Doctor Who Story Number 050 – The War Games

Written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke
Directed by David Malone

From the Back: The TARDIS has materialized in a world of trench warfare, barbed wire and poison gas: the Western Front, 1917. In the chaos and paranoia of the First World War, the Doctor and his companions are separated from their ship, captured and court-martialed. The death sentence is swiftly pronounced. But all is not as it seems. As the Doctor finds himself increasingly out of his depth and facing impossible odds, the only solution is the truly unthinkable. He must seek help from those he most fears—his own people, the Time Lords.

It is an unusual feeling to be ready for a regeneration one week, only to miss The Doctor when it actually happens. While I haven’t found myself loathing The Krotons, The Dominators, or The Space Pirates as some fans have, I was beginning to desire change. Perhaps this was due to season five being repetitive. Regardless, over the past month I have found myself eager to start the Pertwee Era.

Now that I have closed out the Troughton Years, I don’t feel nearly so eager. I already miss the cosmic hobo much like I missed William Hartnell as his face morphed into that of Troughton. What accounts for this change of heart? I attribute it directly to The War Games, which may be my favorite episode of the series thus far.

The War Games is fast-paced, well-acted, and very compelling. Early on we are given the implication that The War Chief is from the same race as The Doctor, only this time The Doctor’s fellow isn’t a bumbler or trickster. He is cruel. He is chilling. The only character more sinister than The War Chief is The War Lord (yes, these names can get confusing if one doesn’t pay attention), only the latter is marked not by being a Time Lord, but by being a brilliant strategist and manipulator. His ultimate goal is to conquer the universe and unify it under his leadership. Given his skill in dealing with The War Chief, The Doctor, and various other characters in this story, his goal seems just plausible. Philip Madoc brings this character to life extremely well.

For the previous six seasons, The Time Lords (unnamed until now) have remained a mysterious presence, characterized only by The Doctor’s insistence that he cannot go home. They seem dangerous only because of his refusal to return to them. Their presence in this story is not disappointing. They seem an intriguing blend of high technology and supernatural ability. Indeed, perhaps that line is blurred. Once they have gotten a bead on The Doctor, he is unable to escape. I have seen some of the later portrayals of The Time Lords, and at the moment, this one is my favorite. These Time Lords are not stuffy bureaucrats, they are distant observers, the kind of gods a diest could live with; they maintain the balance and function of the universe. The Doctor, on the other hand, is an intervening god, one who sees the power (or technology) of The Time Lords as a responsibility. The mythology established in this story is quite fascinating.

If Kylie Minogue counts as a companion, then I posit Lt. Carstairs is a companion.

But not to overshadow the other nine episodes, the eponymous War Games give us a fun concept of different historical armies fighting in sectioned-off regions of a planet. The aliens seem to be conducting an experiment to determine which era of human warriors is the strongest. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, aided by Lady Jennifer and Lt. Carstairs, must stay one step ahead of the aliens. This story hardly ever slows down. For a ten part story, there really isn’t much padding.

Final Verdict: I think this is my favorite story thus far. And yet, I can’t help but feel that the impact is due, in part, to having watched everything up to this point. Having spent six seasons with The Time Lords only present as a threat, to finally see them is a huge deal. This story is probably best watched after a period of watching nothing but Hartnell and Troughton.

Coming up: The Troughton Era in review.

One thought on “Doctor Who Story Number 050 – The War Games

  1. ‘The War Games’ is, literally, the ultimate expression of the original concept for Dr Who, when Sydney Newman ordered that the show was to alternate historical stories set in the past with SF stories set in the future. This concept was strictly adhered to throughout the Hartnell years, but abandoned when Troughton took over. Nothing so greatly separates the Hartnell period from the Troughton years as this distinction: Hartnell obeyed the original concept, but Troughton was all about Monsters.

    The final historical serial was ‘The Highlanders’, Troughton’s second story: thereafter there was no variety, just a steady stream of Science Fiction. Maybe this is why the Troughton years can seem boring by midway through his final season, because the serials no longer provide anything to allieviate the Science Fiction. When the stories were strong, such as in ‘Evil of the Daleks’, ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, ‘Web of Fear and ‘Invasion’, this did not matter; but with much weaker serials – such as ‘The Dominators’ and ‘The Krotons’ – monopolising the final season, it mattered a great deal.

    ‘The War Games’ represents a return to the historical settings which had enriched Hartnell’s reign with shows such as ‘Marco Polo’, ‘The Time Meddler’, ‘The Massacre’ and ‘The Crusades’. Even though it gradually morphs into science fiction, for the first 5 episodes it represents a tour through Earth history, starting off in the First World War.

    It is strangely compelling, notwithstanding that it was only written as an emergency filler, when a 4 part story in preparation fell apart, and they had nothing to replace it with, so that the script editor had to hurriedly expand the 6 part ‘War Games’ to ten episodes. Given that Episode 10 is entirely given over to the trial of the Doctor by the Time Lords, that means episodes 7, 8 and 9 are – strictly speaking – nothing BUT padding…

    It’s remarkable how well the story continues, becoming even stronger as they pass out of the original 6 parter into the extra 4 episodes, losing many of the cast, such as Lady Jennifer and General Smythe, who were only contracted to do 6 episodes, and picking up with a brand new cast, of Philip Madoc, James Bree and Bernard Horsefall, for the next 4 episodes. Madoc had just been in ‘The Krotons’, and Horsefall in ‘Mind Robber’; so these were people who were not being thrown in at the deep end, but who knew something of how production on the show worked.

    Here there are no Monsters to grab your attention, or send you running for cover. But the Time Lords are suitably frightening, as is the ultimate threat – the threat to strip Pat Troughton out of the show. In retrospect, knowing what the Doctor’s ultimate fate is to be, the serial takes on a piquancy it didn’t have in 1969, when viewers were for the most part unaware that they were about to lose Pat.

    Because this was such a strong story, from every point of view, it stands head and shoulders above the serials which have led up to it. ‘The Krotons’, ‘The Space Pirates’ and ‘The Dominators’ made for a weak final season, but here we have a serial that combines the best elements of the historical stories with a really strong SF story of alien abduction; such that this story stands comparison with the superb ‘Invasion’ and ‘Mind Robber’ serials.

    But it is the unexpected return to a historical story – not knowing, at the time, that it would be more than merely a historical – which makes this one so different from everything which had gone before in the Troughton era, with its domination by the Monsters in their SF settings. Troughton’s second year in particular had been amazing, with the Yeti, Cybermen, and Ice Warriors, amongst others; but here’s proof that a Monster-free serial could overshadow them all, if the jeopardy is directed against Pat himself, and against the beloved Jamie and Zoe. It is, ultimately, the fact that we are about to lose all three of them forever that grabs you by the throat in this serial, and makes it stand out in the memory 40 years after the events of 1969.

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