Geekbat Tunes

Friday, June 22, 2012

Doctor Who: The War Games

Apologies for the length of both sections, in advance.

Serial Title: The War Games
Series: 6
Episodes: 10
Doctor: Patrick Troughton 
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)

The beginning of the end is World War I, into which the TARDIS materializes- or does it? Picked up by Nurse Jennifer Buckingham and Lt. Jeremy Carstairs, the Doctor and Co. soon find themselves fallen afoul of the mysterious General Smythe, a sinister figure who brainwashes people with his monocle into believing what he wants them to- in this case, that the entire TARDIS crew are spies, and to be executed immediately.

Lady Jennifer, in an attack of conscience, helps Zoe to get away, and a sniper attack’s timely distraction allows them to free the Doctor. They take off for the military prison where Jamie is being held- where he has been incarcerated with a redcoat taken from 1745, about a year earlier than Jamie's departure from Scotland... which is many years prior to World War I! The two put aside old enmities and escape, but are caught (the redcoat being killed). The Doctor bluffs the commandant with a bold performance as a prison inspector, but all of this has been an exercise in futility, as they are recaptured by Smythe’s men and taken back to his chateau. (Get used to such exercises…)

Smythe isn’t there, however- he’s just departed in a cupboard, which dematerializes in a strikingly familiar manner… Carstairs and Lady Jennifer again suspect something is up, and free the TARDIS trio, and upon entering Smythe’s office, they find a communications unit which Carstairs and Lady Jennifer cannot see. (New Series fans will recognize a perception filter when they see one- or don’t see one, as the case may be). After breaking through the mental fog, the group absconds with the ambulance- barreling through a strange fog that transports them to a grassy countryside… in which a Roman legion charges them, primed for battle! They reverse out in time, and come under fire from the British as Smythe uses his mental powers to have artillery trained on the ambulance! Escaping, they conclude that the mist acts as a barrier between time zones, and the whole area must be riddled with them.

They return to the Chateau in  hopes of finding a map, which they are able to locate, demonstrating a number of time zones in the area, each labeled with historical Earth wars. The group strike out to search for answers, but are captured by the Germans. They are able to convince the officer guarding them of their claims of alien origin by use of a sonic screwdriver demonstration, but all of this has been an exercise in futility as the commander, Captain von Wiech, dons a monocle and convinces the officer that they are indeed spies. Gasp! The British and German commanders are secretly on the same side! If this were made in modern times, I would suspect it as an anti-Bush satire, but as it is- it’s just further running in circles for the group.

The Doctor manages to re-convince the officer after Von Weich leaves, making the exercise in futility an exercise in futility, and they get back aboard the ambulance, heading for a mysterious unlabeled black triangle at the center of the map. Within that black triangle, Smythe and Von Weich intermingle with jumpsuited technicians, and the War Chief, their superior. They run these war games, using abducted humans conditioned to believe that they are still in their own time- in reality, this isn’t even Earth, and the War Lords (led by THE War Lord- are you getting all of this? There will be a test…) are using the games to narrow down the ablest warriors for their usage. However, the War Chief is not of their race, just an outside consultant…

The ambulance enters the American Civil War zone and an attack separates the group. Carstairs is captured, and the rest take shelter in a barn- where they witness a device like the one used by Smythe materialize and disgorge troops- it’s bigger on the inside! This is a SIDRAT (Space and Inter-Dimensional Robot All-purpose Transporter), and when the Doctor and Zoe sneak inside to get a better look, it takes off with them inside, stranding a helpless Jamie and Lady Jennifer… just in time for a major battle to break out! And who should be the leader of the Confederate soldiers that capture them? Von Weich, in a different uniform and accent! Jamie and Lady Jennifer are freed by a man named Harper, part of a resistance movement on whom the brainwashing doesn’t work, who recognize that all of these wars are set-ups, and cross between time zones striking back at the War Lords. Von Weich is captured.

The Doctor and Zoe end up in the administration center, and take some War Lord headgear to blend in. There, they bear witness to a demonstration where the captured Carstairs is re-brainwashed with an unbreakable programming- wherein he promptly points them out in the crowd. Fortunately, this only convinces the Chief Scientists (Look, these are the only names they gives these guys, okay? I’m doing my best!) that the process is flawed… until the War Chief arrives, recognizing the two from the communications device in Smythe’s office, and the two are forced to flee- Zoe being soon captured. She is interrogated by the Security Chief, a rival of the War Chief. Both the War Chief and the Security Chief are rivals for the favor of the War Lord, leader of the War Lords. (I know… trust me, it isn’t any easier when watching it. For future reference, I will be labeling these men by the names I gave them during our viewing to keep them straight. The War Chief (the outside contractor who provided the SIDRATs to the War Lords) will henceforth be known as Ghengis for his swarthy goatee. His rival, the bland Security Chief, will be known hereafter as Goggles, for the goofy eyeware that he uses for interrogation. And their boss, leader of the War Lords, will now be dubbed “Eric from Accounting,” on account of his looking absolutely not intimidating and completely mild mannered when he finally appears. The Chief scientist will be known henceforth as 'Dr. Gullible,' because he is.)

