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Doctor Who: The War Games (part nine)

Back in the dawn of time, before the word “binge” was used to describe watching TV, “The War Games” was what we binged. Taking a break from the show after part eight just wasn’t done, never mind part nine, which is a terrific climax and huge fun, but also full of “what comes next” foreboding. I know quite well what comes next, but I’m going to be pacing the floor all day waiting to see it again.

The cliffhanger was a punch in the gut for our son, who thought the story was over – the story of the War Games is, at least – but there’s still more to come. He loved the fighting, and he certainly loved seeing the Security Chief and the War Chief each being shot down. Before he goes, incidentally, the Security Chief gets one of the all time great quotable Doctor Who lines, all together now, “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!”

The War Chief, you’ll note, does not regenerate. That’s because the concept of regeneration wouldn’t be introduced to the series for another five years, but that hasn’t stopped fanfic writers and novelists – including, to be fair, this episode’s co-writer Terrance Dicks – from giving the character another life or two, usually twisting logic to turn him into a previous incarnation of the Master. I love how writers always call him the War Chief as though that was his name before he left the Time Lords, and not a title given him by his Alien employers. Or maybe that was his name, and it was the best job interview ever.

The last of these baddies to go is the War Lord, who is last seen propping up a desk with his body posture suggesting that the arrival of the Time Lords is like the arrival of his luggage. Anybody who isn’t a fan of Philip Madoc’s acting isn’t a fan of acting, period. I’m going to give “The Brain of Morbius” another spin next week because I like him so much.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part eight)

“Time Lords?!” our son exclaimed. I was very glad that he caught it. It’s in part eight of this story that it’s explicitly stated that the Doctor is a Time Lord. Then the Doctor and the War Chief get a private conversation and it’s spine-tingling. I love how the Doctor’s first words to his opponent are “I have nothing to say to you,” which is not even remotely our hero’s standard operating practice. He is really, really upset about meeting another of his kind.

Also amazing: the War Chief tells the audience for the first time that the Doctor stole his TARDIS, and he makes what may be the first reference to the look of the original Doctor in more than two years. The War Chief says “You’ve changed your appearance, but I know who you are.” It’s kind of become media lore that Sydney Newman and Innes Lloyd “saved” the show in 1966 by inventing the concept of regeneration, but that’s not true at all. As we’ll see over the next two episodes, that “cheating death” idea is still years away.

Anyway, their conversation just has me absolutely riveted because it’s so well done. Neither calls the other by name, and neither makes concessions to the audience by over-explaining. It’s incredibly well-written material. Edward Brayshaw is entertaining, but Patrick Troughton is doing something very new. The Doctor’s not acting with what we can see in hindsight is a mask for the benefit of his companions, his human adversaries, or his alien enemies. The Doctor we know and love is a little artificial. It’s fascinating to reconsider this episode in light of the conversation between Missy and Clara in the 2015 episode “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

This builds to a cliffhanger where it appears the Doctor has betrayed his friends and the trapped human soldiers by joining the Aliens. Sure, we grownups know better, but this concerned me as I wrote yesterday evening’s post. Last night, I reminded my son of the Batman episode “Not Yet He Ain’t,” which absolutely horrified him when he saw it, despite a pause to explain it and reassurances that Batman and the police were pretending that the heroes had gone bad and had to be shot dead. Adults might forget that this sense of betrayal can rock a young viewer. I didn’t want him to be so shocked by a cunning plan and a heroic double-cross that it upset him too greatly. I’m glad I took the time; he’s wondering what the Doctor has up his sleeve instead of worrying.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (parts six and seven)

Resuming this epic Doctor Who adventure with its next two episodes, we saw our son dive behind the sofa twice tonight, with each cliffhanger. Part six ends with the Aliens’ space-time capsule being fiddled with to have its internal dimensions shrink. No longer bigger on the inside, it threatens to crush our heroes. This very nearly brought our son to tears, and he stomped away and threw his beloved security blanket “Bict” at the sofa. Part seven ends with the Doctor abducted by the villains, and he didn’t see that at all, hidden as he was. He bolted as soon as he heard the sound of the SIDRAT’s engines. Man, part eight’s cliffhanger is going to have him livid.

Now there’s a word. I love how these villains are written to use words that they’d know and the audience wouldn’t and the script doesn’t stop to explain things because there aren’t any heroes present to ask what they’re talking about. That will come later. So they call their capsules SIDRATs, which is, of course, TARDIS spelled backward. A decade later, this story’s co-writer Malcolm Hulke novelized the adventure for Target Books, and explained that SIDRAT is an anagram for Space and Inter-time Dimensional Robot All-purpose Transporter.

