Doctor Who Project: The War Games

Doctor Who Project: The War Games
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I had every right to leave.

Doctor Who begins here. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Doctor begins here.

Where he stops, no one knows

If “The Tomb of the Cybermen” provides the essential formula for what has come to be understood as a “proper” Doctor Who story, then Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke’s ten episode opus, “The War Games,” (Story Production Code ZZ) establishes the character of the Doctor for all time to come. For here, we learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord, and a renegade at that, on the run in a stolen TARDIS.

The Doctor’s people had been hinted at, if not named, back in Dennis Spooner’s “The Time Meddler,” with the Meddling Monk possessing a TARDIS of his own, and a sense of their prevailing ethos of non-interference comes through via the Monk’s counter-example. The Doctor expresses utter shock, on a moral level, not merely at the intended effects of the Monk’s mucking about with history but even more so at the very thought of any direct, intentional interference at all. “The War Games” explains why the Doctor feels that way, even as he is hoist upon his own interfering petard in the end.

The notion of the Doctor being called to task for his own interference could have been a story all its own; instead, Dicks and Hulke brilliantly weave the Doctor’s growing sense of dread at re-encountering the Time Lords throughout another story about the human propensity for war, with the Time Lords only appearing in the very final episode of the story and the season. It’s a reveal more powerful than any Dalek surfacing from the Thames or Cyberman punching through plastic, because this time, we don’t know if the Doctor will win.

Meet the Time Lords

The story’s beginning doesn’t even hint at its conclusion, starting with the chance materialization of the TARDIS in No Man’s Land on what appears to be World War One Earth. Scurrying around to avoid artillery fire, the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe eventually encounter a group of British soldiers who, for the life of them, can’t quite remember how long they’ve been at the front lines. Our time travellers’ attempts to escape only brand them as German spies, earning them a visit with General Smythe to face interrogation and imprisonment—and execution.

Zoe escapes from captivity long enough to discover a communication device quite out of keeping with 1917 Earth, but if we didn’t realize something strange was afoot then, the presence of a captured British Redcoat, thrown into Highlander Jamie’s cell, seals the deal. Soldiers are being transported from their wars on Earth, forced to fight endlessly on an alien planet for as-yet unknown reasons by unknown captors.

Cats and Dogs

Again, Dicks and Hulke tease out the threads of their story slowly, giving the viewer enough clues to piece together the story just before the characters do. This narrative technique serves to make the ten episodes of the story move with extraordinary rapidity, and even as the Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, and their “awakened” allies escape, are captured, and escape again (and again) in various time zones, the story scarcely loses momentum, though it does shed characters.

A huge cast comes and goes, with several figures being established as significant over the course of an episode or two and then disappearing with scarcely a trace. Lady Jennifer (Jane Sherwin), for instance, plays a major role in helping the Doctor and his companions escape via ambulance from the 1917 zone to the American Civil War zone, and then she’s sent off to help the resistance and never reappears. Disappointing as it may be to lose characters the audience has developed a familiarity with, it’s a ruthlessly effective bit of editing by Dicks and Hulke, allowing them to add new ones (and do they ever).

Gradually, the aliens’ hierarchy becomes clear, as General Smythe (and his German/Confederate counterpart von Weich) defer to the wishes of the War Chief, who in turn spars with the Security Chief, both of whom answer to the War Lord. The War Chief (Edward Bradshaw), a renegade Time Lord, has provided the humanoid aliens with the time/space machines used to transport huge numbers of human soldiers from their respective eras, and in operation they sound exactly like the TARDIS. (The viewer, again, sees/hears these devices before the characters do.) They are controlled using removable geometric pieces, the placement of which determines the operation of the craft; but though this control mechanism has no similarity to that of the TARDIS, the Doctor seems quite adept at using them, a coincidence Zoe picks up on:

Zoe: But who else would have space-time machines like the TARDIS?

Doctor: Well, there is an answer to that, but, ah, I hope, I just hope…

Whenever the Time Lords are hinted at, Patrick Troughton inflects his voice and visage, providing the Doctor with a crestfallen mien. Resignation becomes the Doctor’s default attitude when considering his people, though the reasons for this hesitancy remain temptingly opaque until near the end of the story.

A crestfallen Doctor

As the story’s title suggests, the aliens led by the War Lord are conducting wargames, using real human soldiers from multiple eras, stretching from Roman times through to World War One, as pawns, pitting them against one another to winnow out the weak and the un-warlike. From this remaining core of hardened soldiers the nameless humanoid aliens will select an army to conquer the entire galaxy. Humans, after all, are some of the most savage creatures known to exist, making them ideal for conquest.

The generals plot out their moves using acrylic cubes on perspex boards, arraying their forces in a manner not unlike traditional wargames using chits on paper maps or miniature figures on terrain boards. Indeed, the whole premise of the story rests on viewers being familiar with wargaming as a concept, as described in H.G. Wells popular Little Wars work of 1913, not to mention a passing familiarity with military terms such as “Mills bombs” (grenades), “creeping barrages,” and “pincer movements.” With the Second World War not terribly far in the past, a British and Commonwealth audience could reasonably be expected to have some understanding of these terms and concepts.

The Deadliest Game

The Doctor almost manages to infiltrate the aliens’ Control Area after hitching a ride on an automated “SIDRAT” (as the War Chief refers to his time machines), but his fellow Time Lord recognizes him in a crowd, leading to much chasing and running around. In conversation later, the War Chief proclaims, “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are.” As the Doctor does not know the War Chief, one surmises that the Doctor has a bit of notoriety about him as the person who stole a TARDIS and fled the Time Lords. And why did the Doctor flee? He was, he claims, “bored.” According to the Doctor, Time Lords live forever, barring accident, and he craves more than the mere observation and accumulation of knowledge.

