Monday, 20 May 2013
The War Games written by Terrance Dicks & Malcolm Hulke and directed by David Maloney
This story in a nutshell: The ultimate Doctor Who epic which results in his death…
Who’s the Yahoos: I said in my reviews of The Seeds of Death that I thought season six could happily chug on without Jamie and it was newcomer Zoe that had all the best material (and a hilarious relationship) with the Doctor. However the War Games is the one exception. Given that this is Jamie’s last story of an incredible stretch (just one story less than Troughton and for the sheer wealth of episodes he is unbeaten when it comes to the Doctor's assistants) Dicks and Hulke give him some wonderful things to do and remind us of his origins and how far he has come. As an ex-resistance fighter he takes great umbrage to being called a deserter. It is wonderful to see Jamie as a fighter once again having to use his wits and fists against an overwhelming enemy. He cannot imagine fighting a war in holes in the ground and blowing the hell out of each other, his is a far more romantic vision of hand-to-hand combat. Jamie, who used to fight against these people to the death, is willing to talk to a Redcoat and work out a plan to escape together. He’s hilariously rubbish at subterfuge and almost blows the Doctor’s cover by demanding what he is playing at when he is trying to rescue him from the military prison. Frazer Hines looks so cute with a cushion over his head to protect him from the exploding safe, he's so confident in the part at this point that it would be a long time indeed before another actor was quite so contented in the role of a companion. Brilliant to see Jamie smash an American off his horse with a tree stump and steal the animal – this was very much his life before the Doctor. He rides through the hills and rescues Lady Jennifer in the very model of a dashing hero! He insists that she cannot come with them to the control centre because she is a woman in what I can't make up my mind is a chivalrous or sexist (you decide) act. There’s some fabulous funny business as Jamie trips through the door posing as the leader of the rebellion. Both Jamie and Zoe have unwavering loyalty to the Doctor and refuse to believe that he would betray them. Jamie’s fake processing is gigglesome (‘Oh aye…I’ll obey yer!’ Loyal to the last, he refuses to leave the Doctor even when he is on the run from his (clearly dangerous) own people. ‘The TARDIS is no good to you!’ he tells the War Chief, ‘he can’t even steer it properly!’ He says he will never forget the Doctor and you believe him until that devastating final twist. The Doctor’s laughter as Jamie runs after a Redcoat so furiously is wonderful, the affection he has for the young Scot is palpable.
Beautiful Brainbox: My favourite girl of the era gets some wonderful material in her last story. Somehow Zoe looks even cuter than ever in her trench coat. She is a real feisty mare when she wants to be and gives the soldier an earful for keep bellowing at them and Smythe also gets a piece of her mind for his ridiculous kangaroo court. She’s resourceful too, searching the general’s quarters and rescuing the Doctor (risking execution herself) and smashing the vase over the Commandant’s head as he is about to phone through and expose the Doctor as an imposter As the Doctor says: ‘What a nice and clever girl you are!’ ‘The girl is from the future and the boy is from the past’ – given the run of contemporary companions we have had in the new series it is easy to forget how experimental they were with companions in the classic series and what an inspired idea the culturally diverse duo of Jamie and Zoe was. Once again Zoe is paired up with the Doctor and they make a giddy and excitable pair as they explore the control centre. She’s given a blast of the mind probe but it's not enough to bring down this stubborn lass. Her photographic memory is brought to the fore; she’s like Adric done right, a total boffin but cute and engaging with it. Wendy Padbury is excellent at adding little moments that add depth to the situation and I love her disgusted look away as a man is beaten. ‘For such a little woman your mouth is too big!’ says Villa, brilliantly summing her up. I guess she's like Tegan in that respect, but charming and resourceful with it. Look at her pigeon steps as she heads off to get Jamie to introduce him to Villa; she’s just as good at comedy as her co-stars. She puppeteers the young Scot hilariously, she is such a fabulous know it all and she puts all the right words into his mouth. When asked why he lets a woman speak for him, Jamie questions why not if she's right and Zoe promptly perks up with: 'I am!' Zoe and Jamie convince the Doctor to make one last halfhearted escape on his home planet. Seeing Zoe back on the Wheel is actually far more upsetting than Jamie in the Highlands because there is a strong feeling that her adventures with the Doctor made her a better person and now that has all been forgotten. It's such an unforgettably cruel thing to do Russell T Davies borrowed it for Donna in the new series and it still works like a charm.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You send no car to meet us on our arrival and now you add insult to injury by doubting my credentials! D’you know who I am sir?’
