And so we come to an end of an era. Or the end of many eras if you prefer.
At the end of this story we bid farewell to The Second Doctor, the longest running companion in the show’s history (Jamie) and stories recorded in Black & White.
It’s also the end of much of the mystery surrounding the Doctor as – after 49 previous stories amounting to 243 episodes – we finally learn about his people, The Time Lords.
At ten episodes in length, The War Games is an epic story. When you think about it, it’s amazing that it exists in its entirety.
But is it good, and does it see off Patrick Troughton’s Doctor well?
Doctor Who – The War Games Review: What’s This One About?
Brainwashed soldiers from a variety of different wars throughout Earth’s history have – unbeknownst to them – been brought to an alien planet to take part in the War Games. While they believe they are still fighting in their own wars and in their own times, they are really there so that the Aliens running the War Games can take the best soldiers from it and turn them into an army capable of galactic domination.
Why then they went no further into Earth’s history than World War 1 is never explained. But let’s not dwell on that.
As you might expect, the Doctor lands on the planet and once he realises what’s going on, he sets about stopping them.
But this time he can’t do it all by himself. One of the Doctor’s own race has been helping the aliens by lending them TARDIS technology, but those TARDIS machines have a limited lifespan and are on the point of wearing out. With the task of returning every single soldier back to his or her own time on Earth beyond the Doctor, he must call in his own people – The Time Lords – to sort out the mess themselves.
By doing so, he also brings the spotlight upon himself. It turns out the Time Lords have a code regarding interfering in the affairs of other planets, and the Doctor has been…well…rather guilty of that over the years. So they send Jamie and Zoe back to their own times (with no memory of the Doctor beyond their initial meeting with him) and then sentence him to exile on Earth.
The last we see of the Second Doctor is him writhing in pain as the Time Lords force a regeneration upon him.
Thoughts – Capture/Escape/Capture/Escape/Capture
If you haven’t seen the War Games, you might think that the size of the ‘What’s This One About Section’ relative to others is because it’s a ten episode story.
In truth, the majority of the plot I’ve explained there happens either at the very start of very end of the story. The stuff with the Time Lords only starts to happen towards the end of Episode 9.
So what are the other eight episodes about?
The answer is that it’s about the Doctor and his friends being captured, escaping and being captured again. Off the top of my head, I think the tally amounts to the Doctor being captured eleven times, Jamie being captured a further three times and Lt Carstairs finding himself captured once on his own.
The list is…
- The Doctor, Jamie & Zoe are arrested at the very start of the story under suspicion of being spies/deserters
- Zoe manages to get into the Doctor’s cell to free him before he goes to a firing squad
- But the guards just so happen to be coming to the door to take him away
- As he’s away to be shot by the firing squad, they come under attack and the Doctor escapes again.
- Jamie meanwhile manages to escape from where he is being held, but is caught again.
- The Doctor masquerades as a War Office official to try to free Jamie
- But just as they are about to leave, guards turn up at the door and capture them again
- The Doctor, Jamie & Zoe are freed by Lt Carstairs and Lady Jennifer
- All five of them are captured by the Germans
- They soon escape again to the American Civil War Zone, where Carstairs is captured and the Doctor & Zoe hop aboard a TARDIS to get to the aliens’ base
- A brainwashed Carstairs captures Zoe
- Jamie and Lady Jennifer get captured twice in the same episode by different sides of the American Civil War
- Jamie and the Resistance get captured when they mount an assault on the alien base.
- The Doctor manages to free them but once he’s sent Zoe and some of the Resistance away and he tries to leave with Jamie and Carstairs, he’s captured again
- But they escape again immediately and make their way back to the 1917 zone where they are once again captured and the Doctor is once again put in front of a firing squad
- And once again the Doctor is saved by the resistance.
- The Doctor is then captured by the aliens and taken back to their base.
- The rest of the resistance is then captured by the Doctor who is pretending to work with the aliens
- The Doctor brings in the Time Lords in a bid to sort it out and is captured by them.
- The War Lord and his guards capture the Doctor while on Gallifrey, but he is saved by the Time Lords
- The Doctor once again tries to escape from the Time Lords but is caught again, this time with Jamie & Zoe being sent home and him being put on trial.
Incredible, isn’t it? But the co-writer of the story – Terrence Dicks – is very much aware of this and makes light of it on the DVD commentary. Doctor Who is often criticised as being a show all about people running up and down corridors, and this is the classic example.
But then, there are circumstances surrounding it. Other stories were dropped at the last-minute and Dicks and his co-writer, Mac Hulke had to fill the ten episode gap at short notice.
