The War Games

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 50, starring Patrick Troughton)
  • written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke
  • directed by David Maloney
  • produced by Derrick Sherwin
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 10 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor finds himself in the midst of trench warfare between English and German forces. But many of the participants are suffering very selective memory losses, and the Doctor becomes determined to find out who is manipulating events from behind the scenes, and why. As the overwhelming scope and nature of the operation is revealed, the Doctor finds he can no longer hide his origins from Jamie and Zoe's curiosity....

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Frazer Hines (Jamie), Wendy Padbury (Zoe), Philip Madoc (The War Lord), Jane Sherwin (Lady Jennifer),
    Graham Weston (Russell), co-writer Terrance Dicks, and producer Derrick Sherwin.
  • "War Zone" making of documentary (36 min.), with all commentators listed above except Madoc, plus
    Bernard Horsfall (Time Lord [Goth?]), director David Maloney, and designer Roger Cheveley.
  • "Shades of Grey" featurette (22 min.) on the black & white era of TV, including future director Timothy Combe,
    graphic designer Bernard Lodge, and sound designer Brian Hodgson.
  • "Now and Then" location featurette (9 min.)
  • "The Doctor's Composer - Part One" interview of Dudley Simpson. (17 min.) (Part Two can be found on the DVD for "The Sun Makers".)
  • interview with make-up designer Sylvia James (8 min.)
  • "Time Zones" - historians comment on this story's accuracy (15 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery sound effects montage (6 min.)
  • "Talking About Regeneration" featurette (24 min.) on the story concept allowing the change of lead actor on the show,
    with Peter Davison (the fifth Doctor), and Kate O'Mara (the Rani).
  • Excerpts from "Devious" (12 min.) - A fan-made film set just after "The War Games", introducing Jon Pertwee as the proper third Doctor.
    • with optional commentary by the production team.
  • Second Doctor comic strip featurette (14 min.)
  • "On Target - Malcolm Hulke" featurette (20 min.) on Hulke's novelizations for Target Books
  • Easter Eggs

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

Patrick Troughton has saved his very best for last, as this epic-length adventure packs in the mystery, series' mythology, and plenty of historical and sci-fi action into one giant, explosive roller-coaster ride. Writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks re-establish their old partnership and mastermind a script better than what either of them ever did on Doctor Who by themselves, providing director David Maloney with another big winner to add to his impressive roster. As excellent as "The Tomb of the Cybermen" is, it finally meets its match here, as "The War Games" overpowers it in scale and moral themes.

"Er hat mir gesagt, dass er aus einem anderen Zeitälter kommt, in einem Raumschiff namens TARDIS."

The bare minimum is done to satisfy the technical considerations of landing the TARDIS at the beginning of the story, and it and the three main characters are not as well introduced as they could be. The murky reflection of materialization is unique, but less than all one could hope for. The scene works for playing off of the fans' funny-bone once more, though it's not nearly as dependant on that as "The Ice Warriors" (story no. 39) or "Fury From the Deep" (story no. 42). However, the police box and the time/space traveling concept are not very firmly established for any first time or casual viewers, to say nothing of the TARDIS interior.

Exploration of the location begins immediately and is quite strong, offering enough tidbits in dialogue to allow viewers to figure out something of the three main characters' time-traveling relationship to the place. The TARDIS and the three regular characters get their due in introduction later on in the story, as episode three features as full an explanation as we have ever had of them on the series so far - both in English AND in German! New time travel machines are also fully explored, demonstrated, and compared with the TARDIS. And our favourite time machine finally receives its due amount of screen time in the final episode, so "The War Games" isn't really lacking in the essential elements of the series, it just takes some time for them all to show themselves.

"The War Games" involves a large web of guest characters, all of which are introduced well as the story progresses. We start with just the familiar Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, and after that each new character makes his or her entrance either by having someone we know go meet them face to face, or by having someone we know talk about them just before we cut across to our first glimpse of them. Thus the web of known characters begins small and does not attempt to grow too fast, keeping pace with the rate at which any reasonable audience will be capable of getting interested in new characters and appreciating them. So much better than stories that throw hordes of weirdos at us right away and end up having most of them killed off two thirds of the way through.

Scenes of captivity and confinement are sprinkled throughout the story, and they are perhaps at their most numerous in episode one. None of them waste any screen time or drag the plot, so it is worth taking a good look to see what dynamics are at work to keep the ball rolling. Firstly, each capture allows our main characters to meet a new guest character and get to know something of them, and secondly, each character they meet in this way either adds something significant to the mystery and peaks their curiosity, or their interaction is simply a darned humorous scene, or in many cases both.