The Doctor bluffs Dr. Gullible (claiming that Ghengis was only pointing to Zoe as an intruder, not himself (who was standing right next to her), and that he ran too because he was chasing her like a loyal War Lord soldier ought to) and steals the brainwashing device, which he recognizes can also be turned into an anti-brainwashing device. The Doctor uses it to free Carstairs from his mental programming, and the two rescue Zoe. She is able to scan and memorize various War Lord computer files on the known members of the brainwashing-resistant freedom fighters, with the goal of returning to them, uniting them under one banner, and attacking the War Lords in force.

Back in the Civil War zone, reinforcements kill Harper, but are repelled- the rebels plan to send a force of soldiers inside the SIDRAT that the reinforcements arrived in to attack central control- Jamie accompanies them (in hopes of finding the Doctor) while Lady Jennifer is needed to tend to the wounded (bowing out of the story at this point- you have enough characters to keep track of already, dear reader! As a primer: The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe are now allied with Carstairs. There is also a resistance, none of whom are properly named yet. The villains are the War Lords, led by Eric from Accounting (the War Lord). His two lieutenants are Goggles (the Security Chief), and Ghengis (The War Chief, who is NOT a War Lord, he’s an outsider brought in to help). Their minions are numerous, overseeing all of the wars, but we only know two well enough to categorize them: Smythe and Von Weich, the latter of whom is captured. Got it all? Good, let’s continue.)

The invading party of rebels are almost immediately shot down, and taken to Dr. Gullible. The big dope is again bluffed by the Doctor, who frees Jamie and the rebels and sends them back to the barn, making this whole bit an exercise in futility (on the part of the bad guys, for once, but still a total circular path plot-filler). They arrive just in time to thwart Von Weich’s escape attempt, and he is shot dead. (1 down, 4 to go…)

The Doctor, meanwhile, has taken a second group with Jamie and Catstairs, and their escape attempt is thwarted when Ghengis manipulates their SIDRAT into dimensionally shrinking the internal space to its actual size (much as the Doctor did to the Monk, once upon a time). The group is forced out, the Doctor emerging under a flag of truce… and grabs the control crystals, not only restoring the SIDRAT, but enabling manual control. They fly to the Roman zone and ditch the ship, heading back to the 1917 WWI zone… but they are taken prisoner by Smythe’s men. OH, NO- please don’t tell me that everything since their escape in Episode 1 has been an exercise in futility, too!!! Yes, minus a little progress made, they’re taken back to the chateau and ordered to be executed!!! Curse you, circular story! Do you have an end, or simply an endless loop of captures and escapes?!?!? In fact, it seems to me that I could have more easily written this synopsis as a list:
Capture: WWI Brits.
Escape: Lady Jennifer, a Sniper, and a redcoat.
Capture: WWI Brits.
Escape: Lady Jennifer and Carstairs
Capture: Romans
Escape: Throw the car in reverse
Capture: Germans
Escape: Convince the Germans
Capture: Same Germans
Escape: Convince the Germans again
Capture: Civil War (Jamie and Jennifer)
Escape: Rebel forces (as in, rebels against the War Lords, not ‘The Rebs’)
Capture: Civil War (Carstairs)
Escape: The Doctor’s Bluff
Capture: War Lords (Zoe)
Escape: The Doctor and Carstairs
Capture: War Lords (Jamie)
Escape: The Doctor, Carstairs, and Zoe
Capture: The War Chief (The Doctor, Jamie, and Carstairs)
Escape: Violating white flag truce and theft
Capture: WWI Brits again
Escape: Resistance invasion.
Yes, after Smythe (ordered to take them alive, but claiming they died in capture just so he can have the pleasure of execution) brings them in, he is shot dead (2 down, 3 to go…) as the resistance invades the Chateau, freeing the prisoners and taking it as their base of operations. The Doctors restructures the time zone mists, creating a safe barrier around the chateau, preventing any WWI-local forces from retaking it. He then begins de-processing brainwashed men.

Meanwhile, back at War Lord central, Eric from Accounting- I mean, the Emperor- I mean, the War Lord, has arrived to take charge of the situation, and he is not as forgiving as I am. Here’s here to put them back on schedule. An entire LEEEEEEGION of his best troops… etc. Goggles tries to blame it on Ghengis, accusing him of working with the Doctor, but Eric is having none of it.

A SIDRAT attacks, and despite the entire invasion coming from a single doorway, an insufficient defense is mounted, and War Lord soldiers storm the place, taking the Doctor and the brainwashing equipment. Making the capture of the brainwashing device and subsequent deprogramming an exercise in futility- it is now back in War Lord hands to begin ultra-brainwashing.

