Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Let’s make no mistake: The War Games is an absolute classic. It’s dramatic, exciting, and casts a real sense of scale that very effectively conveys the Doctor’s final inability to solve the problem he is faced with without sacrificing himself. However, as it’s so long (too long really if I’m honest) it takes a really hardcore fan to stick it out in one go. Also, there’s the practical reason of needing four hours to spare, which I rarely do; I’m reviewing this in two parts. Its great length certainly did it no favours on its original transmission; episode eight achieved a measly 3.5 million viewers, making it the second-lowest rated episode ever (that crown goes to episode one of Battlefield) not counting the broadcast of the pilot episode in 1991. This is a shame, as this is one of the three definite classics of season 6, and ends the second Doctor’s run and the black and white period on a spectacularly high note.

The specially designed titles, the first thing seen in this story, are a little too much to take though – anyone affected by severe strobe lights, take note. After this it begins properly in one of the most tightly directed scenes ever, in what appears to be No Mans’ Land in 1917. It is commendable of the new series to try and spice up the TARDIS materialisation / dematerialisation effect by such details as having snow falling off it in The Unquiet Dead, but for me there is very little that can beat the sight of the TARDIS appearing reflected in a muddy puddle, all in dingy monochrome 16mm film. The location scenes are brilliantly shot and edited and the barrage of fire looks brilliant, virtually matching what could be done in certain feature films of the time. The studio scenes are no less effective: the sets are as wonderful as the flawless period detail, and the lighting also deserves special mention for creating such a convincing effect of natural light in the chateau. Dudley Simpson also supplies one of his better scores, totally appropriate to the story.

One advantage of the story’s length (at least in the early stages) is that it can take its luxuriant time showing off its period setting to full effect, making the first episode brilliantly atmospheric – it’s almost a shame that this can’t just play out as an ordinary historical story. However, a sense of mystery is very effectively set up (always a benchmark of a good opening) with the inclusion of a couple of apparently random elements such as General Smythe’s viewscreen, and the amnesia of a few of the characters. The only problem is that Smythe’s mention of the “1917 zone” provides a bit too much explanation at so early a stage, even if it doesn’t immediately make sense. One notable aspect though is the aliens’ ability to hypnotise people, which is done in almost exactly the same style as the Master would a couple of seasons later; it should be mentioned here that Terrance Dicks, who wrote this with Malcolm Hulke, was the Master’s co-creator.

The regulars are on top form, as seen when they are marched before the general, although Jamie stamping on the Doctor’s foot is a slightly misjudged piece of slapstick from that great comedy duo, Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. Hines and Wendy Padbury do well in this story, although they are not (and never were) in Troughton’s league. His performance in this story is faultless, making it especially sad that it is his final story (barring guest appearances) and also that so much of his era is missing, and it is easy to see why the team of Troughton, Hines and Padbury were so popular. The Doctor’s small and unassuming kiss goodbye to Zoe is very poignant, and presages the end of this story. The cliffhanger as well is terrific, the location shooting further emphasising David Maloney’s skill as a director: the composition of some of the shots is superb, particularly the establishing one of the firing squad.

The design of the SIDRATs is simple but effective, even if they do have a nonsensical name (Space In Dimensions Relative And Time, presumably). The sudden appearance of the Redcoat further increases the mystery, although conversely it offers an implied explanation for Smythe’s talk of zones.

The Doctor’s bluffing the prison commandant is essentially a comedy scene (nicely timed though); although the bravura performance from Troughton demonstrates why he was clearly the best actor in the role (Tom Baker was clearly playing himself, while Christopher Eccleston seems a bit self-conscious at times). When Zoe knocks the commandant unconscious Troughton does full justice to that gem of a line, “I think he’ll survive”. At this stage the premise is not too different to The Time Meddler, with anachronistic elements in a period setting. However, the final revelation is infinitely more compelling than its (still stylish) cousin. Suddenly entering the Roman zone is an unexpected and original notion, making for a nicely surprising cliffhanger.

With the third episode the incident count drops severely (and it’s going to get lower before it rises again), with lots of repetition, padded and superfluous fights, dialogue scenes more for effect than anything else, and lots of repetition. However, it’s all so well written and made that it is rarely any less watchable for it, even if it is merely killing time before the shattering conclusion. It becomes a story of ideas now, with the Doctor first voicing the notion of the world they are in being divided into different time zones. The need to go back to the chateau, even with the reasonable intention of finding a map of the world, is an example of the need for this story to go round and round to fill up its vast running time. The opening of the safe is a cool scene and well thought out, even if the explosion is predictably naff and small (the contrast between high explosives on location and fizzy sherbet in studio is always slightly jarring). The explosion goes off before the fuse has finished burning, goof fans, while Carstairs’s fooling the guard is another example of a character being bluffed – a recurring activity of this story – but it’s so tense it works fine.

