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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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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part eight)

This really long story wraps up after a pretty small and very well-staged shootout between the UNIT troops and some badly over-matched Cybermen. Subsequent adventures would see the humans outclassed and often on the losing end of alien firepower, but not here. It also sees John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton taking a larger role, apparently because the fellow who had played Sgt. Walters had got on director Douglas Camfield’s bad side. Benton would reappear a few episodes into the next season, and remain a semi-regular into season thirteen.

Our son really enjoyed this story, and it’s clearly one of his favorite Doctor Who adventures. He let us know, in his inimitable five year-old way, that his favorite moment was when the missile destroys the main Cyberman ship. He demonstrated this by rolling on his side and explaining that his foot was the Cybership, and his hand the missile. He slapped them together and thundered “Ka-BOOM!”

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part seven)

This is such a strange segment of the story. The Cybermen aren’t in it, for starters. They only appear in the reprise of the previous episode. Frazer Hines and Edward Burnham are only in a single scene, in the set used at length in part six but only here for about one minute. I think this scene was taped along with part six so that the actors could still get a week off.

The central bit of drama is the Doctor trying to convince Vaughn that he’s in way over his head, and it’s Zoe who ends up proving him right. Over at a nearby air base, she immediately recalculates some surface-to-air missile coordinates and UNIT and the RAF shoot down the Cybermen’s incoming transport ships. So that “science machine” in Vaughn’s closet – actually called the “Cyber-Director” – ends the episode ending the alliance with Vaughn and announcing they’re going to destroy all life on earth.

Zoe is certainly amazing, but her timing might not have been perfect this time.

So it doesn’t seem like a lot actually happens in this episode, and some of it was certainly over our five year-old’s head. But there’s an ongoing, oppressive sense of worry and danger. When the Doctor goes down into the sewers to rush to Vaughn’s headquarters, our son realized that he didn’t have any of his security blankets handy – it almost hit eighty degrees today, in February!, so he wasn’t wrapped in any – and so he started chewing on his mother’s thumb because he was so afraid for the Doctor.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part six)

I just wanted to note this time that the very memorable cliffhanger of the Cybermen coming down the steps with St. Paul’s Cathedral behind them would have been even better had they held the shot for about another five seconds, and had they somehow, some way, twisted somebody’s arm and got a high-end 35 mm camera to shoot it, instead of this grotty old 16 mm stuff. That’s the case with everything, I know, but this is such a neat and lovely scene, one of the iconic moments of Doctor Who‘s black and white years, and it’s over so quickly and you can’t help but wish it looked as good as it sounds.

On that note, the music for “The Invasion” was by a guy named Don Harper, and it’s really amazing. Harper played with Dave Brubeck when he wasn’t composing film and television scores, was a pioneer in electronic music, and his work has been sampled by the likes of Gorillaz and Danger Mouse. It’s so good that I honestly wish that he scored every Doctor Who story, except for the two that Geoffrey Burgon did.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part five)

Now that we’ve got the Cybermen identified as the villains of the piece, it makes Tobias Vaughn an even more interesting character. He certainly seems to have all the angles, and fully plans some backups and contingencies to make certain that the Cybermen will honor their end of the bargain and make him master of earth after extracting the minerals that they claim they need. One of these contingencies is the device that Professor Watkins has built: it introduces emotions into Cybermen. The villains on Earth revive one just to test it out, and give the Cyberman a powerful dose of fear. It goes insane and climbs down into the sewers beneath London; that’s where the growing army is awaiting the signal to invade.

What Vaughn doesn’t know is that audiences of the day had the chance to see the Cybermen in action four times prior to this story. They’re real big about making deals that they have no intention of honoring. But then again, they’ve never dealt with anybody as ruthless as Vaughn before.

It ends with a great cliffhanger that sent our son behind the sofa again. I think this one might have been too talky for him to really understand that these strange circuits that the Doctor is finding inside unrelated pieces of IE tech are integral to the Cybermen’s plan. I’ll have to go over that again tomorrow night. But he certainly came alive when a policeman climbs down in the sewer after Jamie, Zoe, and Isobel, who’ve descended to get some photographic proof of the aliens. The policeman goes the wrong way and is immediately gunned down by Cybermen, and, down another corridor, our heroes have the maddened, yelling, fear-crazed Cyberman charging at them. “That was REAL SCARY!!” he bellowed.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part four)

It’s a shame that all of the lost 97 episodes of Doctor Who were junked and will probably never be seen again, but part four of “The Invasion” is particularly painful. Part four is the last of the missing episodes that have been animated. The animation team did a great job, but Douglas Camfield, one of the best action directors working in British television in the sixties and seventies, staged this rescue scene from the tenth floor of a building using a helicopter and a rope ladder and, knowing Camfield, that must have looked downright amazing.

Five further episodes beyond this point are missing, all from Patrick Troughton’s next-to-last serial, “The Space Pirates.” Season six of Doctor Who was not a big international seller, so we’re very fortunate that 37 of the season’s 44 episodes were retained in the UK. It’s a consensus among fans who study this subject that these last seven are among the least likely to ever be found.

The episode ends with the revelation that Vaughn’s alien allies are in fact the Cybermen. A couple of thoughts here: the BBC actually led the promotion for this serial at the beginning of November 1968 with the news that this was a Cyberman story, and yet one doesn’t appear on-camera until the 23rd, and aren’t actually named. I wonder whether the kids of the time were pestering their parents, asking “Where are the Cybermen, Daddy?” for weeks. I had thought not to spoil their return and surprise our son, but the joke was on me. He didn’t recognize it. Admittedly, the Cybermen’s design has been somewhat modified since he saw them in “The Tomb of the Cybermen” in December, but so much for that handlebar head being iconic.

Bet if it were a Yeti, he’d remember…

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part three)

As I’ve already written quite a lot about this serial and part three doesn’t honestly advance the story very much, let’s just pause and note just how very good Douglas Camfield’s direction is, and how entertaining Kevin Stoney and Peter Halliday are as the villains Vaughn and Packer. Tobias Vaughn is just a great, great villain. He’s finding all of this extraordinarily entertaining and amusing, and believes himself completely in control of the situation. This was the second time that Camfield cast Stoney in a Doctor Who serial. Camfield also cast him in a 1973 episode of the Thames TV police drama Van der Valk.

Packer seems to be a pretty good example of “the Peter Principle.” He must have been an efficient soldier or guard, once, but he’s promoted above his level of competency, and can’t quite balance his petulant bullying with the fear that his boss is going to fire him. When Vaughn does lose patience with Packer, it’s actually a little scary, because Kevin Stoney takes the character straight from “amused disdain” to “bellowing with fury.” They’re a great, and very real, double-act.

Of note in the cast this week: this is Edward Burnham’s first appearance in the series, as the imprisoned Watkins. He made a career of playing doctors, professors, Parliamentary under-secretaries, and the like. But we don’t get to see his niece or Zoe this week, as they’re being kept prisoner elsewhere, giving those actresses a week off. John Levene isn’t seen onscreen this episode, but he does radio in, so we do hear him.

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