Anachronisms, memory problems, and a repeated hypnosis process fuel the mysterious sci-fi elements of the adventure for the first three episodes, while at the same time a study of old-school war characters manages to bring forth a wave of warm and cosy nostalgia for an essential British solid "keep your chin up" stoicism, an optimism that will see any chap through the hardest of times. Even with the war peppering the plot with action, much time is spent in trench dug-outs and the chateau, which serve as psychological islands of safety from the constant bang and rumble going on outside.

Captain Ransom is perhaps the best of these archetypal British war characters, as Hubert Rees does such an amazing job of playing him in a manner that is believable, charismatic, humorous, and sympathetic all at the same time. Major Barrington, Sgt. Major Burns, Lieutenant Carstairs and Lady Jennifer all make excellent contributions to the same atmosphere. Noel Coleman's General Smythe also fits the bill in his stern appearance and mannerisms, which is what makes it so much more unnerving to see him doing so many out-of-place and downright villainous sci-fi things. The near perfect recreation of a believable "straight" setting is what gives these ironic twists so much emotional power.

Part way through episode two, the well-disguised capture and escape routines have served their purpose and are largely abandoned. Jamie asks if they are heading back to the TARDIS, and the Doctor replies, "No, no, no, no. We must stay here and see what is happening." Zoe adds: "We can't leave these people now anyway!" The seeds of heroic involvement have taken root, and sprout beautifully from here on.

"Sorry, my French isn't up to it."

Episodes three and four offer revelations aplenty, as the full scale of the War Games' setting is discovered and explored bit by bit, and Dicks and Hulke are wise enough to involve the three regulars in this as much as possible. They get to go behind the German lines, where the same hypnosis scene gets played out in another language. Subtitles are unnecessary, for the process has been firmly established in the viewers' minds already, and the change in Lucke's English dialogue fills in any possible remaining questions for viewers who know no German.

Foreign languages feature more heavily in this Doctor Who story than in any other, and are effective in broadening its scope. The actual lines of German and French scattered about in it are basic enough that one can understand them fairly easily without having to know a great deal about either language. David Garfield playing General Von Weich and his foreign speaking co-stars all manage to speak their lines with excellent clarity and believable fluency, although the German grammar contains a few oddities I've never heard anywhere else and would never use myself.

Garfield makes an excellent German general here and in the War Room, but unfortunately he spends far more time in the American Civil War Time Zone, where he seems far more out of place, and his Yankee accent is far less entertaining than his previous linguistics.

The proliferation of foreign language in this story does at first appear to throw a spanner into the series' continuity, as all manner of civilizations have thus far appeared to speak perfect English with all members of the Doctor's parties throughout his travels, from the aliens of Skaro and Marinus, to the primitive cavemen of 100,000 BC, to the Italians and Mongols abroad in China, to the ancient Aztecs of Mexico, and on and on to the series' last days. Very few stories tackle racial language problems, but in cases like the Zarbi's Animus or the Rills, it can be argued that they don't habitually use a spoken language to begin with, and don't pattern their thoughts on it. Usually, if it speaks, it speaks English.

The only explanation that the classic series has ever offered for this occurs in "The Masque of Mandragora" (story no. 86), in which Sarah wonders how it is she can understand all those Italians so perfectly. "It's a Time Lord gift I let you share", explains the Doctor enigmatically. "The War Games" would seem to upset this, but one plausible explanation would be that this Time Lord gift has its roots in grasping meaning telepathically, and that the brain-washing that the aliens use on the War Games specimens somehow interrupts that process. Perhaps they need to speak real human languages or risk jolting the humans back into fully recognizing their reality. As with the Tower of Babel, keep the lower class unable to communicate with each other, and they are less of a threat.

In any case, the foreign languages are a uniquely nice touch that I personally enjoy enormously.

The Means Justify the Ends

When you really think about it, the aliens' scheme in this story is extremely elaborate and wasteful of resources, so much so that I can't imagine how it could possibly succeed in conquering the galaxy. However, the key to its believability is the fact that these aliens need not be wise men by any means. Not only can villains have big, blinding character flaws and still be dramatically interesting, but there is no need to apply a great deal of "human" common sense to them either in this case, as their biochemistry may promote strong instincts to the contrary. Perhaps the biggest key to their character is the wonderful scene where Generals Smythe and Von Weich "play" together on the glass map-board in the War Room, like two boys racing frogs, or "stirring up the red ants and the black ants for sport", as Robert Holmes put it. Their leader may argue that the end justifies the means, but for the rest of the race going along with the plan, the means seem to justify themselves. Like most other ghastly plans, it isn't that well thought out, and then gets put into action anyway.