‘I had every right to leave…’
‘I was bored!’
‘No…no, you’re above criticism, aren’t you?’
‘I thought I’d forgotten something important but it doesn’t matter…’
‘Is this the best you can do? I’ve never seen such an incredible bunch!’
The Good Stuff: The wartime opening of landing in a wasteland and being bombarded with explosive is so immediately atmospheric Maloney used it twice, here and in Genesis of the Daleks (another classic that he helmed). After 12 weeks in space this is a much-needed dose of realism. You can hardly say this story is slow to get going since they are captured by the Germans and rescued by the British within five minutes. Both Carstairs and Lady Jennifer are superbly characterised and acted allies of the Doctor, an extremely likable pair. it would have been so easy to have written these characters as upper class stereotypes but Dicks and Hulke are far too good to fall back on cliche. From the opening episode you can feel the noose tightening around the Doctor’s neck, sentenced to death within 25 minutes! Mud, explosions, barbed wire, gunfire, prisons and executions, it might have been transmitted early but they certainly managed to whip up a gritty wartime atmosphere. The Seven Sisters Country Park is just down the road from me and one of my favourite places to visit so imagine my thrill when I saw the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe emerging there during the Roman scenes? Every time I visit now I half expect to see a Roman legion charging towards me. The second cliffhanger feels like it is befitting of a silent movie with a Roman army chasing our friends as our friends try and crank the car into operation. It's a particular favourite moment of Terrance Dicks and sees the story twisting off in a completely unexpected direction. I felt so sorry for Ransome, such a bumbling fellow, and tied up and gagged in an ignominious fashion. Edward Brayshaw gives an instantly charismatic and fascinating performance as the War Chief and he is totally believable as rogue from the Doctor’s own race. There's a heightened realism about the character that really sells that he is from a race that is extremely confident in their own abilities. Maloney directs the location scenes with real bite, the hand-to-hand combat scenes are violent and nasty and people are shot dead with no hint of cutting away in case they upset the kiddie winks The War Room is a well designed set which the director shoots imaginatively (I really like the low shot through the table map of the zones). How does a story this long feel so pacy? I love, love, love the groovy sixties pop art guillotine door and the huge hanging balls in the processing room – was the designer on acid? When you see colour photos of these sets we should be ever more thankful that it was shot in black and white. James Bree’s delivery is an unusual monotone but he has an intensity and anger that makes him unmissable. He’s also very quotable -’…the-war-LORD!’ How much fun is having the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe (aww) dressed up as period soldiers? It feels like a return to Troughton's early days in the part where he dressed up in something outrageous every week. A shrinking TARDIS makes for a fantastic cliffhanger, sold almost entirely by the actors. That skin crawling sound effect makes the War Lord’s arrival very powerful and Philip Madoc’s performance is eerily intense – he’s another great character in a story that is already stuffed to the brim with a memorable guest cast. Just one gaze from the War Lord makes me want to crap my pants. As Terrance Dicks says, if the War Chief is playing pantomime menace then the War Lord is playing menace for real. Everything about him is so still and controlled that when he does finally lose it you know things have gotten really bad. Bringing together all the resistance is the next brilliant innovation. It’s a regular Doctor Who cliché to rouse the underdog but done on this scale it feels fresh and invigorating. The bitch fights between the Security Chief and the War Chief get better and more dramatic until they are literally screaming at each other. They remind me of the Dominators in that they have the same argument repetitively and with increasing intensity but this time it is pulled off perfectly, with superb dialogue and pitch perfect performances It's great how the story has been constructed so that by episode seven you can skip from the control centre to the Romans to the First World War without batting an eyelid - the scale is incredible. The time barrier surrounding the chateaux sees the story breaking new ground again, using the set up imaginatively A gigantic army of the most violent humans is actually a very scary idea. The thought that the aliens couldn't find a more aggressive and brutal race than humanity out there to cherry pick the most violent examples is a cutting condemnation of our species at its worst. You can’t help but feel uplifted as the resistance starts to fight back, luring out the guards and capturing them all (with some gorgeous upbeat music). Villa is pure comic gold, he’s so stupid he can’t even pretend to be processed (‘Your machine is no good!’) but finally gets to be trigger happy (‘I told you! My guns is best!’). Everybody gets a chance to shine in this four and half hour story. The War Chief kills his rival and in a very satisfying moment of callousness. ‘They’ll show you no mercy!’ he screams in fear of the Time Lords approach and they feel like an awesome force before they even show up. The War Chief was such a huge villain he deserved such a fantastic death scene full of bluster, attempting to run away and being cornered and fired upon by a multitude of guns. Few villains come to such deliciously melodramatic ends (I can only think of Mavic Chen and Salamander at this point in the shows history). The sound effects as the Time Lords descend sounds like the anger of the Gods approaching and the slow motion cliffhanger sees the Doctor trapped like a fly in amber, time having literally run out for him. Who said that only Steven Moffat has the budget and imagination to hop from location to location? On the run from his people the Doctor goes from the First World War to plopping down on the ocean, sinking beneath the waves, deep space, crocodile infested swamps before landing on an alien planet…all in the space of five minutes. There’s a long shot of the TARDIS in episode ten where it looks absolutely massive, just as it did in An Unearthly Child. Visually it feels like the show is coming full circle, really selling how impressive the Doctor's machine is. It’s a torture tribunal for the War Lord who suffers a moment of insanity as he screams for mercy as the Time Lords force a confession from him. Guns and violence inside the TARDIS – is there nothing this story can’t do? Obviously not, as it also provides a fascinating backstory for the Doctor. Erasing the War Lord and his planet suggests the sort of powers the Time Lords wield. Fascinating that the Doctor should have to tell the Time Lords about the Daleks, it is their first exposure to the race that will ultimately wipe them out. If it wasn’t heartbreaking enough to have one of the strongest Doctor/companion teams torn apart, the injustice of having them forget their time with the Doctor is as devastating as it is unjustified. That's why it lingers in the memory. Exile on Earth, no TARDIS and a new face, it is a shocking final indignity for the Doctor and brilliant way to shake up the format. What an exciting, jaw dropping way to end sixties Doctor Who with the Doctor screaming for mercy as he is blasted into oblivion.
The Bad Stuff: The open-mouthed Romans are daft. Is that the campest German officer of all time (‘Soooo you were lost!’)? What are those groovy specs all about? And magnet controls? Most of this stories rare issues are usually aesthetics. The American Civil War sections are where the padding sets in with one side gaining a foothold, then the other, then back again and then the resistance take over. The action is well directed but it does feel like a way of stretching out the story in it's middle episodes. Another black guy bites the bullet in the Troughton era. Are those the kinkiest rubber suited guards ever? Despite some great moments it is during episodes five and six that the only harmful padding takes place (especially all that nonsense about taking the panel off the processing centre wall that seems to go on forever). Episode six is the cheapie (if this story was missing from the archives you know this would have been the one that was held back by the BBC) with lots of wobbly walls, no new sets or locations or actors. Is the name SIDRAT a joke? Those Time Lord technicians don’t put up much of a fight, do they? I don’t know if I would use the Quarks as the first example of the menaces I have fought!
The Shallow Bit: What is it about good-looking pairs in the sixties? Steven and Vicki, Polly and Ben…Jamie and Zoe are just gorgeous! David Troughton makes an appearance and he's quite the cutie. Bring on The Curse of Peladon.
Result: The ultimate Doctor Who epic and ten episodes of absolute magic. The way this story stacks up its revelations and becomes more vast and epic as it progresses is breathtaking; the war, the glasses, the scanner, the second TARDIS, the mists, the Romans, the map of all the war zones, the control centre, one of the Doctor’s own people, the resistance, the Time Lords, the trial, the forced regeneration…this is a beautifully crafted piece of work that is never short of surprises. The beautifully written and performed villains encourage you to keep watching, starting very effectively with General Smythe and simply getting better and better – the Security Chief, the War Chief, the War Lord and finally the Time Lords - with each one feeling more powerful and dangerous than the last until you are gasping with delight at how high the stakes have become. I remember when I first watched this story on a scratchy videocassette at Christmas – I was watching one episode each morning before heading off really early to do some overtime and I can still remember the dazzling atmosphere of the darkness outside, the Christmas lights glowing and this black and white delight transporting me back to a point in the series that was truly innovative and gripping. I was absorbed and enchanted. You’ve got a massive and engaging cast of characters brought to life by some great actors and enough locations to fill a season all artistically shot by the director. Right at the centre of this masterpiece there’s Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury, a great team and they are appropriately all given their finest material in their last show together. Exciting, shocking, hilarious, dramatic, action packed and reshaping the series forever, The War Games sees the Troughton era end as it began with a triumphant story. As proof of what Troughton could do with the role there is no finer story and we are blessed that this epic somehow escaped the culling and clung to the archives: 10/10