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6x07. The War Games
Writers: Malcolm Hulke & Terrance Dicks
Director: David Maloney
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Derrick Sherwin

Synopsis: The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arrive on a planet where humans from different periods of history have been gathered into separate zones, all of them believing they are still fighting wars from their own time period on Earth. The TARDIS crew manage to convince some of the humans that they are being deceived, and soon they learn of resistance movements that have sprung up in the different zones. The scheme is the doing of a group of aliens -- one of whom, the War Chief, is another renegade Time Lord -- using the simulations to assemble an army of the most efficient soldiers in order to launch a mission of galactic conquest. The Doctor manages to defeat the alien plot, but left without the necessary technology to return all the humans to their own times, he has no alternative but to contact the Time Lords.

Review: Sustaining a Doctor Who story for ten episodes without things getting boring or repetitive cannot be an easy task, and yet the makers of "The War Games" not only pull it off, but they produce what may have been the best serial of the 1960s. It's an intelligent and almost seamless mix of light adventure, strong character drama, and some of the biggest revelations since Ian and Barbara first walked into the TARDIS all the way back in "100,000 B.C."

The first few episodes take place mostly in the various war zones, as the Doctor and his companions discover that no one can seem to remember how long they've been at their current posts and that the commanding officers seem capable of some sort of mind control. The action scenes in this part of the story are pretty well done, and the background soundtrack of constant gunfire and explosions in the World War I setting is actually quite effective: it conveys the sense that the danger and chaos of war is never far away, and it's easy to see how most of the soldiers have settled into a routine of following orders and not asking questions about all the little oddities and inconsistencies. Another of the strengths of the war zone scenes is that pretty much all of the soldiers, regardless of nationality or time period, are portrayed at least somewhat sympathetically, including the German officer from 1917 and the Confederates from the American Civil War. There are no obvious brutes or sadists to be found among them: instead, they all just seem like ordinary people trying to do their jobs and not get killed, and whose already limited capacity to evaluate their situations is diminished even further by alien mind control.

This could be read as a commentary on all the problems of war, where those on the battlefield are so far removed from the "big picture" that they sometimes lack adequate information to question the logic or morality of their orders. All of the abducted humans, after all, had been fighting in actual wars beforehand, and aside from the occasions when their alien commanders use mind control, they don't seem to notice that anything fundamental has changed. The endless fighting and killing, with no clear picture of anything actually being accomplished, has simply become routine for them. This was undoubtedly part of the intention of writers Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke, but I think the situation in "The War Games" also works as an analogy for totalitarianism, which is nothing if not the "mobilization" of an entire society in such a way that everyone follows orders, often through the sort of confusion or outright deception symbolized by the aliens' use of mind control. The various resistance cells are composed of exactly the types of people who are a threat to such a regime -- those whose individuality and independent-mindedness render the alien brainwashing ineffective. The three masterminds of the whole scheme, meanwhile, reflect the different kinds of totalitarians we've seen throughout human history: the War Chief honestly believes he's working towards a higher end (galactic peace), whereas the War Lord and the Security Chief seem driven more by the raw exercise of power.

The regulars are all in fine form here. The Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe just might be the best TARDIS crew to date, and all the reasons we like them so much are on display in "The War Games." Zoe's intelligence and independence prove invaluable as ever: she memorizes all the names of the resistance leaders and helps track them down, and she unhesitatingly stands up to Villar when she thinks his plan isn't going to work. Jamie, of course, is fiercely loyal to his friends and perhaps a bit too eager for a fight sometimes, but they do finally lay off the idea of portraying him as dumb: in fact, he narrowly prevents Villar from giving the whole game away when the Doctor sabotages the mind control device but needs everyone to play along and act brainwashed. As for the Doctor himself, his quirky energy and cleverness are, as always, thoroughly entertaining, especially as he utilizes his talent for play-acting to get to the bottom of a situation. Whether he's blustering his way into the British POW facilities by posing as an impatient military inspector, appealing to the ego of one of the alien scientists by playing the part of an eager student with lots of questions, or even pretending to betray his friends so as to keep the aliens from dropping a neutron bomb on the resistance fighters, the Second Doctor is someone consistently able to improvise his way out of a tough situation and use his brain to stay one step ahead of his enemies.

