“The War Games” is one of those stories that will always be talked about. A ten-part epic that draws to a close not only Patrick Troughton’s reign as the Doctor but the whole monochrome era of the programme, this amazing story is also famous for being the one that finally reveals just where the mysterious Doctor came from…
“Time travellers. I wonder…”
Whilst it’s universally acknowledged amongst fans that “The War Games” is far too long and padded to the hilt, it’s also thought of by most fans as an absolute classic and I would agree wholeheartedly. My initial encounter with Pat Troughton’s swansong was via Malcolm Hulke’s novelisation of the story which I enjoyed immensely, but left me curious as to just how this plot (the novelisation was about 150 pages, if I recall correctly) had stretched across ten twenty-five minute episodes. Years later, I finally got to watch all ten episodes and my question was answered – repetition. Escape, recapture, escape, recapture, escape… The multi-layered plot is peeled away very slowly, one layer at a time. A viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Major Smythe is the villain of the piece from watching the first few episodes, as the War Lord himself doesn’t show up until half way through, and even his introduction is pre-empted by that of the War Chief. Much of the plot (all the ‘resistance’ stuff, for example) could have easily been cut-down to make this story a pacey five or six-parter, but there was a ten episode gap in the schedule and so ten episodes were produced! Even so, “The War Games” remains to this day one of my favourite Doctor Who stories, books and audios included. In one way, the story’s length works to its advantage as it completely sucks the viewer into the story and the characters, in a sense making it more like a novel than a TV show. Ironically, the experience of watching this serial is more like reading a novel than reading the novelisation of it is! I certainly wouldn’t recommend to anyone sitting themselves down and watching all four hours of “The War Games,” but viewing it in either in two-halves (as I tend to watch the story) or even episodically is something every Doctor Who fan should do.
The War Lord’s plan is fantastic material for a great Doctor Who story - take an alien planet, split it into different war zones, gather soldiers from different parts of Earth’s history, brainwash them and then let them kill each other until all you have left is an invincible army of hardened veterans that you can conquer the Galaxy with! It also allows for a wonderful opening to the story – what could be better than the TARDIS materialising in the middle of no-man’s-land on a Great War battlefront in France? It provides so many wonderful opportunities for storytelling (and believe me, in ten episodes Dicks and Hulke exploit them all), and due its predominantly ‘historic’ setting the production value also seems higher than that of contemporary stories. The sets of the trenches and the chateau are beautifully created; were it not for them being shot in black and white there would be nothing to distinguish them from programmes like Blackadder Goes Forth, made almost twenty years later! However, the superb design of “The War Games” isn’t limited to the various historical time zones. Never before have I seen a set that cries out “1960’s” as much as the War Lord’s domain does. Psychedelic doesn’t even begin to describe it… if you’ve ever seen any of the Austin Powers movies, you can imagine the setting. It makes a fantastic change from the grey corridors and flashing lights that Doctor Who so often used to depict ‘futuristic’ settings, though I’m not sure about the weird glasses…
One of the major driving forces behind making “The War Games” so compelling is the brilliance of its characters. Carstairs (David Savile) and Lady Jennifer (Jane Sherwin) are likeable enough to have become successful companions were the circumstances different, and the more nefarious characters like the intimidating General Smythe and the deplorable Security Chief are both interesting enough to have supported their own (shorter!) serials. The War Lord himself is wonderfully brought to life by Philip Madoc. His calm performance imbues the character with a real sense of power – he doesn’t need to throw his weight around too much, he is already as feared and respected as he possibly could be. The War Chief, however, is the most interesting character by far. Episode eight sees the series’ first mention of the Time Lords as, like the Doctor, the War Chief is revealed to be a renegade Time Lord on the run from his people. He wants the Doctor to help him overthrow the War Lord so that they can rule the galaxy together. I found myself quite amused by the War Chief’s dialogue when he speaks to the Doctor; it is uncannily similar to Darth Vader’s in The Empire Strikes Back, a film which was still over a decade away when “The War Games” was written! Like all good villains, the War Chief completely believes his hair-brain scheme for galactic domination is right and just. The Doctor, however, is far from convinced and for the first time since leaving his homeworld, he finds himself in a situation that he cannot resolve… without help.
Enter the Time Lords.
“You have returned to us, Doctor. Your travels are over.”
Episode nine of “The War Games” ended with the ultimate deus ex machina; answering the Doctor’s telepathic message in a box, the Time Lords’ wave their magic wand and the soldiers are all returned to their customary time and place, the War Lord is in their custody and the War Chief is dead (or is he…?), killed by his former associates. Episode ten is very nearly a different story all together, and arguably contains the biggest reveal in the history of the entire TV series - certainly the biggest reveal overall until Marc Platt’s controversial 1997 novel “Lungbarrow.” The Doctor’s people are introduced to us as a nearly omnipotent race who have not merely gained mastery over time and space but also appear to have god-like powers (which one of them uses to physically punish the War Lord when he refuses to testify in his trial.) Although they have a policy of strict non-intervention, the Doctor’s summons forces them to try the War Lord for his crimes and eventually sentence him to temporal dissolution – he’s not just executed, he’s wiped from history! However, their strict policy of non-intervention is one that the Doctor has constantly flouted, not to mention his ‘borrowing’ of a TARDIS. Like the War Lord before him, the Doctor is tried for his crimes and found guilty, however the Time Lords take into account his good intentions and his role in the battle against evil and therefore decide to punish him by exiling him to 20th century Earth and forcing him to regenerate.