Capture: War Lord soldiers (The Doctor)
Escape: None…?!?
No, no escape- instead, the Doctor receives the proposal of alliance from Ghengis- the War Chief is not a War Lord, but a Time Lord! A rogue from his people, like the Doctor, he recognizes his old school chum and offers him a ruling place by his side, if he will help to perfect the brainwashing equipment (which the duped Dr. Gullible still doesn’t think works correctly). The War Lord plan is revealed to be an ultimate army- the best fighters from human history equipped with War Lord technology, which Ghengis intends to co-opt as a galactic peacekeeping force. (The old “Once we conquer and rule the entire galaxy, we can bring peace to it…” chestnut.) Meanwhile, Goggles only becomes more suspicious of the two…

The rebels have survived another SIDRAT attack (failing to adequately defend invasion coming from a single doorway again, with the benefit of HAVING A MACHINE GUN SET UP AND TRAINED ON IT FROM BEFORE IT EVEN OPENS), and now have pulled together their forces, including Mexican bandit Arturo Villar, leader of the largest organized resistance group, whom Jamie must bluff as the supposed leader of the rebel army in full Tartan regalia. The group plans to seize a SIDRAT as before, only this time with a much bigger army (it worked so well the first time…?) inside- and begin a daring series of hit-and-raid runs to harry War Lord command posts to force them to respond. However, the War Lords figure out this plan, and the Doctor ‘sends’ them a SIDRAT and leads to their capture, betraying them to captivity rather than seeing them slaughtered as the War Lords planned. (This gambit has worked so well in the past- see “The Two Towers” under ‘Smeagol’).

Capture: The Doctor (Everybody else)
Escape: The Doctor?
Yes, of course, the Doctor is still on the side of good- despite Villar’s disbelief and attempt to strangle him when Goggles, looking to get rid of him, throws him in unarmed with what he rightly believes are angry and vengeful prisoners who feel betrayed. However, before the group can be fully Gollumed, Ghengis arrives with the brainwashing device for the Doctor to begin experimenting on. Even Jamie is wary that the Doctor has sold them out as the Doctor puts him under the device- but when he comes out the other side with his free will intact and is forced to improvise a false brainwashing persona, the Doctor’s loyalty is proved. While oafish Villar spoils the ruse by refusing to play along (opting instead to try and strangle the Doctor again), it is enough time for the ‘processed’ rebels to sidle up to the guards and overpower them.

Meanwhile, Goggles uses security camera footage to reveal Ghengis’ offer and plans of takeover to Eric from Accounting, and Ghengis is arrested. He is freed during a rebel attack, and shoots Goggles dead. (3 down, 2 to go) and then reveals that the SIDRATs are breaking down- he needed the Doctor to help him takeover because his usefulness to the War Lords would soon have been over anyhow. The price of fine locational control and remote control away from Time Lord maintenance is a very short life span for the devices, which no longer have the range to return all of the human captives back to their own times. (In the New Series, the Doctor would tell them to establish some sort of colony on this planet eschewing violence forever or some such, I’m sure…). The Doctor realizes that there is only one way to get everyone home and away from these endless war games… he must contact the Time Lords.

The panicked Ghengis flees rather than facing the justice of the Time Lords, but runs into Eric from Accounting, who shoots him dead. (4 down, 1 to go… I think I’ll go back to calling him the War Lord, now). Villar and his men capture the War Lord, and bring him back to the Doctor… who produces a series of cards which he mentally shapes into a cube, containing all of the pertinent data about their current situation and a call for help. He then says hasty goodbyes and flees in the last SIDRAT, bound for the 1917 zone where the TARDIS is, as a loud oncoming roar can be heard, and the War Lord fearfully intones “They’re coming…”

The Doctor and company run pel-mel across the rocky landscape towards the TARDIS… a seemingly impossible goal as the power of the Time Lords descends upon them, slowing time and increasing gravity, making every inch another mile… time gets slower and slower the closer and closer they get… as it slows down to a crawl.
Capture: The Time Lords
Escape: Run!!!

The Doctor barely manages to get the TARDIS door open, and the three stumble inside, out of the time distortion effect, and the Doctor throws the TARDIS into a mad escape flight- under the sea, in space, all throughout the galaxy- but the Time Lords have located him now, and can track his flight- the voice of the Time Lords rings through the console room, and eventually, the TARDIS is brought to land on Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet. The Doctor emerges to face trial, explaining to Jamie and Zoe that the Time Lords are incredibly advanced, having perfected the secret of time travel, and have strict laws of noninterference which he has broken- he’s been on the run since the start of the show, and now his people have caught him. But, preceding that is the trial of the War Lord. He defiantly Saddam Husseins his way through it (“I don’t recognize the authority of this court!”) until his men arrive in a SIDRAT to break him free. They take the Doctor and his companions hostage, intent on using the TARDIS to escape.
Capture: The War Lord
Escape: Eh, they’re not that bright; distract ‘em and run

As soon as they’ve escaped, the Time Lords lock the War Lord and his men behind a forcefield. The Time Lords then shoot him dead. Oh, no, wait. Sorry- just so used to all of our bad guys being dispatched that way. Instead, they vaporize him and his guards alive in a total molecular dissolution, dispersing them as if they never were. (That’s everyone… right? Or are the true villains yet to be revealed…?) The Doctor and companions are taken to separate quarters to await the trial.