And they do it well enough. For all that there is repetition, it’s still fine to watch. And I say that having watched it all in a handful of sittings over the course of a few days. What we have to remember here is that this was written with the intention of watching it one episode per week for ten weeks. So say for example when General Smythe turns up again in Episode 7 and does the whole Court-Martial/Firing Squad thing; it has been an entire month since he last appeared to the viewer, rather than just a little over an hour ago, and therefore it works.
You’d imagine that watching it at the time the repetition would be far less obvious.
The Greatest Cliffhanger Ever?
And speaking of watching it at the time, I can’t imagine there would ever have been an episode with a better cliffhanger than Episode 9 of the War Games.
The Doctor and/or his companions regularly find themselves in life threatening situations – almost at the end of every episode in fact – but you know they’ll get out of it.
I imagine at the time there may well have been a little bit of concern about whether or not the Doctor really could get out of this one. If the series was ever going to end, from a creative standpoint this was the ultimate opportunity. This could have been it for the Doctor.
The mystique of the Time Lords is at its best in this story too. By the time we get to the late 1970s, they are just another alien race on another alien planet. Here they are different, they are special. They appear to have mind control, which actually pre-dates that which was used quite famously in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
The scene where they inflict pain upon Philip Madoc’s brilliant War Lord just by looking at him is probably more scary for kids than any number of aliens with their guns and death rays. They are also able to create force fields out of thin air, erase
people from time as if they never existed and change the Doctor’s own appearance on a whim.
If they had been used as proper villains, they’d be the strongest in the entire series. After all, the Doctor himself is probably more scared of them here than he is of any villain he faces.
The grandeur of their incidental music also lends to their aura as well.
Sadly after this, it’s all down hill for the Time Lords.
The Villainous Cast
With such a large cast, there were always going to be hits and misses here, both in terms of writing and performance.
The Level One Villain, so to speak, is Noel Coleman’s fearsome General Smythe. He manages to look the part, sound the part and act the part terrifically. He’s presented as a right bastard, and the viewers probably thought he was the main enemy of this story at first, but really, he just turned out to be small fry.
Less good is the next villain to turn up – Captain von Weich. I could take him as the German equivalent to Smythe, but it reeked of lazy casting to also have him play the commander in the American Civil War Zone. It also made no sense. Is it that there happens to be a Germany on his own planet? Because while he speaks in an American accent while talking to his American troops, he reverts back to his German accent when speaking to the resistance. Therefore you’d assume German is his natural accent. I just didn’t get it.
Then there’s the Security Chief. I quite like James Bree in some of his performances in other shows, and his role in Full Circle, but here he just becomes annoying. And it’s all down to his stunted delivery. He’s clearly a character modelled on Himmler, which is fine, but his delivery of lines becomes really irritating.
“Iiiiiiiiii want to speeeeeeeeak toooooooo the Waaaaaaaaar Looooooooord. On the TOP seCURITY CHANNel”
His whole motivation is a bit dull as well, as he spends his entire time on the show trying to get The War Chief into trouble. In truth, he was one character that the story could have done without.
And as for the War Chief and the War Lord? Well, I can’t say it any better than one of the commentators on the accompanying documentary on the War Games DVD. He said that he felt Edward Brayshaw brought a sort of pantomime villainy to the part of the War Chief, while Philip Madoc brings a genuine menace with the War Lord.
Both are excellent in their roles. Madoc does a far better job here than he did in the Krotons, and weirdly looks like a completely different man as well.
One other shout out, and that’s to Vernon Dobtcheff as the Chief Scientist. He’s cool.
Geeky Pub Quiz Fact – he’s also the first character in the show’s history to mention The Time Lords by name.
- I thought the reveal that something wasn’t quite as it seemed happened far too early into the story. Within a few minutes of the show starting, Smythe goes through to his private room and is about to move aside the picture frame and reveal the Video Telephone, but he is interrupted by one of his staff. They should have left it there and come back to him trying again later on, but instead they did the reveal there. Not the best
- This story has one of my favourite lines – in terms of delivery – in the history of the show. When the War Chief sees the Doctor in the lecture and screams ‘STOP THEM’, I think it’s just brilliant. The way he says it and the way Troughton reacts really added some weight to what could easily have been a throwaway bit of dialogue.
- Many people believe that The War Chief is the Master. I’ve never really understood that line of thought.
- One thing you could ask though is why he doesn’t regenerate after he is shot? Why also did the two Time Lords that the aliens shoot in Episode 10 not regenerate either? Well, we could debate that point all day and try to get wrapped up in Canon, but the fact is that they were written as having been killed, because the concept of ‘regeneration’ isn’t invented until the Planet of the Spiders. So there.
