The War Games
The correct take on this story is, of course, that it’s remarkably well sustained for the second/third-longest tale the series has tackled. There’s invariably agreement that The War Games has an episode or so treading water (and/or stuck in a barn) and that it’s prone to including the occasional obvious filler scene or two. I dare say most will disagree with Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood that the final episode’s a bit of a bore. Although, I dohave a few issues with the penultimate one… Would the story be as well regarded if the Time Lords didn’t turn up at the end? Impossible to answer, but The War Games’ gamechanger position in Doctor Who shouldn’t disguise that, irrespective of their intervention, the Second Doctor’s last stand is a cracker.
Lisbeth Sandifer drones on about the Episode Two cliffhanger being more important than the third’s (Romans vs Doctor in a SIDRAT) and, strictly in terms of revelation, perhaps. Visually, though, the galloping chariot is a bit naff, and may be why – as much as viewing figures are a guide, which is bordering on the arbitrary – it saw the story’s second biggest week-on-week fall (6.3m to 5.1m. Only 7 to 8, 4.9m to 3.5m, was greater – that one, with the Doctor being abducted with ridiculous ease, had me throwing my hands up in my-giddy-aunt exasperation, so I can understand why).
Episode Six ends memorably with a War Chief refrain that clearly inspired ED 209 and thence Silver Bullet (“You have thirty seconds to decide. Thirty seconds”), but it’s earlier guilty of protracted creak as young Private Moor (David Troughton – hmm, I wonder how he got the gig?) is put through his paces by crafty alien Von Weich (David Garfield, every bit as consummate, with his facial scar, monocle and clipped, conniving confidence, as he is playing cricket-glove-hat sporting Neeva in The Face of Evil). The upshot is Von Weich being shot – “I had to shoot him, didn’t I?” – but you rather wish he had an end more deserving of his pure, unadulterated malevolence.
The Doctor: Dimensional flexibility? Remote control? In my day these things were impossible to achieve without shortening the life of the time control units.
Other than that, it’s only really Episode Nine, which has to balance out such sure-hit moments as the Security Chief (James Bree) getting his (“It was a personal debt I had to settle” – the shooting, to the sound of an alarm, is quite resonant of the Blake’s 7 finale), soon followed by his arch nemesis the War Chief (Mr Medford himself, Edward Brayshaw), and the Doctor summoning the Time Lords with a very nifty psychic card/cube trick before legging it in slow motion across the battleground/Brighton rubbish tip.
If dimensional flexibility and remote control shorten the lifespan of the SIDRATs, is it absolutely essential to include them as features? The War Chief says he brought the machines with him, but he presumably made them himself (I mean, he didn’t steal them from Gallifrey). What’s to prevent him from making more so he “can rule the galaxy without fear of opposition”? No need for the Doctor’s TARDIS. And then we learn, very conveniently in terms of needing the Time Lords, “There are only two machines left with enough life in them”. The level of contrivance in Episode Nine is also present in the Doctor’s crap reconditioning ruse, whereby he gets Jamie – enormously thick over the last three or so episodes, in a manner that’s more irksome than jolly – to pretend he’s been brainwashed in the least convincing manner imaginable. And the War Chief, hitherto smart, self-assured and perceptive, falls for it like an unmitigated moron. Apart from all that, though, it’s a good episode (honest!)
The Doctor: Yes, but why choose the people of the Earth?
War Chief: They are the most suitable recruits for our armies. Man is the most vicious species of all.
The Doctor: Well, that simply isn’t true.
War Chief: Consider their history. For a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose.
Generally, though, moment to moment, The War Games is dramatic, compelling and engaged, often much more so for its villain subplots than the hero ones (there’s only so much of squaddies hanging out in barns one can take). As the likes of Wood and Miles have pointed out, the actual mechanics and logistics of the war games, in assembling an army of armies, don’t stand up to an enormous amount of scrutiny, nor humans being the best in the galaxy for the job (despite the Doctor’s protestations, this is evidently meant to be a “Humans suck and they deserve whatever is coming to them” line of reasoning, along the lines of slag, ash, clinker). We’ve also got the post-Kubrick 2001 evolutionary think that this is all we’ve really been doing since Darwinian theory overrode any degree of common sense.
