Classic Who – The War Games

Thanks to #Whoagainstguns’ very worthy fundraiser for organisations dedicated to reducing gun violence, I’ve just watched The War Games for the first time in about three decades. I’ll try not to cadge on any of the fantastic episode commentaries they’ve produced as an incentive/reward for contributors to the fundraiser, but I want to get my thoughts down while they’re still fresh.

SPOILERS to all of The War Games, including the pivotal final episode which has Big Reveals. (Not that we don’t know them from later Who, since that’s the episode that established Who’s core canon).

General comments.

  • Faulty memory: I misremembered this serial as Keys of Marinus paced. In fact, it runs along at a lively clip, with mindboggling cliffhangers that beg modern viewers to binge.
  • I think the reason I remember The War Games as slow is that I’ve mostly heard it, forgetting the details of fight scenes and Troughton’s fabulous nonverbal acting. I recorded Who pre-VCR with an audiocassette recorder on the floor in front of the TV, playing it back at low volume under my bed when I was supposed to be asleep. My audio memory kept pinging on certain lines: “Oh, is that what they were doing there?”
  • Teeny tiny TARDIS team, all of them so small and vulnerable on a big battlefield and in a big universe. But they’re such a TARDIS family. They’re the last TARDIS family for over a decade, and in some ways (since the Fifth Doctor’s crowded TARDIS teams were somewhat fractious and a revolving door) the last until the Ponds.
  • The rapport between the three of them is so beautiful. They know and trust each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even if they rib one another (Jamie teasing the Doctor for his navigation skills in a very tense moment). Out of character, that rapport was so strong that they all left together.
  • I accepted the complete cast turnover and drastic show overhaul because I started with Pertwee, but I’m now amazed at the audacity of the break between this season and the next. The final episode of The War Games was broadcast June 21st, 1969; Spearhead from Space didn’t start until January 24th of the following year.
  • HOLY HELL, THOSE CLIFFHANGERS. Where was Mary Whitehouse? She must have been spitting bricks for some of them. And they’re part of why this story feels so fast-paced: you always have to find out what happens next.

More episode-specific:

