Directed by David Maloney
Written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke
Last time out we wrapped up one important era when we finished with the missing episodes, but that was more of a retroactively relevant serial. Quality wise it was a load of old tripe and inessential. “The War Games”, however, is one of the more important serials in the show’s run and represents a far more crucial end to one era. When The First Doctor’s run came to an end with “The Tenth Planet”, it may have happened at the end of a production cycle, but it happened midseason with Patrick Troughton taking over for William Hartnell. Other than that change, the show remained remarkably similar. The companions remained the same, the crew behind the scenes weren’t changing, and the stories were largely similar with even the new Doctor being written similarly to his predecessor at times.
As Season Six comes to an end though and we say goodbye to The Second Doctor, far more is about to change. This was the final serial produced in black and white as the show moved to glorious colour in Season 7. It would be the last of the 1960s as the show took its first substantial break off the air (six months from June to January). It would also completely reboot the cast with Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury joining Troughton in leaving the show. Finally, it would mark a change of format for the show as we know it for better or worse. We’ll discuss exactly how it changes going forward and the advantages and disadvantages of it, but with this ten-episode serial that pushes the season to 44 episodes, the days of long seasons are coming to an end.
Bigger than any trivialities about season lengths is what’s about to happen to the story and how that impacts the format, but well get to that at the end. The show has made it plain before that The Doctor is an alien (most notably the whole regeneration business), but it’s largely been brushed off and hardly a concern for the show. It only makes sense that for the second regeneration story, we get to be introduced to the Doctor’s race, the Time Lords. We may have met another Time Lord before in The Meddler from “The Time Meddler” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, but he was never named as such there.
The Doctor and his companions wind up in the middle of No Man’s Land during World War I and it’s a period that seems to be an inevitable one for The Doctor to wind up in. Hardly glamorous and to the best of my knowledge, it’s one that the show hasn’t visited anywhere close to the amount of its much more popular sequel, but it’s still a major British conflict. A fun thing to remember as well, it’s been about as long (nearly fifty-one years) since the airing of this serial as it had been between the ending of the First World War and the airing of this serial (nearly fifty years which is likely why the setting was chosen). It’s an impressive opening that’s shot documentary style with bombs going off all around and it made me hanker for a serial more focused on the period. This one is far more ambitious than that (probably for the best considering the length), but it does wisely keep the WWI setting at the foreground of the plot. Even as the sci-fi underpinnings of the story unfold, and the plot gets more expansive in setting, they always make sure to return to that original one and keep some tie in to that original period.
The three are found by the Brits and brought back where they are questioned about how they got there. While they aren’t exactly able to come up with a good explanation, for once they are not alone. Two of the people there appear to be having difficulty remembering things such as where they were going. It takes the general to remind them of their roles and relationships or at least when he tells them something they start to believe it to be true while using his glasses. The same general who reports about 5,000 specimens in the 1917 sector and clearly gives the game away that this is not the only time period, they are test subjects, and that he’s evil. The serial isn’t even trying for mystery or subtlety there which does lend it a more unique format (no pretending we don’t know who the real bad guy is, just the characters who are in the dark), but I still could have used more of a tease out of all that info and those twists. It was about three cliffhangers given away in one mid-episode scene.
The general falsifies cases against The Doctor and his companions and accuses them of treason and espionage, quickly convicting Jamie of desertion, Zoe of betraying her country, and The Doctor or treason and we get our trademark first episode cliffhanger with The Doctor lined up to be shot by firing squad and then apparently being executed. While I’d normally say that it’s a pretty ridiculous tease, if you’re going to do the tease The Doctor dying, best to do it in his final one before regenerating (whether that was common knowledge for fans before the serial aired or not, I don’t know) when the danger is real. The way he’s saved is almost soap opera-esque too as the shots weren’t fired by the firing squad and I had to applaud them for the boldly silly resolution.
The first episode has another mystery about the general, as he mysteriously disappeared in his room, but in the second episode, we start to get our first real teases of something more. While the show doesn’t say at the time what it means, he disappears in a box with a sound resembling the TARDIS and anyone remembering the basic rules of the TARDIS’s chameleon circuit (which had been established repeatedly and shown off when The Meddler came to play) will know exactly what it is.
While it is establishing that, it is also establishing the setting in more detail, with Jamie first coming across a British soldier who thinks it is 1745 before the escaping TARDIS crew (with some accompanying local support) drive through a mist (which is described as some kind of force field), disappearing in one area and appearing in another where the war is not going on. Instead there are plenty of Romans who are not so keen on them and start charging on them sight unseen. The whole area is divided up into time zones which the general helpfully keeps a map of.
What impressed me was a British show depicting the decision to escape to the German side and giving a fairly even-handed portrayal of each one. The heroes even find a sympathetic German to their cause, one who would have been a lot more helpful if it wasn’t for another one the German side who is also capable of altering the minds and memories of these soldiers (albeit with a monocle because of course it is).
