At this point in Doctor Whos history, The Daleks Master Plan is the longest story to date, and The War Games almost rivals it at only two episodes shorter. The Daleks Master Plan is in my opinion a true classic and maintains interest throughout its considerable length by switching locations and bringing in new characters throughout. The War Games on the other hand limits itself to (for the first nine episodes) a single planet, albeit featuring different time zones and locations, and a relatively consistent cast. I would not describe The War Games as a classic and it certainly isnt the same league as The Daleks Master Plan, but it nevertheless manages to maintain an interesting narrative as it builds slowly towards an unforgettable climax.
The basic premise of The War Games is slightly strange, but essentially it works; the Aliens (who are never referred to as anything else) bring large numbers of humans from out of Earths history and by a process of survival of the fittest, attempt to whittle them down to an elite fighting force, with which they intend to conquer the galaxy. Its not entirely plausible, and I cant help wondering why, if so many of the humans are so disposable anyway, they dont just brainwash the lot and send them into battle, but it makes for a surprisingly engaging story. The various wartime eras are quite well presented, with generally good sets and costumes, something the BBC has a reputation for. The large cast is generally good, with one or two exceptions that Ill come to shortly, and despite the length of the story it manages to avoid feeling padded, with the possible exception of the Private Moore scenes, which is a very trivial criticism. This is in spite of the large number of escapes and recaptures throughout, as the Doctor and his friends variously get captured by Smythes men, escape, get recaptured, escape again with Carstairs and Lady Jennifer, get split up, arrive at the Aliens base, get captured, escape again, meet up with Jamie again, get captured again, etc etc etc. Because each escape and capture results in a progression of the plot, this never actually seems repetitive; for example their initial capture and subsequent court-martial arose the Doctors suspicions that all is not what it seems, and his subsequent escape into an entirely different war obviously serves to confirm this.
Once the truth of the situation begins to emerge, the pace quickens even more, as the action shifts to the Alien base and also the resistance forces enter the fray. It is here that my first major criticism of the story arises. In the 1917 zone, when Lieutenant Lucke sees a demonstration of the Doctors sonic screwdriver, he is very quick to accept that the Doctor has been telling the truth. Now I realize that the irony of my argument is that the Doctor is telling the truth, I just think that Lucke accepts it too easily; after all, in his position, I would assume that the Doctor is an amateur magician before Id believe that he is an alien. And this is my problem; many of the human characters seem to accept what is really going on very easily. I can just about convince myself that this is because the processing is flawed and that they are already subconsciously realize that something is wrong, but it still never quite seems convincing. Fortunately, after the first four episodes, this distracting trivial issue becomes irrelevant. Once events move to the Aliens base, two things of significance happen; firstly, we start to get satisfying answers to the mounting questions, coupled with the political wrangling between the War Chief and the Security Chief; this not only advances the plot, but also adds new intrigue, as it becomes clear that all is not well amongst the ranks of the villains. Secondly, and most importantly, we get that almost shocking moment when the Doctors and the war Chiefs eyes meet, and a clear flash of recognition passes between them. This signposts the start of the increasing tension evident in the Doctor as he starts to realize that he is facing a problem that he cannot solve alone, and that his only recourse will be to ask his own people for help.
This unfolding and massively important subplot is partially dependent for its success on Edward Brayshaws excellent portrayal of the War Chief. We have seen the Doctor face a renegade member of his own race before, in The Time Meddler and The Daleks Master Plan, but there the emphasis was more on humour. Here, the full significance of what this can mean for the Doctor comes to light; he is clearly terrified when he sees the War Chief, presumably suspecting that, since the Aliens SIDRATs are based on TARDIS technology, his own people are rather involved. He visibly calms down in later episodes as he realises that the War Chief is a lone renegade helping the War Lords people, but this relief is short-lived once he finally accepts that he needs help to get everybody home. The Doctors conversations with the War Chief are fascinating; they clearly know each other, and both discuss their decisions to leave their own world. For the first time in the series entire history we start to learn about the Doctors past, and Ive never found it so captivating as I have whilst watching the series in order. The revelation that the Doctor stole his TARDIS is surprising enough in itself, but this is as nothing compared to the sheer terror that he and the War Chief exhibit as the need to summon the Time Lords becomes clear. Time Lords. Its so easy to take for granted now that the Doctor is a Time Lord, but hearing the War Chief use the phrase for the first time also has enormous impact; for the first time, we learn what the Doctor really is, and it sounds impressive, mysterious, and foreboding. It is to the Doctors credit that in spite of his obvious fear (he is even prepared to let Villar shoot him rather than staying to wait for his own people), he summons help for the sake of the humans present. In contrast, the War Chief is just terrified and bolts as soon as the Doctor assembles his communication cube. Brayshaw imbues his performance with tremendous charisma and energy, and his own barely controlled panic is almost as impressive as the Doctors far more openly fraught anxiety.