  • Flashing opening titles with stock footage of a night barrage, or a good facsimile thereof, at a time when many viewers had personal battlefield experience. Yikes. (Also, a familiar sound to those who lived through the Blitz.)
  • The War Games has a cast of thousands. Literal spear carriers. Lots of pyrotechnics. A little budget can go a long way when an entire season is devoted to one serial.
  • Many minor characters — soldiers from Harper the black union soldier to that hapless Captain Ransom logistics buff— have motivations, personalities, and mini-arcs. It’s interesting how they are presences for an episode or three, then they fall behind in the Doctor’s wake. That’s how he moves through the universe, but in The War Games it’s all in the same world and time, so it’s more obvious.
  • Unfortunately Lady Jennifer is one of those left behind. Boo.
  • Another is Jamie’s cellmate, a redcoat against whom he’d have been fighting back home. There’s a nice mini-arc with Jamie and the redshirt having to put aside differences and work together, mimicking themes in the larger story.
  • I believe that was a REAL World War One army ambulance, complete with working crank-ignition. Wow. Remember, when WWI began, armies still used mounted cavalry!
  • Jamie’s not a bad rider, is he? Pretty sure that really was Frazer; he’s a horse guy in real life.
  • Companions from the past and future are so useful; I don’t know why new Who is so skittish about it. Jamie is fairly comfortable in less technological/more physical environments, while Zoe can help the Doctor with advanced tech. Although both Jamie and Zoe are experienced enough travelers to cope with things outside their upbringing by now.
  • The first few episodes have a lot of physical comedy thanks to Frazer and Pat (and Wendy, but Zoe is a more dignified character). They’re misbehaving behind the teacher General’s back in almost every scene. Gradually, as the stakes are raised, comic elements drop away from this story, although Jamie’s bandolier-draped macho persona provides a moment of light humour shortly before the climax. (Too bad about the terrible Mexican stereotype he was trying to impress).
  • Screaming female companions? Zoe never screams in this entire season; she’s too busy saving the Doctor’s life or figuring things out or giving orders.
  • Zoe and Lady Jennifer twice call attention to the sexism of male characters. They’re from different centuries, but the show’s set in the sixties, when women’s lib was in full swing.
  • Third-ever appearance of the sonic screwdriver… sonically unscrewing screws! Even so, most of this Doctor’s solutions are kettle and a ball of string. (In fact, he keeps scissors, wire and electrical tape in his pockets?)
  • The Matrix is a distant descendent of The War Games. The concept of virtual reality as a digital construct was unknown to SF, because computers were still very mechanical. But Who was starting to toy with the idea of fake fishbowl environments.
  • The use of creepy glasses for hypnotism is such a classic old SF touch. A lot of these tropes were still new back then.
  • The dramatic visual contrast between the historical eras, especially the overdecorated yet shabby French chateau, and the futuristic Prisoner style HQ, makes for wonderful changes in atmosphere and tension. That soundstage with all the different sets side by side must have been amazing.
  • Director Malony makes expert use of light and dark, camera angles, and camera movement at a time when Who was filmed almost entirely “as live,” with actors moving from one set to the next in the same large soundstage, cutting between four or five ginormous cameras on huge contraptions like cranes.
  • Biggest surprise on this rewatch: a light-on-dark wall panel of hexagonally arranged roundels over the Security Chief’s shoulder just as he’s discussing the possibility that the Doctor’s the same race as the War Lord.  Over his other shoulder, lighting mimics the TARDIS windows with one pair of panes too many— again, familiar, yet subtly wrong. (See screencaps.)  I may be imagining the latter, but I’m pretty sure the former was deliberate on Maloney’s part. Subliminal message: whatever the Doctor is, the War Chief is the same thing inverted.
  • It’s charming (and macabre) that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe keep changing into the uniforms of various soldiers, or at least wearing their hats.
  • Ok, yes, the acting by some of the soldier extras (especially the ones with North or Central American accents) is a bit naff.
  • Which unfortunately includes a racist caricature of a Mexican, mercifully only for two episodes. Paul Cornell’s comments on the #WhoAgainstGuns commentaries are cogent.
  • 9 years into Doctor Who, we finally have confirmation that the Doctor isn’t human, answering the question posed ever since the first episode’s opening titles:  who is this guy? (Even so, it’s eked out sparingly: the Doctor dodges Zoe’s shrewd questions).
  • Wow, there’s some lovely tension and simmering anger between the Doctor and the War Chief when they’re finally locked in a room together in ep 8. Reveals are delivered in a low-key and tight-lipped manner rather than with great fanfare, high drama, and special names for the Doctor like “Oncoming Storm.” It’s funny how early Who is much more theatrical in one way, yet so more understated in another.
  • The play, not the Doctor, was the thing.
  • I love the pecking order of villains, each with their own motivations (and ridiculous villain-shtick), culminating in EVIL STEVE JOBS. Several are working at cross-purposes, saving the Doctor from having to bump them off.
  • Bad guys in gimp suits. Oh 1960s, you be you. It looks like Adam West might show up at any time, but somehow they manage to stay menacing and Prisoner-like in their weirdness. (Thanks in part to that annoyed-hornets alarm sound).
  • The glasses were a a gimmick, but the final episode shows that these people are light sensitive. Also, A Brief History of Time (Travel) notes that Philip Madoc had recently played another baddy, so they disguised him with a beard and thick glasses.
  • The War Chief isn’t the Master, but one can practically see Terrence Dicks’ synapses firing as he pulls together ideas that would crystallize into the Master two seasons later. The pieces are all there: hypnotism, the War Chief offering the Doctor a share in galactic domination as a fellow renegade, even his tendency to ally with evil aliens and then double-cross or be double-crossed by them in an overly elaborate plan.
  • How fitting that The War Games is Terrence Dicks’ first script, in which humans are essentially being time scooped, while The Five Doctors is his last, and both end on Gallifrey. (Which raises the question: did the War Chief once play the Game of Rassilon?)
  • There’s just the slightest bit of padding in ep 10, postponing the inevitable just as the Doctor is doing within the story. He knows it’s endgame from the moment he calls the Time Lords, but he keeps indulging his companions’ eager attempts to flee.
  • Come to think of it, Big Finish did a subtle homage to that sequence at the beginning of Neverland with Eight and Charley trying to escape the long arm of Gallifrey.
  • Shannon Patrick Hines’ excellent A Brief History of Time (Travel) has great behind-the-scenes details, including the fact that Pertwee was cast during the filming of episode seven, and taping of the last episode of The War Games finished on June 12, just nine days before it aired!
  • This was only the second regeneration story, and it still wasn’t called regeneration. The Second Doctor had explained to Ben and Polly that the TARDIS “renewed” him when his body wore out. In this story, it seems to be some kind of technology or external force compelling the Doctor to “change his face.” It was only when Pertwee left that the concept of “regeneration” was finally established.

