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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ The War Games (Season 6/ 1969)

April 13, 2013

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Dizzy! My head is spinning: The War Games brought to a close the black and white, 1960s Doctor Who, as well as Patrick Troughton’s era as he underwent a forced regeneration… 

Despite it being, by the tail-end of second lead Patrick Troughton’s era, not quite the essential viewing it was at its mid-’60s ‘Dalekmania’ high, Doctor Who came up with one of its most essential ever serials to close out Troughton’s tenure in the shape of The War Games.

That’s right, following up this blog’s opening close-up look at classic Who serials comes its second (the latest post in celebration of the sci-fi show’s 50th anniversary year), focusing as it does on the serial that boasts a truly epic length, more Time Lords than you can shake a stick at, villains in John Lennon glasses and, oh yes, that regeneration…

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Doctor: Patrick Troughton (The Second Doctor)

Companions: Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon); Wendy Padbury (Zoe Heriot)

Villains: Philip Madoc (War Lord); Edward Brayshaw (War Chief); James Bree (Security Chief)

Allies: David Savile (Lt. Carstairs); Jane Sherwin (Lady Jennifer Buckingham); Michael Napier-Brown (Arturo Villar)

Writers: Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks

Producer: Derek Sherwin

Director: David Maloney

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Season: Six (seventh and last serial – comprising 10 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: 19 April-21 June 1969 (weekly)

Total average viewers: 4.9 million

Previous serial: The Space Pirates

Next serial: Spearhead From Space (Season 7)

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After many adventures in his second incarnation, The Doctor and his latest companions, 18th Century Scots soldier Jamie McCrimmon and 21st Century astrophysicist Zoe Heriot, step out of the TARDIS into what appears to be a World War One battlefield. Their appearance inexplicable, they’re taken prisoner by British forces, specifically a Lt. Carstairs and an army nurse Lady Jennifer Buckingham. However, things don’t add up for The Doctor. His suspicions eventually prove founded when he and his companions discover this theatre of war is actually a ‘war zone’ encircled by a mysterious mist that separates it from another zone in which a Roman army is in battle. With Carstairs and Buckingham similarly convinced, the group realise that their ‘war zone’ – and all its players – are being manipulated via hypnosis by the British and (supposedly) opposing German generals, whom receive their orders from a ‘Central Control’ zone that they visit via wardrobe-like space-shifting machines named SIDRATs (pronounced ‘side-rats’).

The similarity of the word SIDRAT to TARDIS (the former being the latter spelt backwards) is not a coincidence, as The Doctor discovers when using the former to transport himself surreptitiously to Central Control, for the former is a TARDIS-like time- and space-machine created by the War Chief, whom is a member of The Doctor’s race, the Time Lords, and second-in-command of the widespread operation that oversees thousands of warring peeps who’ve been unwittingly kidnapped from Earth and plonked down on this planet’s several different war zones.

Learning that others across the war zones have, over time, also deduced something of what’s going on and created a resistance movement, The Doctor and his allies join forces with this band (effectively led by Mexican fighter Artruro Villar) and take on Central Control. During their raid, the War Chief outlines his own plan to The Doctor – to use the scores upon scores of fighting humans to gain control of the galaxy himself – and, working out the former’s a fellow Time Lord, tries to convince him to join in his efforts. The Doctor refuses, of course, and realises he has no alternative once the raid succeeds than to call reluctantly on the help of the Time Lords themselves to return the thousands of fighters to Earth, something he won’t be capable of himself.

Before the Time Lords use their power to steer him, Jamie and Zoe in the TARDIS to their – and his – home planet of Gallifrey, the War Chief (his alterior plan revealed and the war zones’ overall war called to a halt) is killed by his master the War Lord. The latter then is put on trial by the Time Lords and, for his crimes, receives the ultimate sentence – he’s erased from history as if he never existed. The Time Lords then turn on The Doctor, accusing him of breaking the code of their people by interfering in the affairs of others throughout the universe via a TARDIS he stole from Gallifrey centuries before to gallivant around in. He defends himself by saying he’s done much good, which only relents the Time Lords to the extent that they allow him, once they’ve returned Jamie and Zoe to their own times and places, to be free on planet Earth but unable to fly the TARDIS away. And they ensure his appearance changes via a forced regeneration…

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Unlike the modern Who (for instance, Journey’s EndA Good Man Goes To War and The Wedding Of River Song of the Tennant and Smith eras), the ‘Classic Series’ could rarely be said to get epic; too little money ensured a very Beeb approach to production values. Yet, in another sense, The War Games is as epic as the show gets. At a bladder-inducing 10 episodes in length (that’s a total 250 minutes), its narrative scope and depth is impressive to say the least. The setting out of the different dramas in the different ‘war zones’ (especially the opening WWI section) are engaging and characterised by believable figures, while the the gradual, trickle-down introduction of Central Control and the zones’ resistance movement is nicely done.

Moreover, the generally slow-burn nature of the story-telling allows for the plot’s twists to rear their heads with wonderfully effective abruptness (The Doc, Jamie and Zoe discover they’re not stuck in the middle of WWI but on a planet of ‘war games’; The Doc having to call on his people to sort things out in the last two episodes). But, at the same time, there’s no getting away from it – The War Games is damned long, too long really; quite frankly, all that takes place could be condensed into five or six or even the usual four episodes.

And yet, sitting through it all is certainly worthwhile for that rather terrific climax – one too that was crucial for the future of the show to come. Not only does the serial’s last two episodes culminate brilliantly in the Second Doctor’s final moments (his tear-inducing goodbye to Jamie and Zoe – they won’t even remember their adventures? Sniff!) and the beginnings of his very painful looking, bad trip-like regeneration, but it also marks the first time he – and we – travel (back) to Gallifrey and (properly) meet his people, the Time Lords.

And how sombre and uppity they are; no wonder our hero wanted away from this über-powerful, overly proud bunch with their long black robes and stoically hard rule-making. They bring a jolt of adult sobriety to these journeyings of an ages-old yet rather childish hermit; indeed, one that ensures his adventures will never be quite the same again – not least as their forced transformation and exiling him to Earth leads directly into Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor era of the early ’70s, of course.

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As mentioned above, The War Games was not only the last serial to feature Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury in their original run on the show (making it still the only one to do away with both a Doctor and one or more of his companions), it was also the last of the 1960s, bringing down the curtain on the combined Hartnell and Troughton era of black and white Who, which had been guided first by TV legend Verity Lambert as producer, then John Wiles, Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant and finally Derrick Sherwin in that role (Barry Letts would take over as producer for the next four seasons’ Pertwee era).

Speaking of Sherwin, an unusual cast note concerns him, as he cast his own wife Jane as ally Jennifer Buckingham (although this producer/ cast member combo would actually be something of a precedent for the show), while Philip Madoc – whose smooth, psychedelic round-lensed glasses-wearing War Lord is such a fine villain – would go on to appear again in the serials The Brain Of Morbius (1976) – as villain Mehendri Solon – and in The Power Of Kroll (1978-79) – as spaceship crew member Fenner – and he also had a part in the non-canonical film Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966). Plus, Bernard Horsfall and James Bree both appeared just months after The War Games‘ broadcast in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

Meanwhile,  Frazer Hines moved on from Who to carve out a successful soap opera career in Emmerdale (Farm), at one time appearing opposite Padbury in it. And, for her part, Padbury later became an actors’ agent; one of her discoveries reputedly being a certain Matt Smith…

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Next time: Inferno (Season 7/ 1970)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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