Welcome to The War Games, Doctor Who’s longest story.
(I’ll just let that sit there and rankle for a bit.)
No, you say, what about The Trial of a Time Lord? Four separate narratives, I say.
All right, you say, but what about The Daleks’ Master Plan? You can’t deny that one! Well, I can in fact. As you’ll see if we ever get around to randoming it, I’d say Master Plan’s episodic format makes it feel like a series of mini-stories rather than one big one.
That leaves The War Games with the series’ longest contained narrative. And unlike those other contenders, it feels like one epic story, told over a record-breaking 9 episodes.
(I know, I’m being particularly annoying today.)
I say 9 episodes because that’s how long it takes to wrap up the main story. Episode Ten, is an epilogue and although it contains some bonus sneering and running around with the War Lord (Philip Madoc), it’s dealing with something else entirely. It’s a one episode story about the Doctor’s final come uppance with the Time Lords. And of course, it changes the show forever.
The War Games has been mightily re-evaluated in recent years. It started with a glowing review of the DVD by Gary Gillatt in DWM. Even co-writer Terrance Dicks, who had for years proffered a line that the story began and ended well but flagged in the middle, was convinced. So its reputation has grown to the point where it’s now our favourite 60s story, according to DWM’s 50th anniversary poll.
For me, it’s too patchy to be consistently satisfying. Those early episodes set in faux World War One are terrific though. The design work is excellent, the characters are believable and well portrayed and director David Maloney brings out a pervading sense of menace. Then there’s the unsettling sight of our cozy TARDIS team of silly old Doctor (the Trought, on form), funny old Jamie (the Fraze) and fussy old Zoe (the, um, Pads) suddenly dropped into shocking danger, the threat of violent death all around them. All capped off with that brilliant cliffhanger to Episode Two, when time zones collide and Roman soldiers come charging out of nowhere at our friends.
(Quick aside: Terence Bayler plays Major Barrington, and his resemblance to Rowan Atkinson is remarkable. It made me wonder is The War Games may have been an influence on Blackadder Goes Forth. Sound a bit far fetched? Well, think about Barrington/Blackadder and Carstairs/George at the front, and Smythe/Melchett and Ransom/Darling back safe behind lines at the Chateau.)
But after those initial episodes, the action is shared between the earthly war zones and the bad guys’ HQ. Their base has some fetching op art on the walls but is otherwise so much plywood and vac formed plastic. Clearly, the budget has run out. Billowing plastic sheets replace walls. Characters hide from others behind the scantest of flats, and their pursuers must pretend not to see them. Walls are too expensive, black drapes must suffice. Spaceships are controlled by play magnets. It’s resourceful work when faced with limited dough, but it can’t help but look tacky.
The insubstantial-ness of the sets isn’t helped by the fairly basic melodrama played out within them. Mostly, it’s middle management sniping between the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) and the Security Chief (James Bree). Both resentful and suspicious of the other, it’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to sustain over multiple episodes. Brayshaw goes for fruity, beard stroking villainy, while Bree opts for the nasal voiced bitching of a career civil servant. Both keep threatening to take their slowly escalating dispute to their team leader. It feels like we’re watching the petty irritations of a pair of office co-workers, promoted beyond their competence. “What a stupid fool you are. You’ve jammed the photocopier again!” “Well, don’t think I didn’t see you stealing Sue from Accounts’ soy milk from the fridge. What a stupid fool you are!”
Dicks and co-writer Malcolm Hulke have over four hours to fill with material but never get around to giving these “aliens” a name or a planet of origin. We have to assume then that it’s a deliberate move to keep them non-descript. Because they don’t have individual names either. They are either named after their occupations (War Lord, Security Chief and Scientist) or after the fictional characters they take on when in the time zones (General Smythe, Von Weich). In fact, the only thing which distinguishes them is their predisposition for eyewear, either the sinister pebble glasses type or the wacky sunvisor type.
So we switch regularly from the relatively realistic settings of historical wars to this b-grade world of flimsy sets, generically named people and unlikely spectacles. But it’s in the latter that we find the Doctor’s greatest secret hiding. Because the War Chief is not actually one of this colourless race. (You can tell by the way he’s wearing a hood ornament on a big chain around his neck). In fact, he’s a Time Lord, one of the Doctor’s kith. “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are,” he purrs, when the two finally get some time alone in Episode Eight. And so Dicks and Hulke set about dismantling the framework the show has been built on over the last six years.
We know in hindsight that The War Games was designed to kick the show into a new format. But it feels like it could also have been the end of the show, if that’s what was required. It doesn’t feel definitive. It’s having a bet each way. That last shot of a decapitated Doctor spinning helplessly through to oblivion – quite disturbing, really – is basically saying, we don’t know if there’s a future for this show.
Patrick Troughton picks up on this uncertainty. He plays his Doctor not with the restless energy of an eternal runaway, but with the resignation of a fugitive who knows the game is up. It’s his companions who have to spur him on to try to evade his Time Lord judges. Throughout these ten episodes, Troughton never stops looking for the lighter moment amongst all the gloom. He never stops trying to energise a flagging moment. But still, he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time.
Episode Ten – that little recognised one parter – gives him some excellent material to work with though. In a scene destined for clip show after clip show, he rails against the inactivity of his fellow Time Lords. While some old monster costumes are wheeled out to wobble in front of black curtains, the Doctor stakes his claim. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought, not merely observed. There’s still a need for him to be a funny, brave, compassionate hero. It might be doubtful about the future, but this story is very clearly saying, there’s still a need for Doctor Who.
LINK to The Girl Who Died: Aliens disguised as earthly warriors.
NEXT TIME… The fat just walks away. We take on some Partners in Crime.