War Chief

The technology to befuddle the soldiers’ minds comes from the War Chief—and, by extension, the Time Lords themselves—explaining how the Doctor is able to easily reverse the process when confronted with the machinery. And so the Doctor engineers a rebellion within the Control Area the aliens set up on the wargame planet, but, with the War Chief’s few usable time machines running out of power, he realizes, forlornly, that he has no means of returning the tens of thousands of humans to their respective times and places, particularly in such a way that they do not recall their experiences and alter human history thereby. With a heavy heart, he summons the Time Lords to undertake the necessary job, but not before trying to escape immediately thereafter.

So close

He doesn’t get far, barely even managing to enter the TARDIS with Jamie and Zoe; once inside, after a wrenching episode cliffhanger where his hand slides from the key on the police box door, the TARDIS cannot escape the reach of the Time Lords, who ultimately force it back whence it came, to what appears to be a master hanger of other time machines. The image lingers in the mind, suggesting a richness and vastness to the Time Lords without revealing much at all. This sort of visual economy prevails throughout the story, with frequent Doctor Who director David Maloney using the same setting in multiple ways throughout the story to express size and scope on a typical BBC budget. One corridor of thick vinyl walls in particular gets run through from every possible angle, time and again.

TARDIS Parking Lot

The War Lord’s penalty for conceiving of this monstrous plot of galactic conquest is to be dematerialized. “It will be as though you never existed,” proclaims the Time Lord mandating the sentence. And so he disappears, along with a group of henchmen. The planet of the War Lord is to be blocked off from contact with the rest of the universe forever, via force field. The Time Lords, it seems, do not play around, with powers, both physical and mental, on a vast scale that have not previously been suggested in the series. No wonder the Doctor is nervous about being apprehended by them.

Indeed, violence, of a level not often seen to date in Doctor Who, pervades this story. The Doctor is nearly executed by firing squad twice, once on camera, and people are shot, beaten, subdued, and killed with extreme frequency. Frazer Hines has multiple fight scenes as Jamie runs around with a gun and dispatches quite a few people, some the enslaved soldiers fighting against their will, and the Doctor shows no compunctions about asking for soldiers, at whose obedience he sneers, to buy time for his plans with their lives. Zoe, at least, has several scenes where she viscerally recoils at the action on screen, with Wendy Padbury blanching at several impending beatings.

Once the War Lord’s trial is complete, it is the Doctor’s turn in the dock. His crime is not the theft of an older model TARDIS but, more seriously, of interference in the affairs of others, a charge he cannot—and would not—deny. For he is proud of his actions, summing up the Second Doctor’s ethos neatly:

Doctor: While you have been content merely to observe the evil in the galaxy, I have been fighting against it!

He attempts to put the Time Lords’ own passivity on trial, railing against their willingness to sit back and not fight against evil. They are not amused, though they do seem to respect his passion. Noting the frequency with which he defends the Earth, particularly in the 20th century, they decide to exile him there, “without the secret of the TARDIS,” and force upon him a regeneration so that he is not recognized by those he has opposed in the past. The stage is set for a long run of (budget-friendly) stories in the here-and-now.

Jamie and Zoe are unceremoniously returned to their original timelines, having a memory of their first adventure with the Doctor but no more, living their lives as though they never become companions. The Doctor says goodbye to them by trying to escape one last time, for their sake more than his own, but it comes to no avail. Their goodbye is certainly bittersweet, but unlike past departures, say Ian and Barbara running around London happy (and in possession of their memories), we see post-Doctor Zoe and Jamie try, vainly, to remember and then go on as though nothing had happened, computing on the Wheel and chasing Redcoats. Say what you will about Susan being kicked out of the TARDIS or poor Dodo being shuffled off for convalescence off-screen—this is the cruelest of endings for companions to date.

A cruel goodbye

“The War Games” brings so very many new, and lasting, concepts to Doctor Who, but it also reinforces older ones with a reverence and respect borne, one assumes, from Terrance Dicks’ association with the show as script editor. Happily, the term “companions” features several times in this story, as it becomes more and more the accepted term of art for those who travel with the Doctor. Jamie playfully mocks the Doctor’s lock-picking attempts by reminding him that a tuning fork doesn’t always do the trick. And, perhaps most importantly, we finally see the Sonic Screwdriver both up close and in action.

The first Sonic Screwdriver

We also learn that the TARDIS has a theoretically endless power supply, unless fitted with dimensional controls that allow the interior space to be altered in size by remote control without changing the size of organic life within, the better to crush people with. The Doctor’s TARDIS shrinks in size with the inhabitants as well in “Planet of Giants,” and the Doctor removes a key component of the Meddling Monk’s TARDIS in “The Time Meddler,” shrinking it to prevent the Monk from entering, so either the remote control or the ability to separate out organic material from size changes ostensibly causes the excessive power drain. These may seem like throw-away details, but it’s fair to suggest that the era of canonicity truly starts with this story. Here forward, canon begins to matter not only to the fans but, more frequently, to the writers and producers themselves. Not always, to be sure, but more frequently.

Behold the TARDIS

And so Season Six and Patrick Troughton’s era as the Doctor come to a close. By changing the Doctor and the companions at the same time, at the end of a story and a season, the producers and writers have an absolutely clean slate—yet a slate within newly defined boundaries—with which to work. The season ends with no transition to a new Doctor, no superimposition of faces as happened when William Hartnell morphed into Patrick Troughton. And as we shall see, the switch to color broadcasting will turn out to be the least of the changes on Doctor Who.

(Previous Story: The Space Pirates)

(Next Story: Spearhead from Space)

Post 51 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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