Friday, 4 September 2009

The War Games

Previous viewings - none

My first marathon virgin viewing, and a story I tried to avoid learning details about until now - obviously there's only so much I can do with regards to the conclusion, being a turning point in the direction of the series and a frequent point of reference on the documentaries on the DVDs, but this is one case where knowing how it ends is okay, because it's as much a conclusion to the six years of the show so far as a finale to the story itself. The rest was nine episodes I was wary about approaching because when a story is highly regarded you have expectations, and for all I knew its reputation was mostly down to the final episode. I wouldn't rule that out, as it pushes a lot of fanboy-pleasing buttons, but what I found was that it's only the icing on the cake in finest Troughton story of them all.

After some explosive title captions, the scene is set for the TARDIS's arrival in no man's land, close to the German army perimeter in 1917. They're found by ambulance driver Lady Jennifer and taken to the British camp. The Doctor warns Jamie and Zoe that they've landed on the front lines of the first World War, a particularly nasty point in human history. The circumstances of their discovery prompts suspicion, however, and they find themselves accused of espionage, with their every attempt to explain themselves proving fruitless.

This is a very tense episode; the pace doesn't let up as the TARDISeers land in a pretty awful place and even from that starting point things get worse by the minute. In the best pure historical fashion, the idea of facing a firing squad feels scarier than any horde of lumbering monsters. Its a situation the Doctor should be able to talk his way out of, but he finds himself powerless to escape the death sentence as General Smythe seems determined to find him guilty at his court martial. We sense - as does the Doctor - that something isn't right, but everyone defers to Smythe so the Doctor's fate seems a foregone conclusion. I think a big part of the strong sense of danger here comes from the fact that the Doctor isn't dealing with a reasonable person or even staight-forward villain, his "opponent" is a mystery, secretly possessing sophisticated technology and controlling people's minds. We know not his motives or allegiance. This question mark hanging over the episode lends a lot to its impact. Interesting to note that in both the first and last episodes the Doctor is found guilty at a trial .

Anyway, the episode builds to the logical conclusion of the Doctor being shot - although from the cliffhanger it's clear right away that he hasn't been. The resolution is lame in comparison to the buildup (the shot was fired at the British by someone else) but the court martial business was really only cleverly disguised padding serving to allow the story to make a big entrance. With that done, and done well, the important stuff can begin as the Doctor investigates his surroundings, after he and Zoe rescue Jamie from the military prison. What follows is a hilarious sequence where the quick-thinking but resource-lacking Doctor pretends to be an Examiner from the war office and bluffs his way into the Commandant's office. He has no disguise, just a bad attitude. Even though they just get captured again, it's a funny scene.

We now get two allies - the aforementioned Lady Jennifer and Lt. Carstairs, who I thought seemed like a cross between Mike Yates and Benton. Considering the other officers around, they listen to the Doctor and suspected foul play at the court martial. The Doctor convinces them to break into Smythe's office, where his hidden technology is kept. I had my doubts that Carstairs would risk possibly lethal consequences of aiding the Doctor but considering the facsimile nature of the war and his mental processing, I'll put that aside. Having discovered a listening device behind a wall, the Doctor persuades them to leave, as their lives too are now in danger. The cliffhanger to the second episode is one of those WTF moments that only Doctor Who can do - after driving through some fog, the escapees are chased by Romans! At this early stage in the story, it's good to see a plot twist which widens the scope and raises loads of questions to be answered. I'm on the edge of my seat.

Episode 3 is the last of the opening WWI trilogy. Having figured out that the mist which surrounds no man's land leads to other times and places, the Doctor decides that they should look for a map of all the time zones. To get this they return to the British base and blow up the safe in Smythe's office. The urgency of the opening episodes has given way to more standard investigation approach, with plenty of humour from the attempts to keep the other officers from noticing anything is wrong. Conveniently, there is indeed a map in the safe, and between all the time zones is a blank space they must head for, giving the group a place to head for to reach the next plot point.

Intercepted before they get there this time by Germans, the Doctor and the others are taken to the German base. I really liked the scene that followed for a few reasons - I would have expected the Germans to be depicted as villainous but the main guy seems okay, being appropriately tough with them at first but being willing to listen and being amazed when he demonstrates the sonic screwdriver, which for the one and only time does exactly what it says on the tin (my other reason for liking the scene). As a further twist, he goes from reasonable to hostile after being subjected to mind control from the German camp's own version of Smythe, who uses a monacle instead of glasses to hypnotise his subjects (one wonders what the Roman general does?). Fortunately the TARDISeers escape and pass through more mist, into the American Civil War zone.