Capture: The Time Lords
Escape: Jamie and Zoe

But, even though the three make a run for it, the Doctor’s sad smile when they are captured shows that he knew this was inevitable, and only wanted to give the two one last adventure together. The Time Lords announce that they are to be returned home with their memories erased- they will be allowed remember their first adventure with the Doctor each, but will then remember him departing in the TARDIS, not going with him. They say a tearful goodbye, and…

The Wheel, late 21st century. Zoe reports to Tanya Lernov, one of the Wheel survivors, that she’s seen the Doctor and Jamie off- then goes to resume her librarian duties with the odd feeling that she’s missed something important.

Scotland, April of 1746. Jamie wakes up in a field with no memory of how he got there after having seen the Doctor, Ben, and Polly off. Alone now, his laird and people fled to France, he is alone- he will find a new village, a new clan, and continue the fight. And, as a redcoat quickly learns when he takes a shot at the young Scotsmen, foes of Jamie McCimmon beware the lad’s wrath, no mere piper he!

Gallifrey. Now.
Capture: The Time Lords
Escape: *SIGH*… there is no escape, is there?

The Doctor’s trial proceeds apace, with his defense that he is merely combating evil that needs to be combated, lest it overwhelm the universe. The Time Lords take this into consideration against the violation of their laws, and pronounce sentence: The Doctor will be allowed to continue combating that evil on the planet he seems fondest of, Earth- there, to be denied the ability to travel through space and time, exiled from his people. Bound to one planet and one time, for all time. And to facilitate this new change and protect him from enemies gained as the 2nd Doctor, he will be forcibly regenerated. Over his protests, the transformation begins… and an era ends.

The War Games were, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. As Troughton's, Jamie's, Zoe's, and the Black and White era's swan song, it should have been fantastic. And parts of it were. But it was just too long.

Looking at the history of Black and White Who (BWW), it seems that more stories were influenced by other stories falling through than they were by their own writers. The bizarre two-episode Edge of Destruction was written as a low-budget bottle show to fill a two episode gap in the production schedule. Second series opener Planet of the Giants got an energy and pacing boost by combining the last two episodes into one. The Daleks Master Plan was doubled in length- with padding like the Christmas episode- which, though it didn't drag down the epic, result in a number of odd rabbit-trail plots, because an entire 6-part serial fell through. The Wheel In Space gained the repetitive, dull, Moonbase-retreading portions that weighed it down because of its hasty creation to fill in for a failed script (The cancelled Dalek/Cyberman war). Seeds of Death was padded out by several episodes to cover a missing story, slowing the pace of the still-phenomenal serial. If any story in BWW was poorly paced, padded, repetitive, or derivative, it was a direct result of expansion to fill the gap left by a failed story. One wonders what the Old Who stories of the first two Doctors' eras might have been without these scheduling re-writes and fluff-injection sessions. And no series has been more affected than Series 6, the Second Doctor and BWW’s final series, culminating here. Dick Sharples’ “The Prison in Space”, Paul Wheeler’s “The Dream Spinners,” and Malcom Hulke’s “The Impersonators” [Plus an unnamed Derrick Sherwin story] all fell through- leading The Krotons, The Space Pirates, and The War Games to all be drafted or expanded hastily to fill their places. While a few stories came to be from this phenomenon, or were compressed to their benefit because of the scheduling, by far and large this quota-meeting rewrite practice seems to have been to Doctor Who's detriment. Sadly, the same can be said for this 6-part story... expanded into 10 parts to fill the gap. That's 100 minutes of sheer padding added into the story- almost all in the form of recaptures. This is probably not the first use of the Capture/Escape cycle cliché to pad out running time, but boy, is it EVER the most prominent!