The War Chief is a great villain. He looks and sounds impressive (yes, even with those sideburns) and is a commanding figure. During the middle of the story, his rivalry with the Security Chief makes him seem like a man in control, easily manipulating a petty and rather stupid subordinate. This is doubly fortunate, given that James Bree provides one of the most diabolically bad performances of any actor in Doctor Who up until, this point. The Security Chief seems to be heavily inspired by Gestapo officers, but just seems constipated for the most part. Nevertheless, Brayshaws commanding performance counter-balances this acting atrocity, much to the overall benefit of the story. What is more interesting however, is how the War Chief behaves once the War Lord arrives. Suddenly, he is not as in control as he would like people around to believe, he is just another subordinate and one perhaps out of his death. The War Lords withering scorn shows no favouritism for either War Chief or Security Chief, belittling both as and when necessary. From the moment that the War Chief explains his intention to take complete control to the Doctor, there is a sudden feeling that he is woefully out of his depth, and his death at the ends of the War Lords guards has a certain inevitability. Philip Madoks second performance of the season is even better than his first; the ruthless, sneering War Lord is so distinct from the oleaginous Eelek in The Krotons that it is easy to forget that they are played by the same actor. If the War Chief is a commanding villain, the War Lord makes him look like a sniveling worm, so utterly cold and compassionless is he. His beaming smile, as he listens to the Doctors transparent flattery, is terrifying.
There is almost the effect of a food chain in The War Games, with a bigger fish always around the corner. The Security Chief is a nasty little man, but is outranked by the far more impressive War Chief. He in turn seems far less impressive next to the War Lord. And at the top of the chain are the Time Lords. Knowing in retrospect how the Time Lords change throughout the series, it is interesting to see how they are handled here. The Doctor talks of their great power, and they are portrayed as powerful and mysterious, easily sending the captured humans home and dealing with the War Lord, despite his ill-fated escape attempt. Despite their aloofness however, they also seem compassionate; they talk of not wanting to inflict pain, of not wanting innocents to be hurt, and the Time Lord who collects Jamie and Zoe seems genuinely touched by their attachment to the Doctor. On the other hand, they are also willing to mete out justice as they see fit; they not only dematerialize the War Lord, they also effectively kill off one of the Doctors lives. Perhaps the best comparison is that of strict parents; the Doctor, cowed and guilty looking, seems almost like a naughty schoolboy in episode ten, next to the Time Lords who place him on trial; they grow patiently listen to his defense and indeed seem to accept it, but they refuse to indulge him when he takes time to choose a new appearance, quickly deciding to choose one for him. And then there is what they do to Jamie and Zoe.
My major criticism of The War Games is the fate of the Doctors companions. From a story point of view, I can appreciate it, but as a viewer I feel cheated. In The Wheel in Space, Zoe was precocious and irritating, but during her travels with the Doctor her character developed dramatically and she became a likeable companion, clearly enjoying her travels. Suddenly, at the end of The War Games, all of that is effectively undone, as she is returned to her own time and her memory of her travels with the Doctor erased. With Jamie it is even more painful, since hes been with the Doctor for even longer and has undergone even greater development, becoming one of the Doctors most enduring companions. It is almost painful to see all of that taken away, and whilst I realize that this is the point, it is still all too infuriating. At least both Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines get plenty to do in their final story, after being wasted in The Space Pirates; both Zoe and Jamie play important roles in defeating the Aliens, and at least they get a truly touching final scene with the Doctor as they say goodbye.
Troughtons final performance is better than ever. He gets some great comic moments early on, especially when he bluffs his way into the military prison in search of Jamie, and later gets to display an even greater range, as he angrily confronts the War Chief over his role in the war games, and becomes increasingly nervous and afraid as he realizes what must be done. He is quite superb in the last two episodes, seeming almost on the verge of tears as he sends the box to the Time Lords and frantically makes his escape. His explanation of his past in episode ten is probably my favourite moment from the entire story, as he explains that the wanted to explore time and space and so fled his own planet. It is an unforgettable moment in the series history. It is also quite shocking to see the Doctor resigned to his fate in episode ten, as he finally convinces Jamie and Zoe that there is no escape. He becomes his old self again in the trial room as sentence is passed, but of course, for the last time
Production wise, The War Games is generally very good. The minimalist sets of the Alien base work surprisingly well, as do the gimp costumes worn by the guards. The strange cardboard spectacles however, look utterly ridiculous. My other big criticism of The War Games is the incidental score, which is pompous and overblown. This is appropriate in episode ten, but for the rest of the story is monumentally irritating, especially the annoying sinister theme that kicks in intrusively whenever an Alien dons a pair of special glasses. Im quite capable of realizing that something strange is going on, without unsubtle musical cues hammering the point home every single time.
There are other things about The War Games that annoy me too; there are, inevitably, some very stereotypical characters on display, most notably Arturo Villar. I also never cease to find it unintentionally hilarious when von Weich first appears, complete with bald head, monocle, and dueling scar. Possibly the aliens have been watching Blackadder Goes Forth
Overall, there are too many shortcomings of The War Games to allow it be considered a classic in my eyes, but there arent enough for it be considered a turkey either. Considering its length, and the unforgettable final episode, I think it achieves its aims very well.
Overall, Season Six is not up to the quality of Season Five, but is generally strong and in some respects shows Troughton at his best. The ending of The War Games heralds massive change. I noted when I reviewed The Tenth Planet that whilst watching the series in order for the first time I felt a real emotional impact when Hartnell left. Having got just as used to Troughton, I felt the same effect, but the change is even more pronounced. Not only is this goodbye to Patrick Troughton, but also its goodbye to the black and white era, and signifies an enormous change in the style of the show. Doctor Who would never be the same again