We now get our first glimpse of the operators of the scheme. The angry-looking War Chief wants the fugitives recaptured. At first I was thinking we were finding out too much too soon - we already know about the different time zones, the TARDISeers are closer to the centre, and now we're introduced to the main baddies.

Anyway, with Carstairs recaptured, the Doctor and Zoe investigate a craft which appears like the TARDIS but are inside it when it disappears, leaving Jamie and Lady Jennifer with the Americans for a couple of episodes. I enjoy the Doctor and Zoe as a team - there's usually a lot less goofing around than when he's with Jamie, so we can focus on the plot. They're close to the control centre and are led into a lecture on the mind conditioning devices used on the humans in the war zones. There's something cold about the way they treat the humans (considering they themselves appear to be human), bringing in Carstairs and brainwashing him as a demonstration of the device. The strange sort of 3-D glasses everyone wears make it even weirder.

Meanwhile, Jamie rallies some resistance fighters in the American Civil War zone. This less-important plotline did its job but didn't care much about any of the characters, I just wanted Jamie to meet up with the Doctor and Zoe again.

The Doctor seems to have put his brush with death behind him as he's already got the whole scheme worked out and is masterminding a way to put it out of action, first of all by saving Carstairs by convincing the scientist to reverse the conditioning, citing faulty equipment. However, the War Chief enters and recognises the Doctor (shock!) leading to a bit of a runaround until Zoe is captured. If there's one regret, it's that there hasn't been much opportunity for character moments so far, and with one of the largest guest casts the show ever had the TARDISeers do get somewhat lost sometimes, with their roles in many scenes consisting mainly of reacting to the latest plot development. I think during the marathon I've become so accustomed to the "typical" Troughton story that this feels a bit out of place. No enclosed setting, no monsters. In fact, I could more easily picture Hartnell or Pertwee in this story than Troughton, even though I'm in the middle of actually watching Troughton in it. Weird, huh?

The middle few episodes introduce the Security Chief and his antagonistic relationship with the War Chief. The Security Cheif questions Zoe and learns about the TARDIS, while the Doctor turns the tables on the scientist working on Carstairs and frees Carstairs and later Zoe. Compared to the fast-moving first four episodes, the story now starts to slow down, with the focus shifting between minor perils the Doctor and the resistance fighters face as they slowly gain a foothold in the war game scheme, taking control of the 1917 zone, and the growing animosity between the Security Chief and the War Chief, as the Security Chief thinks the Doctor was sent here under orders of the War Chief as they are both from the same race, a race that has mastery over space and time. What are major revelations like this are swept under the carpet - compare to the discovery that the Monk is the same race as the Doctor in The Time Meddler, which gets a cliffhanger all to itself - although perhaps a 1969 audience felt differently.

The War Lord is a late arrival in the story, providing a restrained counterpart to the more forceful War Chief. It's strange to think that Philip Madoc was in The Krotons only a few stories ago, he's able to seem totally different even when his face is the same in both. Over the course of the story, he becomes more crazed as his plan falls apart.

It's only now that we get something I've been wanting for a few episodes - a reason behind the scheme. Obviously it's because humans are dangerous creatures, perfect for fighting wars. The Doctor has been captured and pretends to help the War Lord capture the rebels. Episode 9 is where the story gets going again, because it plays the card that the series has always had the option of playing since Day 1 - introducing us to the Time Lords. The Doctor gains the upper hand by pretending to alter Jamie's mind with the scientist's machine, which soon allows the rebels to attack the control centre. Unable to send the humans back to their native time zones using the travel machines used by the bad guys, he's at a loss as to how to send them all home. The War Chief is terrified of even the possibility that the Doctor will summon the Time Lords. The rest of the episode builds up expectations thousandfold - the Doctor is even at first planning to leave Jamie and Zoe behind and try to escape the Time Lords himself. Of course, they can't accept that - they're not going to leave him now. Then we have that cliffhanger, which surprised me coming from a 1969 episode, not because of any technical feasibility, but having now seen 252 episodes from that decade I know what to expect from a ciffhanger and this isn't it. With the Time Lords arriving in the war zone to put things right, the TARDISeers make a run for the TARDIS, trying to escape before it's too late. We see them run in slow motion, each step difficult, the journey looking more impossible every second, until the Doctor slumps door at the door, having failed to turn the key in the lock. End of episode.

