“The War Games”

The War Lord, the War Chief, and the Security Chief

The War Lord, the War Chief, and the Security Chief

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.

Hard classic data

As a quick note, I’m going to be out of town for the next week. While I’ll have access to computers at the hotel and I have a keyboard and the WordPress app on the iPad, I’m not sure I’ll be able to post regularly, and certainly anything I do post won’t have images. But rest assured, I’ll be back. (I haven’t tried out the WordPress app yet. I hope it’s easy to use. For some reason, the workings of “productive” iPad apps still elude me.)

IMDB average ratings for classic episodes, with Doctors indicated

IMDB average ratings for classic episodes, with Doctors indicated

Yesterday, I wrote about the TV ratings graphs on GraphTV and discussed the ratings trends of the modern Doctor Who, and today, here’s the graph for the classic series. You can see the real graph here, but the image to the left has the Doctors indicated. I don’t have much time today to really look at this graph, but here are few interesting points.

First, there are few very important things to note about the data itself.

  • The dots indicate episode parts, not episodes themselves. For example, “The Caves of Androzani” is made up of four parts, and so there are four dots on the graph for it. Another important point is that the early episodes had different names for their parts, such as the first episode is in total made up of “An Unearthly Child,” “The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker.”
  • The number of user ratings per dot are much lower for the classic series than for the modern series. These averages are calculated from 100-200 user ratings, while the modern series’ averages are calculated from 1000-2000 user ratings.

In general, it seems that the average rating for each season is about 7.5 across the whole classic series, with a couple of very notable exceptions: the Second Doctor’s second season, the Third Doctor’s first season, the Fourth Doctor’s first three seasons (Sarah Jane and Leela), and the Seventh Doctor’s first season. I don’t really know much about the history of the show itself, so I don’t know why his first season was so bad, but… wow. Not a single episode rated above 7.0. He definitely makes up for it in his last season though.

It looks like the show’s best and most consistent time was from the beginning of the Third Doctor through the third season of the Fourth Doctor: only rarely did the episodes dip below 7.0. I’d be interested in seeing what kinds of changes in the production staff happened at the beginning of season 15 that caused the quality to even back out to 7.5 again. The show’s most inconsistent season is season 6, the Second Doctor’s last season, which has some of the lowest- and the highest-rated episodes in the entire show.

One season that’s worth looking at is season 21, the Fifth Doctor’s last season. Mr. Davison has been quoted as saying that if he had known how good that last season was going to be, he wouldn’t have left the show at that point, and the ratings show this: it started with a low episode (“Warriors of the Deep”), but then shot up and ended the Fifth Doctor’s tenure on one of the best episodes in the entire series. Sadly, the average and slope of the ratings line are destroyed by the Sixth Doctor’s debut episode “The Twin Dilemma,” which unusually counts for season 21, instead of the Sixth Doctor’s first season, season 22.

One other thing that I noticed was that while “The Trial of a Time Lord” is usually mentioned as being one of the low points of the series, on this graph its episodes average around 7.5, the same as most of the other seasons’ averages, and its ratings are tightly clustered around that average, so there aren’t any truly poorly-rated episodes.

That’s that for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to write regularly, but if not, see you all next week! To days to come!

“The Five Doctors”

After a hiatus of about eight years, I re-upped our Netflix subscription so that we can borrow all of the classic Doctor Who episodes they have. The idea is that we can watch all of them, and choose to buy any of them that we like. I’m hoping to eventually own every episode of the classic series, but it’s prohibitively expensive to do that quickly, so I’m hoping to buy the good ones first at a rate of about once per month. That’ll put me on track to own all of them by, oh, 2023 or so.

Richard Hurndall, Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton

Richard Hurndall, Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton

Last night’s viewing was “The Five Doctors.” It was the 20th anniversary special, aired in 1983, during the tenure of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. It brought back the First Doctor (played by Richard Hurndall, as William Hartnell had passed away eight years earlier), the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), and the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) for a combined storyline that also featured the Master (Anthony Ainsley) and a whole slew of companions, including Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), as well as the Fifth Doctor’s current companions (Mark Strickson’s Vislor Turlough and Janet Fielding’s Tegan Jovanka). The show itself was a single episode, ninety minutes long.

“The Five Doctors” was remarkably fun. Technically, it wasn’t a great episode – the plot suffered a bit from having to shoehorn in so many characters. Basically, a mysterious figure kidnaps the four Doctors and their companions (the Fourth Doctor was also kidnapped with Romana II but got stuck in the time vortex; plot-wise and title-wise, all of the Doctors needed to be kidnapped, but Tom Baker chose not to return to the show, so they used footage from the unfinished episode “Shada” and got him lost in the vortex) and drops them into the Death Zone on Gallifrey. They all individually decide that they must get to the tower in the center, and the show bops back and forth between the four different groups, showing their progress. They eventually figure out who the mysterious figure is and defeat him, and then bid farewell and return to their own timestreams.

The great part of the episode was seeing all of the old Doctors and companions. Mr. Troughton and Mr. Pertwee played their old roles extremely well, and the dialogue was spot-on. Amazingly, Mr. Hurndall not only looked like the First Doctor, but played the old, grumpy curmudgeon perfectly. In general, it was like watching bits of episodes of the old Doctors, spliced together into one big episode, and really, that’s all it needed to be. I found myself smiling and happy at the end, and definitely willing to buy the episode for myself.

That said, there was one thing that they could have done better, to make it an even more immersive experience: they failed to show that the Fifth Doctor would know and recognize the companions and be extremely happy to see them. In the most important example, the First Doctor, accompanied by Susan, walks into the TARDIS (the Fifth Doctor’s) in like he owns the place and demands to know why these strangers, Turlough, Tegan, and an unconscious young man on the floor, are in “my TARDIS.” Turlough and Tegan point out that it’s the TARDIS of the Doctor on the floor. This was a great scene, as the First Doctor finally realizes that he’s been pulled out of time and is looking at his own, previously unknown, future incarnation. However, the Fifth Doctor revives shortly afterwards, and the First Doctor introduces Susan. The introduction is necessary, as Turlough and Tegan don’t know her, but he’s addressing the Fifth Doctor. The Fifth Doctor says, “Yes, I know.”

And that’s it – no special greeting or love for the granddaughter that he abandoned 350 years earlier. Perhaps they thought it would be really weird to have the Fifth Doctor treat Susan as a cherished, long-lost granddaughter when Ms. Ford was 12 years older than Mr. Davison, but it was completely in-character: the First Doctor had not wanted to leave Susan and missed her dearly. In the comic book The Forgotten, the Tenth Doctor underscores this when he specifically asks to see Susan one last time, so that he could apologize to her. A short bit of dialogue showing this in “The Five Doctors” would have reminded the audience that yes, the Doctor has a family and a history that is complicated by his regenerations, and given Susan more of a spotlight, which she definitely deserved.

Except for this one issue, “The Five Doctors” is worth the watch. It’s not deep or emotional or mind-blowing – it’s just a lot of fun.