Doctor Who Reviews: The War Games

The end of an era’s a hoary old cliché. It’s always used when a TV programme reaches its natural conclusion (something that should have happened to Scrubs or The Big Bang Theory after their first seasons) or when a band announce that they are quitting the music business (well, until they decide to reform five years later when a big fat cheque is dangled in front of their eyes).

Doctor Who, though, has plenty of these ’End Of An Era’ moments - The regeneration of The Doctor. The departure of a companion. The last Keff McCulloch score. One of the big daddies of the end of an era is of course, The War Games.

Consider the following: The War Games is the last transmitted 1960s story. it’s the last black and white story. No more groovy Troughton title swirls. Jamie leaves. Zoe leaves. Doctor regenerates. You could write your own book listing all of these milestone departures - an epic in itself, much like The War Games.

After the 12-episode beast of The Daleks’ Master Plan, The War Games boasts a nearly-as-impressive 10 episodes. The common consensus, though, has been to skip the first eight episodes and get straight to Episode Nine, when we find out about The Doctor’s background. Luckily, all 10 episodes exist this time around, and sitting through these again, I think the earlier judgement’s a bit unfair. The whole adventure has an epic feel about it and right from the opening moments of Episode One, there’s a feeling of doom and oppression that never lets up until The Doctor’s spun away into the ether.

At first, we’re supposed to think that the time-travelling trio has blundered into the First World War. However, as events progress, we quickly find out that it’s not that simple. Cue General Smythe and his great big sideburns.

Not only does Smythe have a TV screen in his bedroom (he can catch all the main TV packages on it, you know), he's discovered the concept of Skype nearly a century before it became commonplace. He also has a pair of scary hypnotising glasses that make his victims forget things that they shouldn’t know about. The old hypnotising trick is The Demon Headmaster in reverse. I’m not quite sure how glasses are meant to hypnotise people, but it does establish that any Four Eyes in The War Games is a bad ’un. Not exactly a great advert for speccy kids watching The War Games in the 1960s. Maybe the speccy aliens should have gone to Specsavers to get some X-ray laser eye surgery or hypnotic contact lenses.

The intrigue is well set up in the first episode and there’s a sense that this is going to be the Second Doctor’s toughest challenge. In a neat anticipation of the Time Lord trial, The Doctor faces his three-strong panel of judges like a psychotic version of Britain’s Got Talent. And sure enough, the verdict’s a unanimous Off Off Off Off With His Head, as he’s sentenced to death at dawn. The first episode hits the ground running in establishing the mystery and doomy atmosphere.

That’s not to say that the next seven episodes are poor relations. The key to The War Games is that it’s like a mystery set of Russian Dolls. The mystery is gradually uncovered bit by bit. How are a bunch of effete Romans only a stone’s throw away from World War One? How does the War Chief know The Doctor? Who is the mysterious Waaaaawwwww Laaaaaaaawwwwd that the Security Chief keeps mentioning? All of these puzzles are thrown at the viewer, but what’s satisfying about the 10-episode format is that there’s enough scope to work it all out in a measured, logical and satisfying manner.

Admittedly, there is padding. There are lots of capture/escape/recapture scenarios and an awful lot of bickering. What the 10-episode length does allow though is for Malcolm Hulke’s and Uncle Terrance’s talents for characterisation to show through.

Good thing that the BBC didn’t release The War Games back in the days of omnibus videos, since you’d be looking at scrolling credits for about one hour, due to the sheer number of characters. They all work to varying degrees, but even the minor players are well defined. Captain Ransom clearly isn’t that much of a hit with the laydeez, given that he’s reduced to bumbling and gimbling like an imbecile when Lady Jennifer uses him as a diversion for Carstairs to see The Doctor. Private Moor is a young, inexperienced boy who’s easily fooled by a baldy in a monocle. Harper is strong-willed and not so easily duped - incidentally, Rudolph Walker is brilliant, giving some welly to what’s actually quite a minor role.

Interestingly, the humans and the aliens have their own personal battles to fight. Carstairs and Lady Jennifer are torn between following the rulebook and following their instincts at a sham trial that they somehow know is wrong. Luckily, they plump for the latter choice, and in the process, make rather a charming double act when helping The Doctor. David Savile and Jane Sherwin are well cast - Savile’s Carstairs in particular makes for a good substitute companion, like a heroic, typically British ancestor of Ian Chesterton (probably not so much an ancestor of incompetent Rory). I like to think that when he’s whisked away in Time Lord mist, he’s catapulted into Lady Jennifer’s swanky mansion where they end up choosing to marry over a cup of tea and a plate of scones.

The aliens though, have more issues to deal with. In particular, I’m talking about the power struggles between The Security Chief, The War Chief and The Waaaaawwwww Laaaaaaaawwwwd. It’s a three-tier system in terms of power. At the bottom of the pile is The Security Chief, although this is no surprise. He’s a pompous, jumped up midget who’s always on at The War Chief for some reason or other. Presumably, the two went to school together, where The War Chief picked on The Security Chief something rotten and stole his tuck shop money in the process.

Then there’s his voice which is - um, interesting. Let’s make no bones about this - The Security Chief has possibly the oddest speaking voice in Doctor Who history. It’s like he’s swallowed a pickled egg whole, and it’s got lodged in his throat, thus causing him to squawk in short, sharp bursts like a constipated duck. It doesn’t help either that he says and does the same things over and over again.