If that didn't have audiences tuning in next week, I'll have to assume some catastrophe befell them midweek.

Okay, so here we are at Episode 10, the last episode of the Troughton era (sob). Happily, this can be compared with Hartnell's finale in no way whatsoever. The episode itself is possibly Troughton's finest performance in the role, an award with so many candidates I'd find it impossible to choose.

It's an episode with a lot to accomplish. After trying to land the TARDIS on the edge of the universe, the Doctor fails and the Time Lords pull the TARDIS to land on the Doctor's home planet, as yet unnamed. We see... corridors. And men in black and white robes. In this story, the Time Lords are not required to seem real, but rather sort of god-like; we take their power for granted going by the way the Doctor reacts to them, we know the situation is lost even though we've never met them before. They don't seem like bad guys, not boring like later depictions, merely a sort of forceful killjoys. More than in stories like The Deadly Assassin, I can see that the Doctor left Gallifrey originally because he disagrees with their policies and way of life, rather than just being bored by it.

Anyway, the War Lord is on trial for his crimes. To give the rest of the story its due, he's allowed to briefly think he is in control as his guards show up with guns, only for the Time Lords to destroy them. The rest of the episode is an epilogue to the story, which for all intents and purposes is itself over. In a darkened room, the Doctor explains to a Time Lords played by Bernard Horsfall (great actor with a lot of presence) about the evils he has encountered and invasions of Earth he has foiled (good thing he hadn't just had pure historical adventures, he might have had a tougher case to argue!). While he waits for the verdict, Jamie and Zoe convince a Time Lord to let them see him. At first, they convince him to try to escape, but it's a short-lived attempt as the Time Lords are too efficient. Resigning himself to his fate, the Doctor says goodbye to Jamie and Zoe, who will be returned to their origins in space and time. I was surprised how emotional this was - for one thing we say goodbye to not one but two of the best ever companions, and Jamie has been around so long that him leaving has as much impact as a Doctor leaving. Then there's the manner of their departures - forgetting all but their first adventures with the Doctor, negating the positive character journeys they've taken, and yet the Doctor hasn't the heart to tell them that they'll forget him. I swear, I almost cried.

I've seen this last scene quite a few times before, so it held no surprises really. The Doctor is told that he will be exiled on 20th century Earth and is allowed to choose a new face for a new regeneration, although true to form he finds fault with all of the options. As he tries to stall for time, the regeneration takes effect and the Second Doctor fades away forever...

A story like this makes The Tenth Planet look even worse than it did before. In The Tenth Planet, Hartnell was past his sell-by date - at least, that's how it felt, as he was a spare part in a story that was more suited to his successor. Bowing out with The War Games is good way to go for Troughton, and it feels quite the opposite way: he's a Doctor cut off at the top of his game, despite a reasonably lengthy tenure and plenty of classic stories. After a story like this, I realise how much potential he still had. Heck, if he had been the Doctor for ten years, it still wouldn't have been enough. I missed the pure historicals and would have liked to have seen more of them in his era, and perhaps a few less base-under-siege stories, and way too much is missing, but - and I know others will disagree - his two finest stories, and those responsible for a large chunk of the different facets and imagination of he era - are this and The Mind Robber, and they both survive in their entirety, so it's not all bad.

No more Troughton! How did that happen? This isn't just the end of an era though, it's the end of Doctor Who as it was in the 60s, ready for its reinvention in the 70s. It will certainly be something to get used to. As for now, I'm still in mourning.

Horror quotient - The usual source of horror (monsters) are absent but there's plenty else. The baddies are menacing, the cliffhangers are pretty much uniformly dangerous.
Comedy quotient - I've already mentioned a few of my favourite funny scenes. And they are funny scenes, rather than little moments. Troughton knows when to play it serious and when not to. I'll miss that.
Drama quotient - Obviously, the drama is sharpest at the beginning and the end, as Terrance Dicks says. However he doesn't give himself enough credit for the rest, which despite not being quite as riveting, is still top.

The Second Doctor era saves the best for last. Not just great Doctor Who, but great television.


1 comment:

  1. My favourite Doctor Who story of all time

    10 episodes of brilliance