Nearly every episode contains multiple iterations of the following scene:
Characters have been captured by soldiers and are brought to the leaders.
Enemy Leader: "You are spies!"
Character 1: "We are not spies! Let me convince you!"
Enemy Soldier: "I am convinced!"
Enemy Leader: *Puts on glasses* "They are spies! Be hypnotized to think they are spies, ignoring the proof you just received!"
Enemy Soldier: "I am hypnotized! They are spies!"
Enemy Leader: "Take them away, we will execute them soon!"
En route, Character 2 escapes. Character 1 has been captured, believed to be a spy. Soon to be executed, they pace in their cell. Character 2 bluffs their way in and gets the keys from a random lackey. They open the jail cell door and rush in.
Character 2: "Witty banter."
Character 1: "Witty banter response!"
Character 2: "Let's get out of here!"
Character 1 and Character 2 turn to rush out of the cell- and find the doorway filled with the enemy commander and an assortment of soldiers.
Enemy Leader: "So, you have been recaptured!"
Usually, followed by:
Enemy Leader: "You are spies!"
Character 1: "We are not spies! Let me convince you!"
…you get the gist.

This was repeated ad nauseum to the point of disbelief. You literally could not believe that the same scene had just played out AGAIN. This is how 4 extra episodes were added- dozens of 'captured, accused, convince the accuser and gain their trust, then have it all overridden and the effort (and scene's running time) wasted by the villain's hypnosis.' First used in Chapter 1, it's chilling. By Chapter 4, you want to kill small furry animals every time it happens; the repetition will drive you to (justifiable) homicidal rage. Likewise for the get-in-and-free-a-prisoner-only-to-turn-to-leave-and-find-the-soldiers-there-waiting-for-you. Escapes and recaptures are so common as to become laughable; a drinking game involving every escape attempt prematurely ended by the bad guys appearing in the doorway would be fatal due to alcohol poisoning.

These two cliches are repeated over and over and over, to an extent that this description cannot do justice, until the very appearance of the scenario brings disbelieving, nearly-deranged laughter from the nerves-strained audience who literally cannot believe what they are seeing. It's as if the first draft of Microsoft Word was created in 1969 for this serial, just so that the scripts for the middle 4-5 episodes could be created by selecting a 5-minute set of scenes from the end of chapter 1 and copy/pasting it end-to-end and back-to-back over and over again until the next 100 minutes of script are filled up. (And yes, the math suggests that this would mean those same scenes would have to occur 20 times for this to be literally true. Frankly, I think 20 repetitions is an underestimation of this absurdly aggravating chestnut.) This makes the central portion of the serial all but unwatchable, driving potential viewers to madness!

That said, there are moments of brilliance. The first episode is stellar, with a great setting, an intriguing and menacing, seemingly unstoppable villain. The next two are fascinating, rife with interesting concepts, great discoveries, great cliffhangers (especially Jamie left behind as the SIDRAT departs), Roman soldiers attacking a truck, and the like. Even the middle episodes contain a fascinating concept- aberrant, non-affected soldiers from all eras that have broken free of their mind control and formed a resistance, who must be gathered to insight a rebellion. It's a GREAT concept! But it's smothered by the copious tons of padding dumped onto the middle section, and this really kills the serial. Were the War Games composed of the first three episodes, one middle episode containing the rebellion plot, compressing the middle 5 episodes into 1 (which would lose very little if any plot) and then the final two, this serial would be amazing. For the alien planet parts- the brainwashing bits (and the Doctor's great ingratiating lecture students and bluffing bits) are great. And the ending...

Well, the ending is just amazing. The Time Lords have a spectacular introduction- the Doctor fleeing in terror, a roar of eerie wind, and the frightened pronunciation "They're coming." And then a headlong flight for the TARDIS interrupted by a time-distorting forcefield, a desperate mad dash turned into an agonizing, dreamlike crawl (for who hasn't had that dream where your limbs are leaden and your run is in slow motion?) followed by a panicked flight across the cosmos. Truly, the final two episodes are a tour-de-force, showcasing the Time Lords' nearly unstoppable power, as they disintegrate the villain with almost casual ease. The last two are must-sees, and very impressive.

Even throughout, there are diamonds among the rough- cliffhangers are greatly improved from the last serial's awkward transitions, we get another use of the sonic screwdriver (as an actual screwdriver again, in some nice effects), a great compressing-SIDRAT cliffhanger with a very good effect, and some good music- I especially liked the heroic 'American Civil War soldiers' theme that was employed several times. These bits don't make it worthwhile to plow through the horrendous, mind-scarring repetition, but excised from the nonsense of that slog-through padding plotting, they are quite a stellar series of bits and elements- worthy of both recognition, and better episodes in which to be embedded.

Meanwhile, I found the Enemy Politics 'N Strife (EP&S, an acronym I could have saved myself much trouble and typing with if I'd coined it long ago, as it's been around since at least Marco Polo- if not the caveman bickering in An Unearthly Child itself) to be fairly overwhelming. A trope of BWW has been these little cutaways to the villain camp for these spats between leadership of the antagonists- it's from these little sparring sessions that we get our rating convention for this series, the Bickering Dominators. Anyhow... I found all of their drama to be extremely unengaging, especially because their similar names made them hard to keep straight. Regardless, after 6 years it's become a bit stale.

