Monday, October 3, 2011

Doctor Who: The War Games

Continuing my catch-up of highlights from the last 50 years of Doctor Who, we reach the end of the Second Doctor's era.

(Spoilers follow)

And the difference in ambition between earlier stories and "The War Games" is huge: 10 parts, richer music and camerawork, multiple time zones, a more complex story, diverse motivations... and... we finally meet the Doctor's own people...

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe discover a planet on which soldiers abducted from various times in Earth's history are being brainwashed into continuing their conflicts in simulations of those periods. The idea is to train an army to conquer the universe. The plotters are helped by a renegade Time Lord, "The War Chief", one of the Doctor's own race.

There is a revealing exchange between the Doctor and the War Chief, in which the Doctor is defensive about his reasons for leaving his home planet and rejects the War Chief's quest for power.

WAR CHIEF: You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are.
THE DOCTOR: Oh do you?
WAR CHIEF: Your machine is a TARDIS. You're too familiar with its controls to be a stranger.
THE DOCTOR: I had every right to leave.
WAR CHIEF: Stealing a TARDIS? Oh I'm not criticising you; we are two of a kind.
THE DOCTOR: We most certainly are not!
WAR CHIEF: We were both Time Lords and we both decided to leave our race.
THE DOCTOR: I had reasons of my own.
WAR CHIEF: Just as I had.
THE DOCTOR: Your reasons are only too obvious: power!
WAR CHIEF: How much have you learnt of our plans?
THE DOCTOR: I know you've been kidnapping soldiers from the Earth from various times in its history and bringing them here to kill one another.
WAR CHIEF: But do you realise our ultimate objectives?
THE DOCTOR: No objective can justify such slaughter!
WAR CHIEF: The war games on this planet are simply a means to an end. The aliens intend to conquer the entire galaxy. A thousand inhabited worlds.
THE DOCTOR: Yes, but why choose the people of the Earth?
WAR CHIEF: They are the most suitable recruits for our armies. Man is the most vicious species of all.
THE DOCTOR: Well that simply isn't true!
WAR CHIEF: Hmm... Consider their history; for a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose. We can bring peace to the galaxy - and you can help. You see, I'm not the cold-hearted villain you suppose me to be. My motives are purely peaceful.

The climax sees the Doctor calling for help from the Time Lords via a small box, a means of communication that cropped up again earlier this year in "The Doctor's Wife". The last episode is on the Time Lord home planet (which we now know to be Gallifrey).

Having seen the Time Lords appearing as from Hell in the Tenth Doctor's final story, the Time Lords in the War Games initially appear monk-like. They seem austere, gentle, peaceful, thoughtful, serene, slightly aloof. But then we come to their punishments... They decree that the planet behind the war games plot is to be isolated forever from the rest of the universe by a permanent force field. And the leaders of the plot are removed from time, as if they never existed.

Meanwhile, the Time Lord's punishments for the Doctor's crimes (stealing the TARDIS and interfering in history) are particularly cruel. They force a regeneration on the Doctor and exile him to a single time on a single planet (Earth); something like torture for an inveterate wanderer in time and space. But they go further, and wipe Jamie's and Zoe's memories of the Doctor, apart from their first encounter with him. Just as with Donna Noble in recent series, the loss of memories of so many adventures that saw these companions develop and grow as people seems shocking. Jamie and Zoe do not know they have suffered, but a central part of their existence has been lost to them. Moreover, this action also punishes the Doctor horribly. There is no possibility of his ever being able to reminisce about old times with these dear friends.

How was it?

Not too bad. A bit long, with some (unintentionally) laughable moments, particularly the mannered acting of the Security Chief and the unrealistic fight scenes. The bad guys come across as interestingly intelligent and diverse, although subsequent television history means that Blackadder's General Melchett has made one of the protagonists less scary than he might otherwise be! Nevertheless, some interesting ideas, pursued intelligently, unfolding nicely, and without crudely spelling everything out. The Doctor's terrific fear of the Time Lords is palpable, and his attitude to them hints at a liberal critique of the powerful.

Audience Reaction 2011

I decided to show just episodes 8 to 10 to one of the 21st century companions with whom I have been erratically sharing this Doctor Who catch-up. Despite the borderline offensive stereotypes (particularly of the Mexican bandit), the historical periods were of interest. But boredom thresholds were quickly breached. The special effects, music, dialogue and pace were the familiar culprits. Nevertheless, clear improvements in these aspects over previous stories were noted. The quality of the ideas was also appreciated.

Idle Questions
  • Why did the War Chief not regenerate when shot by the security guards?
  • Aren't ground troops a slightly underpowered way of conquering planets?
  • How will the Doctor get his TARDIS back?
For an alternative view...

Next time on LW's DW catch-up...
The very next episode, the Third Doctor appears in "Spearhead from Space".

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