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Doctor Who: The War Games (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The War Games originally aired in 1969.

Well, what was happening? Why was it so difficult to move?

It was the Time Lords.

But they’re your own people, aren’t they, Doctor?

Yes, that’s right.

Why did you run away from them in the first place?

What? Well, I was bored.

What do you mean, you were bored?

Well, the Time Lords are an immensely civilised race. We can control our own environment, we can live forever, barring accidents, and we have the secret of space time travel.

Well what’s so wrong in all that?

Well we hardly ever use our great powers. We consent simply to observe and to gather knowledge.

And that wasn’t enough for you?

No, of course not. With a whole galaxy to explore? Millions of planets, eons of time, countless civilisations to meet?

Well, why do they object to you doing all that?

Well, it is a fact, Jamie, that I do tend to get involved with things.

– Jamie, the Doctor and Zoe

The War Games represents the end of the era. It is the last appearance of Jamie as a regular companion. It is the last show featuring Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, although he would return for the occasional guest spot, celebration or charity episode. It was also the last of the series to be shot in black and white. The transition from Troughton to Pertwee would arguably be one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of the show. Not only would the show suddenly be broadcast in colour, and not only would it feature a new lead actor, but it would also have a new focus, grounded on Earth, and with that a new status quo and new rules. The show was only six years old at the time, but the change must have seemed radical to those watching.

The War Games isn’t the perfect episode – it’s too long and too plodding – but it is a lot more entertaining than some of the longer adventures, and it serves as a fond farewell to the “cosmic hobo” interpretation of the Doctor. Indeed, the episode probably seems a great deal harsher than it did in hindsight, with the specifics of regeneration not quite codified, the Doctor’s forced transformation seemed less like a formal execution than it does to modern audiences who watched the Tenth Doctor plead for more time.

The War Games is an effective and fond farewell to not only a particular iteration of the title character, but also a version of the show as a whole.

Run!

Run!

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