Doctor Doctor Who Guide

“The War Games” is one of those stories that will always be talked about. A ten-part epic that draws to a close not only Patrick Troughton’s reign as the Doctor but the whole monochrome era of the programme, this amazing story is also famous for being the one that finally reveals just where the mysterious Doctor came from…

“Time travellers. I wonder…”

Whilst it’s universally acknowledged amongst fans that “The War Games” is far too long and padded to the hilt, it’s also thought of by most fans as an absolute classic and I would agree wholeheartedly. My initial encounter with Pat Troughton’s swansong was via Malcolm Hulke’s novelisation of the story which I enjoyed immensely, but left me curious as to just how this plot (the novelisation was about 150 pages, if I recall correctly) had stretched across ten twenty-five minute episodes. Years later, I finally got to watch all ten episodes and my question was answered – repetition. Escape, recapture, escape, recapture, escape… The multi-layered plot is peeled away very slowly, one layer at a time. A viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Major Smythe is the villain of the piece from watching the first few episodes, as the War Lord himself doesn’t show up until half way through, and even his introduction is pre-empted by that of the War Chief. Much of the plot (all the ‘resistance’ stuff, for example) could have easily been cut-down to make this story a pacey five or six-parter, but there was a ten episode gap in the schedule and so ten episodes were produced! Even so, “The War Games” remains to this day one of my favourite Doctor Who stories, books and audios included. In one way, the story’s length works to its advantage as it completely sucks the viewer into the story and the characters, in a sense making it more like a novel than a TV show. Ironically, the experience of watching this serial is more like reading a novel than reading the novelisation of it is! I certainly wouldn’t recommend to anyone sitting themselves down and watching all four hours of “The War Games,” but viewing it in either in two-halves (as I tend to watch the story) or even episodically is something every Doctor Who fan should do.

The War Lord’s plan is fantastic material for a great Doctor Who story - take an alien planet, split it into different war zones, gather soldiers from different parts of Earth’s history, brainwash them and then let them kill each other until all you have left is an invincible army of hardened veterans that you can conquer the Galaxy with! It also allows for a wonderful opening to the story – what could be better than the TARDIS materialising in the middle of no-man’s-land on a Great War battlefront in France? It provides so many wonderful opportunities for storytelling (and believe me, in ten episodes Dicks and Hulke exploit them all), and due its predominantly ‘historic’ setting the production value also seems higher than that of contemporary stories. The sets of the trenches and the chateau are beautifully created; were it not for them being shot in black and white there would be nothing to distinguish them from programmes like Blackadder Goes Forth, made almost twenty years later! However, the superb design of “The War Games” isn’t limited to the various historical time zones. Never before have I seen a set that cries out “1960’s” as much as the War Lord’s domain does. Psychedelic doesn’t even begin to describe it… if you’ve ever seen any of the Austin Powers movies, you can imagine the setting. It makes a fantastic change from the grey corridors and flashing lights that Doctor Who so often used to depict ‘futuristic’ settings, though I’m not sure about the weird glasses…

One of the major driving forces behind making “The War Games” so compelling is the brilliance of its characters. Carstairs (David Savile) and Lady Jennifer (Jane Sherwin) are likeable enough to have become successful companions were the circumstances different, and the more nefarious characters like the intimidating General Smythe and the deplorable Security Chief are both interesting enough to have supported their own (shorter!) serials. The War Lord himself is wonderfully brought to life by Philip Madoc. His calm performance imbues the character with a real sense of power – he doesn’t need to throw his weight around too much, he is already as feared and respected as he possibly could be. The War Chief, however, is the most interesting character by far. Episode eight sees the series’ first mention of the Time Lords as, like the Doctor, the War Chief is revealed to be a renegade Time Lord on the run from his people. He wants the Doctor to help him overthrow the War Lord so that they can rule the galaxy together. I found myself quite amused by the War Chief’s dialogue when he speaks to the Doctor; it is uncannily similar to Darth Vader’s in The Empire Strikes Back, a film which was still over a decade away when “The War Games” was written! Like all good villains, the War Chief completely believes his hair-brain scheme for galactic domination is right and just. The Doctor, however, is far from convinced and for the first time since leaving his homeworld, he finds himself in a situation that he cannot resolve… without help. 

Enter the Time Lords.

“You have returned to us, Doctor. Your travels are over.”

Episode nine of “The War Games” ended with the ultimate deus ex machina; answering the Doctor’s telepathic message in a box, the Time Lords’ wave their magic wand and the soldiers are all returned to their customary time and place, the War Lord is in their custody and the War Chief is dead (or is he…?), killed by his former associates. Episode ten is very nearly a different story all together, and arguably contains the biggest reveal in the history of the entire TV series - certainly the biggest reveal overall until Marc Platt’s controversial 1997 novel “Lungbarrow.” The Doctor’s people are introduced to us as a nearly omnipotent race who have not merely gained mastery over time and space but also appear to have god-like powers (which one of them uses to physically punish the War Lord when he refuses to testify in his trial.) Although they have a policy of strict non-intervention, the Doctor’s summons forces them to try the War Lord for his crimes and eventually sentence him to temporal dissolution – he’s not just executed, he’s wiped from history! However, their strict policy of non-intervention is one that the Doctor has constantly flouted, not to mention his ‘borrowing’ of a TARDIS. Like the War Lord before him, the Doctor is tried for his crimes and found guilty, however the Time Lords take into account his good intentions and his role in the battle against evil and therefore decide to punish him by exiling him to 20th century Earth and forcing him to regenerate.

The Doctor’s goodbye to Jamie and Zoe is a real choker, and the blow is made even crueller by the Time Lords’ erasing their memories of their travels with the Doctor. The Troughton Era ends (at least on TV) with the Doctor’ face contorting as he disappears into the ether…

Of course, the novels speculate that “The War Games” wasn’t the end for the loveable second Doctor - Gallifrey’s C.I.A. intercept him en route to Earth and give him limited freedom in exchange for him doing certain missions for them. This is the older second Doctor that we see in “The Five Doctors” and “The Two Doctors” - he even gets Jamie back, memory restored!

In short, “The War Games” is an epic masterpiece. The bulk of the story is hugely entertaining and the introduction of the Time Lords and the Doctor’s (as yet unnamed) homeworld is purely the icing on the cake. It is packed with fantastic cliff-hangers (the Doctor up against a firing squad, for example), superb characters, and some wonderfully memorable scenes like the escaped Doctor strutting into a military prison, shouting his mouth off in outrage about how the person in charge there isn’t giving him enough respect and thus being accepted by him as an authority figure whilst having absolutely no credentials! It is a must-see story, and I’d also strongly recommended its sequel – the New Adventure “Timewyrm: Exodus” by Terrance Dicks, one of the best Doctor Who novels I’ve ever read.

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