But as I say, it’s the involvement of the “War Lords”, first seen in the form of Noel Coleman’s General Smythe, where the really good stuff is found. I’d warrant much of this is Mac Hulke’s influence, since his stories tend to feature well-drawn and motivated antagonists, even if the ones here are less layered; it’s the internecine feuding that makes this story shine. Even before that, you have great actors replacing great actors (the humans offer rather diminishing returns, until we get Michael Napier Brown hamming it for all he’s worth as the stupidest Mexican bandit ever).
Smythe makes a major splash, introducing us to anachronisms on the WWI battlefront (“Blood, barbed wire, the smell of death…”) While he exits in Episode Three (reappearing in Seven, where following his own plan proves the death of him), Von Weich is there to take the reins, along with a burgeoning power struggle between the War Chief and the Security Chief being put through its paces (Episode Five onwards). Brayshaw and Bree furnish exactly the degree of charged overacting this needs, but the former encourages sympathy, or at least a modicum of respect; the latter is seething nut job, blinkered by his desire to undermine the War Chief and speaking in a permanent exclamation mark.
Philip Madoc’s War Lord doesn’t arrive until Episode Seven, and his precise reserve is a wonder to behold (he also looks dramatically different to the standard-issue Madoc of The Krotons, with his plastered down hair, stubble beard and milk-bottle glasses). Terrance Dicks called Brayshaw’s “demon king acting”, and while Ican appreciate the comparison of his “stage menace, pantomime menace” to Madoc’s “real menace”, the former shouldn’t be to do diminish Brayshaw’s work. I love the War Lord’s unrepentant “I do not even admit the authority of this court” in the final episode. This has been compared to Nuremberg Nazis (About Time), but the retrospective view, given the Time Lords’ litany of sins and inveterate hypocrisy, is “Well, good for him”.
Strange as it may seem, given it’s their finale, this isn’t a story where I’m left with that many superlatives for the regulars. That’s probably partly because there’s so much guest talent snaffling arresting plotlines. I’ve mentioned Jamie being a moron, even by his standards, although I liked his “Oh, he sounds like a nice chap” in response to Zoe saying Arturo Villar doesn’t listen to women. Padbury gets a lovely moment in Episode Seven when, back on the battlefield, Zoe gives a sad little look as one of her companions stoves in a skull with a rifle butt (out of shot, natch). I also can’t help but think (or prefer to believe) she’s going to overcome her conditioning on the Wheel and remember everything, given she very nearly did in that parting shot we saw.
The Doctor being cheerful about Jamie probably getting killed or killing on Culloden isn’t perhaps the right tone, but the alternative would be a bit grimdark. He gets several fine moments, such as persuading Vernon Dobtcheff to tell him everything, and announcing “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you” upon being kidnapped in Episode Eight. Notably, the Doctor tells a massive porky about why he betrays the resistance, citing the threat of a neutron bomb (were such a thing real). In fact, the War Lord cries off this (“No, we shall attempt to be rather more subtle than that”), and it isn’t conditional on the Doctor’s cooperation.
Time Lord: You have returned to us, Doctor. Your travels are over.
Sandifer suggests “The Doctor failed and had to call in the Time Lords because, at the end of the day, he was incapable of dealing with the problems of humans beyond fighting monsters for them. Because, in the end, he was as out of his depth as the villains – stuck defending against crises with no real skill anywhere else. The Doctor’s crime is that he was only ever really good for bases under siege. That he might throw himself into a crisis, but he’d never throw himself into the aftermath…. Which is the thing that almost everybody misses about The War Games. The story is a blistering condemnation of the Doctor. It firmly sides with the Time Lords”. Which is, well, looking for something different to say; the Doctor could have left them on the planet, so I disagree. They’d have made do, as long as they’d got rid of that stupid Mexican.