Here then is your cut-out and keep Security Chief Drinking Game:

* Take a swig of beer whenever The Security Chief puts a futuristic watering can on his head to grill his hapless victims.

* Take two swigs when The Security Chief struggles to come up with a witty insult: “Whaaaaatttt. Eeeeeh. Steeeeoooopeeed. Foooooool. Yooooooo. Aaaaaaaahhhhh.”

* Quaff half a pint of beer whenever The Security Chief starts a girly bitch-fest with The War Chief.

* Down a pint whenever The Security Chief muses over the wonders of a “Speeeeeeeece. Taaaaaaaam. Macheeeeeeen.”

* Down a pint, then a Mojito and then 10 vodka shots whenever The Security Chief refers to The War Lord - or The Waaaaawwwww Laaaaaaaawwwwd as he calls him.

Next in the pecking order is The War Chief, a slimy Abanazar lookalike who’s slightly more sympathetic than The Security Chief, although that’s not saying much. When he’s not spending his time hectoring his squawking number two, The War Chief is pondering on how to achieve total power. The arrival of The Doctor proves to be a godsend, since he plans to form an alliance with his old ‘friend’.

However, even The War Chief’s not totally in control, since he always has to creep behind The War Lord’s back. Naturally, he’s caught in the act, and sentenced to plastic gun oblivion by The War Lord (presumably, he regenerates off-screen). I think that Uncle Terrance is too harsh on Edward Brayshaw’s performance when he’s talking on the DVD commentary. Brayshaw’s acting is far better than bwa-ha-ha-ing moustache twirling, and he adds a degree of vulnerability to the character, especially in the scenes of his downfall.

The War Lord doesn’t need to worry about the acquisition of power, since he already has it. He’s such a badass that all he has to do is stare at someone to get them to do his bidding. The casting of Philip Madoc is inspired - Madoc’s average height and softly-spoken voice shouldn’t invoke pant-wetting terror among his subordinates, and yet The War Lord is one of the most convincing human baddies in Doctor Who. Madoc is absolutely spot-on - although his performance as Solon (in the Tom Baker outing The Brain Of Morbius) is his most memorable, The War Lord is just as chilling, and certainly on a par with both Solon and the vicious tourist officer in The Goodies episode on South Africa.

It’s a crying shame that this is the regulars' last story. Both Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury make the most of their last few days on Doctor Who, combining dedication (Zoe’s rescue of The Doctor), humour (Jamie’s meeting with Arturo Villar) and poignancy (their leaving scene) in equal measure. Patrick Troughton is also at his best - every element that makes his Doctor so successful is encompassed here. Humour. Brains. Duplicity. It’s all here, and what’s more, he’s shown to be more vulnerable than ever. He’s clearly upset at having to summon his race for help, and his last plaintive comment at Jamie’s and Zoe’s departure speaks volumes (“They’ll forget me, won’t they?”).

The Time Lords’ portrayal is interesting. They’d never seem so awesome again. They can slow down time in a bid to stop The Doctor escaping. They can reduce the all-powerful War Lord to a screaming baby. And in the cruellest fashion possible, they mind-wipe Jamie and Zoe, and send them back to their original times and places. And for their piece-de-resistance, they banish The Doctor to Earth and force him to regenerate. The Time Lords are pompous. Unwilling to interfere. But they are also seen to be brutal. They are like a collection of The World’s Strictest Fathers, and it’s all there to see in the last episode.

The last episode is a belter, not just because of the script and acting but because of David Maloney’s fine direction. Maloney has produced some great scenes up till now: The reflection of the materialising TARDIS in a muddy puddle. The close-up shots of the hypnotised Earthlings. The frenzied pace of Episode Nine. In the last episode, Maloney cranks up the action even further. Maloney gets the best out of all the actors and keeps the action rattling along at breakneck speed. Who would have thought that trial scenes could be so exciting?

The Doctor knows that the game’s up. He humours Jamie and Zoe after they persuade him to escape from his cell and into the Dry Ice Time Lord Krypton Factor Course - but his body language and weary speech betray a beaten man. The farewell scene is the most touching of the 1960s (especially The Doctor’s last sad wave) and to make matters worse, Jamie and Zoe are technically back to Square One. They both learned so much in the TARDIS - not just knowledge about the world and its wonders but about friendship and learning to feel emotion. So to have Jamie return to his old bloodthirsty ways and for Zoe to be reunited with Tanya Lernov and Leo Ryan (ugh) with only fading dreams for souvenirs is very sad.

Technically, the Time Lords kill The Doctor off, and force him to live like a peasant on Earth. The ‘regeneration’ scene (well, as near as you can get - we don’t see him change into the Third Doctor) is the creepiest out of the lot. Future offerings would draw more on emotion, but the Second Doctor’s last moments are disturbing in the extreme. Alone and burning up in a kaleidoscopic void, the last we see of the Second Doctor is his headless body screaming out as he spins off into a black hole. Dudley Simpson’s off-kilter music only adds to the uneasy feeling (Simpson’s music has been back on form, incidentally), topping off a memorable if uncomfortable end to the reign of the Second Doctor.

The War Games may be regarded by some as overlong, but the lasting impression is one of a big epic blockbuster, full of high stakes and tragedy. It's very well produced, with some striking costumes and groovy 1960s sets from designer Roger Cheveley. Just be glad that it’s still complete in the BBC archives and out on shiny new DVD.

The end of an era.

* Moving on to the next eras of Doctor Who, they are covered at length in these 3 ebooks: