“THE WAR GAMES” – Season 6, Serial 7, Story 50 – Written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks; Directed by David Maloney – It’s curtains for the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe as they undertake a massive adventure that will be their last ride in the TARDIS. They wind up on Earth in the middle of World War I, except it’s not World War I at all, or even Earth. They’re on some unnamed alien world where an unnamed alien race (seriously, writers, give them a name) is bringing captured soldiers from Earth wars to conduct war games so they can build an all-star army and take over the galaxy. The story is historically overwhelmed by all the first and lasts contained in this monstrously long serial, but it’s still a fantastic yarn and a moving send-off for Patrick Troughton, Frazier Hines, Wendy Padbury, and black and white. Because When The Doctor Returns, It’s In A New Body, With A New Companion, Stuck On A New Planet, And In Living Color.
From start to finish, THE WAR GAMES has the kind of epic feel to it that’s been largely lacking during the show’s first six seasons. A massive 10-part, 4-hour story with three main acts, WAR GAMES feels decidedly cinematic and bigger than the constraints of the serialized format it’s told in.
Act I sees the mystery unfold. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe wind up in a war zone that turns out to be a chronological mix-and-match with soldiers from World War I, the Roman Army, the American Civil War, and on and on fighting their battles like they’re still in their right time and place.
Act II sees the action shift to battling the aliens behind the War Games. We see the heroes battling against the War Chief, the Security Chief, and ultimately the War Lord. Those are their names as well as their titles because Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (two of the most important writers in the show’s history) were churning out a script a week and they couldn’t be bothered to give anyone names.
Act III sees the Second Doctor captured by the Time Lords and put on trial. It’s a bit like the trial in TRIAL OF A TIME LORD, except it doesn’t completely suck. In fact, it doesn’t remotely suck.
THE WAR GAMES hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until it ends with the Doctor spinning away into darkness. What’s most impressive is that each of the three acts (and the third act, admittedly, is really only one-episode long) has a different tone and yet blend seamlessly together because the changes make narrative sense. In Act I, we get a war story, which transitions into more of a political chess match (with the War Chief doing a pre-Master Master routine), and Act III is a trial.
The serial contains three great villains and it’s a shame we don’t see any of them again. The villain of the first act is General Smythe, an alien in charge of the British WWI forces during the war games. Relying on mind control to keep things running smoothly, Smythe’s autocratic personality is imposing in its self-determinism.
In the second act we get the War Lord and the War Chief. The War Lord has that quiet ruthlessness in the Ben Linus mold. He’s in charge of the whole affair and he’s the one who takes the brunt of the Time Lords’ punishment.
The villainous star of the story, however, is the Master-esque villain, the War Chief. The second villainous Time Lord (after the Time Meddler), WC is the first to be called a Time Lord and his grand scheme to take over the aliens’ army and rule the galaxy and manipulative manner are straight out of the not-yet-happened Roger Delgado playbook.
This is the serial where we learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord and that he stole the TARDIS and set off to purposely break the Time Lords’ edict of non-interference. Troughton is at his absolutely best trying to convince Jamie and Zoe that he can’t let the Time Lords see him without giving away what he did.
In fact, Troughton is at his absolute best throughout the serial. At times doggedly determined, at others nervously scared like a child, the Second Doctor is in command of the story, even when he’s not in control of it.
Jamie and Zoe have plenty of nice moments, too, and Hulke and Dicks write Zoe as a very strong, smart character. (Which is a little depressing since in a bonus feature somewhere Dicks talks about how he prefers companions to be of the asking-questions damsel in distress.) I really like Jamie and Zoe because they complement each other so exceedingly well.
The Time Lords show up at the end and get all huffy but not inflexible and sentence the Doctor to exile on Earth. What’s great is that they only find the Doctor because he leads them to him, proving there’s consequences for his TARDIS-stealing actions.
They order a regeneration (even though they don’t call it a regeneration) but we don’t get to see Pertwee’s mug, just yet. The Time Lords pull one of the biggest dick moves in the show’s run when they return Jamie and Zoe to their own times and wipe their memories from them, so they won’t remember their adventures. Given how close the three of them became, this is utterly tragic to think Zoe and Jamie will live out their days without remembering the Doctor or each other. (Though this turns out to not be the case.)
WAR GAMES is not the story to give people new to DOCTOR WHO, but if you’re a fan you owe it to yourself to sit through the four hours it’ll take to view it, though I’d recommend spreading it out over a few nights. WAR GAMES is one of the most important serials in the show’s entire run, and also one of its best – even if it’s hurt by the constraints of a 10×25 format.