The War Games
Okay, Lady Jennifer is a bit of a stereotype, but who cares? And those who say the story is slow should note that we see the anachronistic monitor screens within the first nine minutes. You know, going to colour was a mistake... this stuff looks great in black and white. David Maloney's direction really is the DBs this episode... look at the way the camera creeps uneasily up to the General Smythe, or the upward-facing angles in the jail cell. Yes, there is padding even in the opening episode, but the cliffhanger's a cracker, the sets are good and Troughton is superb. I can understand why this stuff isn't to everyone's taste. But me? I love it!
The Doctor uses psychology to convince people he's an officer, which is a nice touch. Admittedly, the season six Doctor is no longer a subtle manipulator, but more a passive-reactive type and this applies doubly here. Right from the first episode he's in above his head, with no secret masterplan in sight. People slag off season six, and yes it is the weakest Troughton, but it's loads better than its reputation and is generally well made. After the tacky excess of Trial (which I watched before this), look at the care and attention to detail here, from the pictures in the background, to all the stuff on mantelpieces and windowsills. Looking at this episode objectively, it has to be said that a lot of it sees the trio escape... only to be recaptured. But this is just the establishing set-up, waiting for the real story to unfold...
Weirdly, the sonic screwdriver, that all-purpose bomb detonator and door opener - is still a screwdriver here. There's also some stereotyped Germans. I won't say this episode doesn't drag, but when it gives us our first real look at the War Room and Edward Brayshaw as the War Chief (who, rarely in Who, gets dubbed-on "thoughts") is full-pelt and manic as the Chief, and I love him for it. As a Master prototype he brings so much more depth to the role than even Roger Delgado. When he talks about "their finest qualities" of the humans, it's almost in admiration as a counterpoint to the aliens' scornful disregard. Though how does Carstairs NOT get shot with about fifty soldiers gunning at him? And Frazer does seem a little bored in his last story...
Anorakky Observation: The War Chief's seal is different to the later Pyrodian Seal. Is the Chief from one of the other denominations?
That said, though, watched on an episode-by-episode basis this is the first part since the third where, in terms of narrative progression, next to bugger all happens. Look out for plenty of slow fights this episode as a result. Oh, one last thing - take a look at the scene where the War Chief pushes down the propped-up hatch, the rest of it filmed through the hole. A lesser director would've opted for a more obvious shot. The ending is also pretty good, even if there are rather too many obvious hints that the Doctor is a Time Lord like Brayshaw.
There's also much fun with the juxtaposition of the lines from The War Chief/between Jamie and The Doctor: "I suggest we pay particular attention to the 1917 zone."/"Well where are we going, Doctor?" "Anywhere but the 1917 zone, Jamie." This is a much better episode than the last two, with Philip Madoc adding his immense charisma to the mix. Is his grinning at the security chief just Madoc peeing himself at James Bree's acting? Brie is a form of cheese, isn't it? How apt.
Finally we get a bit of moral ambiguity as Zoe looks down in disgust as Soldiers on her side brutally beat the enemy. In terms of narrative, though, the Doctor's exploits again go nowhere, with another capture by General Smythe and a bit with the Roman footage. The Doctor even gets another lucky escape from a firing squad. But I love the series playing with its own SF concepts with the Doctor erecting a time barrier and a Sidrat landing in the Chateau. It's also notable that Troughton fluffs a few lines (particularly the "Look, Mr.Russell" one) - a rarity for the actor.
The plan of the aliens is finally revealed - they're letting the humans kill each other so the survivors can become a galaxy-conquering army. Why let your potential army kill half of itself off in the first place? Why not use 'em all? Even for Doctor Who this is a bizarre, whacked-out plot, but does it really matter? Arturo Villar is a Mexican stereotype, but perky Zoe gets to show off her bare arms so that's okay.
This episode is so much sharper than the prior eight, and - while a little padded and a little cheap - contains more classic moments than you can shake a stick at. The Time Lords aren't quite as impressive as the previous cliffhanger would have us believe, but they still work well. "They'll forget me, won't they?" "You and I know time is relative" "I've never seen such an incredible bunch"... there are so many great bits. Also oddly disturbing is the forced regeneration, which seems to mix the comic (the silent cinema homage, the weird belching noise the Doctor makes) with plaintive drama to produce a strangely unsettling coda. Out of all the regenerations, this is the most unnerving, always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Even though I've enjoyed this story, it really brings home how slow some of the parts are when compared to the pace of this one.
Still underrated, despite its top forty entry in the big DWM poll. The Discontinuity Guide would have it that it's six episodes too long. Daft, as this has far too much scope for a standard four or even six-parter. Admittedly, pruned down to eight episodes it would work even better. But flaws or no flaws, this is still one of my favourites, and always in my personal top twenty.
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