Most Doctor Who stories are four or six episodes long. Anything that goes on for longer than that is a rarity. There are a few sevens, an eight, a ten, a twelve, and a fourteen. In order to sustain a longer run of episodes, what tends to happen is that more than one story gets bolted together, and that was the approach we saw for The Daleks’ Master Plan, and will later see for The Trial of a Time Lord. This is something subtly different because it doesn’t really sustain its length by going off on tangents. Instead we get a gradual escalation of the threat levels.
That’s not to say there isn’t padding. A six-parter basically got extended by another four episodes, so that’s inevitable, but there is remarkably little. Most obvious is General Smythe and Von Weich, who are basically the same character but in different wars, performing the same plot function, but they are both so creepy and memorable that it doesn’t really matter. What does work so well is a steady upgrading of degrees of villainy, working up through the heirarchy of the world that the Doctor is trying to understand.
Our first villain is Smythe, who then gets upgraded to a bigger threat, the War Chief. He is a Time Lord, so we are into Monk territory and we haven’t been there since our last big epic story three years ago. The next villain upgrade is to the chillingly calm and dangerous War Lord, and then finally we have the greatest threat to the Doctor, the one that will finally defeat him, the Time Lords themselves.
This levelling up is portrayed cleverly by having each previous Big Bad afraid of, or humbled by, the next one, until we get the ultimate example of this. The War Lord is a frightening symbol of total power, inspiring fear in everyone, until he meets the Time Lords. And they make him scream. It’s a shocking statement of power, in a series of statements that say “you thought that was power? No, this is power!” And the story does that at least three times, ramping up the danger until we are in territory where the Doctor is finally out of his depth.
As we work through these levels, we get constant foreshadowing of the ending. So the Doctor faces a firing squad at the end of Episode 1, and the story will end with his execution; the means of his downfall before that first, averted execution is a kangaroo court, clearly unjust with the witnesses not even able to answer the Doctor’s questions, foreshadowing the trial at the end of the story that also seems to have a foregone conclusion, with no real prospect of the Doctor being allowed to carry on as usual; then we have pseudo-companion Carstairs robbed of his memories when he is placed under mind control, while the story ends with the Time Lords inflicting the same injustice on Jamie and Zoe; needless to say, the War Chief foreshadows the arrival of the rest of the Time Lords, but more importantly the whole plot is about soldiers as pawns in the plans of their aristocratic rulers, until the Doctor’s own aristocratic “lords of time” will turn up and take control of his life once again.
Note that the Doctor has no problem resolving the main plot. He is our fabulous Second Doctor for one last time, dismantling the unjust world he finds himself in. The War Chief is no problem for him either, just another proto Master like the Monk. You could even interpret him as actually being the Master if you like that kind of retconning. Note how he is a villain we are not entirely unsympathetic with, just like the Monk and the Master, simply because he does what he does with a degree of charm. He is contrasted with the Security Chief, who is utterly charmless with his monotone voice. Both the Security Chief and the War Lord manage to be convincingly alien without anything visual to represent that, achieved through brilliant performances, and the story is full of those. Have there ever been so many memorable characters in one story? Carstairs, Lady Jennifer, Smythe, Barrington, Ransom, Von Weich, Moor, Arturo Villar, the War Chief, Security Chief and War Lords, and finally the Time Lords. Every one of them makes an impression.
Importantly, the Doctor doesn’t fail. He is the anarchist force of change that he always is, bringing down a cruel regime. But the problem he faces is that there is a human cost here, and the victims of the regime don’t belong where they are. This is not one of those moments where he upsets the order of things and can move on. The humans need to be returned home somehow, and the Doctor has no way to do that mopping up exercise. So he is prepared to put things right at the cost of his own life, his ultimate heroic sacrifice, and the price he must pay is a terrible one.
As a Doctor Who fan who came to this in the wrong order, with my viewing habits dictated by a VHS release schedule rather than broadcast order, this seemed an odd way to end the Second Doctor’s era. I had already seen some of the other regenerations, and I knew the routine. At least one of the companions should continue to help along the process of the change of lead actor, and the next Doctor’s face should be the last thing we see at the end of the story. But that doesn’t happen. And the reason for that is this was written to have a dual purpose. It wasn’t just a regeneration, it was a potential ending, the final ever episode of Doctor Who.