The Doctor’s goodbye to Jamie and Zoe is a real choker, and the blow is made even crueller by the Time Lords’ erasing their memories of their travels with the Doctor. The Troughton Era ends (at least on TV) with the Doctor’ face contorting as he disappears into the ether…
Of course, the novels speculate that “The War Games” wasn’t the end for the loveable second Doctor - Gallifrey’s C.I.A. intercept him en route to Earth and give him limited freedom in exchange for him doing certain missions for them. This is the older second Doctor that we see in “The Five Doctors” and “The Two Doctors” - he even gets Jamie back, memory restored!
In short, “The War Games” is an epic masterpiece. The bulk of the story is hugely entertaining and the introduction of the Time Lords and the Doctor’s (as yet unnamed) homeworld is purely the icing on the cake. It is packed with fantastic cliff-hangers (the Doctor up against a firing squad, for example), superb characters, and some wonderfully memorable scenes like the escaped Doctor strutting into a military prison, shouting his mouth off in outrage about how the person in charge there isn’t giving him enough respect and thus being accepted by him as an authority figure whilst having absolutely no credentials! It is a must-see story, and I’d also strongly recommended its sequel – the New Adventure “Timewyrm: Exodus” by Terrance Dicks, one of the best Doctor Who novels I’ve ever read.
Let’s make no mistake: The War Games is an absolute classic. It’s dramatic, exciting, and casts a real sense of scale that very effectively conveys the Doctor’s final inability to solve the problem he is faced with without sacrificing himself. However, as it’s so long (too long really if I’m honest) it takes a really hardcore fan to stick it out in one go. Also, there’s the practical reason of needing four hours to spare, which I rarely do; I’m reviewing this in two parts. Its great length certainly did it no favours on its original transmission; episode eight achieved a measly 3.5 million viewers, making it the second-lowest rated episode ever (that crown goes to episode one of Battlefield) not counting the broadcast of the pilot episode in 1991. This is a shame, as this is one of the three definite classics of season 6, and ends the second Doctor’s run and the black and white period on a spectacularly high note.
The specially designed titles, the first thing seen in this story, are a little too much to take though – anyone affected by severe strobe lights, take note. After this it begins properly in one of the most tightly directed scenes ever, in what appears to be No Mans’ Land in 1917. It is commendable of the new series to try and spice up the TARDIS materialisation / dematerialisation effect by such details as having snow falling off it in The Unquiet Dead, but for me there is very little that can beat the sight of the TARDIS appearing reflected in a muddy puddle, all in dingy monochrome 16mm film. The location scenes are brilliantly shot and edited and the barrage of fire looks brilliant, virtually matching what could be done in certain feature films of the time. The studio scenes are no less effective: the sets are as wonderful as the flawless period detail, and the lighting also deserves special mention for creating such a convincing effect of natural light in the chateau. Dudley Simpson also supplies one of his better scores, totally appropriate to the story.
One advantage of the story’s length (at least in the early stages) is that it can take its luxuriant time showing off its period setting to full effect, making the first episode brilliantly atmospheric – it’s almost a shame that this can’t just play out as an ordinary historical story. However, a sense of mystery is very effectively set up (always a benchmark of a good opening) with the inclusion of a couple of apparently random elements such as General Smythe’s viewscreen, and the amnesia of a few of the characters. The only problem is that Smythe’s mention of the “1917 zone” provides a bit too much explanation at so early a stage, even if it doesn’t immediately make sense. One notable aspect though is the aliens’ ability to hypnotise people, which is done in almost exactly the same style as the Master would a couple of seasons later; it should be mentioned here that Terrance Dicks, who wrote this with Malcolm Hulke, was the Master’s co-creator.
The regulars are on top form, as seen when they are marched before the general, although Jamie stamping on the Doctor’s foot is a slightly misjudged piece of slapstick from that great comedy duo, Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. Hines and Wendy Padbury do well in this story, although they are not (and never were) in Troughton’s league. His performance in this story is faultless, making it especially sad that it is his final story (barring guest appearances) and also that so much of his era is missing, and it is easy to see why the team of Troughton, Hines and Padbury were so popular. The Doctor’s small and unassuming kiss goodbye to Zoe is very poignant, and presages the end of this story. The cliffhanger as well is terrific, the location shooting further emphasising David Maloney’s skill as a director: the composition of some of the shots is superb, particularly the establishing one of the firing squad.
The design of the SIDRATs is simple but effective, even if they do have a nonsensical name (Space In Dimensions Relative And Time, presumably). The sudden appearance of the Redcoat further increases the mystery, although conversely it offers an implied explanation for Smythe’s talk of zones.
The Doctor’s bluffing the prison commandant is essentially a comedy scene (nicely timed though); although the bravura performance from Troughton demonstrates why he was clearly the best actor in the role (Tom Baker was clearly playing himself, while Christopher Eccleston seems a bit self-conscious at times). When Zoe knocks the commandant unconscious Troughton does full justice to that gem of a line, “I think he’ll survive”. At this stage the premise is not too different to The Time Meddler, with anachronistic elements in a period setting. However, the final revelation is infinitely more compelling than its (still stylish) cousin. Suddenly entering the Roman zone is an unexpected and original notion, making for a nicely surprising cliffhanger.
