Video: 4:3 Non-Anamorphic
Audio: English 2.0
Subs: English HOH Production notes
Running time: 250 mins approx.
Release date: 6th July 2009
The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe land the TARDIS in the middle of the First World War and are soon arrested for spying. All is not as it seems however when, upon making their escape, they discover many other fighters from Earth’s history all engaged in their own battles. At the heart of it a group of aliens, lead by the mysterious War Lord, have engineered the situation for their own purposes. As the Doctor uncovers the extent of their plans he realises that he’s in too deep and only has one option left but using it will change everything for good.
I approached “The War Games” with all the feelings a soldier may have on his way to war. A mixture of excitement and trepidation but yet knowing that I was in for the long haul and may not see my loved ones for quite some time. The idea of a ten part story, the longest in the show’s history, seems enormous by today’s standards and it was only due to a couple of stories falling through that forced the production team to lengthen the serial. A swansong for the Second Doctor and his two companions, one of the finest teams ever to grace the time vortex, this long but exciting story certainly does them justice and is unfortunately often overshadowed by the appearance of the Time Lords in the final episode. In fact now I can see why fans in 1976 were so enraged at the all powerful beings in this story being reduced to the level of doddering old fools and political backstabbers in “The Deadly Assassin”.
Even though it celebrates its 40th birthday this year “The War Games” is still a surprisingly fresh looking piece of work full of inventiveness, flair and a genius concept. It has everything you could want from a Doctor Who story: aliens, time travel, a mystery to solve and a few explosions plus we even see the sonic screwdriver used for its intended purpose. The central aliens are frustratingly never named and they only refer to their world as ‘home planet’ (as do the Time Lords) which is a small detail and one that annoys me a little. This is mainly because I don’t believe anyone would really speak like that except to perhaps avoid telling a nutter where you lived. It’s also a shame that with their warlike nature they never seem to have crossed paths with the Doctor again except the War Chief and that’s only because he, like the Meddling Monk, is believed to be an earlier incarnation of the Master. The fact that this production has so many characters and manages to serve them all is a massive feat from the World War One proto-companions Carstairs and Lady Jennifer (who sadly drops out in episode five) to the baddies; Philip Madoc’s calm but deadly War Lord and Noel Coleman’s superb General Smythe.
The set design is wonderful although the main control room is a little Swinging Sixties in places and reminds me of The Prisoner. In the Hypno room you almost expect the action to stop and everyone to start jiving around to strobe lighting and groovy music. However little ideas such as the weird plastic glasses worn in the alien complex or the fridge magnet like control mechanism for the transport machines (could these be what a TARDIS looks like without the chameleon circuit switched on?) are very inventive. So too are simple little effects such as the leaders simply putting on their glasses to hypnotise the humans, the time zone ‘mist’, the newsreel footage played over the titles or the slowing down of the film to simulate a force field when the Time Lords try to stop the Doctor and his companions fleeing at the end of episode nine. The stirring score is also well done (although a little annoying when you watch the whole story in one go) plus the sombre music and bare black sets give an eerie atmosphere to the trial scenes on Gallifrey (sorry, ‘home planet’).
After the story I started thinking about what a final episode should be like after all this story wasn’t only to serve as Patrick Troughton’s finale but also Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury and surprisingly the show itself. It should look back to the past, forward to the future and provide a great story to show all the best facets of a character. Troughton is truly put through the ringer here even to the point where he has to betray his friends but he still shows his great playfulness, cunning and anger. Even when awaiting his trial verdict he plays cards on the floor. While some character finales seem like ordinary stories with a regeneration or a reason for leaving tacked on at the end this really feels like it’s happened organically and for once the Doctor admits he’s completely out of his depth and has no option but to ask for the Time Lords help. He does this by constructing a box out of cards in a wonderful piece of visual trickery that would have people these days rolling their eyes and protesting at his ‘magical abilities.’ The final episode is really only marred by a couple of pathetic escape attempts but it still stands as one of the most heartbreaking companion goodbyes too as Jamie and Zoe are returned to their own times with only one memory of the Doctor. The regeneration itself is one of the worst though as Troughton simply pulls a few faces and spins off into the darkness. Perhaps I would feel more kindly towards it had this been the end to the entire series rather than just the Second Doctor.
It’s not a perfect story by any means. There’s too much running about and getting captured before escaping again as always happens in the classic series and of course it could stand to be cut by about four episodes. I have to wonder whether the 1969 audience found it hard going or perhaps as exhilarating as our recent week of the Torchwood mini-series. A great story and a fitting farewell to the black and white era of the show and if the Tenth Doctor’s finale later this year is half as good then I’ll be very pleased.
Extras: The first two discs include the episodes only with an audio commentary by Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Philip Madoc, Jane Sherwin, Derrick Sherwin, Terrance Dicks and Graham Weston plus the usual text commentary. Disc 3 is stuffed full of extras including “War Zone” (‘making of’ documentary), “Shades of Grey” (the effect of having to film in black and white), “Now and Then” (locations used in the story), “Talking About Regeneration” (a look at all the Doctor’s regenerations) and “Time Zones” (historians discuss the various wars used in the story). Composer Dudley Simpson and make up designer Sylvia James are interviewed in separate docs, “Stripped For Action” looks at the comic strip adventures of Second Doctor, “On Target – Malcolm Hulke” looks at the writer’s work on the Target novelizations plus the usual photo gallery, Coming Soon section and easter eggs . We also have fan film Devious (with additional commentary) which bridges the gap between the Second and Third Doctor’s eras and features Jon Pertwee’s final appearance as the Doctor.
Trivia learnt from the disc: Sheepcote Rubbish Tip in Brighton was used to film the scenes set during 1917. The cast and crew of Richard Attenborough’s World War One musical Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) had just finished filming there and left much of their set dressing behind. The area is now grassed over and has been renamed Sheepcote Valley.