The serial is far less interested in the mystery of what is going on in this world than it is with setting up its big conclusion. The actual story, with humans who are removed from their own time and placed into a world that resembles their own is incredibly convoluted to be sure. I’d expect nothing less from the show and it needs to fill out the ten episodes somehow. There’s the resistance who are humans that are immune to the effects completely, but some merely have the effect fade over time and show plays real fast and loose with this all.
The ultimate goal of the ending is not hard to see early on even without the benefit of hindsight. After The Doctor and Zoe disappear into the alternate TARDIS leaving Jamie behind, The Doctor insists on playing coy on the answer to why it is also bigger on the inside and who it could be with the technology. The show also tries to keep the mystery going with the War Chief, someone who is a traitor to his own people… the same people as the Doctor belongs to. I enjoyed watching the two villainous underbosses (The War Chief and his Security Chief) to the War Lord (the leader of a race which is never given a name but are also called the War Lords in the script) bickering it out with their competing theories about The Doctor and their boss and the motivations and loyalties.
But it’s in the sixth episode that the name Time Lord is uttered for the first time and that’s when it becomes clear they are the ultimate focus of this story. Yes, the plot continues on with the attempts to subdue the resistance as the aliens are trying to conquer Earth using the soldiers, having them fight to find the best and most disciplined since man is the most vicious species in the galaxy (ooh, edgy). This is basically a proto-Predators except significantly whiter. The war zones seem disproportionately, if unsurprisingly, centered on wars the English were involved in which raises some unfortunate implications. The War Chief also claims he instead plans to use those troops to bring “peace” despite the aliens’ wishes. It’s complete nonsense and barely worth consideration though it does move at a healthy clip, which is impressive for such a long serial. The most interesting aspect instead comes when most serials would end.
The resistance has toppled the aliens, the War Chief has killed the Security Chief, and everyone is ready to return home. Yet the show is only mid-way through episode nine and still has one last twist up its sleeve; there’s no way to get everyone home. There aren’t enough machines to get all the people plucked from their time periods back and despite having a time machine, you certainly can’t rely on The Doctor to get anywhere accurately in the TARDIS. The Doctor is left with only one option, the one he has been dreading and one that The War Chief also immediately recognizes and dreads. He has to call the Time Lords since they are the only ones who can put everyone back in their proper place. It takes until the ninth episode for him to finally admit that the Time Lords are his own people, but nothing has ever instilled fear in The Doctor like even the thought of them coming.
He contacts them using a box which he assembles by meditating and which contains all the information about the situation and an appeal for help. He also transports it to them by meditating and I’d love to see NuWho try to work that in somehow and not make it look absurd. Both Time Lords take the opportunity to flee with little luck. The War Chief is killed on the orders of the War Lord and the big climactic battle (granted one that’s over very quick) isn’t even in the final episode. The Doctor tries fleeing before they arrive (including in cheesy slow motion), having to break through a force field that makes them move ridiculously slow (it’s bad when the tape is played in slow motion, it’s worse when you can tell the actors are doing it intentionally).
It is only now that The Doctor finally gives his reason for running away. To put it simply, he was bored. The Time Lords are an immensely civilized race who can control their own environment, live forever barring accidents, and of course have the secret to space-time travel. They have all this technology and these abilities, but they only use their powers to observe and this wasn’t enough for The Doctor. It’s an excuse that fits with a curious sort like The Doctor and one who is certainly stubborn about getting his own way. Granted, the interfering is more of a trait that developed later with the character as opposed to being apparent at the outset, but I can’t see him being cooped up and not wanting to constantly explore.
His attempts to flee are no use though as the Time Lords are able to keep tracking him and they demand that he face trial, a trial that The Doctor is determined to not face at any cost. It finally comes to an end on Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home world (though it is still unnamed at this time). The War Lord is also tried by the Time Lords first and unsurprisingly convicted. He also unsurprisingly rejects their ruling as he believes that the ends justified the means, the soldiers would have died anyway, a Time Lord (or two if you count The Doctor who briefly feigned helping them) helped him and he has some of his alien cohorts storm in and rescue him. Their plot is anticlimactically resolved as they wind up getting dematerialized so it’s as if they never existed.
The Doctor too stands trial for violating their law of noninterference. The Doctor pleads guilty but also proudly does so, making reference to (and allowing for cameos from) the various villains he’s defeated. After a bit of deliberation, the Time Lords make their final decision. Jamie and Zoe are both sent back in time to a moment right before they left with The Doctor, apparently to have their adventures with The Doctor erased aside from the first. It’s a choice by the writers that fucking weak sauce and while it may not as bad as Donna would go on to be treated, it certainly set some precedent by the show. All the development that they underwent as characters, gone in an instant. I do appreciate the way that they made it look like they rejoined the episodes they got on at “The Wheel in Space” and “The Highlanders”, complete with scene recreations, but it still renders their journeys pointless in many ways.