With the third episode the incident count drops severely (and it’s going to get lower before it rises again), with lots of repetition, padded and superfluous fights, dialogue scenes more for effect than anything else, and lots of repetition. However, it’s all so well written and made that it is rarely any less watchable for it, even if it is merely killing time before the shattering conclusion. It becomes a story of ideas now, with the Doctor first voicing the notion of the world they are in being divided into different time zones. The need to go back to the chateau, even with the reasonable intention of finding a map of the world, is an example of the need for this story to go round and round to fill up its vast running time. The opening of the safe is a cool scene and well thought out, even if the explosion is predictably naff and small (the contrast between high explosives on location and fizzy sherbet in studio is always slightly jarring). The explosion goes off before the fuse has finished burning, goof fans, while Carstairs’s fooling the guard is another example of a character being bluffed – a recurring activity of this story – but it’s so tense it works fine.
Similarly the sequence in the German dug-out, while still great, is done to hold off the inevitable. It’s padding, like so much else, but it’s such wonderful padding, better than a lot of other stories’ best efforts. Also, it’s amusing to see the sonic screwdriver actually being used on a screw.
David Garfield makes his entrance as von Weich and proves himself to be skilled at putting on accents, making his surreal performance as Neeva in The Face Of Evil eight years later entirely unforgivable. Here though he is brilliant, one of those traditional villains so evil that I actually find myself hating him – a sure sign of an actor doing his job well.
The unassuming cuts between futuristic and period settings jar a bit, but then this story has the scope to fit such elements in together. The guards in their gimp suits look silly, but Edward Brayshaw as the War Chief is absolutely superb, a contender for the title of best actor of the season (although in fairness he faces strong competition from Bernard Horsfall in The Mind Robber and Kevin Stoney in The Invasion). His interior monologue, although not without precedent, is unusual and effective, giving a sense of back history and a possible link with the Doctor, further increasing the interest and the tension. Meanwhile back in the American Civil War zone the fights, although unnecessary, are well made with violence that is realistic without being gratuitous. In fact the production is so good, especially considering the number of characters and locations, that it should be noted that Derrick Sherwin was actually a good producer for the two stories he worked on in that role, even if he was working closely with Peter Bryant. Having said that the design of the future settings is perhaps slightly tacky with hanging sheets of plastic inside the SIDRATS and the groovy swirls in the alien sector.
The Doctor’s worry that there’s more going on than meets the eye is brilliantly played, as usual, and the idea of a teacher lecturing students in a BBC accent about how to hypnotise their slaves is just crazy enough to really, really work. Meanwhile Jamie is accused of spying, and his response of “not again” could be read as ironic. Also, it is interesting to note that a black actor is in the programme and not playing a mute strongman.
The scientist’s lecture gives us a sudden burst of exposition which does seem a little clunky after such a gradually-paced beginning, but it’s an interesting plot so it could be worse. This is followed by the spine tingling scene where the Doctor and the War Chief recognise each other, surely one of the highlights of the story, made even better through coming after a fairly quiet period and also because we don’t get to find out exactly how the know each other for quite some time yet.
The fifth episode is more of the same. The Doctor bluffs the scientist again, and even though it shows Troughton at his energetic best it’s still so repetitive that I’m repeating myself by talking about it. Oh well, I can only mention what’s on screen. Even given the circular nature of the scenes though, it’s still all so good, and sends Troughton out in a blaze of glory; it’s up there jostling for position with The Caves Of Androzani for the title of best final story ever.
James Bree is a rubbish actor (in fact he sounds like he’s doing a Dalek voice) and is the weak link in the guest cast – certainly he dies a death when in the same shot as Brayshaw. However, it is nice to see two villains who also happen to hate each other; this is a character dynamic seen all too rarely in the series. The major mistake though is that the Security Chief makes it fairly clear that the War Chief and the Doctor are of the same race, undermining the possibility of a dramatic revelation later on.
It is interesting seeing David Troughton in his small role as Private Moor; he does a decent job with the few lines he gets given, although his father casts one long shadow. His performance as a man caught between the two poles of authority (holding von Weich prisoner) and fear is very effective, and knocks spots off his slightly sappier one in The Curse Of Peladon.
The violence is actually surprisingly potent in its realism, with Carstairs shooting a guard in the head at close range and the Doctor hardly reacting. I’ve seen Spaghetti Westerns with comparable levels of violence, and they get 15 certificates.
When the Doctor immediately knows how to operate the controls, Zoe asks him how and his uncomfortable response of “it isn’t really very difficult” is excellent, a much subtler hint that the ghosts from his past are coming back to haunt him. If only those hints were all so well written and didn’t have James Bree spitting them out like a whiny baby the whole thing would be a lot better.
The SIDRAT crushing effect is simple and potentially dodgy, but saved through Maloney’s consistently excellent direction. The villains’ attempt to second guess the Doctor’s plan is funny, and an example of the wry, ironic humour that is much more appropriate to this story than the moments of slapstick and Michael Napier-Brown playing for laughs as Arturo Villar.