The effects in the serial, at least, were quite good- practical explosions, seamless fade outs, nice forcefield effects, the aforementioned SIDRAT inversion, the sonic screwdriver effect, the slow-motion sequences, even the ending (confusing as it was). Model shots of the Wheel In Space and the TARDIS materializations from Web of Fear and Fury from the Deep, despite being total stock footage reuses (and in the case of Web Of Fear, making no sense… why does the TARDIS have web on it again just because it materializes in space?), are gratefully received because they provide the only remaining sources for those clips (including the cool spiral-from-the-sky-to-land-on-the-water bit from Fury From The Deep) to be used in the reconstructions- without those ‘clip show’ bits, we wouldn’t have been able to see them at all in the first place! The standout, though, would have to be the cube construction- beginning the awesomeness that is the Time Lords sequence and the frantic rush to escape them, which is almost like a whole 1-episode-plus-10-minutes-of-another in and of itself, and clearly the amazing climactic finale highlight of the Troughton era, this effect has the Doctor pull 6 white square-shaped cards from his pocket, place them on the ground, and begin to meditate- as the squares assemble by themselves (in stop-motion) into a cube- the device with which to call the Time Lords. A very cool effect, and a very cool more-than-he-seems moment to inaugurate the beginning of the end for Troughton’s Doctor (incidentally, the message cubes recently returned in Matt Smith's "The Doctor's Wife," which had me utterly geeking out).

We also get some interesting milestones: the first scenes on an (as yet unnamed) Gallifrey, the naming of the Doctor’s race, revelations about the Doctor’s past- that the TARDIS is stolen, that he left- in a brilliant moment and a defining character bit for the Doctor- because ‘I was bored.’ Much of modern Who lore was defined right here, in the excellent final two episodes attached to this padded train wreck.

But, lest I be unclear, it’s not just the effects and a decent plot line that shine in that middle stretch of padded wasteland. There are good bits here as well- they are simply drowned out by the overwhelming majority of copy/paste repetitions of the capture/escape scenario. The different war zones are well-realized, from the Civil War to a Roman legion to World War I. We have an interesting theme with the villains and glasses- both the plus-shaped eye-slit visors they wear at home, and the glasses/monocles that are used as a hypnotism method. An interesting running theme for an unusual people, even if it ends up far too overused due to the repetition of the capture scenario. The presence of another Time Lord who recognized the Doctor, whom he knew in his early days (prefiguring the Master). Some nice evil villains (the field-generals more than the triad of baddies back at HQ).

So, how about the characters?
Lady Jennifer and Lt. Carstairs, two surprisingly sympathetic and well-rounded guest characters who put two and two together and began to break through their mental conditioning, were enjoyable additions to the party for the early episodes. And while Lady Jennifer was written out halfway through (but only after a priceless exchange with Jamie- “You just don’t want me to come because I’m a woman, don’t you?” “No! No... well, yes.”), Carstairs not only gets a great heroic sacrifice, but a surprise re-appearance, brainwashing bit, and eventual release, leading the resistance (and acting as the voice of reason during their capture); he was an upstanding and smart individual, and a fun character to watch- I was glad to see his return.

The Generals- in WWI on both sides, the German of whom is also a Civil War general with a decent- if slightly off-kilter- southern accent, are the ones I consider the real villains of the piece. They are effective and intimidating, seeming almost unstoppable in their hypnotic power- and while their seeming omnipresence to CONSTANTLY foil our heroes becomes irritating after a while, as does their smug superiority and determination to have the TARDIS crew killed, they are effective and menacing, cold-blooded, always in control… and their just rewards are cheer-worthy and well-deserved. Everything after their defeat is pretty much anti-climactic. About the main villains- the War Lord, War Chief, and Other Guy, I should probably have more to say… but I really don’t. The rogue Time Lord, while an interesting notion and noteworthy for his regeneration-regardless recognition of the Doctor, was fairly generic and bland as villains go. His jealous rival was predictable- though frankly, if his Time Lord nemesis was so inept as not to suspect a bugged room, it’s a wonder that it was so difficult for Other Guy to overthrow him. Pretty pathetic. More interesting by far is the easily-fooled inventor of the brainwashing machine- so invested in his craft that he pays little attention to politics… or potential enemies! And hoisted on his own petard at the end. Lastly, there’s the lead villain, Eric from Accounting. I’m sorry, but his appearance is so nondescript and downright plain next to Genghis Kahn the Time Lord and others, he just doesn’t have the villainous look. He just looks like a motorcycle cop. Still, he gets audacity points for raiding Gallifrey, playing Sadam at his trial, and having a great ending. Too bad, though- both he and the rogue Time Lord could’ve been well-expanded in further sequels.

