The War Games

Written by:
Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks
Directed by: David Maloney
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1969
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

One thing the Troughton era wasn't was thematically subtle. So it is that every episode begins with film stock of explosions, over which the story title/writer credits are laid. Hey, I can live with that. The first minute gives us a Tardis landing. Yet we never see the ship itself materialise, but rather its reflection in a puddle. Is that downright bloody cool or what?? Think about it for a moment - what other story has had such an original Tardis landing? And that's just the first minute!!! Top marks to David Maloney for that alone. Next, possibly the most likeable Tardis crew do their stuff - Jamie gets muddy boots, The Mighty Trout laughs like a drake, and Zoe... well, great arse. All of this is underscored by Dudley Simpson's suitably sombre, doomy score.

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!
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The resolution to the previous episode's cliffhanger is a Rocketman/Zorro-style cop-out, but does it really matter? Dectractors with the "nothing happens" argument are again silenced by the appearance of a Sidrat within the first two minutes. Less than eighteen minutes in and we get the first (superbly shot) glimpse of the War Room. Admittedly, the General's hypnoglasses routine is a little overegged here, and Simpson's score is now a trifle repetitive.

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...
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How does the ambulance reverse through the time barrier yet emerge the other side the right way round? I like the bit where the Doctor inspects Jamie's sporran and he gets all defensive like the Doc's just interfered with his privates. It's little bits of nonsense like that that make it so special. And is that Sergeant the campest officer in the world or what?

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...
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The episode where things start to get really interesting is also, conversely, the episode where things get cheap. The inside of a Sidrat, a sophisticated, transdimensional space-time machine, turns out to be strips of bacofoil. The American Civil War set is also far from convincing, what with the cod American accents and painted backdrop "exteriors". Cost-cuttingly, the US General is the same alien as the German chief. As he puts on an accent for that, then why does he speak in a German accent even when not in character? With all the swirly designs and slit glasses there's a very 60s, Carnaby Street feel to the whole thing, yet it works. And unusually for 60s television, the black man is the good guy. Jamie gets involved in yet more padding, but what gets this instalment a half-mark away from top score is that classic moment where the War Chief recognises the Doctor. Superb.
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In true padding style, this one opens with a ridiculously slow fight between Harper and an underling that goes on and on for nearly a minute. I'd do the "Pertwee six-parter" gag but I've already done that one on The Krotons. The design of the War Room gets REALLY psychedelic here, and James Bree talking like he's got a mouthful of diahhorea doesn't help matters. Troughton's fiddling with the processing machine "I think you'll find that bit goes... just there." is a nice bit of characterisation. Though true to 60s TV form, when the guards shoot at the resistance, it's the black guy that gets it.

Anorakky Observation: The War Chief's seal is different to the later Pyrodian Seal. Is the Chief from one of the other denominations?
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The Time Lords are first name-checked in this episode. Shame it's in a scene with James Bree though - ain't he cack? There's also an unusual attempt at special effects here - something 60s Who rarely attempted - with a "brain scan" device. Other notables are Patrick Troughton's son in a role as a soldier, and the Doctor's lack of moral compunction when he sees Carstairs shooting dead their enemies.

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.
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Interestingly, there's virtually no reprise at the start of this episode, it goes straight into the action. Troughton also shows his ingenuity again with a handy gas bomb. If Pertwee did it it would be contrived, with Troughton it's genius.

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.
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"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you" is another classic Troughton line, and this is again where the meandering narrative really starts to pick up. Particularly hot are the scenes between the Doctor and the War Chief, with lines like "You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are" and "I had every right to leave." His offering the Doctor co-rulership of the galaxy and the Doctor seemingly thinking twice presages - and betters - similar Pertwee/Delgado exchanges.

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.
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Yes, on an episode-by-episode basis The War Games HAS suffered in my eyes, but we're on a home straight to the climax now. It's good to see Troughton and Madoc competing in this episode, Madoc one of the few gueststars to offer him any real thespic rivalry. I love The War Chief vindictively gunning down James Bree's irritating Security Chief, and his own death scene is outstanding, him in the background to Madoc's calm War Lord. The ending to this one is also famously superb. (Though why The Doctor doesn't send the box AFTER he's got to the 1917 zone is beyond me. Oh well, I guess if he did there'd be no episode ten...)
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This episode again has no reprise, but continues directly on from the ninth with a rip-roaring Time Lord finale. Some of this is shameless rip-offs from other adventures, though as they're mainly lost then it's forgiveable. The ripped-off clips are also excellent, such as the falling then floating Tardis fromFury, or the webbed-up version from The Web of Fear. Oddly, the Doctor gives one of his reasons for running away as "a whole galaxy to explore". Just one galaxy? And only Troughton could get away with pinging that spring lever and pretending "it's the controls - they're moving by themselves."

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.
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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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