Sunday, 8 July 2018

The War Games

Chapter The 92nd, a 1960s Doctor Who double album.

Okay, there's 10 episodes of plot to summarise here, so buckle up: the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe land in what appears to be 1917 No Man's Land during World War One, but things aren't quite right - the soldiers they encounter seem to be under some form of hypnotism, and have no memory of how long they've been at the front; there's also an anachronistic communications monitor hidden behind a painting in a senior officer's quarters. The Doctor is condemned to death as a spy by a dodgy General's dodgy court-martial, but is rescued when a sniper starts shooting at the firing squad. This sniper turns out to be a Redcoat, who thinks it's 1745. The Doctor and his companions make a couple of allies, Lady Jennifer and Lt. Carstairs, and all of them escape crossing through a misty force-field into another area, where another war is playing out, this time featuring some ancient Romans.

After doing some exploration, our heroes work out that some of the officers are aliens, manipulating the remaining human soldiers into fighting one another. The Doctor and Zoe find themselves in a TARDIS like travel machine, bigger on the inside, which dematerialises and rematerialises in each zone depositing soldiers. It finally arrives in a central zone, where the aliens in charge have some kind of evil training programme going on. Hiding themselves in a lecture hall, they witness the mental reprogramming of the captured Carstairs: this process reportedly has a 95% success rate. (In the American Civil War zone, Jamie and Lady Jennifer meet some of the 5%, who have broken their programming and formed pockets of resistance.)  An important official, the War Chief, drops in on the lecture. He sees the Doctor and there is a shock of mutual recognition between them. The War Chief sends guards after the Doctor and Zoe, who run away.

The War Chief bitches at his colleague, the Security Chief, both of them not trusting the other, as they try to find the Doctor. (The War Chief is not from the same race as the others, he is a Time Lord, and it is he who has given them the time travel technology to allow the kidnapping of so many humans from different eras.) With help from his friends, the Doctor escapes back to the 1917 zone with the reprogramming machine, which he has altered to use in deprogramming humans, and starts to form the disparate resistance groups into one large army.

The War and Security Chiefs are joined by the evil head honcho, the War Lord, and they make a plan for an ambush in the 1917 zone, kidnapping the Doctor and taking the machine back. The War Chief speaks privately with the Doctor: the former knows of our hero, knows he too is a Time Lord, one who ran away from their planet in a stolen TARDIS. The War Chief explains that the War Lord's people are training up the humans into a perfect army, with which they plan to take over the galaxy. The War Chief intends to depose them once all that's done, and asks the Doctor to help him rule. But this is all a bluff: he really wants the Doctor's TARDIS as the machines he's made are breaking down.

In order to stop a neutron bomb being dropped on all the zones by the Security Chief, the Doctor plays along that he's turned traitor, and gets key members of the resistance to come to the central zone. There, with some bluff and subterfuge, they turn the tables on their captors. The Security Chief has recorded the War Chief's treachery, and deposes him. In the chaos as the resistance are battling guards, the War Chief kills the Security Chief, but too late - the War Lord has heard the recording, and kills the War Chief. With the War Lord held captive, the Doctor reluctantly calls in the Time Lords - returning all the soldiers to their real times is too much for him, and he needs his people's help. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe try to escape in the TARDIS, but the Time Lords use their all-pervasive power to drag the ship back to its planet of origin. There, the War Lord is put on trial and sentenced to being erased from existence. Then, it's the Doctor's turn. He justifies his breaking the laws of non-interference by presenting evidence of all the evils he has fought. His companions are sent home, their memories erased of everything but their first adventure with him; then, the Doctor is exiled to Earth where his appearance will be changed again. He drifts off into the void, his regeneration starting...

When the random number generator guided me to The War Games, it happened to be not long after it had been covered by the ongoing Twitch marathon. (I just dipped in to the current tweet stream for #doctorwhoontwitch, and it seems they've reached late Tom Baker and the latest meme is "Salami Sandwich"  - a silly line of Tom's in The Masque of Mandragora that was showcased in a trailer.) I realised, from reading comments from others who'd actually tried it, that in all the times I'd ever watched this seminal Doctor Who story, Patrick Troughton's swansong, I'd never attempted what might have seemed an obvious, albeit gruelling, way to watch - I'd never done it all in one continuous binge. The idea of such a challenge tickled me, and so I started to plan the right moment. The Better Half was out for the day, one Saturday during the recent UK heatwave, and once the children took to their bedrooms, exhausted from water fights and BBQ, I stuck on the DVD and let the next 4+ hours of adventure play uninterrupted. I had a chilled bottle of Sauv Blanc and some snack food, which I would regularly rush to the kitchen to replenish during episode end credits, and there was a minute or two's disruption when I changed to the second disc. But, I did it, and survived.