The War Lord gets a great introduction, with the camera panning down to reveal he has been standing next to the Security Chief unnoticed. Philip Madoc gives another of his four totally brilliant performances in the show, with his icy and collected portrayal of the main villain. I’d say he loses out to Brayshaw though (there aren’t many stories I can think of where Madoc wouldn’t win the best actor crown), and the scenes with the two of them together are magical. The only problem is that James ‘Brie’ Bree has to be there too, spluttering out his superior’s name in a peculiar fashion: “War --- LOOOOORRD!”
The Romans make a reappearance as the Doctor returns to the Games, and the story’s repetition is increased further by them actually splicing in footage shot for episode 2. It does lead to more brilliantly-shot footage of the 1917 zone though, so it’s not all bad; simple effects like placing the camera at interesting angles or situating it behind some dead branches make all the difference. I’d only be repeating myself further if I dwelled on the Doctor escaping from a firing squad again and in the exact same way, so I’ll gloss over it. It has to be said: The War Games is no easy story to review in such a linear way as this. However, with the chateau taken by the resistance, the plot really begins to crank up again now.
Another brilliant moment early on in episode 8, with the Doctor telling a load of guards brandishing guns “I’m not going to hurt you”. With regards to the Doctor and the War Chief knowing each other, the War Chief admits what the audience is aware of anyway – but it does lead to one of the most gripping scenes of the story, where they privately talk about their pasts with the Doctor managing to convey a haughty disdain for his people. In fact, the scene is so good that it makes me forget that it’s really just there to further the plot in an ordinary fashion; it also almost makes me forget I’ve seen after this story, as if I’m taking it all in for the first time. Is this the best expositionary scene ever? Could well be.
Hines does a comedy performance as the resistance leader (you’re just no kind of leader if you don’t have a limp). At least though the resistance starts to get organised, although in a goof with a capital Goo we see on the map that the 1917 and Roman zones are in fact nowhere near each other, let alone adjacent, throwing the end of episode 2 into confusion.
The Doctor’s apparent treachery is given an added edge by the knowledge that this is Troughton’s last story (put yourself in the position of a first time viewer); is this really the end? The Doctor and the War Chief are, as before, brilliant on screen together although the fact that the SIDRATs are breaking down does make me wonder what the War Chief would have done if the Doctor hadn’t arrived by chance. The episode’s first big scene with the War Lord about four minutes in has a guest cameo appearance from a monstrous boom mike shadow, a rare glitch in the production of this episode, but it’s all good stuff. The Doctor’s confrontation with the War Chief is well written and dramatic, but spoiled slightly by Troughton fluffing his lines (a rarity). Napier-Brown is a Mexican Ham Sandwich (OK so I just made that up, but I don’t have a lot to work with do I?), but at least James Bree bites the dust at last. On the downside, the wonderful Brayshaw goes the same way.
The Time Lords have so much mystique in this instalment it hurts. This is perhaps when they are at their best: we can feel their awesome power but we don’t get to see them, which has the twin effect of making that power all the more terrifying while at the same time not revealing how ill-defined they are at this stage. The echoing sound effect that heralds their arrival, coupled with Madoc’s foreboding delivery of a very simple line – “they’re coming” – increases the tension no end, and it builds up to a wonderful cliffhanger.
Now we come to the final instalment, the only real challenger to An Unearthly Child to be crowned best single episode of Doctor Who. It begins slowly though: in the studio recorded TARDIS interior the actors have to resort to slow-motion acting, which is less impressive. Also, the attempts to escape in the TARDIS smack of padding, although it is nice to see footage from missing episodes like Fury From The Deep. However, splicing in a clip from The Web Of Fear causes more confusion as it then requires an explanation for why the ship is suddenly covered in web. Bernard Horsfall, one of my favourite guest actors, provides a suitably doomy and sombre voice over, but in fact the design of Gallifrey is rather drab here (even the stepping stones across the dry ice seem a bit pointless). The Time Lords, as I said, lack depth but consequently retain their aura, and it is in some ways a shame that stories like The Deadly Assassin had to make them more realistic and less impressive as a result.
The chance of escape provides a genuine ray of hope and I half found myself wishing they would get away even though I knew they didn’t, and it makes the final end of the second Doctor doubly sad. Troughton gives a final tour de force performance in his last handful of scenes, even turning some slightly trite dialogue (the scene where he lists some of his old monsters seems a bit self-congratulatory) into something special, and is another reason why he was in my eyes the best of them all: I can’t really imagine any other actor performing that scene so well. The final goodbye with Jamie and Zoe is one of the programme’s most poignant scenes ever. The overall last scene is extremely important and very enigmatic, with Troughton spinning away with his face invisible. So ends four hours – largely of nothing, but what quality nothing! Also ends Troughton’s reign, and it’s a crying shame there isn’t more of his era to see.
The War Games achieves the impossible: to have a very padded four hours that nevertheless holds attention throughout. It’s exhausting to watch and I don’t do it often, but even though I watch it so rarely it’s still a shining classic of the Troughton era, of the black and white years, and of television science-fiction.
‘The War Games’- my favourite ‘Doctor Who’ story.