Another thing that they say, just as casual as anything, is “Time Lord.” Right there at the beginning of part six, the Security Chief tells his scientist buddy that the War Chief is a Time Lord, a phrase that this series has never uttered before. That’s not followed up in these two episodes.

So on the villain front, the Aliens’ battlefield generals Von Weich and Smythe are both killed in these episodes, but Philip Madoc, who last appeared in this series as a character in “The Krotons” just four months previously, arrives as the Aliens’ leader the War Lord. He’s so beatnik that you expect him to tell his squabbling Security Chief and War Chief “Cool it, Daddio.” I love how these villains are constantly at each other’s throats.

One important acting note tonight: making what I believe was his TV speaking debut in the small role of Private Moore in part six was the star’s son, David Troughton. He’s had a fun and busy career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and more than a hundred television roles over nearly fifty years, and would later appear in this show opposite both Jon Pertwee and David Tennant, thirty-six years apart.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part five)

Intrigue grows a little this week as we meet another villain, the Security Chief, played by James Bree in a high-pitched, teeth-gritted performance that most of us older Doctor Who fans have been known to imitate a time or two. Interrogating Zoe with a (no, not the) mind probe, he learns that she is from the 21st Century and travels in a TARDIS, but he deliberately withholds that information from the War Chief. Later, he confides with an underling, stating that the War Chief is not of their race, that the War Chief betrayed his own people, and that he fears he may be ready to double-cross this bunch of aliens as well.

Incidentally, this bunch never get a group name, which is really a little odd for Doctor Who. They really are just “that bunch of aliens with the eyewear fetish from The War Games,” although people often call them “the Warlords” or, magically, “the Aliens.”

Anyway, this episode ends with Jamie unwittingly leading a raiding party into an Alien ambush. I’ve looked back over our blog and really haven’t praised Frazer Hines as Jamie anywhere near enough. He’s always terrific fun, and I love the way he plays the “because you’re a girl” card with Lady Jennifer without thinking and instantly tries to get himself out of trouble. When Jamie goes down under a barrage of ray gun fire at the cliffhanger, it scared the devil out of our son, who whimpered and tried to hide behind his mommy.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part four)

I love this scene to pieces. It’s just seconds long and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the black and white era. The Doctor and the War Chief make eye contact… and they recognize each other. Of course, we had to underline what makes this important to our son, without giving anything away. He doesn’t quite grasp the ramifications. Neither did many of the people watching, perhaps.

Four years previously, when William Hartnell was the star, the Doctor had met another of his people. Played by the popular comedian Peter Butterworth, he called himself the Monk, had his own TARDIS, and, perhaps remarkably, was the only individual villain in the show’s first six seasons to get a rematch with the Doctor. He originally appeared in a four-part serial in July 1965, and then came back in January for three weeks as an ally of the Daleks, but the character was not used again after that. That’s in part because Butterworth became very busy making Carry On movies, and in part because the constantly changing production teams of Who during these days probably wanted to do their own things. The Monk was later resurrected in comics, novels, and audio adventures. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Graeme Garden occasionally plays the character opposite Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in radio/CD stories.

But for the entire tenure of Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, there’s been no hint of any other time travelers at all other than the Daleks, no other TARDIS, and certainly no people from his past who might recognize him*. There’s a great bit early on in this episode where the Doctor gets a bad feeling that he knows where this technology came from, but declines to elaborate to Zoe. Suddenly it becomes very clear that he’s going to have to start elaborating before this adventure ends.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part three)

I love the slow reveals of this story. This time out, we get confirmation that Gen. Smythe and his opposite number, Von Weich (played by David Garfield in full sneer mode) are aliens. They report to a mustached man played by Edward Brayshaw, whom the credits name as the War Chief, and he, in turn, reports to an as-yet unseen character called the War Lord. Layers upon layers, in the same way that the battlefields of 1917 France, ancient Rome, and 1862 America are laid next to each other.

The clues are there for adult viewers to start putting things together, but children still need a little help, as when Zoe says aloud what the grownups in the audience are thinking: the capsule that appears and disappears containing more soldiers than it should comfortably fit, and which sounds a whole lot like the TARDIS is possibly another TARDIS, which might be why Brayshaw’s War Chief is so interested in reports about time travelers. Our son is still slowly juggling the pieces and enjoying watching this unfold. I like how they don’t underline these possibilities, but let the audience consider them. “Lot for you to chew on before tomorrow night, huh?” I asked, and, eyes wide, he nodded. Definitely.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (parts one and two)

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.

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