Timestamp #50: The War Games

Doctor Who: The War Games
(10 episodes, s06e35-e44, 1969)

Timestamp 050 The War Games

 

We’re back to a regeneration episode and we have nowhere to go but up after The Space Pirates.

The TARDIS arrives in a war zone with a really nice shot of the materialization reflected in a puddle. The war is similar to World War I in 1917, and the travelers find themselves in an artillery barrage, discovered by Lady Jennifer Buckingham, taken prisoner by Germans, and finally liberated by British and Lieutenant Jeremy Carstairs. Strangely, both Buckingham and Carstairs have gaps in their memories.

General Smythe, the area commander with mind control glasses, has a transmitter that may be alien in nature. He asks an unknown entity for more specimens and disappears from his office. When he gets back, he holds a kangaroo court-martial for the travelers, finds them all guilty, and sends the Doctor to be executed. At the firing squad, a surprise sniper saves the Doctor, and both he and Zoe escape.

Speaking of surprises, General Smythe has what appears to be a TARDIS. Wait… what?

Jamie, assumed to be a deserter from the Highlanders, gets placed under guard with a Redcoat prisoner who thinks it is 1745 instead of 1917. Though it’s not explicitly stated, this Redcoat was apparently abducted from the same foggy battle where Jamie originally left with the Doctor.

After some shenanigans, the traveling trio escape with Buckingham and Carstairs, travel through the mists, and encounter a phalanx of Roman soldiers. After coming to the conclusion that this strange world is a combination of zones segregated by crucial wars in Earth history, they escape back to the 1917 zone and try to get a map. With the map (and an amusing sequence at the Chateau) they head toward the blank triangle zone in the center of the matrix and get captured by the Germans, commanded by another officer (von Weich) with a mind-controlling eyepiece.

They escape from that predicament and roll on to the American Civil War zone, but get besieged by a Confederate soldier and have to take refuge in a barn. A TARDIS arrives, disgorges fresh Confederate troops, and then dematerializes with a curious Doctor and Zoe inside, leaving Jamie with Lady Buckingham to be ping-ponged between Union and Confederate troops, the latter of which are commanded by von Weich. That dude gets around.

It turns out that Smythe and von Weich are engaged in a tactical competition, supervised by someone known as the War Chief. The War Chief and his peers (Chief Scientist and Security Chief) are under the command of the War Lord, who is attempting to distill a superior warrior class by pitting humanity’s soldiers against each other which he can use to spread an era of peace by might throughout the universe. May the odds be ever in their favor. In a twist, the War Chief is neither human nor whatever species the other chiefs and War Lord belong to (which the wiki refers to as the War Lords), but is instead a Time Lord.

A Time Lord: The same species as the Monk, Susan, and the Doctor. Oh, boy.

It also turns out that the TARDISes being used by the War Lords aren’t actual TARDISes, but rather are SIDRATs. They have very limited lifespans, can be manipulated from the outside, and follow the ’60s sci-fi conceit of being almost like the hero vehicle but spelled backwards. The War Chief wants the Doctor to join his cause because he really needs a better vessel to complete the War Lord experiment, and the Doctor has just the thing, which we found out that the Doctor stole from his home planet because he was bored.

Meanwhile, the companions discover that there is a resistance force among the humans. These rebels cannot be reprogrammed by the War Lords, and in his passion to track them all down, the Security Chief flashes all of the known agents across Zoe’s pretty much eidetic memory. After she escapes from the War Lords, she and Jamie spearhead a campaign to assemble the resistance forces and assault the Central Command.

The separate story lines finally collide when everyone converges on Central Command and dismantles the whole shebang. In the process, the War Chief kills the Security Chief, and the War Lord kills the War Chief. I seriously expected the War Chief to regenerate, and since he disappeared from view so quickly, I’m almost expecting that thread to come back at some point.

So, in the end, the Doctor is left with a world full of humans stranded out of time and no remaining SIDRATs to take them all home. After a lot of hand-wringing, the Doctor decides to call upon his people for help… and then runs like hell. He’s been violating Time Lord law by interfering in time since he stole the TARDIS, and his reckoning has finally come. The Time Lords return all of the humans to their homes, take the War Lord into custody to stand trial for his crimes, and drag the Doctor kicking and screaming to their door.