As for Sandifer’s “The revolution failed” comparison between the (Second) Doctor’s fate and real-world events (“… the bad guys aren’t external monsters, but the people who want to send riot police to crush the sex deviants planting flowers”), it’s a “That’s what they want you to think” misconception. Far more appropriate is the (oft-derided by those who “know better”) earlier mission statement that “There are some corners of the Universe which have bred the most terrible things… They must be fought”. Counter-culture was set up to fail, social engineering by Tavistock et al. Consequently, if you must analogise the two, the apparently benign Time Lords bringing the Doctor to heel are very much the suspect supervisors of the Celestial Intervention Agency, only seemingly giving him a long leash while ultimately controlling, planning and ordaining his actions as they see fit.
It’s a shame The War Games’ look wasn’t replicated elsewhere in the show: all spook glasses, crazy-patterned ’60s décor and guillotine doors. The stylistic quirks serve to emphasise the very psych-out-nature of the story. About Time mentions The Manchurian Candidate, and we’re presented with a race of aliens practising MKUltra as a core component of their strategy. Indeed, everyone involved, being a soldier, is either traumatised or psychotic (Villar), so ideal fodder for brainwashing.
As a matter of course, this race of aliens lies to humans about the true time period and also the nature of their reality, where they are and why they are fighting. In the light of Stolen History, The War Games takes on a rather different spin, concerned as it is with the manipulation of perceived historical events by puppeteers armed with advanced tech and oversight, puppeteers who seek to manage and herd/hone humanity through warfare and destruction. Humanity, in general, do as they’re told, like sheep, very few capable of seeing beyond the illusion/paradigm. The physical terrain is presented as a plane, a false geography of different zones; one can stray beyond its ordained confines if one breaks one’s conditioning. In so doing, one may discover the world is not as our (inhuman) leaders tell us. Key to those leaders’ plan is that their subjects are unable to elevate themselves beyond a certain degree of development/awareness (or, if you like, have a certain degree of understanding of/capability with alternative tech), as that would enable them to see through the illusion and pose a threat to the prevailing order.
Carstairs is ready to shoot Zoe because he’s told to, a neat encapsulation of most wars’ dictates (being told to fight “because it’s right to” is, to a degree, simply another form of brainwashing/conditioning). When Carstairs says to Lady Fiona “It seems like forever, doesn’t it?” it’s an apt metaphor for the fog that veils our own perception of reality.
Notably, the historical periods are predominately post-nineteenth century (that is, periods following the theorised event/timeline takeover circa 1700): the American Civil War (1861-65), Crimean War Zone (1853-56), 1917 War Zone (1914-18), Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), Peninsular War (1808-14), Boer War Zone (1899-1902). This leaves the English Civil War (1642-1651), the murky Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the frankly incredibly vague Roman Zone (27BC-480AD) and Greek Zone (300BC?) Are the latter two actual conflicts, or just Romans being Romans and Greeks being Greeks? Anyone theorising that a thousand years of history has been invented would find ample fodder in The War Games’ choice of historical periods, since there’s at least that long where the aliens appear to have plundered absolutely no one.
With regard to rickety history, About Time suggested The War Games was “The last story to be made before the moon landing changes everything…” Which is ironic, given that, in terms of selling an event, TV basically performed the function of Smythe or Von Weich, just on a mass scale. I’d dispute any assertion that The War Games is overlong, even if its episode count is borne of production demands rather than those of storytelling. I might question the inclusion of the bubbling pits of whatever it is on Gallifrey and a few of the more laboured scenes or plot contrivances, but this is an epic that more than holds its own, one that succeeds in engaging with a degree of consistency that puts many stories almost a third of the length to shame.