Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"The War Games"

Aired: Apr. 19 - June 21, 1969

10 Episodes

Story 50

Written by Malcolm Hulke & Terrance Dicks

Directed by David Maloney


The TARDIS appears to have materialized in the middle of the First World War, but the Doctor and his friends soon discover not all is as it appears. They soon uncover that they are not on Earth at all, but that a sinister group of aliens have assembled soldiers from various wars throughout human history on an unnamed planet, brainwashed them, and are playing deadly war games. The Aliens hope to take the best soldiers from each of their war zones and assemble an unbeatable force with which they can conquer the galaxy.

This plan is made possible by the War Chief, a member of the Doctor's own race who has provided the Aliens with time ships to move the troops around. Though second only to the War Lord in the command structure of the Aliens, the War Chief is in fact working to his own ends, planning to seize power for himself. 

Though the War Chief attempts to enlist the Doctor in his scheme, the Doctor manages to organize an army of resistance fighters from the different time zones, made up of soldiers who were naturally resistant to the Aliens' mind control efforts. Utlizing this army, the Doctor overthrows the War Lord and stops the War Chief, but finds that he has no way to return the massive amount of human soldiers to their proper times and places. Faced with no other option, and for the first time since leaving his home world, he is forced to contact the Time Lords for help.

Though they do return the stolen humans to the proper place and time, as well as punish the War lord and his people for their crimes, they also place the Doctor on trial for violating their most serious law of non-interference. While the Doctor does convince the Time Lords of the need of his actions on the side of good, he is still sentenced to be exiled to Earth in one place and time, and for his appearance to be forcibly changed. Jamie and Zoë will be sent back to their own times, with all but their first adventure with the Doctor erased from their memories. As the Doctor spins off to begin his exile, his appearance begins to change...


A momentous story in every sense, The War Games is one of the finest stories in all of Doctor Who. Justly remembered for its final two episodes that forever changed the series moving forward, the eight episodes that lead up to them are just as engrossing, thrilling and satisfying.

Dicks and Hulke were two of the finest writers to write for the series, and their pairing plays up both of their strengths and overcomes the inherent challenges of a serial that has this many parts. Dicks' skill at structure and plotting keep the action moving and the stakes escalating, allowing even the parts that are essentially runarounds to feel necessary and vital to the plot, and when we return to similar situations, it feels like a reversal of fortune rather than repetition. The scripts keep escalating the stakes and changing the Doctor's objectives so that the action never gets stale. All this results in a plot that never drags but continues to be compelling throughout.

Meanwhile, Hulke's skill at characterization results in a supporting cast that are all fascinating and more complex than we usually see in Doctor Who at the time. The allies the Doctor encounters are given enough time to become more than simple sketches but fully drawn players in the action, with Lady Jennifer and Carstairs clearly being given a love story that is never front and centre but conveyed through bits of dialogue and subtle performance. We get invested in them as a result, far more than we usually would. From Russell to Villar to Harper, each character is given moments that elevate behind tools of the plot.

When it comes to the bad guys, however, that's where the script really shines. We get a whole host of villains, each one drawn with their own motivations and desires and individual objectives. This makes the Aliens more than just would-be galactic conquerors, but a race of individual people. From Smythe's vicious brutality, to Von Weich's oily nastiness, to the War Chief's naked ambition, to the Security Chief's rabid hatred, to the War Lord, who towers over them all in his icy and calm ruthlessness. each one is interesting enough to be the main antagonist on their own, but when in combination the story allows us to enjoy their machinations and jockeying for position amidst pettiness and cruelty.

The whole serial is extremely well-directed by David Maloney. Keeping the pace and momentum going through such a long serial must have been a colossal challenge, and he expertly keeps things interesting. There are numerous interesting visuals and camera moves throughout, with some exceptional staging. The design of the serial is great as well, with the grim realism of the WWI and Civil War segments contrasting nicely against the space operatic grandeur and minimalism of the Alien control centre and the Time Lord world. The costumes are even great. We all know the BBC handles period costumes better than anyone, but the kinky swinging sixties get-ups for the guards in the control centre are just delightfully odd, and the simple elegance of the Aliens puts across a totalitarian vibe while not being overtly futuristic. 

The last two episodes, of course, changed the series forever. While the revelation of the Doctor’s home world and the reason for his leaving did demystify the character, the introduction of the Time Lords gave the series new focus, providing a platform on which to build a mythology. I vastly prefer this depiction of the Time Lords; all-powerful and totally boring and pompous. It communicates instantly why a person like the Doctor would be so desperate to leave, and makes him all the more heroic and anarchic for having sprung from such a repressed society. And yet, the Time Lords remain fearsome to some degree, with their immense power and total authority.

We also see the departure of Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury. Padbury's Zoe was a fascinating character; a brainy, capable, slightly bossy and obnoxious wunderkind. Her attitude let her share some sparks with Jamie and the Doctor, but Padbury's skill never let Zoe become annoying or obnoxious. Frazer Hines is an even bigger loss; his wonderful portrayal of Jamie and superb chemistry with Toughton was something to behold, and by the end of their time together you can see two actors working in perfect harmony with each other. Hines made Jamie naïve but stalwart, brave but vulnerable, funny yet earnest. If there's a top ten list of companions, Jamie is high on the list.

Finally, we have the departure of Troughton. He was a truly wonderful actor who cemented the longevity of the series and brought real warmth, vibrancy and intelligence to the role. Indeed there were times when his performance was the saving grace during any of the formulaic nadirs the series went through. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of loss when he spins off into the blackness, towards an unknown future, and one is certain his undeniably magical quality would be missed.

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