Day 128 — May 8th 2021

The War Games Episodes Nine and Ten

The War Games — Episode Nine

I’ll tell you what, the cliffhangers in this story are brilliant. I don’t think we’ve got a duff one among them. Doctor Who facing a firing squad… and a shot is fired! Crossing through the mist the be ambushed by Romans! Jamie leading an assault on Central Command and being gunned down! And today, time slowing to a halt as Doctor Who and his friends make a desperate bid for escape. It’s fitting that Troughton’s era should come to an end with so many perfect cliffhangers, given that we started is era with The Power of the Daleks, which is perhaps the only other story so far to have 10/10 cliffhangers week after week.

I think the cliffhanger to this one might be my favourite of the lot, though. I said the other day that I wasn’t a huge fan of the Time Lords and that the series works perfectly well without their input, but I’ll make an exception for the two episodes I’m watching today. The Time Lords here are a real and genuine threat — and the way that time slows down around Doctor Who and his friends is genuinely terrifying. I think it’s on my top ten ‘scariest cliffhangers’ list.

It’s not just the cliffhangers that are worth noting here, though. The rest of the episode maintains the quality, and I’ll say right from the start that we’re looking at another 10/10 with this one.

The direction continues to be top notch, and feels like such a step up from Maloney’s previous work on the series. To stick with the sequence of the cliffhanger, that final lingering shot of Doctor Who’s fingers grasping for the TARDIS key is brilliant.

Something that always interests me is how much the narrative we’ve been following so far in this story is pretty much wrapped up at the end of this episode. We say goodbye to all but one of the characters we’ve been with so far, and for all intents and purposes the story of the ‘War Games’ is wrapped up and finished. Both the War and Security chiefs are killed, all the participants in the games are returned home, and the adventure is over. I was surprised to hear Carstairs mention that he wanted to try and find Lady Jennifer before returning to the real 1917 because it was the first time I noticed that she vanished from the story ages ago. I kept expecting her to pop up again, but no dice.

There’s plenty of great material in the wrapping up of the story, and some of my favourite bits of the entire run of episodes. I’ve already praised James Bree’s performance as the Security Chief, and I think he’s at an all time high in this one. It’s strange, because he seems to be giving what might be considered a bad performance — there’s certainly some odd choices in his delivery (especially in this episode; ‘No! What a Stupid fool you are!’ he says in about as un-natural a manner as possible), but it’s really worked for me. I’ve enjoyed his performance a lot, and that’s all I can ask for.

And we’ve got the final confrontation between Doctor Who and the War Chief, which is brilliant. Edward Brayshaw really sells the terror in our hero’s decision to call in the Time Lords;

Zoe: ‘There’s one thing I don’t understand, Doctor. How are you going to get all these people back to their own time?’
Doctor Who: ‘Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.’
War Chief: ‘We could just go to the landing bay, order a machine and leave.’
Doctor Who: ‘You could, we can’t. The fighting has to be stopped and everyone sent back to their own times.’
War Chief: ‘Sent back? How?’
Doctor Who: ‘By your Tardis travel machines, of course.’
War Chief: ‘I’m afraid that will not be possible. There are only two machines left with enough life in them.’
Doctor Who: ‘What? But, oh my word, well that’s happened rather sooner than I expected.’
Russell: ‘Doctor, does that mean that you can’t do as you promised and get us all home?’
Doctor Who: ‘Oh, well, yes, I…’
War Chief: ‘You can’t…!’
Doctor Who: ‘I can still do that.’
War Chief: ‘You can’t! Unless... Doctor, you mustn’t call them in or it will be the end of us. They’ll show no mercy.’

There’s something oddly beautiful about the fact that Doctor Who has had to call in his own people not to stop the fighting or to save the day, but to ensure that everyone gats back safely. There’s no threat he can’t tackle alone (or at least with his friends by his side), but it’s making sure everyone makes it out that he stays behind for. I love that.

We also get a final chance for our regulars to have a mess about, with Jamie’s ‘pretending to be brainwashed’ proving a particular highlight for me. I’m really going to miss this trio, and I’m glad to find that I haven’t gone off his character this time around.

I could go on and on about the highlights in this one, but I think it’s time to move on — in slow motion — to the final episode of the era, and of the decade. It’s the end but the moment etc etc…

The War Games — Episode Ten

And here we are — the end of an era in more ways that one. It’s the end of the Troughton years, the last episode of the 1960s, the final episode made in black and white and the first time we’ve been to visit Doctor Who’s home planet. It feels like a truly momentous episode, and a really key turning point for the series as a whole.

And it’s as if they’ve decided to really celebrate that, by giving us the best looking TARDIS set we’ve had in… well, years truthfully. I can’t remember the last time the set looked this expansive, and it might even be all the way back to the very first season. They’ve set things up to capture the original design again, rather than giving us the random assortment of walls they’ve been hauling out of storage since Troughton took over. They’ve even gone to the trouble of building a full new Fault Locator wall, which is impressive given they already knew the TARDIS would be sitting out at least the next season of the show.