Out of over forty years worth of ‘Who’, this is the story which in my heart of hearts I truly believe to be better than any others. It lasts for ten episodes, it features a lot of running around, it has repetitive music, bizarre cardboard glasses and some very, very dodgy looking rubber suits: all these things are used against it, but for me they help to make it what it is: the best ‘Doctor Who’ story ever.
When I first saw it, I was eleven years old. I’d seen most stories, and those that I had not seen I knew about, aside from a handful, which included this story. One day, I was off ill from school, so as a treat my Dad let me rent out a video from the local video store- this was the one I chose since I reasoned it would take me a while to watch it.
I ended up getting through it by the end of the day; from its beginning- eerie surroundings, special sequence for the titles- I was hooked. All the characters were being well acted, all the effects were looking very nice indeed, and everyone seemed to be taking it very seriously.
The comedic aspects to come were a breath of fresh air; a nice contrast to the rather haunting nature of the story, but there is no escaping the darker aspects. This is a story about war- many wars, being fought for no real reason.
When you hear the Aliens reel off the numbers of new specimens to be taken to the War Zones, it hurts because you realise that they are replacements as so many people have been needlessly killed. Likewise, when you see Carstairs get put through the Mind Wiping process, it seems cruel and sadistic- something I shall return to later…
The length of the story makes everything seem so much bigger- the story’s scope seems to be larger than most stories, and everything has an epic quality to it; the incidental music reflects this, sounding as triumphant as the story tries to be. This is a story unafraid of trying to be big and bold, and it succeeds at being so. It is, quite simply, an epic adventure.
This is a story about raising the stakes, and raising the odds against our heroes. We’ve had base-under-siege adventures where hundreds of lives are in danger; this is a story where hundreds of lives have already been lost, and it is up to the Doctor and his group of fighters to try to save everybody, and it needs a group. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoë alone are not enough: they need help; they need the resistance, and even then the resistance are desperate to grow in number.
It is here that the story has its biggest shortcoming, in that the budget simply never allows for the Resistance to seem as large as it should, but rather than let this be a bad thing, we are presented with characters who are memorable enough to make us not mind that we do not see more extras. Who cares about the rest of the Resistance when we have characters as well rounded and loveable as Russell?
This is a story about running: the heroes run from place to place, time zone to time zone but time is running out, and you cannot keep running forever- you have to stop eventually. This is a story about stopping.
Of course, this is also the story that introduces us to the Time Lords, and despite how much I love what Robert Holmes did to them in ‘The Deadly Assassin’, I would firmly argue that they were never better than they are here because, everybody, for one night only, you can see why the Doctor fled his home planet.
The story is too big, the adventure is too over-whelming, and for once the Doctor cannot stop it- cue Time Lords.
Episode 10 of ‘The War Games’ is where ‘Doctor Who’ as a show changes forever. It starts off a tad ropey- attack of the stock footage!- but even this is fun, and more than forgivable given what is coming up. The trial of the Aliens is tense, a neat contrast from the fleeing of the Doctor we have just seen: from something so full of movement we are now presented with something so static.
This is where the parallels begin too. We have the War Lord’s trial reflected in the Doctor’s; we have the dispatch of the War Lord and the Aliens- death by dematerialisation- drawing parallels with what the Aliens themselves were doing: taking human ‘specimens’ and removing them from time forever; most horrifying of all, we have the mind wiping of Jamie and Zoë.
As mentioned earlier, when this happens before, the process horrifies us and that was when it happened to a supporting character. Now it happens to two regulars, it is too much to bear. You know something bad is going to happen- you can see it all in Patrick Troughton’s expressions; you hear that both Zoë and Jamie are safe, but it’s not enough; however it is only when the Time Lords both sentence the doctor to exile and force him to regenerate that the penny, as it were, finally drops: the Time Lords are no better than the Aliens.
The sentence imposed upon the Doctor is harsh and brutal- loss of two friends, loss of freedom and loss of identity. No wonder he fled whilst he still had the chance.
I could go on all day- there are bits I haven’t even mentioned: the absolutely terrific characters that are War Chief and the Security Chief, which are both superbly written and fantastically acted; I could mention the brilliant use of defamiliarisation- making the everyday object that is a pair of glasses seem so scary; I could go on at length about how this is the first time in ‘Doctor Who’ that you really, really care about the love lives of the supporting characters, namely Carstairs and Lady Jennifer. I could mention all this and more, but I have already gone on long enough.
‘The War Games’: my favourite ‘Doctor Who’ story for ever and ever and ever- I hope I’ve given a good enough reason for other people to love it as much as I do too….
‘Stop, you’re making me giddy!’
The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe find themselves in the middle of No Mans Land, in the Great War. They soon find their way to the British trench where they are welcomed and sent to HQ. At the headquarters however they find a less friendly welcome. They are soon standing trial for espionage. Things are not what they seem on the front lines.
The War Games is grand in scope. Over ten episodes we are shown the first world war, Ancient Rome, the American Civil War, the War Lords base and (apparently) Gallifrey. Over the course of the ten episodes there is remarkably little padding, the story zipping along until about halfway through, then picking up speed again for the dénouement. The set design is fantastic, particularly at the British HQ where it seems criminal to have recorded in colour as the set looks so authentic, down to graffiti on the walls. In the technology and base of the alien War Lords too there is much innovative design, and the classic sf device of striking contrasts and kaleidoscope patterns. If the guard’s strange rubber uniforms and diving masks are a little dodgy we’ll overlook them in favour of the splendid Time capsules; suggesting the Tardis ever before the clues of the connection are planted.
