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.
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.