In the late 21st century, the dominant mode of transportation is the transmat, which allows the instantaneous teleportation of all people and objects to anywhere on Earth or Earth’s moon bases. However, the main relay station for the transmat station on the moon is attacked and taken over by Ice Warriors, unbeknownst to the transmat operations crew on Earth. The director of the relay station manages to sabotage the transmat equipment before one of the Ice Warriors kills him. Threatening the surviving technicians, the Ice Warriors try to force them to jury-rig a way to Earth.
Meanwhile the TARDIS lands at a space exploration museum. The Doctor plays a recording about transmat technology but is rudely interrupted by a man with a gun, Professor Eldred, the owner of the museum. Eldred is bitterly skeptical that anyone has any interest in his museum; since transmats became widespread, public interest and funding in space travel dried up. Eldred is getting his chance to shine, though, since the head of the transmat operations center, Commander Radnor, and his assistant, Gia Kelly, know Eldred has been secretly working on a rocket and need it to investigate what’s gone wrong on the moon. The matter becomes even more urgent when one of the technicians on the moon managed to get a vague warning back to Earth and ends up killed by an Ice Warrior for his trouble. Unfortunately, there are no trained astronauts available. Jamie suggests using the TARDIS, but Zoe points out it could overshoot by a “few million years.” So the Doctor volunteers to pilot the rocket himself.
One of the technicians, Fibbs, escapes and finds a safe place to hide, but the other surviving technician, Fewsham, complies with the Ice Warriors by rigging up a way to temporarily repair the transmat system. Kelly takes the opportunity to take the transmat up to the moon to finish repairs, believing Fewsham’s claims that the station director went on a rampage. In another part of the base, Fibbs manages to kill one of the Ice Warriors with concentrated solar power, although this also has the effect of messing up the one way for Eldred’s rocket to hone in on the relay station. Luckily Fibbs gets in touch with the Doctor through an emergency broadcast and helps him safely land the rocket. Unfortunately, soon after arrival Zoe finds that the rocket still got too damaged to travel back to Earth and the Doctor is captured by the Ice Warriors.
Since their already harsh and limited habitat on Mars is dying, the Ice Warriors plan to use the transmat to teleport pods around the Earth containing a Martian fungus that will absorb oxygen and “martiaform” the Earth, killing Earth life while making the planet habitable for Martian life. On Earth, the pods manage to start affecting the climate and causing the deaths of humans, even as the shut down of the transmat system starts causing social chaos. Back on the moon, Zoe succeeds, at the cost of Fibbs’ life, in sneaking through some maintenance corridors to the main control room, where she cranks up the heat, murdering all the Ice Warriors in the station.
The Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, and Kelly return to Earth via transmat, but Fewsham tricks them into leaving without him. Experimenting on the fungus, the Doctor discovers it’s vulnerable to water. Jamie and Zoe go to a weather control station to have rain made to combat the fungus, but an Ice Warrior has already been there to kill the sole technician and sabotage the control panel. In a broadcast to Earth, Fewsham manages to trick the Ice Warriors into giving away the homage signal of an invasion fleet from Mars on route to Earth, sacrificing his life. Finding out that an Ice Warrior was spotted near the radio station, the Doctor rushes over there to help Jamie and Zoe. Designing a makeshift weapon with a solar energy device, the Doctor destroys the Ice Warrior and fixes the weather control station.
Armed with a fake homing signal designed by Kelly, the Doctor returns to the moon and confronts the remaining Ice Warriors. Although the Ice Warriors figure out his plans, the Doctor tricks them into thinking they’ve thwarted him at the last minute, when in reality the fleet has already fallen for the fake signal and gets drawn fatally close to the sun. Jamie appears via transmat and helps the Doctor dispatch the last remaining Ice Warriors. Back on Earth, as Eldred and Kelly get into a heated debate over reviving rocket technology, the Doctor and company slip away.
Our Future History
Good news! By at latest the last decades of the 21st century, solar power will be commonplace, weather control technology will be perfected (at least to the extent that rain can be generated), and the hassles of airplane travel will be a thing of the past because everyone will be using instantaneous teleporters. The bad news is that the technology of transmats seems to have created a society that’s so complacent space exploration is basically non-existent and that it can’t function without the transmats because apparently no other forms of transportation are readily available.
This series introduces Doctor Who‘s answer to Star Trek‘s transporters: transmats or “t-mats” as they’re mostly called here.
It’s strongly implied, but not spelt out, that Ice Warrior society, or at least their army, operates on a caste system with different ranks wearing different armor. Also by the 21st century the Ice Warrior species is dying out, reducing their numbers so much that despite having superior military technology they can’t just conquer Earth through brute force. This rather puts the Doctor sending an entire fleet of them hurtling into the sun in a darker light, especially if you’re use to the new series and its (occasionally) more pacifist interpretation of the Doctor…
The Second Doctor battles his true archenemy: foam!
I kid, sort of, but really this is a prime example of how old-school Doctor Who made the most out of so little. The actors playing the Ice Warriors visibly have a hard time getting around in their costumes, and there’s plenty of scenes of the Doctor and random security agents solemnly fighting their way through soapy foam, which originates from “pods” that are obviously balloons. And yet, unless those elements are insurmountable for you (in which case, you really shouldn’t be watching ’60s Doctor Who), there are genuinely thrilling moments to be had here, like Fibbs’ escape or whether or not Fawbsham’s heroic turn will lead to his doom. Doctor Who had long made it clear even by this point that anyone not on the TARDIS crew can die (and on rare occasions not even then!), but I don’t think any previous series exploited that to such good effect.
Plus this series seems to break the mold when it comes to characterization. Even the better Second Doctor serials tended to draw from the same pool of stock characters (i.e., the hardcase authority figure who cracks up when faced with an unprecedented crisis), but here we have a cowardly man who believably becomes willing to commit to a heroic sacrifice, a heroic man who at one point suffers a debilitating panic attack that almost derails Zoe’s plans, and a woman who is dedicated to her career but never slips into cliched “soulless professional woman” or “strong independent woman” territory. But I particularly liked Professor Eldred, a man genuinely in love with rocket technology but extremely and understandably embittered by how society has abandoned it for transmats. The idea of society becoming too dependent on a form of technology was probably not an original theme even in 1969, but a disillusioned scientist whose passion has been tossed away by society was a unique angle to approach it with. Even if it’s not entirely believable that society would ignore all other forms of transportation (after all, we still have transcontinental trains in spite of the option of air travel), there is something all too relateable to Eldred’s rage over dedicating himself to a field of knowledge that the wider culture has deemed unimportant on a whim.
Well, maybe it’s just relateable to me…
What else can I say? I enjoyed this one immensely, and recommend it to anyone who wants to test the waters of Doctor Who‘s black and white era.