Performance wise the guests vary extremely; it is not exaggerating to say that James Bree, as the Security Chief, gives an abysmal performance. The painfully stilted delivery of his lines, no doubt intended to suggest his alien nature, must take up about three episodes running time. Also not so great is Noel Coleman as General Smythe, though it may be partially due to his lines. The majority of the rest of the cast is excellent, however. Special mention should go to Rudolph Walker for an excellent turn as a confused American soldier and to David Troughton in a brief but touching cameo.
Edward Brayshaw, as the War Chief, is compelling. His performance is well judged and in his cunning – and his facial hair - he is almost a blueprint for the Master even before it is revealed that the Doctor is of his race. The scene where he and the Doctor first come face to face is a treasure. Their later scenes also play very well. It seems a pity that the actor spends most of his screen time waiting for the Security Chief to finish dripping his dialogue into the scene. Best guest artist award must go to Philip Madoc however, who is so urbanely evil and calmly vicious that he sets a new benchmark for Who baddies which possibly only he will meet. Whether reclining on top of his desk, or stood facing the judgement of the Time Lords; he is a pleasure to watch.
The regular cast themselves are present and correct. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury have little extra to do; even their leaving scene, sad though it is, is quite subdued. Patrick Troughton has some great grandstanding moments however, whether railing against the War Chief for his irresponsible actions, running to escape his people or getting cross when they expect him to choose a new face. Over the ten episodes you probably do get everything you love about the second Doctor, and it is a fitting farewell for him. We learn more about the character of the Doctor in the last twenty five minutes than has been revealed in the previous six years. Interesting that the explanation he offers here for leaving the Time Lords is different to the first Doctors suggestions that they were exiles, on the run. Would the first or the Second Doctor be telling a fib?
Malcolm Hulke has written here one of the most original plots the show has had, and it is a credit to his writing and the production team that the story doesn’t drag, as so many shorter ones do, and that the visuals are never less than convincingly executed. Not the best second Doctor story, but something like a greatest hits of Troughton, backed up with an original plot and some sterling performances. ‘The War Games’ is something special.
At this point in Doctor Who’s history, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ is the longest story to date, and ‘The War Games’ almost rivals it at only two episodes shorter. ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ is in my opinion a true classic and maintains interest throughout its considerable length by switching locations and bringing in new characters throughout. ‘The War Games’ on the other hand limits itself to (for the first nine episodes) a single planet, albeit featuring different time zones and locations, and a relatively consistent cast. I would not describe ‘The War Games’ as a classic and it certainly isn’t the same league as ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’, but it nevertheless manages to maintain an interesting narrative as it builds slowly towards an unforgettable climax.
The basic premise of ‘The War Games’ is slightly strange, but essentially it works; the Aliens (who are never referred to as anything else) bring large numbers of humans from out of Earth’s history and by a process of survival of the fittest, attempt to whittle them down to an elite fighting force, with which they intend to conquer the galaxy. It’s not entirely plausible, and I can’t help wondering why, if so many of the humans are so disposable anyway, they don’t just brainwash the lot and send them into battle, but it makes for a surprisingly engaging story. The various wartime eras are quite well presented, with generally good sets and costumes, something the BBC has a reputation for. The large cast is generally good, with one or two exceptions that I’ll come to shortly, and despite the length of the story it manages to avoid feeling padded, with the possible exception of the Private Moore scenes, which is a very trivial criticism. This is in spite of the large number of escapes and recaptures throughout, as the Doctor and his friends variously get captured by Smythe’s men, escape, get recaptured, escape again with Carstairs and Lady Jennifer, get split up, arrive at the Aliens’ base, get captured, escape again, meet up with Jamie again, get captured again, etc etc etc. Because each escape and capture results in a progression of the plot, this never actually seems repetitive; for example their initial capture and subsequent court-martial arose the Doctor’s suspicions that all is not what it seems, and his subsequent escape into an entirely different war obviously serves to confirm this.
Once the truth of the situation begins to emerge, the pace quickens even more, as the action shifts to the Alien base and also the resistance forces enter the fray. It is here that my first major criticism of the story arises. In the 1917 zone, when Lieutenant Lucke sees a demonstration of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, he is very quick to accept that the Doctor has been telling the truth. Now I realize that the irony of my argument is that the Doctor is telling the truth, I just think that Lucke accepts it too easily; after all, in his position, I would assume that the Doctor is an amateur magician before I’d believe that he is an alien. And this is my problem; many of the human characters seem to accept what is really going on very easily. I can just about convince myself that this is because the processing is flawed and that they are already subconsciously realize that something is wrong, but it still never quite seems convincing. Fortunately, after the first four episodes, this distracting trivial issue becomes irrelevant. Once events move to the Aliens’ base, two things of significance happen; firstly, we start to get satisfying answers to the mounting questions, coupled with the political wrangling between the War Chief and the Security Chief; this not only advances the plot, but also adds new intrigue, as it becomes clear that all is not well amongst the ranks of the villains. Secondly, and most importantly, we get that almost shocking moment when the Doctor’s and the war Chief’s eyes meet, and a clear flash of recognition passes between them. This signposts the start of the increasing tension evident in the Doctor as he starts to realize that he is facing a problem that he cannot solve alone, and that his only recourse will be to ask his own people for help.