Similarly the sequence in the German dug-out, while still great, is done to hold off the inevitable. It’s padding, like so much else, but it’s such wonderful padding, better than a lot of other stories’ best efforts. Also, it’s amusing to see the sonic screwdriver actually being used on a screw.

David Garfield makes his entrance as von Weich and proves himself to be skilled at putting on accents, making his surreal performance as Neeva in The Face Of Evil eight years later entirely unforgivable. Here though he is brilliant, one of those traditional villains so evil that I actually find myself hating him – a sure sign of an actor doing his job well.

The unassuming cuts between futuristic and period settings jar a bit, but then this story has the scope to fit such elements in together. The guards in their gimp suits look silly, but Edward Brayshaw as the War Chief is absolutely superb, a contender for the title of best actor of the season (although in fairness he faces strong competition from Bernard Horsfall in The Mind Robber and Kevin Stoney in The Invasion). His interior monologue, although not without precedent, is unusual and effective, giving a sense of back history and a possible link with the Doctor, further increasing the interest and the tension. Meanwhile back in the American Civil War zone the fights, although unnecessary, are well made with violence that is realistic without being gratuitous. In fact the production is so good, especially considering the number of characters and locations, that it should be noted that Derrick Sherwin was actually a good producer for the two stories he worked on in that role, even if he was working closely with Peter Bryant. Having said that the design of the future settings is perhaps slightly tacky with hanging sheets of plastic inside the SIDRATS and the groovy swirls in the alien sector.

The Doctor’s worry that there’s more going on than meets the eye is brilliantly played, as usual, and the idea of a teacher lecturing students in a BBC accent about how to hypnotise their slaves is just crazy enough to really, really work. Meanwhile Jamie is accused of spying, and his response of “not again” could be read as ironic. Also, it is interesting to note that a black actor is in the programme and not playing a mute strongman.

The scientist’s lecture gives us a sudden burst of exposition which does seem a little clunky after such a gradually-paced beginning, but it’s an interesting plot so it could be worse. This is followed by the spine tingling scene where the Doctor and the War Chief recognise each other, surely one of the highlights of the story, made even better through coming after a fairly quiet period and also because we don’t get to find out exactly how the know each other for quite some time yet.

The fifth episode is more of the same. The Doctor bluffs the scientist again, and even though it shows Troughton at his energetic best it’s still so repetitive that I’m repeating myself by talking about it. Oh well, I can only mention what’s on screen. Even given the circular nature of the scenes though, it’s still all so good, and sends Troughton out in a blaze of glory; it’s up there jostling for position with The Caves Of Androzani for the title of best final story ever.

James Bree is a rubbish actor (in fact he sounds like he’s doing a Dalek voice) and is the weak link in the guest cast – certainly he dies a death when in the same shot as Brayshaw. However, it is nice to see two villains who also happen to hate each other; this is a character dynamic seen all too rarely in the series. The major mistake though is that the Security Chief makes it fairly clear that the War Chief and the Doctor are of the same race, undermining the possibility of a dramatic revelation later on.

It is interesting seeing David Troughton in his small role as Private Moor; he does a decent job with the few lines he gets given, although his father casts one long shadow. His performance as a man caught between the two poles of authority (holding von Weich prisoner) and fear is very effective, and knocks spots off his slightly sappier one in The Curse Of Peladon.

The violence is actually surprisingly potent in its realism, with Carstairs shooting a guard in the head at close range and the Doctor hardly reacting. I’ve seen Spaghetti Westerns with comparable levels of violence, and they get 15 certificates.

When the Doctor immediately knows how to operate the controls, Zoe asks him how and his uncomfortable response of “it isn’t really very difficult” is excellent, a much subtler hint that the ghosts from his past are coming back to haunt him. If only those hints were all so well written and didn’t have James Bree spitting them out like a whiny baby the whole thing would be a lot better.

The SIDRAT crushing effect is simple and potentially dodgy, but saved through Maloney’s consistently excellent direction. The villains’ attempt to second guess the Doctor’s plan is funny, and an example of the wry, ironic humour that is much more appropriate to this story than the moments of slapstick and Michael Napier-Brown playing for laughs as Arturo Villar.

The War Lord gets a great introduction, with the camera panning down to reveal he has been standing next to the Security Chief unnoticed. Philip Madoc gives another of his four totally brilliant performances in the show, with his icy and collected portrayal of the main villain. I’d say he loses out to Brayshaw though (there aren’t many stories I can think of where Madoc wouldn’t win the best actor crown), and the scenes with the two of them together are magical. The only problem is that James ‘Brie’ Bree has to be there too, spluttering out his superior’s name in a peculiar fashion: “War --- LOOOOORRD!”