The Time Lords do decide that The Doctor has a point in his fighting of evil. They also hang a big lampshade on the fact that he seems to visit Earth a lot and since he seems to visit it a lot he must clearly know it the best. He is exiled to 20th Century Earth, stripped of his TARDIS, and is forced to change his appearance (since he is already known on Earth). Granted it hasn’t been described as this yet, but it certainly feels like he’s being sentenced to death of sorts. This time though, they give him a choice of what he will get to look like, but he rejects all his choices for being too old, too fat, too thin, too young, or too ridiculous. While I can see where he is coming from, I also don’t blame the Time Lords for just giving up and forcing the regeneration early regardless.
The Doctor isn’t even being punished for his actions in “The War Games”, this isn’t him facing up to the consequences of anything he did this time out, this is him finally facing up to what has been building all series in his decision to run away. It’s also going to, for a time at least, usher in a new format for the show where the Doctor is Earthbound and working as an adviser to UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (which was set up in “The Invasion”). It’s a clever way to tie in obvious budget concerns with development for him and continuing to expand the world of the show, even as they contract the setting to just one planet.
It’s an unwieldy and probably overlong story in a season filled with overlong stories that undercuts several of it mysteries while not holding up in its main story, but it succeeds in spite of all that. It’s engaging with some entertaining performances, creating an epic around a group of unknown aliens while still managing to have a feeling that we are building to something bigger. Something bigger that is certainly delivered.
Season Grade: C+ (That’s how averages work out, despite 5/7 grades being C+ or better)
– Frazer Hines does return later on in 1983’s “The Five Doctors” and 1985’s “The Two Doctors” which I will get to in the next decade or so.
– Only four actors have appeared more episodes of Doctor Who than Hines; William Hartnell, Troughton, Jon Pertwee, and Tom Baker.
– He would go on to star in Emmerdale (originally Emmerdale Farm) for 23 years and over 1500 episodes.
– Wendy Padbury too would return for “The Five Doctors”, but she had a much less notable career (though she did have a supporting role in the horror film The Blood on Satan’s Claw).
– David Troughton, Patrick Troughton’s son, has a small role in the serial as a hypnotized Moor.
– The War Lord was played by Philip Madoc, a trivia favorite of this site as one of the few to appear in both the show and a film, having already appeared in “The Krotons” before this. He’s also great in the role on top of that.
– Pat Gorman, who appears in a small role as a policeman and would have 73 different roles on the show, is apparently in seventh for most serials.
– This is Derrick Sherwin’s first credit on Doctor Who as a producer.
– His wife, Jane Sherwin, plays Lady Jennifer, the ambulance driver and member of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve
– We get the third appearance from the sonic screwdriver after “Fury from the Deep” and “The Dominators”
– The time periods chosen are Roman, Greek (a bit broad and lazy there with the first two aren’t you Doctor Who writers?), the Crimean War, the First World War, the Peninsular War, the American Civil War, the Mexican Civil War, the English Civil War, the Thirty-Years War, the Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War.
– I do usually try to avoid talking about NuWho too much here since it is technically jumping ahead and a bit of distraction, but sometimes it is too hard not to note something (since the show is constantly pulling from the past, that’s not surprising). There’s been criticism of the show in some corners for getting too obsessive about The Doctor’s backstory and keeping it a mystery. While I don’t think it’s unfair to expect a character to grow over the centuries/incarnations, it is something that is established here as being a core part of his character that he just doesn’t feel comfortable talking about his past.
– The War Chief recognizes The Doctor even though his face has changed and I’m not sure the plot ever really gets into this even though it offers up a lot of intriguing possibilities.
– The Doctor does at least say that Earth seems to be especially vulnerable so it’s not completely luck based that he keeps winding up on Earth I guess.
– The regeneration scene is absolutely ridiculous as he fights back with all the stupid effects and sound effects they add.
– The Time Lord’s attire as shown here is boring and uninspired. No wonder The Doctor is always wanting to mix things up with increasingly garish costumes.– Episode eight of this serial was until 1989, Doctor Who’s least-watched episode and it was the lowest rated serial of Troughton’s run.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: For once we actually have a cliffhanger again! We don’t yet get to see who the Third Doctor will be (as he hadn’t even been cast yet), just the Second Doctor spinning backwards into space after that silly regeneration sequence.
Next Up: I’ve taken enough breaks recently so I’m not going to take one between Doctors. It’s onward to “Spearhead from Space” and the Third Doctor as we continue with Doctor Who (Classic) on 4/1.
“Mission to the Unknown”
“The Myth Makers”
“The Daleks’ Master Plan”
“The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve”
“The Celestial Toymaker”
“The War Machines”