Doctor Who: The War Games Review

So, here we are, the end of an era. Well, the end of sixties Doctor Who. The following year, Doctor Who would return brand new in more ways than one. It was in colour, there was a new Doctor, new companion and new format. The War Games wrapped story lines up established way back in An Unearthly Child, just who was the Doctor and who are the mighty beings he claims his people are. All the answers are given in this epic ten episode story.

Soldiers from different wars in different times on Earth are being brainwashed and taken to an alien planet, though this is unknown to them. They are forced to fight till they are a good enough force for the villainous aliens behind it all are going to select the best to form an army of galactic proportions capable of universal domination.

As one might expect from a Doctor Who story, the Doctor arrives on this alien planet with his two companions Jamie and Zoe played wonderfully by Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury. None of them know about the war games as they find themselves seemingly in the middle of no man's land in World War 1. Once the Doctor realises what is going on, he sets about trying to stop those behind it. But he quickly comes to the conclusion he won't be able to do it on his own or with the help of Jamie and Zoe and he is forced to call for backup, in the form of the mighty Time Lords...

By calling the Time Lords, the spotlight quickly turns to him and they question him about his adventures since he left Gallifrey pre An Unearthly Child. It transpires that Time Lords have a rule about interference and not doing so. The Doctor of course, has interfered in a number of cases and that is something the Time Lords can not forgive. They pass sentence on him, he is to be exiled to the planet Earth.

The last time we see the Second Doctor is spinning away from us, crying out in pain.

The War Games lasts for a mighty ten episodes. Most of the plot I have just explained above takes place either in the first episode or the last so just what exactly happens in the other eight? Not a lot really, many of the characters get captured, escape and run around before getting captured again and beginning the cycle again. But that doesn't matter as everything in this is really enjoyable even if, The Doctor is captured 11 times, Jamie 14 times and their friend Carstairs once. Co-writer, Doctor Who legend Terrance Dicks is aware of this and sheds some light on this in the DVD commentary. Very often Doctor Who is criticized for being a thing where characters run down corridors and this one, is a classic example.

But one has to really look at the circumstances around why, the characters ran around for eight episodes. The reason why was because planned stories had fallen through and the production team found themselves with no workable scripts weeks before the series was due to go into production. This left writers Terrance Dicks and Malcom Hulke with mere weeks to write a ten episode story to fill in the gaps.

And they do it very well, the whole thing is watchable, I've managed to sit through it in one go before and it lasts a mighty 4 or so hours. It is a credit to those writers that they managed to make a run around story so enjoyable. While many of the story eventually repeats itself, one has to remember that at the time this was broadcast in 1969, there was no such thing as VHS let alone DVD's. The story was designed to be watched once, broadcast over the space of ten weeks. Therefore the repetition works. The moment in episode 7 where the Doctor is taken out to be shot by a firing squad is exactly the same as the end of episode 1 but for viewers in 1969, episode 1 took place a month before episode 7, so the repetition wouldn't have been so obvious and it works.

Watching it in 1969, I can't imagine there had ever been a better cliff-hanger than the one at the episode 9. The Doctor and his companions often find themselves in danger at the end of episodes but there is no obvious way for them to get out of this cliff hanger. Had the BBC decided to end the series here that would have been the perfect way to do it. This could have been the end for Doctor Who.

The weirdness of the Time Lords is also at its height here. By the time we get into the seventies run on the show, they are just another alien race but here they are mysterious beings who seem to live in the shadows, casting judgements on others. There is a good scene which shows them as a real threat when they inflict pain on Phillip Madoc's War Lord just by looking at him, I can imagine that being scarier for a young child than an alien with a death ray. They can also project force fields with their mind, erase people from time and change the Doctor's appearance on nothing more than a whim. From the few scenes they inhabit in this story, they had the opportunity to make them the most powerful alien race that the Doctor has ever faced and the fact that he appears to be terrified of them proves just how dangerous they could have been.

In a story that runs as long as this one does, there are bound to be some hits and some misses when it comes to the acting and writing. The first villain we come across is the fearsome, General Smythe played with menace by Noel Coleman. He looks the part, acts the part and comes across as a really bad guy but as the story progresses, we get the sense that he is ultimately small fry.

However, the next villain to turn up is less good, in fact he is barely watchable. Captain Von-Weich. It worked with him playing the German equilivant of Smythe but it comes across as some bad casting and a somewhat lazy move on the production part to have him also play a Commander in the American Civil War. He speaks in an American accent to the American's but when addressing the resistance, he reverts back to his German accent. I don't completely understand it.

There is also the Security Chief, someone who is also barely watchable. It is obvious he is based on Himmler which the actor does well but his voice is so god damn annoying, he sometimes takes what seems like hours to get sentences out. And the character's motivation is rubbish as well, he seems to spend the whole episode trying to get the War Chief into trouble. Out of the whole story, he is the one character we could have done with.

And what of the War Chief and War Lord? Edward Brayshaw brings a pantomime feel to the character of the War Chief. Phillip Madoc however brings a certain sinister feel to his portrayal of the War Lord. Madoc is better here than he was in The Krotons but one wonders if that is because this script is far superior to that of The Krotons? There is a lot more for him to sink his teeth into here, in the few scenes he is in. Also, a little shout out to Vernon Bobtcheff who plays the Chief Scientist, he was pretty cool too!

As I also stated above, this story marks the end of an era and a fondly remembered one at that. The story features The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe all leaving together, but how do they all go? Yes, I think it was probably right for Jamie to leave, as good as he was, he had been with Troughton for every story from 1966-69 bar one story. I think that Zoe could have stayed on, it would have been interesting to see her act alongside Jon Pertwee. But the Zoe type character lived on in the next companion Liz Shaw.

Frazer Hines was and still is, the longest serving companion in the history of the show even though it took four episodes for him to even get noticed as one and he only really came into his own during The Evil of the Daleks. Before this it was obvious he had been hastily slotted into stories featuring companions Ben and Polly. I am glad that he was given room for some character development but that was necessary for his character as he came from the past. It is just a shame that they are both so hastily written out of the show. Yes, their departures are tear jerkers and the fact that they did all these amazing adventures together but the Time Lords wipe their minds of all but their first stories makes it even sadder. But I think it could have been handled differently. However there is no denying their departures are one of the saddest the show has ever done.

And then there is the departure of Patrick Troughton.

Over the course of his time as the Doctor, he never started off as the clownish figure he gradually became. In the beginning, he was mysterious and felt the weight of the universe on his shoulders. The speech he makes in The Moonbase went down as one of the most iconic lines from the show and really demonstrates what the Troughton Doctor was doing, evil must be fought... Sure, towards the end he got a little clownish but that never bothered me. This just makes his ending more fitting, whereas everyone has the chance to go with dignity and grace, the one character who you think can't be hurt or put in harms way in any way whatsoever, is the one who is forced to regenerate. And if you think about being forced to regenerate is quite sick, taking that choice away from someone. No wonder Clara told the Time Lords they were hated in Hell Bent.

But in the end, it is important to remember that The War Games was never intended to be watched in one go, you can watch it like that, I'm not telling you not to but you may get a little bored of the capturing and escaping scenes in this epic adventure.

And that is what The War Games is, it's epic. It bids farewell not only to Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury but the end of an era that is still fondly remembered.

The story ends the sixties run on a high, with the next series featuring a new Doctor, companion and look, there would even greater things to come. The War Games promises it...