And oh, how brilliant is the attempt to escape the Time Lords? Troughton at the controls of the TARDIS desperately trying to avoid the fate he knows is bearing down on him. I think I’m right in saying that this is the first time the programme has re-used footage from the past as ‘new’ material, and it’s a great chance to see how the flying TARDIS from Fury From the Deep looked — the answer is ‘beautiful’. That I wasn’t able to watch it when I actually watched that story makes it seem somehow all the more special here. A last glimpse of a missing story as we move into an era where everything survives.

As much as I don’t think we needed to find out Doctor Who’s backstory, and that the programme has gotten by without it perfectly well, I have to admit that I love the choices they made;

Jamie: ‘Why did you run away in the first place?’
Doctor Who: ‘Well… I was bored.’
Zoe: ‘What do you mean, you were bored?’
Doctor Who: ‘Well, the Time Lords are an immensely civilised race. We can control our own environment, we can live forever, barring accidents, and we have the secret of space time travel.’
Jamie: ‘What’s so wrong in all that?’
Doctor Who: ‘Well we hardly ever use our great powers. We consent simply to observe and to gather knowledge.’
Zoe: ‘And that wasn’t enough for you?’
Doctor Who: ‘No, of course not! With a whole galaxy to explore? Millions of planets, eons of time, countless civilisations to meet?’
Jamie: ‘Well, why do they object to you doing all that?’
Doctor Who: ‘Well, It is a fact, Jamie, that I do tend to get involved with things.’
Jamie: ‘Aye, you can say that again. Whenever there’s any trouble, he’s in it right up to his neck.’
Zoe: ‘But you’ve helped people, Doctor.’
Doctor Who: ‘Yes, yes, but that’s no excuse in their eyes.’

Some of the early plans for the series had the character as a refugee from some far flung war of the future, and lots of the expanded universe will later try to retcon Doctor Who’s reasons for leaving home into all sorts of bollocks, based on ancient Gallifreyan super-figures, and mythical artefacts. But all of that is rubbish. There’s something beautifully simple about the idea that he fled simply because he was bored. It’s absolutely perfect, and it suits the character so well.

Troughton is on top form in this episode — it might well be his single best performance as Doctor Who. It helps, of course, that he’s been given the material to work with, but he’s really going for it one last time. His attempts to escape are brilliant, as is his rage at the Time Lords when arguing his own defence (more on which in a minute), but the moments where he shines the brightest are in the small character beats with his best friends.

I love his conceding to one last escape attempt with his friends even though he knows there’s no hope. He’s well aware that he’s delivering them to the Time Lords to send away, but he plays the part one last time and it’s magical. And then there’s their goodbyes. Oh lord, I won’t lie; I came close to shedding a tear there. It’s not the actual departures that get me, it’s the way Doctor Who promises they’ll always remember their adventures and then sadly admits that he knows they’ll forget all about him. There’s something in that moment where you really cut through to see the core of the character and it’s more than a little special.

Jamie and Zoe going back to their own times is brilliant (I can’t believe they bothered to reconstruct the Wheel so accurately, and even brought back Clare Jenkins for a single line of dialogue), and I love that Doctor Who gets to watch them arrive safely, to set his mind at ease. It’s Zoe who gets the final most poignant moment, back in her own routine;

Zoe: ‘ I thought I’d forgotten something important, but it’s nothing.’

You can imagine a gif of someone sobbing at this point if you like. That always gets me.

I’m a big fan of the ‘monster parade’, and there’s something oddly exciting about the fact that they’ve shot brand new material to feature in it. I can’t help wishing that the monsters actually got to appear in person, though. There’s some photographs of Troughton surrounded by his foes which look incredible, and I’m always a bit disappointed when that moment doesn’t show up on screen.

And then there’s the Time Lords themselves. Oh Christ they’re scary in this one, aren’t they? Where I said above that I’ll break my ‘I don’t like the Time Lords’ stance for these two episodes, that’s because they’re brilliant. Far from the dusty old men we tend to get in later stories, this bunch really show you why the War Chief was so terrified by the thought of them being called in.

It’s so powerful when they manage to break the War Lord’s cool exterior by literally screaming him into submission. I’d totally forgotten about that, and it had me right on the edge of my seat. And then there’s the way, following a failed escape attempt, that they pass sentence;

Time Lord: ‘A force field has been placed around you, and around your planet, so that your warlike people will remain prisoners forever. You have been found guilty of all charges, and you and your murderous associates will be dematerialised. It will be as though you had never existed.’

The villain merely fades away while he screams his protest, and that’s the end of it. In some stories that might feel like a cop out of an ending, but not here. In this instance it’s genuinely scary and expertly delivered.

Finally, we’ve got the regeneration sequence. I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed before that Doctor Who’s head actually disappears! That’s terrifying too! Swirling off into the darkness, but perfectly underscored by Troughton’s ‘You’re making me giddy…!’. I love that, just like last time around, they’ve tried to make the transformation something mysterious and unknowable.

And that’s the end of it all! The 60s, the Second Doctor Who, the black and white era… I’ve really loved it. Even the days where I had to watch The Space Pirates. I have fewer memories of my reaction to the 1970s stories than I do my ones from the 60s, so I’m excited to see where the marathon goes next.

I agonised a bit over my score for this final episode, but I think I have to go with my gut and go with another 10/10. It’s just a brilliant way to round it all off.

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