The Romans make a reappearance as the Doctor returns to the Games, and the story’s repetition is increased further by them actually splicing in footage shot for episode 2. It does lead to more brilliantly-shot footage of the 1917 zone though, so it’s not all bad; simple effects like placing the camera at interesting angles or situating it behind some dead branches make all the difference. I’d only be repeating myself further if I dwelled on the Doctor escaping from a firing squad again and in the exact same way, so I’ll gloss over it. It has to be said: The War Games is no easy story to review in such a linear way as this. However, with the château taken by the resistance, the plot really begins to crank up again now.

Another brilliant moment early on in episode 8, with the Doctor telling a load of guards brandishing guns “I’m not going to hurt you”. With regards to the Doctor and the War Chief knowing each other, the War Chief admits what the audience is aware of anyway – but it does lead to one of the most gripping scenes of the story, where they privately talk about their pasts with the Doctor managing to convey a haughty disdain for his people. In fact, the scene is so good that it makes me forget that it’s really just there to further the plot in an ordinary fashion; it also almost makes me forget I’ve seen after this story, as if I’m taking it all in for the first time. Is this the best expositionary scene ever? Could well be.

Hines does a comedy performance as the resistance leader (you’re just no kind of leader if you don’t have a limp). At least though the resistance starts to get organised, although in a goof with a capital Goo we see on the map that the 1917 and Roman zones are in fact nowhere near each other, let alone adjacent, throwing the end of episode 2 into confusion.

The Doctor’s apparent treachery is given an added edge by the knowledge that this is Troughton’s last story (put yourself in the position of a first time viewer); is this really the end? The Doctor and the War Chief are, as before, brilliant on screen together although the fact that the SIDRATs are breaking down does make me wonder what the War Chief would have done if the Doctor hadn’t arrived by chance. The episode’s first big scene with the War Lord about four minutes in has a guest cameo appearance from a monstrous boom mike shadow, a rare glitch in the production of this episode, but it’s all good stuff. The Doctor’s confrontation with the War Chief is well written and dramatic, but spoiled slightly by Troughton fluffing his lines (a rarity). Napier-Brown is a Mexican Ham Sandwich (OK so I just made that up, but I don’t have a lot to work with do I?), but at least James Bree bites the dust at last. On the downside, the wonderful Brayshaw goes the same way.

The Time Lords have so much mystique in this instalment it hurts. This is perhaps when they are at their best: we can feel their awesome power but we don’t get to see them, which has the twin effect of making that power all the more terrifying while at the same time not revealing how ill-defined they are at this stage. The echoing sound effect that heralds their arrival, coupled with Madoc’s foreboding delivery of a very simple line – “they’re coming” – increases the tension no end, and it builds up to a wonderful cliffhanger.

Now we come to the final instalment, the only real challenger to An Unearthly Child to be crowned best single episode of Doctor Who. It begins slowly though: in the studio recorded TARDIS interior the actors have to resort to slow-motion acting, which is less impressive. Also, the attempts to escape in the TARDIS smack of padding, although it is nice to see footage from missing episodes like Fury From The Deep. However, splicing in a clip from The Web Of Fear causes more confusion as it then requires an explanation for why the ship is suddenly covered in web. Bernard Horsfall, one of my favourite guest actors, provides a suitably doomy and sombre voice over, but in fact the design of Gallifrey is rather drab here (even the stepping stones across the dry ice seem a bit pointless). The Time Lords, as I said, lack depth but consequently retain their aura, and it is in some ways a shame that stories like The Deadly Assassin had to make them more realistic and less impressive as a result.

The chance of escape provides a genuine ray of hope and I half found myself wishing they would get away even though I knew they didn’t, and it makes the final end of the second Doctor doubly sad. Troughton gives a final tour de force performance in his last handful of scenes, even turning some slightly trite dialogue (the scene where he lists some of his old monsters seems a bit self-congratulatory) into something special, and is another reason why he was in my eyes the best of them all: I can’t really imagine any other actor performing that scene so well. The final goodbye with Jamie and Zoe is one of the programme’s most poignant scenes ever. The overall last scene is extremely important and very enigmatic, with Troughton spinning away with his face invisible. So ends four hours – largely of nothing, but what quality nothing! Also ends Troughton’s reign, and it’s a crying shame there isn’t more of his era to see.

The War Games achieves the impossible: to have a very padded four hours that nevertheless holds attention throughout. It’s exhausting to watch and I don’t do it often, but even though I watch it so rarely it’s still a shining classic of the Troughton era, of the black and white years, and of television science-fiction.

Filters: Television Second Doctor Series 6