- On the subject of those Time Lords being killed though, I’ve always thought the acting of the dark-haired one is so bad that it is probably among the worst death scenes in Doctor Who history. Off the top of my head the only one worse is the woman who is exterminated in Destiny of the Daleks and dies by simply sitting down gently.
- What’s up the sets on Gallifrey anyway? Why do they have corridors that end up like assault courses, and what are the steaming swamp bits all about?
- Why can’t the Time Lords afford real pictures of the wars that they are showing on the big screen? And why is it that when offering the Doctor a new appearance do they give him options drawn by a bad sketch artist?
- And why did the Doctor show the Quarks as one of the enemies he has fought? Surely it’d be the Dominators? Personally, I think he should have put up Pa Clanton and the Sensorites. Lest we forget that as far as the Mind of Evil is concerned, the Sensorites represent one of the Doctor’s greatest fears.
- The aliens’ entire operation seems to depend upon one single conditioning machine. That’s not a very efficient system.
- I can’t do a review of the War Games without bringing up the terrible fight scenes with the punches that don’t even go anywhere near the recipients faces. Even as a child I thought it looked hokey at best.
- Rudolph Walker looks the same then as he does in Eastenders now
- Vidfire technology has done wonders for the Black & White stories, but look at the screencaps to see two examples of the clarity of picture becoming a problem
- Arturo Villar really does have ‘The Best Guns’ because he seems to be able shoot people dead without even pointing them in their direction.
- Wardrobe Malfunctions: Before he gets into the TARDIS at the start of Episode Ten, the Doctor is wearing Wellington Boots. Once he’s inside he’s got his shoes on.
- What about Season 6b? Does the Doctor get a reprieve to go about Time & Space doing jobs for the Time Lords while working with Jamie and Victoria? That’s the only way the appearance of Jamie & Zoe in the Five Doctors, or the grey haired Second Doctor openly talking to an older Jamie about the Time Lords in the Two Doctors makes sense. Well, let’s just be honest here – Terrence Dicks and Robert Holmes just couldn’t be arsed with continuity.
- Ok, I’ll ask again…why did the War Games only go as far into Earth’s history as WW1. I know they couldn’t put in wars that hadn’t happened yet, but there was another rather famous war that happened between the end of WW1 and the broadcast of this story…
Goodbye to the Regular Cast
As I say, this is the end of an era with Jamie, Zoe and The Second Doctor all leaving at once. So how did they do?
I was critical of Wendy Padbury’s acting ability in some of her early stories, but in fairness to her she improved with time and was a perfectly acceptable companion and actress by the time she left. As I said before, I actually think she could have stayed
on into the next series and it would have worked quite well.
Fraser Hines leaves as the longest-serving companion in the show’s history. It took him four stories to even get noticed as one of the regular cast and he only really came into his own in the Evil of the Daleks, but he was a good companion. And unlike most of the companions in the show, he also had a bit of character development. Then again unlike others, being from the past his character development was necessary. By this point he was an integral part of the show, and while I felt the way he and Zoe were hurriedly written out at the end was a deeply unsatisfying way for a character of his tenure to leave, I suppose there was no other way.
And as for Patrick Troughton…
All the way back in September when I reviewed the Power of the Daleks I said that he wasn’t the ‘clown’ Doctor people assumed him to be. I stick by that to an extent.
I think over the course of the three seasons he appeared in, he did change a fair bit. Early on while he was trying to find his feet in the role, Troughton played him as a sort of quiet and contemplating man with a quirky edge. That level of quiet contemplation disappeared I think as the years passed, and by the time the War Games finished, he had to some extent turned it into the sort of ‘Oh my giddy aunt’ type character that people associate with his performances in the Two, Three and Five Doctors. Of course, in those appearances he turned those attributes up to the max, but the point
It’s fitting that the one Doctor who was never in any serious danger and never showed any real weakness in the face of the enemy would be the one who ‘didn’t die’. While everyone else dies with varying levels of nobility and honour, The Second Doctor is forced into it. And when you think about it, the idea of being forced to regenerate is quite sick.
Doctor Who – The War Games Review: Final Thoughts
Getting back to the actual story though, and to sum up, I would say that if you watch the War Games, remember that it was never intended to be watched in one sitting. I think if you did that it’d be a very dull affair with the amount of capturing and recapturing going on.
But if you spread it out over a few sittings, enjoy it for what it is and have an appreciation for what Doctor Who was before it got to this point, then you’ll consider this a good story.
The actual War Games are a place-holder for the Doctor’s final showdown with the Time Lords, but along the way there are some worthy acting performances, not least from Brayshaw and Madoc.
By the end of it all, it brings the black and white era to suitable conclusion.