This unfolding and massively important subplot is partially dependent for its success on Edward Brayshaw’s excellent portrayal of the War Chief. We have seen the Doctor face a renegade member of his own race before, in ‘The Time Meddler’ and ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’, but there the emphasis was more on humour. Here, the full significance of what this can mean for the Doctor comes to light; he is clearly terrified when he sees the War Chief, presumably suspecting that, since the Aliens’ SIDRATs are based on TARDIS technology, his own people are rather involved. He visibly calms down in later episodes as he realises that the War Chief is a lone renegade helping the War Lord’s people, but this relief is short-lived once he finally accepts that he needs help to get everybody home. The Doctor’s conversations with the War Chief are fascinating; they clearly know each other, and both discuss their decisions to leave their own world. For the first time in the series entire history we start to learn about the Doctor’s past, and I’ve never found it so captivating as I have whilst watching the series in order. The revelation that the Doctor stole his TARDIS is surprising enough in itself, but this is as nothing compared to the sheer terror that he and the War Chief exhibit as the need to summon the Time Lords becomes clear. Time Lords. It’s so easy to take for granted now that the Doctor is a Time Lord, but hearing the War Chief use the phrase for the first time also has enormous impact; for the first time, we learn what the Doctor really is, and it sounds impressive, mysterious, and foreboding. It is to the Doctor’s credit that in spite of his obvious fear (he is even prepared to let Villar shoot him rather than staying to wait for his own people), he summons help for the sake of the humans present. In contrast, the War Chief is just terrified and bolts as soon as the Doctor assembles his communication cube. Brayshaw imbues his performance with tremendous charisma and energy, and his own barely controlled panic is almost as impressive as the Doctor’s far more openly fraught anxiety.
The War Chief is a great villain. He looks and sounds impressive (yes, even with those sideburns) and is a commanding figure. During the middle of the story, his rivalry with the Security Chief makes him seem like a man in control, easily manipulating a petty and rather stupid subordinate. This is doubly fortunate, given that James Bree provides one of the most diabolically bad performances of any actor in Doctor Who up until, this point. The Security Chief seems to be heavily inspired by Gestapo officers, but just seems constipated for the most part. Nevertheless, Brayshaw’s commanding performance counter-balances this acting atrocity, much to the overall benefit of the story. What is more interesting however, is how the War Chief behaves once the War Lord arrives. Suddenly, he is not as in control as he would like people around to believe, he is just another subordinate and one perhaps out of his death. The War Lord’s withering scorn shows no favoritism for either War Chief or Security Chief, belittling both as and when necessary. From the moment that the War Chief explains his intention to take complete control to the Doctor, there is a sudden feeling that he is woefully out of his depth, and his death at the ends of the War Lord’s guards has a certain inevitability. Philip Madok’s second performance of the season is even better than his first; the ruthless, sneering War Lord is so distinct from the oleaginous Eelek in ‘The Krotons’ that it is easy to forget that they are played by the same actor. If the War Chief is a commanding villain, the War Lord makes him look like a sniveling worm, so utterly cold and compassionless is he. His beaming smile, as he listens to the Doctor’s transparent flattery, is terrifying.
There is almost the effect of a “food chain” in ‘The War Games’, with a “bigger fish” always around the corner. The Security Chief is a nasty little man, but is outranked by the far more impressive War Chief. He in turn seems far less impressive next to the War Lord. And at the top of the chain are the Time Lords. Knowing in retrospect how the Time Lords change throughout the series, it is interesting to see how they are handled here. The Doctor talks of their great power, and they are portrayed as powerful and mysterious, easily sending the captured humans home and dealing with the War Lord, despite his ill-fated escape attempt. Despite their aloofness however, they also seem compassionate; they talk of not wanting to inflict pain, of not wanting innocents to be hurt, and the Time Lord who collects Jamie and Zoe seems genuinely touched by their attachment to the Doctor. On the other hand, they are also willing to mete out justice as they see fit; they not only dematerialize the War Lord, they also effectively kill off one of the Doctor’s lives. Perhaps the best comparison is that of strict parents; the Doctor, cowed and guilty looking, seems almost like a naughty schoolboy in episode ten, next to the Time Lords who place him on trial; they grow patiently listen to his defense and indeed seem to accept it, but they refuse to indulge him when he takes time to choose a new appearance, quickly deciding to choose one for him. And then there is what they do to Jamie and Zoe.
My major criticism of ‘The War Games’ is the fate of the Doctor’s companions. From a story point of view, I can appreciate it, but as a viewer I feel cheated. In ‘The Wheel in Space’, Zoe was precocious and irritating, but during her travels with the Doctor her character developed dramatically and she became a likeable companion, clearly enjoying her travels. Suddenly, at the end of ‘The War Games’, all of that is effectively undone, as she is returned to her own time and her memory of her travels with the Doctor erased. With Jamie it is even more painful, since he’s been with the Doctor for even longer and has undergone even greater development, becoming one of the Doctor’s most enduring companions. It is almost painful to see all of that taken away, and whilst I realize that this is the point, it is still all too infuriating. At least both Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines get plenty to do in their final story, after being wasted in ‘The Space Pirates’; both Zoe and Jamie play important roles in defeating the Aliens, and at least they get a truly touching final scene with the Doctor as they say goodbye.