When this was made, it was by no means certain that Doctor Who would ever come back. In fact, the odds were against it, and it only returned in the end because nobody managed to come up with anything better. So this had to function as the last ever episode. But why did that happen?
Well, simply put, interest in Doctor Who tends to wane towards the end of a Doctor’s era. It doesn’t happen every time, but was almost inevitable in the Classic series, with only the Third Doctor really bucking the trend to any great extent. If we look at the final series of each Classic Doctor we tend to see catastrophic collapses of viewing figures. The Smugglers, Full Circle, Logopolis, Frontios, Planet of Fire, Battlefield, Ghost Light: these all had episodes outside the top 100 in the weekly charts. Sometimes a lack of interest crept in a bit early, because so did The King’s Demons and The Happiness Patrol, but by and large Doctor Who struggled when the same Doctor had stuck around for a while. The Trial of a Time Lord dipped down as low as 98th, as did The Space Pirates. Without wishing to get into the eventual cancellation of Doctor Who, it is worth recognising that Season 26 was by no means Doctor Who’s greatest ever collapse in interest. Considering the scheduling at the time it was holding up reasonably well. The wooden spoon (perhaps surprisingly to a lot of fans) has to go to Tom Baker, whose final season represents the most comprehensive collapse in interest ever seen in Doctor Who. One episode of Full Circle ended up 170th in the weekly chart. But that kind of makes the point that once an actor has stuck around in the lead role for a while, the series often faces danger points.
So to bring this back to The War Games, the viewing figures were struggling, as one might expect. Episode 8 was watched by 3.5 million viewers and reached only 96th in the chart, Episode 9 managed 4.1 million and 91st, and then there was a predictable upturn to see Troughton bow out, with Episode 10 managing the dizzy heights of 5 million and 66th place. Note how that 5 million matches the final ever Classic Series rating, exactly the same as the last episode of Survival.
So this was a toss of a coin as to whether the Pertwee era was even going to happen at all. The War Games had to function as a conclusion to Doctor Who, not just the Second Doctor era. Jamie and Zoe were always going to have to be written out anyway, because both actors were leaving, but there was no introduction of a new companion to ease us through the transition. The series could easily have held on to Carstairs and Jennifer, or written in a new companion earlier. But instead the Doctor is sent to Earth alone and trapped there, and might look like anyone for all we know. This was a lovely thought, to reassure any children watching: their hero was somewhere living among them, protecting them from the monsters.
But the loss of Jamie, Zoe and the Second Doctor, our most loveable TARDIS team, is a terribly sad moment. One way or another, they will all be back, but Doctor Who will never be quite the same again. That’s a good thing. We have to move on; it’s how the series survives. But this is the end of the 60s, the end of black and white, the end of the Second Doctor era. How to sum up Troughton’s version of the Doctor? Well, for me there’s only one way to do that, and quite simply it’s this: the best. RP
The view from across the pond:
When Doctor Who goes big, it goes downright Epic! The War Games is not the first epic-length story, but it is the first that is still around in its entirety. It marks the end of the Patrick Troughton era and lays the groundwork for many future events. It is a ten part story that Troughton once claimed felt like finishing a marathon and it is understandable why. It’s huge in scope, and runs nearly 4 hours if watched from beginning to end. But I see it as something different. I see this story as 9/10ths war story, 1/10th Gallifrey (although the planet remains unnamed at this point). The irony of breaking it down this way is that I have little to say about the first nine parts, leaving that instead to my historian friend and colleague, Roger.