More in-depth comments on a couple points:

(1) Time Lords Aren’t (or weren’t always) Evil; They’re on the Side of Good, Which Is Scarier

I see a lot of people talking about the evil of the Time Lords, colored by backstory that’s developed in the EU and new series. But for me, watching this back in the day (with The Three Doctors, The Deadly Assassin, Invasion of Time and The Five Doctors behind me), the Time Lords were more like implacable parents, benevolent dictators. They were the ultimate embodiment of Lawful Good, incompatible with the Doctor’s Chaotic good.

I’m reminding the Organians in Star Trek, abruptly interrupting a clash between Klingons and the Federation by taking away their toys (weapons). It was a common 60s SF trope: highly advanced alien species are essentially like gods: aloof, impassive, paternal, supremely confident in their superiority. When noninterventionist beings like this do interfere, they tend to unleash a metaphorical Thunderbolt of Zeus. Remember, Zeus was the Greek god of justice who could burn mere mortals to a crisp for their transgressions. He wasn’t evil, just domineering.

The clashing world views of the Time Lords and the Doctor also echo 60s upheavals, counterculture rebelling against the rosy-eyed 50s pabulum of the Establishment. Also, these Time Lords carry a strong whiff of British imperialism, which was condescendingly paternalistic. Black and white costumes, black and white worldview: that’s these Time Lords all over.

In many ways, the universe was safer before the Time Lords decided to break their long custom of noninterference. The Second Doctor berated them for getting involved, but look what happened when they finally went on the offensive. Ostensibly they were trying to save the universe from the evil of the Daleks, but “by any means necessary” as a Time Lord policy spells doom for large chunks of the universe.

The Second Doctor feared them not because they were evil, but because their idea of right and wrong was so absolute, demanding conformity, robbing him of autonomy. And he feared the tremendous power they wielded to enforce their will.

(2) Wars in living memory, vs wars that have receded into the mists of history

I was stunned to realize that the historical eras dramatized in The War Games are so much more removed from modern audiences than when it was broadcast, or even when I saw it. Audiences watching The War Games now must think of WWI as hazily as the 1969 audience thought of the Crimean War, 105 years before.

Whereas when I saw The War Games in the early 80s, WWI was still within living memory. My great-grandmother (99 years old) had lived through it; my maternal grandfather had been orphaned during it. All of my grandparents had served at home or abroad in WWII. So both these wars were still part of collective consciousness, with the one rapidly being eclipsed by the other. My school made us watch All Quiet on the Western Front. We kids were annoyed at our teachers for pushing this grim old-fashioned war at us— WWII was the “good” war; this was the “bad” one— but it still resonated with us as a direct forerunner of contemporary events. In Britain, of course, WWI was even more important. It was the Great War.

In fact, WWI was a miserable war that killed millions, doubtless including some older relations of the writers and production crews of 1960s Doctor Who. WWI losses had left such a deep scar on the British psyche that the prime minister had popular support when he tried to “appease” Hitler to avoid another world war. Meanwhile, Americans were back to being staunchly isolationist. Once WWII broke out, most people conveniently forgot how reluctant they had been to fight.

The people working on Doctor Who for its first 10 to 15 years would’ve fought in or been children during WWII, endured the Blitz, or at least been drafted by selective service. In their day, the dominant narrative of war was that the Allies had heroically banded together to defeat Hitler and save Europe. (Just as the various warring factions in The War Games have to unite). And yet that heroic paradigm of war was starting to tarnish once more. Britain was not directly involved in Vietnam, but peace protests in U.S. were raising questions internationally. Nor was it the only messy Cold War conflict of the 60s.

So I think it’s no coincidence that the most visible conflict in The War Games is not World War Two but World War One, which like Vietnam dragged on with rank-and-file soldiers dying for little or no gain. Sadly, the situation in The War Games is similar: these soldiers don’t realize the war they’re fighting is truly pointless, and they’re slaughtering one another at the bidding of alien leaders who care nothing about them.