Troughton’s final performance is better than ever. He gets some great comic moments early on, especially when he bluffs his way into the military prison in search of Jamie, and later gets to display an even greater range, as he angrily confronts the War Chief over his role in the war games, and becomes increasingly nervous and afraid as he realizes what must be done. He is quite superb in the last two episodes, seeming almost on the verge of tears as he sends the box to the Time Lords and frantically makes his escape. His explanation of his past in episode ten is probably my favourite moment from the entire story, as he explains that the wanted to explore time and space and so fled his own planet. It is an unforgettable moment in the series’ history. It is also quite shocking to see the Doctor resigned to his fate in episode ten, as he finally convinces Jamie and Zoe that there is no escape. He becomes his old self again in the trial room as sentence is passed, but of course, for the last time…
Production wise, ‘The War Games’ is generally very good. The minimalist sets of the Alien base work surprisingly well, as do the gimp costumes worn by the guards. The strange cardboard spectacles however, look utterly ridiculous. My other big criticism of ‘The War Games’ is the incidental score, which is pompous and overblown. This is appropriate in episode ten, but for the rest of the story is monumentally irritating, especially the annoying “sinister” theme that kicks in intrusively whenever an Alien dons a pair of special glasses. I’m quite capable of realizing that something strange is going on, without unsubtle musical cues hammering the point home every single time.
There are other things about ‘The War Games’ that annoy me too; there are, inevitably, some very stereotypical characters on display, most notably Arturo Villar. I also never cease to find it unintentionally hilarious when von Weich first appears, complete with bald head, monocle, and dueling scar. Possibly the aliens have been watching Blackadder Goes Forth… Overall, there are too many shortcomings of ‘The War Games’ to allow it be considered a classic in my eyes, but there aren’t enough for it be considered a turkey either. Considering its length, and the unforgettable final episode, I think it achieves its aims very well.
Overall, Season Six is not up to the quality of Season Five, but is generally strong and in some respects shows Troughton at his best. The ending of ‘The War Games’ heralds massive change. I noted when I reviewed ‘The Tenth Planet’ that whilst watching the series in order for the first time I felt a real emotional impact when Hartnell left. Having got just as used to Troughton, I felt the same effect, but the change is even more pronounced. Not only is this goodbye to Patrick Troughton, but also it’s goodbye to the black and white era, and signifies an enormous change in the style of the show. Doctor Who would never be the same again…
It is ironic that one of the few Patrick Troughton stories to exist in its entireity, The War Games, could actually do with being trimmed down an episode or two. An excellant story but, alas, a tad long with many gratuitous scenes that could be cut. As long as all the scenes with the chillingly macilous General Smythe, the dry Von Weich, pompous Security Chief, charismatic War Chief and, most of all, the sneering, soft-spoken War Lord, could all be retained. Cut out some of the escape/getting recaptured scenes perhaps?
This story has always had a fascination for me. I was actually born on the year it came out (1968) so the first I knew of it was when the target book by Malcolm Hulke came out in...oh dear. 1981? Normally I had no interest in Dr Who books other than the ones being televised at that time, but what I knew about this story had an increasing fascination for me. It wasn't a typical DW story by any means, something apparantly was to happen to the second Doctor by the end of the book to make him regenerate, the time lords were to be involved for the first time ever...my curiosity so got the better of me that I bought the novel and was thourougly captivated. Malcolm Hulke's dialogue was as sharp as ever, yet there is absolutely no description at all of the War Lord. He just appears two thirds into the book. My young mind pictured him as a tall, dramatic figure in long, flowing robes! Imagine then some months later in a DW magazine there is a photo of the character...I was flabbergasted! This short, dapper figure with the beard, thick glasses and high forehead: this was the War Lord? And yet this character who seldom spoke above a murmur even when threatening someone with death is easily the most evil 'human' villian in DW's history.
Which point brings me to the video, seen years later. These aliens with their war games are evil and without compassion, excellant baddies, but to look at they are middle aged, balding, short, bespectacled...utterly unremarlable, but this is all the more chilling. Evil is not just looking like an Ice Warrior, a Cyberman or even a Dominator...the alien race in the War Games have the evil in their souls.
The plot was easy for my young mind to grasp also, being fairly simplistic in concept unlike, say, Logopolis which at the time I confess to being baffled about plotwise until the book came out several years later. The War Games is highly dramatic, not least of all for the shock ending. The little Doctor and his companions for once do not win through at the end, and its all the more shocking because right till the end one is rooting for them, thinking they might make it. And as for Jamie and Zoe...was there ever a more poignant scene than the one at the end when they are forced to depart due to the time lords' intervention?
On a lighter note, fans of Blackadder Goes Forth will see very definate similarities between that and episodes 1-3 of the War Games.....the chataeu, the trenches, the captain, the general, the adjudant with his form obsession....I guess Ben Elton was a DW fan as a child.
Absolutely brilliant. 10 out of 10!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!