What we can say about the first 9 parts is that the acting is marvelous. Lt. Carstairs and Lady Jennifer, both serving during World War I, are instantly likeable and having them help the Doctor just makes them one-story companions so much more than just players in the battle. General Smythe, by contrast, is a rotten easy-to-dislike villain who keeps managing to get the upper hand when the audience is just desperate for him to be beaten. He is a great villain. Von Weich is hard to see as anyone but Neeva from The Face of Evil but that’s only because I saw that one first. He’s a far more loathsome individual during this story and plays another great villain for the story. The War Chief just adds to the list of fantastic villains and he’s one of the Doctor’s own people. He has the charm of the Delgado Master and offers the Doctor a partnership, not unlike his adversary of the Pertwee era. There’s a hint of that early Delgado Master throughout their interactions. On top of that, he knows the Doctor has regenerated; this does imply more than a passing knowledge of who he’s dealing with, perhaps even a former friendship? This relationship could easily have been a template for what was to come. His defeat is somewhat bittersweet, because there’s a part of us that wanted them to find common ground. And then there’s the War Lord; an evil, brutal villain; he’s cunning and dangerous, calculating and manipulative. His calm demeanor even during his trial is unnerving, until his eventual end. It’s hard to reconcile that this is the same man, Philip Madoc, who played Solon in The Brain of Morbius. Solon was, for me, his defining role but his character here is a truly powerful enemy that sits like spider in the web, manipulating events for much of the story.
There’s a hint of Darwinism to it all. The War Lord wants to build an army, but to that end, he takes combatants from multiple periods of time to have them fight. Those that survive will become his actual army. The final part of the idea feels like the let-down. This guy has warriors from throughout history, but only manages to get into the modern era and his whole plan is to pull the “best” of those fighters only to have the fight in a bigger conflict. It’s a letdown! Why not take from future wars, or other planets? What’s the obsession with Earth? It’s a shame that there’s no way to go back and have this as a part of the Time War; sanctioned by Gallifrey, or at least some portion of Gallifreyan hierarchy. (Maybe there’s still a way…) To some extent it would even have been better if it had been the plan all along to just play these games; it might have made the War Lord a bit more despicable because he would have no long term motive. If he were just doing all of this for fun, it would have almost been scarier.
But barring a fantastic cast of heroes and villains, the historical side covers Greek and Roman times, the US Civil War, the first World War, the Boer War, the Thirty Years war, and a number of other periods of war in Earth history. Why not future wars? Why not have the very attack force he uses to overthrow rebellious groups be a part of the whole thing, since they are clearly more powerful than any of the fighters anyway. That explains far more why it would have been better if the War Lord were just doing all of this for a laugh. But instead, it was a trip to a number of historical war eras and for more information on those, I give it over to my friend.
What makes The War Games really interesting is that in part ten we have a veritable “best of” from the past several years of the show. When the Doctor makes one final escape attempt from his people, we see images from The Web of Fear, Fury from the Deep and The Wheel in Space. When he’s caught and put on trial we see images of Daleks, Cybermen, Quarks, Yeti, and Ice Warriors. This single episode serves as much as a goodbye to an era as it does the precursor to what is to come. But Bernard Horsfall, the Time Lord of the Knowing Nod, knows a lot more has happened here than just a goodbye. His unspoken nodding to his fellow Time Lord is undoubtedly relaying that there’s been a lot established here for the future.
Looking to the future of the show, as I’m certain the great Time Lord prosecutor was at the time, we get the first trial, later picked up in the equally epic Trial of a Time Lord. Not to mention, it’s the first time the name Time Lord is used, which follows throughout the series! As I mentioned, there’s the hint toward a “frenemy” in the War Chief which later is picked up with Delgado’s Master. We see the first use of a Hypercube, the equivalent of Gallifreyan snail mail, which later comes back in Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife. The Doctor is given a choice in his regeneration, though he chooses to use none of the motley bunch of choices he is given which comes back on Karn when Ohila offers him a choice of regeneration in Night of the Doctor. And the erasing of the minds of his companions comes back to haunt the Doctor in Journey’s End when he has to watch Donna go through an ordeal similar to what Jamie and Zoe go through at the hands of the Time Lords. The only benefit they have is that they remember their first adventure with him and nothing more. Donna isn’t even allowed that luxury. (The Doctor himself goes through a memory wipe with Clara, brought about by his own hand, in Hell Bent, though I’d argue he might have been doing that to save himself another bad season!) And most shocking of all: the sonic screwdriver as actually used as a screwdriver!
This story was the end of an incredible era with an incredible Doctor. The Second Doctor really defined the show in some ways by being able to take over from another actor and making the role his own. Without him, Doctor Who would never have reached the epic status it now has and it took an epic goodbye to see him off. Farewell Pat! You were fantastic! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Spearhead from Space