"The War Games" is at its best on all fronts, however, when it brings the Time Lords into the story. Both the Doctor and the War Chief speak of them with great trepidation and clearly hope to avoid them if at all possible, and when they are finally summoned, the writing, acting, and direction all convey the sense that their arrival is something momentous. In fact, they are in some ways most effective when they don't actually appear on the screen, whether it's the obvious fear they inspire in the Doctor and the War Chief, the eerie sound filling the alien headquarters as they prepare to return the kidnapped humans, or the unseen force that takes control of the TARDIS. That's not to say that their eventual appearance is a disappointment, however. The three Time Lords who conduct the Doctor's trial are effectively portrayed as antagonistic without being entirely unsympathetic, and in fact the War Chief's abuse of power could be taken as a pretty decent case in favor of their isolationism. The War Chief's stated goal, that of galactic peace, is an admirable one in and of itself, but he has engaged in murderous and oppressive tactics, and the Time Lords might conceivably fear that others of their kind might fall prey to similar temptations.

The difference, however, is that the War Chief seeks to impose his own will on other people and has little regard for individuals: the depth of his egocentrism is revealed when his scheme fails and he chooses to abandon all the abducted humans. The Doctor, on the other hand, tries to help people take control of their own destinies and risks his own freedom when he needs the Time Lords' help to return all the humans to their proper times and places. When forced to defend his actions to the Time Lords, he eschews the War Chief's paternalistic arrogance towards other civilizations and instead argues simply that there are victims of oppression who need his help. The two reasons he gives for leaving his home planet in the final episode -- that he was bored, and that he was frustrated with the Time Lords' unwillingness to use their power -- nicely reflect the two defining elements of his personality: the restless scientist-explorer, and the man of strong morals and compassion who feels obligated to battle injustice wherever he finds it. Moreover, "The War Games" makes it clearer than ever that the Doctor certainly does not have to do this. Now that we know his history, we understand that he does in fact have a home and that he could have easily led a perfectly safe and peaceful existence there.

The Doctor does win a small concession from the Time Lords: they agree that he should continue to fight evil, but only on Earth, and only after changing his appearance and taking away the secret of the TARDIS. All the same, "The War Games" ends on a rather downbeat note, not so much because of the regeneration, but because he is forced to part company with Jamie and Zoe. All throughout the final episode, it seems as if the two of them think this is just one more of the countless tough situations they've faced, and that they'll inevitably find their way out of it. The Doctor, however, knows that he's beaten, and Troughton conveys this perfectly: I got the sense, for example, that he agrees to their last-ditch escape plan not because he has any hope of success, but rather because he knows it would break their hearts to see him give up. Their eventual departure is even tougher to watch when we realize that he knew all along that the Time Lords were going to erase their memories, and that, despite their promises, they will only remember their initial meetings with him, while he alone will carry the memories of all their adventures. Still, the Second Doctor's uniquely whimsical spirit is not broken by this turn of events: he's pleased to see that Jamie and Zoe are all right when the Time Lords return them to their places of origin, gets a good chuckle at Jamie scaring the daylights out of a Redcoat, and finally goes out indignantly protesting that none of the Time Lords' options for his new appearance meet his standards.

The "The War Games" is not perfect: I could have done without the stereotypically brutish chauvinist Mexican character, the Security Chief's nasal shrillness really starts to grate after a while, and the chief scientist even has a classic Obvious Exposition moment when he begins a long spiel with, "As you know...." Overall, however, there are remarkably few wrong notes given that the serial lasts nearly four hours, and writers Dicks and Hulke ably handle the weightier material without forgetting to tell a fun story. Any way you look at it, "The War Games" is a Doctor Who classic and a fine finish for the (unfortunately mostly lost) Troughton era.

Rating: **** (out of four)

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