The War Games [Classic Doctor Who]

I’ve written a few of these posts lately, which have mostly come about because of spending money I received for my 50th birthday.  But like Talons of Weng-Chiang, last time, I’ve owned the DVD for this story for a long time.  Unlike Talons, I’d actually watched it before.  But I am enjoying rewatching these stories lately, especially doing it through the eyes of my nerdier daughters.

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The War Games

Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor.
Companions:  Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Wendy Padbury as Zoe Herriot
Written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke.  Directed by David Maloney.

Format:  10 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  April – June 1969.  (Episodes 35-44 of Season 6)

The War Games is the first Doctor Who script credited to Terrance Dicks, one of the series’ most prolific contributors, who was already working as the show’s script editor.  Apparently, the ten episode epic came about when two other stories fell through, and Dicks drew upon the more experienced Malcolm Hulke to help him fill the gap.  And more than that…for the first time, to fill in the Doctor’s backstory.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Doctor is really…a Time Lord from Gallifrey!

But to be fair, this was a pretty big move for the show to make after six seasons of offering only the barest of hints and keeping it mostly undiscussed.  And though there’s nothing terribly complex about, the reveal was interesting, logically presented and strong enough to creat a solid foundation for the show to go forward on which has lasted all the way to the most reason season, when it was suddenly replaced with the much clunkier “Timeless Child” twist.

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However, as good as the revelation about the Time Lords is, it does take a long time to get there.  There is some build up with the obvious prior relationship that the War Chief has with the Doctor, but really it’s a good eight episodes into the story before they are really talked about, nine episodes before they get involved, and ten before they actually turn up.  Prior to that, the main story is about unnamed aliens kidnapping people from different periods in earth history in order to create an army of galactic conquerors.  There’s nothing wrong with this plot but it struggles to retain interest over the story’s expansive length.  Things really begin to feel padded out around Episode Six, and there just seems to be a lot of back and forth between the war zones and the War Lord’s headquarters.  The story certainly would have benefited by being reduced to six episodes, but the whole “resistance” subplot ends up being a bit rushed and could have been developed more as well.

Design-wise, the whole World War I time-zone is quite good, with trench and the forward command post all being well-realized, as well as all of the soldiers with their props and costumes.  The characters are straightforward but likable–I’m a particular fan of Russell (played by Graham Weston), one of the resistance leaders who comes from the Boer War.  He’s a bit of a boss in every fight he gets into.

Struggling a lot more is the untitled aliens and their whole operations centre.  Everything about the place looks silly–the psychedelic patterns on the walls, the mysterious invaders and their affected speech patterns and the soldiers with their retro-futuristic goggles–it all just look like a big collection of cheap science fiction cliches.  The political dynamics between the Security Chief (part of the alien race) and the War Chief (from the Doctor’s people), and the way they both try to stay on the good side of the War Lord (the alien leader) gives us something to watch during these segments–but again, it’s too stretch out to really work well.

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But, after all that, it’s such a pivotal story in the history of the show, you wouldn’t want to miss it.  In addition to introducing the Time Lords, it’s also the last black and white story, the end of Doctor Who‘s 40 episode seasons, and the last story before the character spent a period being exiled to earth.  The story also features cameo appearances by famous monsters (Daleks, Cybermen, Quarks and Yeti), a sad farewell to companions Jamie and Zoe, and the sonic screwdriver being used as an actual screwdriver.  After watching this story (and The Enemy of the World), one of my daughters decided that Jamie was one of her favorite companions, and the other declared the Second Doctor to be amongst her three favorite Doctors (along with Smith and Capaldi).

One thought on “The War Games [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The War Games was a great way for Doctor Who to begin uniting period piece adventures with sci-fi themes on a regular basis. It would be two decades before The Curse Of Fenric showed us how a mix of historical war and Whoniversal sci-fi could still make a good story together. This was a fine finale for Troughton’s era even though Big Finish’s Beyond War Games series is now changing that for us. Thank you, Ben, for your review.

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