First-time round:
In early 1990, The War Games was one of probably the most exciting brace of Doctor Who VHS releases ever to come onto the market. For the last few years of the 1980s, I'd started my collection, slowly getting hold of the mere three tapes that were available for an affordable price at that time, whenever and wherever I could find them. The first one I bought upon its release - or at least as soon as possible afterwards (distribution was patchy) - was Death to the Daleks in 1987. There followed a couple of years of releases, which I picked up one by one. In 1989, a dizzying four tapes covering three stories suddenly appeared on the shelves of WH Smiths.

This batch included the first Hartnell release, which was the first ever presented with all its episode endings and beginnings left in, and the first available as a double tape release (at the time, this meant two ordinary VHS boxes sellotaped together). It must have sold well, as the following year  - when something of the regular release pattern of a couple of stories every couple of months was established - it was almost all 1960s episodic adventures brought out, a lot of which were in twin boxes (but they stopped bothering to sellotape them together, as I remember). The year kicked off with An Unearthly Child and The War Games. For a fan who had read extensively of these epochal stories, the bookends of the 1960s era, the one that started it all and the one that tied things up and flung the show off into a new direction, it was beyond amazing to suddenly own both of them to view for always.

I have a little theory going of the parallels one can draw between Patrick Troughton's era, hairstyle and all, and the work of contemporary popular beat combo, The Beatles. William Hartnell's era is like the earlier rock and roll of the 1950s - it blazed a trail, pretty much did every possible innovation, but wasn't as finessed as what was to come. Troughton's first year is like the early albums - loads of great stuff, but the odd duff story / naff cover version here and there. After that, Season 5 is Sergeant Pepper, and Season 6 is the White Album: the first very popular and consistent, with some definite classics, but arguably somewhat 'style over substance', and not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts; the second, much more sprawling and inconsistent, much less loved (although with something of a recent revisionist view from some fan champions) and much much more interesting. If that's the case, then The War Games is the most White Album-esque of all: double the normal length, with many people including its creators worrying and wishing that bits should have been cut out to make it tighter, but still a classic.

Just like its 1990 VHS release mate An Unearthly Child, a large amount of this story is written off by certain fans. The first ever story is seen as one really great episode followed by some caveman nonsense, and this is seen as a lot of long, boring war stuff followed by one really great episode. Neither assessment is fair. The War Games packs in a lot of plot. The first few episodes really feel like the beginning of a four-parter, such do they speed onward never seeming like anyone wants to hoard any twists and turns for later. Within minutes, our heroes have arrived in a war zone, been captured, been rescued, met some heroes, met some villains, and the mystery has been seeded with some lovely little hints. Having seen this many times, but not having a very strong memory of the details, I'm surprised that the court martial and firing squad happen as early as episode 1 (neatly, the story starts and ends with the Doctor being tried and sentenced).

Quick out the gate, then, but does it keep up that pace thereafter? Pretty much. I can attest from having watched it all as one four-hour piece, it rarely ever gets dull; there's no sagging middle, which even I was prejudiced enough to assume was definitely there. When it is dull, it's just for moments, and it's just because the action's stopped for a punch-up or some other stunt work, which was an expectation of the adventure television form in those days, not anything for which The War Games is to blame. The War Chief and Doctor have that shocking moment of recognition in episode 4, the words 'Time Lords' are first mentioned ever in episode 6. There's a resistance, there's a threatened neutron bomb, there's real and fake treachery. In the blog passim I've often quoted Terrance Dicks, co-author of this story, beating himself up about all the loop scenes he and his co-author Malcolm Hulke had to put in to this story which killed time but trod water plot-wise. But I didn't spot any on this watch: it builds and builds, and twists and turns right to the end. Of course it could it be told in less time than it is, but the task was to fill ten weeks with exciting adventure, and these writers - already battle-hardened pros by this point in their career - do that splendidly.

It's not just the writers, everyone else is giving everything they can, and rising above the limitations forced up on them. Whatever some commentators of the time and more recently think, this does not look like the last tired gasp of a show risking cancellation. The director David Maloney sets out his stall early on with some interesting camera angles and movements (check out the materialisation of the TARDIS reflected in a puddle) followed hard on by the sudden explosion of wartime verisimilitude. Throughout the remainder of the story, he keeps this up, getting great performances of great characters, and framing them in interesting ways. He's forced to do this, of course, to keep things interesting over such a long running time, but that shouldn't subtract kudos for his achieving it. There are too many great creations to list them all: Philip Madoc's icily still take on big villain, the War Lord, Lady Jennifer, who is missed when she disappears from the narrative half-way through, Carstairs, plucky temp companion... The list could go on and on. Even minor characters shine, like David Troughton as Private Moor who has you cheering when he bests the baddie, or Rudolph Walker as Harper, who leaves you saddened when his brave resistance fighter is killed.