Dudley Simpson's musical score is exceptionally excellent this time around - tasteful all the way through, and thematically based in a way that allows it to enhance and reinforce the common threads weaving themselves throughout this vast setting. In some cases, music is not used as best it could be, as there is none when the German soldiers capture the ambulance, but when Carstair's troops approach it to mount a rescue, the sinister No Man's Land theme is played. This is a source of confusion in the opening action, and would instinctively make more emotional sense to the audience if the sinister music was applied to the German capture of the ambulance only instead. Carstairs needs heroic music, if any, for his entrance, such as Dudley's resistance theme. By contrast, the heroic-sounding "Confederate" and "Resistance" themes are out of place backing the location sequences where Jamie and Lady Jennifer get attacked and captured in episode Four, or where Carstairs gets captured in episode three. Confusion between threats and heroics aside, the music is always good to listen to, and each of the above pieces does find more appropriate scenes to back.

There are those who feel that "The War Games" is just too long, and that the middle episodes drag. Dicks and Hulke were certainly concerned about keeping up the momentum at that point. Personally, I don't find the pace to be lacking at all; the right elements come into play with brilliant timing and are easy to follow. The Doctor dons a pair of alien glasses, mutters "Let's explore!", and gleefully wanders off with Zoe to do just that, symbolizing what episode four, and the Doctor Who series in general, is all about. The major conflict of the story crystallizes here, as Jamie meets members of the resistance group of "aware" humans, while the Doctor and Zoe encounter Vernon Dobtcheff's alien Scientist who outlines the entire set-up and the struggle to suppress the resistance psychologically. The Scientist offers us an informative foil for the Doctor to play off of humorously in the middle episodes. The War Chief, brilliantly played by Edward Brayshaw, is a powerfully commanding figure who remains much of an enigma in his early episodes, and the revelations about him that leak out slowly thereafter help to keep the middle episodes freshly intriguing. James Bree's Security Chief is harder to like, played to be as irritating a thorn in the War Chief's side as possible, to which end the character works very well and fuels an essential "B"-plot for the later episodes. One has to wait until "Full Circle" (story no. 112) to see a really enjoyable performance out of James Bree, however.

Okay, the sets for the aliens' base are not everything one might hope for, as the low budget is now reflected in cheap and/or missing walls all over the place. However, the War Room itself is particularly effective, and considering that what the story needs most from this place is a striking difference from normal sets like the chateau and the barn, the oddities that we get still work.

The Doctor's central concern becomes the organization of the resistance members, a task neatly hampered by placing the story in such a vast setting, divided by time-zone barriers, language barriers, psychological brainwashing, mistrust, and a dozen deadly battlefields. Indeed, we need all this if the Doctor is going to be faced with a challenge so big that he needs to call in the Time Lords, and this is only believable and satisfactory if he first, on his own, makes every attempt he can think of. One of the most poignant moments highlighting this struggle comes in episode seven, after Russell complains about his results so far.

          Doctor:   "You'll soon have all the men you need."
          Russell:  "Yes, but if you're going to do them all one by one, 
                        it'll take us till doomsday!"
          Doctor:   "Look, Mr. Russl... Russell, I am DOING my BEST!"
"The War Games" needs to be ten episodes long to do this struggle justice, and it is all the more classic for doing so. Dicks and Hulke pull out the stops on their imaginations, throwing in a variety of challenges that form fresh, interesting, logical story beats all the way along.

Graham Weston makes Russell into a solid, likeable character but not one that really stands out. Rudolf Walker's performance as Harper is quite enjoyable, and it is a great pity that his character did not stick around longer and appear in more than just two episodes.

The confrontation between the Doctor and the War Chief in episode eight opens up a whole new kettle of fish, and the mythology of the Time Lords and the Doctor's relationship with them begins in their discussions of their people. The opinions that the War Aliens have of the Time Lords do much to define them, long before they are actually seen in the final episode. Philip Madoc comes back to Doctor Who to play the War Lord, the most important of all his roles on the series and the best performance amongst those he taped for television. The stakes are raised now, and Patrick Troughton's excellent-as-usual portrayal takes on a few new notes for the final episodes, a sombre seriousness and a sense of self-defeat, held in check just long enough to deal the aliens a few final blows and make one last all-or-nothing attempt to escape the fate he knows to be inevitable.

Meanwhile, Jamie and Zoe are left in charge of the fort, which gives them their last chance to let their own ingenuity shine outside of the Doctor's protective wings. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury, who have put their usual charm into their performances throughout the story, add a little extra here and milk these scenes for their humorous potential, nearly going over the top, but it all holds together thankfully due to Arturo Villar noticing everything that the rest of the audience does.

