There’s just so many classic Doctor Who episodes that it’s often very difficult to choose one to watch. So, one night recently, we decided to roll a die to choose the Doctor, and it came up ‘2’. I then listed out the Second Doctor episodes we have, and we both yelled out at the same time, “The War Games”! I believe we both had the same idea in choosing that one: we wanted to see the Second Doctor’s regeneration into the Third Doctor.
I pulled down the DVD and opened the case and read the labels on the discs: Episodes 1-5 and Episodes 6-10. Ten episodes! That’s nearly five hours for one story! With a bit of trepidation, we started it up and settled in. We ended up watching the first four episodes on one night, then the last six three nights later.
Summary first, so spoilers!
The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe land in the trenches what seems to be World War I, where they are arrested by the British forces for possibly being German spies. The commander of the British forces, General Smythe, runs them through a farce of a trial, condemning the Doctor to death, declaring Jamie a deserter from the Scottish regiment and ordering him to be sent back there, and sentencing Zoe to return back to civilian lands. However, it’s very obvious that he’s using some kind of hypnotic suggestion to convince the soldiers to believe that the three outsiders are spies. After the Doctor escapes being executed, the three of them, plus Lieutenant Carstairs and Lady Jennifer (a nurse), who seem to have broken through the hypnosis, begin investigating and find that they’re not on Earth, but instead are on some alien world which is partitioned into multiple areas, one for different Earth wars, and the soldiers there have been lifted from their times on Earth to fight the battles here instead. This turns out to be all an experiment run by an alien called the War Lord, to find the best human soldiers to create an army with which to take over the universe. The War Lord is assisted by a renegade Time Lord called the War Chief, who provided the space-time machines (the SIDRATs) used to transport the soldiers to the battle zones. The Doctor defeats the War Lord, but cannot contain him or return all the soldiers to their appropriate times, so he is forced to call in the Time Lords to take care of it. After finding the War Lord guilty of his crimes and dematerializing him, they also find the Doctor guilty of interfering and force him to regenerate, exiling him to Earth.
Ok, summary done.
With such a short summary, it’s impossible to convey just what happens during the episode that takes five hours to tell the story. There’s a lot of fleeing different armies that consider the TARDIS crew spies, traveling around trying to find out what’s going on, and then later, the aliens trying to contain the Doctor and figure out why he’s there and what he’s trying to do. There’s a bit of cat and mouse going on as the Doctor learns more and more and starts trying to sabotage what the aliens are doing. The most amazing thing about this episode, though, is that though the story takes five hours, it is riveting throughout the whole thing. It is paced a little slow for modern tastes, as are most of the classic episodes, but there actually was never a moment the entire time in which I sat there unentertained. There was always something going on, and it all was important. I have a tendency to play Doctor Who: Legacy on my iPad while watching shows, and I kept it next to me during “The War Games”, but never once had any urge to play it – I wanted to keep my eyes on the screen. As a counterexample, I play DW:L all the way through Arrow episodes, because though they’re interesting enough, the plots of the individual episodes and the characters are never compelling enough to warrant my full attention.
One of the side plots of the episode was the relationship between the War Chief and the Security Chief. The Security Chief didn’t trust the War Chief, especially when he found out that the Doctor was a fellow Time Lord, suspecting that the War Chief called him in to assist him in overthrowing the War Lord. The War Chief did intend to overthrow the War Lord but not with the Doctor’s help, and he hated the Security Chief because he was always in his way. Both characters were played almost to a hammy extent, but it worked well, giving them both very alien personas.
It’s always a little difficult taking the special effects seriously in these old serials, and the thing that made us giggle the most were the computers and the SIDRAT controls. In this episode, they were basically refrigerator magnets of different shapes. Need to dematerialize the SIDRAT? Twist that U-shaped magnet on the panel. How about deactivating the control panel? Just take the magnets off the panel. It was absolutely hilarious, but on the other hand, it was rather ingenious. Why do highly-advanced Time Lord controls need to look like levers and toggles and dials? Why can’t they be simple-looking inscrutable shapes on a flat panel?
So, bottom line, this was an excellent episode that was completely worth the time. I’m not sure I will watch it again, simply because it is so long, but it was enjoyable and I highly recommend it as a fantastic classic story.