Meanwhile, on the resistance side… we have a gallant Civil War soldier (the tragically-killed African American fighter who gets a very nice fight scene), a dupe (who is easily tricked by the captured Colonel Klink, but gets to deliver a fantastic coup-de-grace), a psychopath (that bloodthirsty nut with whom the gallant soldier fights) and a fun caricature, the leader of the Mexican forces who will not talk to women and tries repeatedly to strangle the Doctor. Since he doesn’t quite manage to screw things up at the end (not for lack of trying!) he’s harmless enough, and a fun comic relief character. The resistance itself gets some fun bits- searching for a hidden tunnel as an explanation for the soldiers pouring out of the bigger-on-the-inside SIDRATs, playing along with the Doctor’s brainwashing ruse, and… defending the chateau very, very badly. One would think that a stationary target with a narrow doorway would be an easy target to aim at and spray with fire before any invading troops could emerge, but these resistance members seem to operate on the courtesy system, waiting for the door to open, for troops to rush out, assume position, take aim, and fire… at which point whatever the resistance was planning to courteously delay until the enemy was ready is rendered moot, since they are all dead. Later, when they have a MACHINE GUN set up and aimed at the doorway, they mow down one invading soldier… then wait for his retreated partner to pop back out and mow them both down in sequence, without trying to fire again. Hardly the Spartan army, these… unable to defend a single 3-foot wide doorway that disgorges enemies in single file, even when they have a machine gun manned by two men pointed directly at it and receive advance warning (by way of the DOOR OPENING) that troops are about to appear. I mean… that was just PATHETIC! (In a non-padded story, they probably would have been competent.) They do at least have a great montage scene of the co-ordinated resistance taking down targets and raising enemy panic all over the interconnected war zones, a well-scored and paced little sequence that makes you want to cheer! …Or at least grumble “About dern time…” begrudgingly under your breath, depending on how much the inept chateau defense irritated you.

Jamie gets a lot to do in this serial- as a canny warrior, he’s really in his element- even coming to terms with a captured redcoat and hatching a clever plan to escape. As well as a great moment where he must impersonate the leader of the rebel forces- in full tartan regalia- because the leader of an allied force won’t accept a woman in the position. Jamie is resourceful, clever, wise, and strong in this serial, and his devastated look as the SIDRAT disappears with Zoe and the Doctor inside speaks volumes about his loyal heart.

Zoe has a slightly lesser, but very significant role, using her wits to free the Doctor, deal with sexist enemy leaders, and defend the chateau (Despite the bungling of its assigned defenders)- unfortunately, save for a few good moments here and there (dressing up Jamie as the rebel leader after being snubbed by a resistance bigwig, smashing a vase over the head of the prison commandant, etc.), her personality doesn’t stand out so much in this one as it has in serials past. Still, every serial can’t showcase every character.

And the Doctor... what a serial this is for him. From clever bluffs and comedic impressions (like his prisoner inspector routine) to his self-sacrificial decision to summon the Time Lords to put things right, The Doctor is scheming, planning, acting, and working overtime to single-handedly turn utter chaos into a victory. He is stout-hearted and brave, even when terrified. Even in the face of his regeneration, he has a fine impassioned speech about the evils of the galaxy (which he gets off to a pathetic start by beginning with the Quarks, clearly still trying to market them as the new Daleks... and which he surprisingly and appropriately concludes with the Daleks, labeling them as the greatest menace of all; I’d’ve thought that they couldn’t have got Terry Nation rights to show or mention them during this period, but they did- kudos!), a funny bit of bickering over regeneration appearances (an interesting notation- that Time Lord technology can apparently shape regeneration outcomes), and even a final bit of humorous ‘mushmouth’ acting as he’s dragged, kicking and screaming, into a kaleidoscope presentation intended to represent the start of his regeneration... or perhaps usher in Series 6B. (Stay tuned next blog for more on this exciting notion!) This scene should be a lot more traumatic- David Tennant’s “I don’t want to go!” x100, a heart-rendering near-murder of a regeneration that has the audience sobbing at their last sight of the Doctor. Yet, unlike the melodrama of the New Series, this regeneration is played coolly and without regrets- wisely ushering in a new, very different era with acceptance and encouragement of the audience to accept what’s to come instead of fear and trepidation. Even the Doctor’s panic at being forcibly regenerated is instantly calmed as soon as he’s told he can choose his new appearance (which is a great comic bit, incidentally).

This was a clever move on the creators' part; they were planning to change the series completely, removing TARDIS travel, setting the show entirely on modern-day (maybe... see future blogs for the UNIT dating controversy in which the Third Doctor was sometimes in the ‘modern day’ 70s and sometimes in the ‘near-future 80s’, depending on whether the writer remembered that week that it was supposed to be the future or not) Earth, changing actors, changing companions, moving to color- it was to be rebranded completely, and treating the transition with humor and grace, making the Doctor accept it so that the audience would accept it, was a canny decision and a courtesy to the production team to come that WASN’T extended by Russel T. Davies at the end of his New Series run (instead choosing to set up a grand tribute to his own work and mourn it’s passing, leaving the audience already biased against the new ‘usurper’ coming in to take its place).