Then, there's the regulars. Oh gosh! There was no reason to suspect when Victoria Waterfield actress Deborah Watling left Doctor Who, that it would even work to just swap in another female companion alongside Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines, but somehow it's much better with Wendy Padbury as Zoe. There is a sheer joy from watching any story where this trio stars together, and they are faultless in every scene in The War Games. This makes the ending even more devastating, where the two companions lose their memories of travelling with the Doctor and go back to their ordinary lives (the first time the show had pulled that particular trick). Then, there's the magnificent sets - whether recreating Great War trenches, or providing pop art majesty to the swirly 60s decor of the alien's central zone. Then, there's the music - I've been humming composer Dudley Simpson's military ditties ever since.

Anyone who is still willing to discount all of that, and everything else I haven't had space to eulogise, still has the final episode and its revelations. Oddly in opposition to the received reputations, it's only in this final episode that the plot is in danger of petering out, and the loop scenes are required - there's the mucking about in the TARDIS, cut with reused footage, or the final one - perhaps one too many - of the story's escapes scuppered at the last second by the bad guys stepping into our heroes path. As a whole, though, episode 10 is still monumental, and unsettling (Troughton's regeneration is truly horrific - his head disappears), and contains arguably the first and best set of "game-changer" reveals in the show's history. Next stop: Earth exile. Exciting.

Both Turn Left and The War Games include soldiers, an area visited by our heroes that's under martial law, and mucho timey-wimey shenanigans.

Deeper Thoughts:
The Battle of the Binge. I've never been one massively for marathon watches or box-set binging. Nor, since I've had young children at least, can I say I'm one for snapping things up on the first day of purchase or being early to stand in a cinema queue for the latest release. Just ask a few of my enthusiast friends, who are badgering me to see - to pick one representative example - Rogue One, so they can finally talk about it in front of me (I finally got round to seeing it the other day, 18 months or so after it's cinematic premiere, and it was very good - there you go). Obviously, I know I am effectively doing a marathon watch of everything for this blog, but to use (abuse?) a marathon metaphor: I'm not expecting to make a record-breaking time or finish in the first few; after the forecast five more years it'll take to catch up with the Doctor Who currently on TV, I will be like one of those people in a gorilla onesie hobbling to the ribbon three days after everyone else has gone home.

Some stories, like Turn Left recently, I can enthusiastically whizz through and write up in record time, but the story I started after Turn Left has taken ages longer, an episode here and there, for no identifiable reason (certainly not its quality). In fact, I managed to watch the ten episodes of The War Games in one evening in the middle of weeks of struggling to finish that one (you'll find out which story it was next time). So, it can certainly be said that I have a love-hate battle going on inwardly with the correct speed at which to view episodic serials: there's a pleasure in making good things last, savouring every last moment, but there's an equal pleasure in ripping off the packaging, slotting disc into player and devouring it in one go. The interesting thing is it's a similar battle to that which everyone seems to be having now; box set consumption and deciding the correct etiquette surrounding it, has gone mainstream.

There aren't necessarily literal boxes to these box-sets any more; like a music 'album' the terminology has transcended its original physical constraints - once upon a time a purchaser would get a photo-album style booklet containing multiple 78s to group together a larger body of audio work than one disc could contain. To my mind, this is the key reason for the mainstream crossover: since the days of Laserdiscs and Betamax versus VHS, enthusiasts have wondered which physical medium would be the one that got the ultimate mass market buy-in; like with music, it turned out that the biggest buy-in would be when there ceased to be a physical medium at all. Sure, DVDs, like CDs, had their day, but there was still that whiff of collector eccentricity about them compared to just watching things on the telly. Of course, because of the march of technology, watching a drama serial (Stranger Things, say) as a broadcast, or watching it as a catch-up years later are indistinguishable events - the same interface and the same viewing experience goes with both. And, as has been seen with the Twitch coverage of Classic Who, just because something is old, doesn't mean it can't be appointment viewing and create 'water-cooler' moments for a cohort.

It doesn't take the sort of big push that Twitch got either; if my day job is anything to go by, many an office is working out as they go how they can collectively enthuse about what they've watched recently - it isn't hard, just requiring patience, and sensitivity around spoilers. If I have to wait a while to compare notes with a colleague or friend about American Gods or The Good Place, which I'm all caught up on, they reciprocate by not spoiling Jessica Jones or Lost in Space for me. In fact, the culture of recommendation and counter-recommendation building up reminds me more of novels than anything I've experienced with TV drama until now. No one expects anyone to read, and now to watch, the same things at exactly the same time, but when they have something excellent they are going to mention it, and hope you'll read / watch and like it too, so you can rave about it together. Along those lines, I would like to suggest Cloak and Dagger, which is intriguing and building up very nicely (new episodes each Friday on Amazon Prime), Halt and Catch Fire (which is magnificent and criminally under-seen, four series in total available also on Amazon Prime), and the Better Half would pitch Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (three series available on Netflix) for your consideration. Enjoy.

In Summary:
I'm not one for all that "maybe it was too many episodes". What do you mean? It's great, it sold, it's The bloody War Games. Shut up!

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