Patrick Troughton’s final Doctor Who adventure was the ten-part serial (ten!) “The War Games,” shown from April through June of 1969. As a whole, it is really overshadowed by the game-changing revelations of the last two parts, and so the story has gained a reputation of being padded out, as though the first eight episodes are in the way of the more important finale.
I last watched this story with my older son more than a decade ago, and we sure didn’t see it that way. Neither will our favorite five year-old critic, because he doesn’t know anything about the Doctor beyond what he’s seen. The legend hasn’t yet got in the way of the narrative. Viewers in 1969 didn’t see it that way either, though there were a lot fewer of them than began season six. The audience figures started dropping from 6-7 million viewers a week to about 5.5 million in March, and this story averaged about 4.9 million. It’s theorized that announcing Patrick Troughton’s departure, without confirming his replacement and the modified format – that would come later – led viewers to tune out, or rather not tune back in if they missed a week, thinking the show had ended.
People who did tune in found a very brutal first part of this story, which is why we watched the first two together. It opens on the western front in 1917, with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe swept up in the Great War, rescued from Germans by an ambulance driver, Lady Jennifer Buckingham, and Lt. Carstairs, played by David Savile. But General Smythe, played with icy anger by Noel Coleman (later Col. Marchbanks in Lord Peter Wimsey), has it in for the Doctor at first sight, and sentences him to execution for espionage. We learn in the first episode that Smythe can control his fellow officers’ minds whenever he wears a pair of spectacles, and that he has a futuristic television set in his wall.
I was concerned that our son would find this confusing and the level of hopelessness in military bureaucracy too oppressive, and I was right. Even after a pre-show history lesson about World War One and trenches, he was very, very restless and didn’t understand why nobody wanted to listen to the Doctor. We emphasized the science fiction elements as they were introduced, which seemed to help. Episode two went over much better. This one throws in a Redcoat from 1746, travel cabinets that appear and disappear into thin air, a mist that transports our heroes across time, and a cliffhanger where they’re attacked by a Roman legion. He paid much closer attention and thinks this is very strange.
But why must it be ten (ten!) episodes long? It actually replaced two separate stories, a six-parter that Malcolm Hulke was writing, and a four-parter by Derrick Sherwin that was intended to wrap up Patrick Troughton’s time. With deadlines looming and Sherwin moved to the role of producer, Terrance Dicks moved Hulke, with whom he’d written for television several times before, into his office and they hammered out one huge storyline for David Maloney to direct rather than moving resources into two separate productions. I noticed that Maloney would call on a couple of actors that he’d used in his previous two Who serials for the later episodes, indicating perhaps that as this epic moved through its weeks of production, he wanted to minimize audition time by casting artists already familiar with Doctor Who.
I think it’s a little long myself, but while many fans have suggested that some of the middle episodes could have been edited down, it’s actually these first two that I’d rather have seen combined. Packing in more of the anachronisms into the first part, and finishing with that tremendously clever cliffhanger of the Romans charging down the hill at our heroes, would have been a terrific start to a nine-part adventure. No shorter, though.