On the other hand, it leaves me unsure of how to feel. The great sadness of Troughton’s passing that’s been building for several serials is abruptly deflated, all the air let out of my sadness (now there’s a mixed metaphor for you!), the moment past almost before I realized it, leaving me empty, confused, not really feeling like mourning his loss, but feeling oddly reluctant to move on. It’s not a great ending for closure, and probably SHOULD have been a tragic ending, story wise- so tonally, it’s strange. For the real world, it was the right way to handle the transition. For the storyline? It’s a hard pill to swallow, abruptly derailing the emotional buildup. It was almost worse for Jamie and Zoe (“Will we ever see you again?” “Zoe, you of all people should know that time is relative.”) Bid a fond goodbye after a failed attempt to liberate the Doctor- one gets the impression from his reaction that he never expected it to work, and merely wanted to give them one last chance to act heroically, some closure of their own- and cruelly, their memories erased of their travels, mentally-ret-conned that each of them turned down an offer to travel with the Doctor, and returned to the time and place of their departure. (It was very cool that they got the actress from Wheel In Space back to reprise her part for this- how far Who has come in terms of ongoing storylines and continuity since those “Faceless Ones happened on the same day as War Machines, just take our word for it even though there’s no evidence” days!) Zoe still remembers the events of Wheel In Space, and Jamie those of The Highlanders, but all of the adventures since reside now only in the Doctor’s memory. Jamie doesn’t remember ever meeting Victoria, or Zoe... Nor Zoe the Land of Fiction and her tangle with Karkus, the Yeti, the Time Lords, the Ice Warriors... all of these adventures are simply gone, and that seems the cruelest of all. All that development, all that change, all that growth... wiped clean by the Time Lords- truly, the Doctor's greatest and cruelest enemy.

If I seem oddly ambivalent and at a loss of words, not my usual descriptive self, regarding this total milestone in Doctor Who history... I am (though clearly not at a loss for words on all of the other elements of this serial!). All of the counting down, the wistfulness, the memorializing, the anticipation... were simply dispelled by the way the regeneration was handled. It gave real-world continuance to the franchise, and for that we should be grateful- but in-universe, it just sort of... petered out. How very different. How very... strange.

Still, the actors themselves have a fitting epilogue. As per the Wiki, Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury and Patrick Troughton “found the workload too hard. The three decided they'd leave and Frazer was the first, but Troughton asked him to stay until he left too, which was only a few months away at the time.” In a documentary about the departed Troughton, Hines said “that they left with smiles on their faces, feeling like their job was done and it was well done at that.” You can’t ask for more than that. And looking at the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe over the stories we’ve seen lately… done well, it was. It was indeed.

In the end, The War Machines is a promising story with a stellar finale that lags like a rotting, bloated whale in the middle because of story-expansion-to-fill-a-gap-in-the-production-schedule padding. This could still have turned out all right, had the padding not LITERALLY BEEN THE SAME SCENE OF ALREADY-AGGRAVATING RECAPTURE AND KANGAROO COURT SENTENCING AS SPIES REPEATED OVER AND OVER AND OVER TO FILL THE TIME. It just fails, but dang, if that finale ain’t incredible! My recommendation: Watch the last two episodes out of context. They’re worth it.

Great Moments:
The escape from the Time Lords episode 9 cliffhanger, and to a lesser extent, the entire summoning/trial sequence! Plus, the Doctor’s duping the German officer with his second ‘demonstration,’ his prison inspector routine (and Jamie’s ruse), Jamie left behind, Jamie vs. Civil War soldiers, Jamie’s impersonation of an officer, the shrinking SIDRAT, etc.

For ratings, I think I’d have to give the War Games 2 out of 5 Bickering Dominators. The weight of the finale episodes deserve SO MUCH MORE- but in the end, taking the whole into consideration, all they do is keep the story from being a 1 out of 5. Still, check out the more detailed breakdown:
Episode 1 – 3.5 out of 5
Episode 2-3 – 3 out of 5.
Episodes 4-8 – 0.5 out of 5
Episode 9 and 10 – 5 out of 5.
In other words, the beginning an end- the final two especially, are simply MUST-SEEs. Don’t skip them on the sins of their predecessors- they’re almost their own self-contained storyline anyhow, and can be enjoyed without slogging through the misery of the muddled middle mush. Don’t let the ponderous painful prison padding drive you away from the incredible spectacle and legend-shaping, lore-creating tour-de-force finale!

1 comment:

  1. Every episode of this story worked for me. and it is now my favorite classic Who story. Nothing felt overly padded or bloated to me. I was anxious to watch the next episode to the point i lost sleep in my anxiousness. Dont watch it in one sitting. It wasnt intended to be viewed that way, so viewing it in 2 to 3 episodes at most, is the way to enjoy this fantastic story.