The story would be all but resolved by the end of episode nine, were it not for the Time Lord angle thrown into the works. Brayshaw, Madoc, and Troughton build up the sense of menace and viewer anticipation surrounding the Time Lords beautifully, and each major character not continuing into episode ten gets a good exit worthy of his or her importance to the overall story. By the time the credits roll, you know that something seriously different and special will take place next week, and anyone with a hint of interest in the series will be sure to tune in.....

Planet of Origin

The final half-hour of the black and white 60's era of Doctor Who begins by demonstrating all the essentials of the TARDIS, and mimics in brief the past years of the Doctor's aimless wanderings in avoidance of his own people, while he explains them and his relationship with them openly to his companions for the first time. After this enormously rich stuff, we come to rest on the as yet unnamed Time Lord home planet, without a visual materialization unfortunately, but with a sense of finality and surrender that works aptly. Strange that neither alien species seen in this story are given a proper name for their race or home planet, and that names like Time Lord and War Lord are so hauntingly similar. Although it seems right for the Time Lords to have the highest ranking War Alien to put on trial, in another sense it is a shame that the second in command War Chief does not get forced to face the end-trial, as he was of the Time Lord race himself. That would have been interesting, more believably within the Time Lords' self-imposed jurisdiction, and possibly heightened the menace felt by the Doctor on reaching his home planet if it was seen that they would dematerialize one of their own kind. But then, perhaps there are some ancient ancestral ties between the War Aliens and the Time Lords, an idea that somehow doesn't seem too farfetched....

Bernard Horsfall is on hand to lead the Time Lord court room trio and haul the Doctor and the villains in to meet their justice each. His performance is on the money, such that one can believe that he is already playing Chancellor Goth, his key Time Lord role from yet another future David Maloney classic. Trevor Martin and Clyde Pollitt also make perfect Time Lords, hauntingly familiar, although only Pollitt made a return to the television program, having a small role in "The Three Doctors" (story no. 65). The extras playing Time Lord technicians may seem to be pushovers when it comes to action, but the more we come to know the Doctor's race, the more we realize that this is perfectly in character for them.

Episode ten is not without its own guerilla action, allowing the Doctor to do a few more physical heroics in addition to his giving evidence, his heated speeches in the courtroom, and his last humorous flirting with the idea of escape. The final end is emotionally sad, as it was meant to be. Jamie and Zoe get their due in making their exits, only it really is a shame that the Time Lords have this interfering urge to erase most of their memories. It is more of a cowardly act on the Time Lords' part, trying to secretly cover up their own existence, than anything to do with justice or making things right.

Then it is Patrick Troughton's Doctor's time to go, which he does reluctantly in spite of his resignation, using humour as much as possible to try and flip off the Time Lords, but they are unmoved. Goth lays out the formula for the new life of our favourite time traveller, passed down as a sentence, and Troughton disappears off into the distant blackness, wailing away, leaving us in total suspense as to the new appearance of the Doctor, but in great anticipation of the next chapter in the continuing story.....

"The War Games" has given us a bit of everything and then some, being well scripted and produced from start to finish. This big story is season six's main event in so many ways. It is a cathartic, transformational experience, a personal favourite, and an epic milestone in the history of the entire series. The crowning pinnacle of sixties' Doctor Who.

International Titles:

Deutsch (German): "Kriegsspiele"

Magyar (Hungarian): "Háborús játékok"

Français (French): (Les jeux de la guerre)

Русский (Russian): "Военные игры"

Season Six Rankings:

Best Stories:

  1. The War Games
  2. The Invasion
  3. The Mind Robber
  4. The Krotons
  5. The Dominators
  6. The Seeds of Death
  7. The Space Pirates

Best Directors:

  • Douglas Camfield (The Invasion)
  • David Maloney (The War Games, The Mind Robber, The Krotons)
  • Morris Barry (The Dominators)
  • Michael Ferguson (The Seeds of Death)
  • Michael Hart (The Space Pirates)

Best Writers:

  • Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke (The War Games)
  • Derrick Sherwin (The Invasion)
  • Peter Ling (The Mind Robber)
  • Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln (The Dominators)
  • Robert Holmes (The Krotons, The Space Pirates)
  • Brian Hayles (The Seeds of Death)

Best Music:

  • Dudley Simpson [The War Games]
  • Don Harper and Co. [The Invasion]
  • Dudley Simpson [The Seeds of Death]
  • The Mind Robber
  • The Dominators
  • The Krotons
  • Dudley Simpson [The Space Pirates]

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC A in North America
NTSC B in North America
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Spearhead From Space"

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