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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 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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