It’s 1983, global nuclear tension is at its height and into this mix comes... well, wait and see. The episode is a love-letter to those Troughton stories that so often saw a group of desperate, frightened people under attack from an alien menace. A “base under-sea” if you like.
I’ve always loved submarine movies, too, and I’m thrilled at what the team have achieved on screen. It’s our very own Das Boot (or Dasssss Boot, as I took to calling it) with Liam Cunningham twinkling and grizzled as Captain Zhukov and the great David Warner as bobble-hatted Professor Grisenko. We had to “Hollywood-ise” the amount of room on board, though. It would be hard to hide a seven-foot monster on a conventional submarine.
I was determined that we should honour the original, brilliant Ice Warrior design. It’s so imposing and
scary. They’ve now got an iridescent quality to their scaliness, like dragonfly wings. I was knocked out when I saw the result. Lots of the crew didn’t know they were a famous returning baddie; they just reacted to them as a really cool, scary monster. Perfect!
Perhaps because the Ice Warriors have appeared in Doctor Who so infrequently and have so little backstory, there’s tremendous room to invent. The Martians seem to have strict codes of honour, but we have seen them, at various points in their history, behaving as militaristic aggressors and pragmatic diplomats. Is their Mars dead or alive? Are they as noble as Spartans or as ruthless as Romans?
Cold War will be, I hope, only the beginning of a new chapter for these fabulous Doctor Who monsters.
Mark Gatiss is an executive producer of Sherlock and a regular writer on Doctor Who.
Doctor Who: Cold War is on Saturday at 6:00pm on BBC1