Monday, 21 December 2015

Review: Doctor Who Classic: The War Games

Doctor Who - Season Six, Story Seven - The War Games
Written between 28th October and 11th December 2015.

The Second Doctor's time on the show was filled with lots of Base-Under-Siege stories and repetitions of famous monsters. It was a transitionary period of the show, between the crapshoot serial drama of the Hartnell Era and the more slick adventures of the Pertwee Era. In that time, Two covered a lot of really great science fiction, and so it's only fitting that his era end on this complicated, long and remarkably watchable ten episode adventure which is fun, exciting and originates a remarkable amount of lore about The Doctor's past and people. While a lot of people skip the serial's first nine episodes and focus solely on Troughton's last continuous appearance, I think that's a grave mistake to make, as the rest of the serial has a great deal to offer.
The first appearance of the Time Lords, including
Chancellor Goth.
     The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe appear to land on the Western Front, where a tyrannical General Smythe is not only sending his soldiers to their deaths but is also communicating with some alien force using the 1960s vision of Skype. When The Doctor and some of his new friends attempt to escape and find the TARDIS, they pass through fog and end up in Roman Britain, revealing the true nature of their surroundings - an alien force has trapped large numbers of humans from throughout history on an alien planet set up to mimic their time-zones, planning to create a force of disposable but incredibly capable human soldiers. This plot is the orchestration of a race known as the War Lords, led by a Steve Jobs type known as "The War Lord" and aided by a mustachioed member of the Doctor's own people, the Time Lords, known as The War Chief. Boy, that's a lot of definite articles. The Doctor initially aides an uprising within the zones, and later confronts The War Chief (who is definitely not The Master, despite how cool that would be). Eventually, as he himself is unable to bring everyone home, The Doctor does the unthinkable and calls in the Time Lords. They take him and his companions back to their home planet, wiping his companions' memories of him and sentencing him to both forced regeneration and exile on Earth.
     The first thing you notice about this episode is that the guest cast are at an amazing calibre. Everyone from minor side characters to major villains are acting their socks off here, and it all makes for an extra wonderful send-off for this era. Notable names in the first few episodes are David Savile and Noel Coleman as Lt. Carstairs and General Smythe, respectively. Savile would appear in the program later in its run, while Coleman would go on later to have a memorable role in Red Dwarf. By far the strongest guests are Edward Brayshaw's War Chief (whom I'll discuss later) and The War Lord, delivered in amazing style by Philip Madoc. Madoc's War Lord is a tour-de-force performance, effortlessly quiet and civilised yet burying a deep ruthless anger. He's got the voice of a man confident that everything in creation is following his design, and it's spell-binding.
     The War Chief is a different beast entirely. I mentioned The Master before, and it's hard not to see the resemblance - a renegade Time Lord, used to be friends with The Doctor, now teamed up with an evil race he plans to use and then double-cross, who eventually double cross him instead. Edward Brayshaw doesn't, however, have a lot of The Master's mannerisms - he isn't hammy or particularly affable. Instead, he is a shrewd and fairly pleasant businessman, and the moment he hears of The Doctor's involvement he tries to make bonds and forge alliances. It's a refreshingly enjoyable kind of villain character where you actually end up routing for them to succeed in their scheme to overthrow the greater evil, even if at the end of the day they needed to be thwarted as well.
The War Lord and the War Lord are intriguing, complex villains.
   This episode's place in the show means that a lot of people are quite confused when they come to watch it. It takes eight and a half episodes before it becomes clear that any sort of final peril will actually come upon The Doctor and his companions. This peril comes in the form of the first appearance of The Time Lords, mentioned by name according to this story's idiosyncratic race naming. The name of their planet, Gallifrey, wouldn't be mentioned at all until 1974's The Time Warrior, but this is it's first appearance as well, albeit without the detail lovingly crafted onto it by later seasons. Watching the penultimate episode of this story, I finally understood the fan outrage at The Deadly Assassin; arguably the first time we got a good look at the depths of Gallifreyan politics. That story would humanise them; here, they are mystical, otherworldly beings of almost infinite power. They are a genuinely terrifying force, Gods by another name.
     By far the most memorable thing about this story, however, is the fact that we have to say goodbye. The means of Two's departure are miserable, and the fact we see Jamie and Zoe return to their lives, their memory of The Doctor lost, is simply heartbreaking. I watched six Two serials over the course of Cyberman Month and the two Ice Warriors stories. Over that time I really genuinely came to love these guys and their cute little adventures. I can't imagine just how powerful it would be if you'd spent three years with them. I can't really say I've fully explored The War Games and its many, many charms, but I can say that even as the show careened off into a vaguely uncertain future, this story was a demonstration of just how brilliant Doctor Who really was during those great old days.


IN TWO WEEKS: We finally make our return to the Pertwee Era with The Mind of Evil.

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