The War Lord’s trial ends with an attempted escape and hostage situation, but the Doctor outwits the War Lord. The Time Lords find the War Lord and his posse guilty, and the punishment is complete removal from time as if they never existed. The Time Lords then try the Doctor for his crimes. Rightfully so, the Doctor is proud of his interferences and justifies his fight against evil.

As they decide his fate, the Time Lords allow the Doctor to say goodbye to his companions before they send them home. Zoe and Jamie are allowed to remember only the first time they met the Doctor, but nothing more. They accept that the Doctor will continue to fight against evil, but he cannot be allowed to travel any longer, so he is exiled to Earth without the ability to dematerialize the TARDIS. They will also force him to regenerate.

On the plus sides, Jamie and Zoe show fantastic character in driving the resistance solution. It was also really nice to see both John Smith and the sonic screwdriver make their returns. There was also a quote in there somewhere about the Time Lords being curators over their museum of time, which seems really interesting in light of certain events in The Day of the Doctor.

On the down side, the Mexican resistance leader, Arturo Villar, was a caricature in racism. The sexism makes sense with the era, but the actor is obviously a white dude with a Speedy Gonzales accent. It made my skin crawl.

Considering the goodbyes and the regeneration, I feel so incomplete. Zoe and Jamie, two of the most likeable companions in the series so far, had all of their development erased in single moment. Only the Doctor remembers how their travels influenced their lives, but the influence and resulting changes are gone forever. The lack of proper goodbye also extends to the Doctor, where the last we see of him is a swirl into darkness. The character of the Doctor continues on, but the Second Doctor just ends.

Remember when I said that regeneration episodes were tough? This one was especially so. By the Timestamps rules, regeneration stories get an automatic +1 on the rating to compensate, but this story didn’t need it.

I still feel cheated out of a proper goodbye.

 

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

 

UP NEXT – Sixth Series and Second Doctor Summary

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Timestamp #50: The War Games

  1. Yeah, the issue here was that the series was put “on hiatus” to retool it. There were certain elements at the BBC that wanted to cancel the show, but producer Derrick Sherwin was pretty confident that his season 7 ideas and format change would win everyone back. As a result, they didn’t know who the next Doctor would be when they shot this, which is why all that we get is Troughton on spin-cycle.

    IIRC SIDRAT is never mentioned in the story. Like “War Lords” it’s a later addition I believe by the novelization in the case of the former.

    There’s a lot of debate in fan circles over whether the War Chief is actually the Master, mostly because they both have beards and are evil Time Lords (there’s also debate if the Monk is the Master). The EU says that they’re all separate and a regenerated War Chief actually does make a later appearance in a novel by Terrence Dicks, one of the co-writers of this story.

    It’s really amazing when you’ve watched it sequentially how BIG of an episode this is. You find out who the Doctor’s people are, why he left. It’s huge. I love that it holds its own even as a ten-parter. It’s just such a massive story that it deserves it and I also love most of the cast. The bickering between the War Chief and Security Chief is fantastic and the War Lord is so dominating despite being a fairly short guy. Von Weich and Smythe are charmingly evil and the resistance people are great. I like to believe that Carstairs and Lady Jennifer got married (this is asserted in the EU).

    The leaving of Zoe and Jamie upsets me because of forgetting everything. It’s become a plot point in the Big Finish audios, but it mostly upsets me about Jamie because he progressed so far with the Doctor and he’ll never even remember Zoe or Victoria, just Ben and Polly.

    Glad that you liked this one and I can’t wait to see what you think of the Pertwee era.

  2. […] This Doctor is much harder to judge emotionally based on his reactions. He seems shocked to see the Silurian, but instantly turns congenial. Is he good at playing shocked, or good at rapidly overcoming it? I also liked his new wheels: The canary yellow Edwardian roadster named Bessie, complete with registration of “WHO 1”. He also can’t find his sonic screwdriver, and I couldn’t quite figure out if he was using it to fix Bessie or if it was lost in the fallout from The War Games. […]

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