The War Games

“You have returned to us, Doctor. Your travels are over.” – The Time Lords

The Troughton era closes with a doozey, a ten-episode epic that really delivers well on several levels. It works well despite its length partially because it reveals itself in layers. The story opens with our regulars finding themselves in the middle of a barrage in World War I. From there we begin to encounter oddities in stages: a proper English lady pops up out of nowhere—but it turns out she’s a lost field nurse confirming that we are in the middle of the Great War in 1917. But then we see General Smythe on a video phone—how could this anachronism be here? Could this be a story of an alien invasion in the midst of the war? That would be an interesting story but then we run into a random Redcoat from Jamie’s era two hundred years before. How are different eras of time getting mixed up? We soon start to get hints that something much bigger is going on, that we are not on earth at all and there is something that the Doctor is quite fearful of (Zoe: “But who else would have space-time machines like the TARDIS?” Doctor: “Well there is an answer to that, but I hope… I just hope…”)

All this discovery happens along with a lot of good action chases and a constant back and forth of captures and escapes. It’s almost a running joke how many different times our main characters are thought to be spies by different factions. This could have been tedious but somehow the story makes it seem fresh by having a different reason and outcome for the escape or recapture each time, be it a clever ruse, by outside intervention, or because they’ve spurred others to act. There are also clever little reveals throughout. Having a black Yankee soldier from the Civil War rescue the group from the hands of Southern troops is a good diversion since we assume he’s simply siding with them against the Confederates. It thus comes as a surprise when he can casually ignore the mind control of the Captain as we learn that he’s part of a real rebel group, a resistance to the war games themselves. (It’s also interesting that we don’t get an explanation where the shot that coincidently saves the Doctor from execution comes at first and only later do we realize that it must have been the work of these same rebels.)

Many of the costumes and battles are realistic—particularly the opening bombing scenes that draw us into the supposed World War I story. (Unfortunately, the one-on-one fighting leaves a lot to be desired.) The acting and actors throughout the story are very high caliber—some that would go on to more recognition. Even some of the characters that pass through temporarily stand out well like fussy little Ransom or the ever gullible alien scientist. There is no shortage of good examples of engaging characters. Lady Jennifer and Carstairs are quite earnest and relatable; we see them as confidantes from the start; it is thus very significant to hear them discuss about the gaps in their memories and the strange “mist” that giving us our first indication of something odd happening. The fake German/American general is also a stand out; he is wonderfully weasley and unfortunately he doesn’t get the chance to be used more.

The story switches gears and takes a larger dimension when we suddenly encounter the futuristic alien society that is running all of the war games. One brilliant piece here is the well-acted tension and dynamics between the War Chief and the Security Chief. We’re never sure who has the upper hand. Meanwhile, the War Lord’s cool anger and command of the room is quite striking when he arrives. Even when later temporarily cowed by the Time Lords, he quickly returns to calm control. It’s not shown what hold he could possibly have over a Time Lord like the War Chief, but there is obviously something powerful about him and his people that makes it so.

There are lots of little great ideas throughout the story like Smythe and Von Weich calmly discussing their human soldiers like game pieces or the resistance drawing out the guards by coordinated vandalism. The Doctor having the thought to alter the time zone barriers to surround and protect the palace is particularly well-played, even though the completely logical counter punch of the Security Chief using a SIDRAT to get around it ultimately renders it ineffective. The visual appeal of people costumed from multiple points of time interacting and coming together to fight is nice. There are also nice sets and pieces like the War Board and the upwards shots through it. And while some of the costumes in the central command are a bit outré – the odd glasses and the spandex guard costumes not among the least—the oddly groovy facial hair and Nehru collars of the rest stand up rather well despite being dated.

By far the best part of the entire story is of course the run up to the end when the Doctor realizes the scope of the problem is too big for him to solve and he must turn to the Time Lords to intervene despite the fact that he will be condemning himself as well. An entire backstory for his flight from his planet is created—his sense of indignation at their passivity in the face of evil and thus his decision to steal a TARDIS and leave. That his decision to ask for help is a sacrifice is evident and punctuated by the War Chief’s outright fear of the Time Lords’ arrival. Even the way the Doctor contacts them is an inventive part of the story; encapsulating his thoughts in a cube that he constructs in a meditative trance is so much cooler than if he had just called them on a communication device. Indeed, it sets a precedent for emphasizing the higher plane mental powers of the Time Lords. The Doctor gets some great dialogue in his trial with them: “While you have been content merely to observe the evil in the galaxy I have been fighting against it!… All these evils I have fought while you have done nothing but observe. True, I am guilty of interference, just as you are guilty of failing to use your great powers to help those in need!” His pleas do seem to have some effect based on the words of the Time Lords that they agree with him, but he still suffers a punishment in the end, one the audience at the time wouldn’t have been sure he’d come back from: “The time has come for you to change your appearance Doctor, and begin your exile.”

Best unsettling moments:

The Time Lords are mysterious and godlike at this point. The Doctor’s obvious fear in contacting them sets the stage, but the blanched face of the War Lord at the sound of a howling wind settling in from above as he simply states “They’re coming” is amazing. This, along with the Doctor and the others desperately trying to make it to the TARDIS as time is slowed down, are a vivid memory from my childhood viewing of the show. Equally disturbing is the goodbye for Jamie and Zoe—it’s sad to see them go but when the Doctor turns and calmly says “They’ll forget me, won’t they?”, it’s downright heartbreaking. Even as a child, I felt a sense of injustice and frustration at knowing that Jamie and Zoe would forget their close friendship with the Doctor and each other.

Firsts:

  • First naming of the Time Lords
  • First time on the Doctor’s planet

Regrets:

Though they do well on a lot of outfits, the guards’ costumes and the glasses of the students are rather off-putting. Many of the fight scenes are too obviously fake punches. I also kind of feel like the cool and powerful War Lord should have been the one who was the visiting Time Lord and the War Chief a power-seeking lackey trying to make a deal with the Doctor. They could have largely kept the same dynamics and story line with that switch and it would fit better with the end of events since the War Chief dies (rather than regenerates) and the War Lord is punished by the Time Lords (more fitting for one of their race that only they could deal with). But considering they pulled the whole story together at the last minute as a replacement, it’s amazing that it is as good as it is.

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