Ian and Barbara activate their travel dials, and immediately find themselves in a frozen wasteland; the snow, wind, and unbearable subfreezing temperature crushing them just as efficiently as the jungle vegetation had only seconds before. Barbara falls to her knees, hugging herself to keep warm. She can’t go on…
Let’s just get this out of the way: The Snows of Terror isn’t perfect, but like The Firemaker, it’s really, really good, and the best Terry Nation story yet. This is definitely Doctor Who, but for the second episode in a row, the Doctor is absent—narratively, he’s gone ahead to Millennius in search of the final microcircuit key—placing Ian and Barbara in the forefront of the story.
Ian is very much the consummate action hero, though he’s not cast from the quite same mold as later Doctor Who action heroes, even other male companions from the 1960s. Steven, Ben, and Jamie all have more in common with Captain Jack in many ways than with Ian. Nevertheless, Ian takes center stage to both protect Barbara, Susan, Sebetha, and even Altos from the duplicitous mountain trapper Vasor, as well as from the bizarre frozen warriors guarding the microcircuit key hidden deep inside the mountain.
Furthermore, there is an excellent continuity of Ian’s characterization from The Daleks to this point. On Skaro, Ian was initially against involving the Thals in the time travelers’ urgent need to return to the Dalek city to retrieve the fluid link; he is similarly disinclined to involve Vasor, the fur trapper who initially saves Ian and Barbara from the extreme cold on the mountain, and whom Ian initially believes is a decent fellow, in going out to search for Altos on the mountain. Ian is certainly beginning to evolve in this respect as they continue traveling, however: any seasoned traveler will tell you that it’s often better simply to ask for help than to try to go it alone.
Vasor, however, quickly reveals himself as a dangerous villain of the very worst kind. In fact, he’s far more real than any other villain in Doctor Who up to this point, because he’s not (really) an alien, he’s not a caveman, and he’s not obviously up to no good, at least not at first: Vasor is human, a mirror of some of the darkest parts of our nature. The Snows of Terror is notorious in that Vasor, alone on the mountain for long periods of time, very nearly succeeds in sexually assaulting Barbara. It’s a very scary idea, a very adult theme that works in this context, but its inclusion is surprising for what is ostensibly a “children’s program.”
Ian, Barbara, and Altos catch up with Susan and Sebetha in the cave where they’ve taken refuge from the bitter cold. Caves that run through mountains are another favorite setting of Terry Nation’s—to say nothing of vast crevasses that are practically impossible to traverse—though it’s unclear how Ian seems to know that the next key is in this particular cave system. His insistence on this fact is one of the few flaws I can find in this episode, but it’s a minor gripe, and easy to overlook. The conceit of having the key frozen in a block of ice with frozen knights who are restored to life as the ice melts is a good one. The lesson, of course, is that if you ever find yourself on a quest through a frozen cave, pack an ice pick—it could save you a lot a trouble in the long run.
The set design on The Snows of Terror is beautiful. Vasor’s cabin, for example, is completely believable and seems completely authentic; the ice cave in the mountain is exactly what we expect an ice cave to be (though I did question where the light was coming from); even the outdoor scenes in the snow, inter-cut with stock footage of wolves, works well, though more blowing snow might have made it more believable—though, again, this is a minor gripe. The incidental music, especially at the beginning when Ian and Barbara initially arrive, is beautiful and haunting and it works so well to help create an atmosphere that is at once expansive and ethereal, but dark and claustrophobic. This is a wonderful adventure story that may be one of the most underrated stories of the classic series.
Barbara, Ian, and the others teleport away from Vasor’s cabin at the last second as the (un)frozen knights break down the door in search of the stolen microcircuit key. Ian appears to arrive in Millennius before the others, where he discovers the dead body of a man lying on the ground. Before he can react, however, a black gloved assailant knocks Ian unconscious, positions the murder weapon in his hand, and then, setting off an alarm, absconds with the final microcircuit key…
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)