Doctor Who: The War Games Review

This review contains plot spoilers.

Most people regard Doctor Who as two shows. There's Classic Who, which run from 1963 to 1989, with the 1996 TV movie as a pendant to it. Then there's New Who, from 2005 onwards, a different show that does still acknowledge the existence of the earlier one. I'm now going to make a case for there being three Whos, and the hiatus between the first and second being the six and a bit months between 22 June 1969 and 3 January 1970.

The War Games is an end show in many ways. It is the last serial to be made in black and white, and the only point in the entire history of Who (if you don't count the end of the TV movie) where the entire regular cast were written out. It marked an end to the almost-year-round production schedule of 60s Who. With the turn of the 70s, the Doctor would be exiled to Earth and wear Jon Pertwee's face, and be reduced to twenty-five episodes a year. The show had been successfully rebooted three years earlier, when William Hartnell regenerated into Patrick Troughton, but this probably stands as the biggest rethink of the show in Classic Who. It was a bold move, as audiences were dropping and the show was threatened with cancellation, and fortunately it worked.

The War Games came about when a planned six-parter and a four-part Troughton swansong fell through, and incoming script editor Terrance Dicks was asked by producer Derrick Sherwin to produce a ten-part series finale. Dicks knew he couldn't do that on his own, so enlisted the help of his friend and mentor Malcolm Hulke. Given the time pressure, it's a testament to them that The War Games is as good as it is. At ten episodes it's the second-longest Who serial in history. The Daleks' Master Plan may have been two episodes longer, although it did take time out in the middle for an effectively self-contained Christmas special. (I'm counting The Trial of a Time Lord as a series of serials with a story arc, much as I do The Key to Time.) It's not easy to judge Daleks' Master Plan nowadays as nine of its episodes are lost, but it's hard to deny The War Games its place as an epic send-off to the Second Doctor – and to Jamie and Zoe as well.

We open in a bleak, muddy landscape: no-man's land in World War One. (The actual location was a cold, rat-infested rubbish tip in Brighton, which had just been used for Oh What a Lovely War!.) For half an episode it seems we are in a standard historical story, of a kind the show had abandoned in Troughton's second story The Highlanders. But then something happens. General Smythe (Noel Coleman) moves a picture on his wall and uncovers a video screen. We're clearly in a more science-fictional setting than we thought. It soon becomes clear that the TARDIS has landed on an alien planet divided into different war zones. Soldiers from all eras – not just World War One, but Roman times and the American Civil War as well, have been brought here to fight each other, and to create an army for the mysterious War Lord. But who is he?

As well as its extended episode count, The War Games has a large number of characters – count them, thirty-six credited parts. Apart from the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe, none of them are present in all the episodes, though David Savile's Carstairs comes close by only missing the final one. The story works something like a modern-day game, by ascending a level at a time, and early important characters (such as Lady Jennifer, played by Jane Sherwin, married to Derrick) depart partway through. The War Chief (Edward Brayshaw, pantomime villainy) doesn't appear until Episode Three and his cohort the Security Chief (James Bree, officious villainy) until Episode Five. Finally we meet the War Lord (Philip Madoc, silkily underplayed villainy) in Episode Seven. There's a chilling moment, nicely understated, when the Doctor meets the War Chief and realises that he is one of his own kind – a Time Lord.

From Hartnell's first episode, it was established that the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan were not from planet Earth, but we knew nothing more apart from the occasional hint. Apart from Susan, the first person from the Doctor's own race that we met was The Monk (Peter Butterworth) in The Time Meddler: he made a return appearance in three episodes of The Daleks' Master Plan. But that was it until The War Games, where we were introduced to the Doctor's home planet and his people, who were called Time Lords on screen for the first time. Along with the later serial The Deadly Assassin, much of what we know about the Time Lords began here. In the final episode, the Doctor, having called upon their aid, is put on trial. Jamie and Zoe are sent back from where they came from, and the final shot is of Troughton's Doctor protesting as he is sentenced to Earth. Six months later, in colour, Jon Pertwee collapsed out of the Tardis at the beginning of Spearhead from Space and the show's reboot began in earnest.

The War Games is a long serial, no doubt. There are sections which co-writer Dicks describes as “loops” - brief skirmishes which add action but which don't advance the plot. But, especially remarkable given how quickly it had to be written, the serial does hold the attention throughout. The following season had three seven-parters, but the incoming producer/script editor team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks soon abandoned them in favour of (with one exception) fours and sixes. The supporting cast is strong, and includes in Episode Six a first credited appearance in Who by the star's son David. And a lot of credit has to go to director David Maloney for holding it all together. The War Games is a landmark Doctor Who serial, and it has received a DVD release worthy of it.


The War Games is released as a three-disc set by 2 Entertain. The DVDs are encoded for Region 2 only. Each disc allows you to choose an audio descriptive menu on start-up.

The serial was shot on 625-line black and white video, with 16mm film inserts. The episodes all survive in the archive as 16mm telerecordings and their negatives. The previous VHS release suffered from print damage manifesting itself as white scratches and spots on screen. However, undamaged negatives were found at the British Film Institute and this DVD has been transferred from those. For further details of the restoration, please see the Restoration Team website here. The results are excellent, bearing in mind the sub-SD original materials. As you would expect from a 1969 TV programme, the aspect ratio is 4:3.

The soundtrack is the original mono, also cleaned up and restored for this release. The original track is BBC professionalism at work, with dialogue, Dudley Simpson's music score and sound effects well balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature and all the extras except the commentary. Also on the disc are the invaluable information subtitles, here the work of Martin Wiggins.

The commentary is the work of Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Terrance Dicks, Derrick Sherwin and guest cast Jane Sherwin, Graham Weston and Philip Madoc. These appear in varying combinations over the ten episodes, with the three last-named making their entrances and exits in the episodes in which their characters appear. Information is certainly given, but if that's what you're after then the subtitles or the making-of documentary are better bets. As usual, the banter is the thing, with Hines tending to dominate when he's on. Of the guest cast, Jane Sherwin and Madoc say their pieces, but Weston tends to fade into the background.

The bulk of the extras – and there are a lot – make up Disc Three. All are subtitled and there is a Play All option.

“War Zone” (36:25) is the making-of documentary, and it's as well put together as you might expect, taking the story from inception to production via interviews with participants: Hines, Padbury, Dicks, both Sherwins, actors Bernard Horsfall and Graham Weston, David Maloney (who died in 2006, so represented by an archive interview) and designer Roger Cheveley. Commenting on the serial are Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury and new series writers Paul Cornell, James Moran and Joseph Lidster. Gerard Murphy narrates. All good stuff, though the device of introducing each interviewee with a monochrome freeze-frame while they continue to talk on the soundtrack is a tiresome gimmick.

As this is the last black and white Who serial to be made (though not the last one released on DVD), it's an appropriate place for “Shades of Grey” (21:46). Beginning with Terrance Dick's remembrance of seeing a working TV set in a hotel room before World War II, it begins with a run-through of the history of the BBC's broadcasting systems, via live broadcasting to programmes which were pre-recorded “as live” as Who. This featurette looks at the differences – fewer than you might think – that working in black and white made to the programmes themselves. What comes out is, unlike the cinema, where there are many directors and cinematographers who would happily make their films in black and white if they would be allowed to, TV people pretty much abandoned monochrome as soon as colour became available. (There were a few exceptions such as the Stephen Frears/Alan Bennett play from 1972 A Day Out.) The final section deals with sound, and seems a little out of place as it talks about the work of the Radiophonic Workshop. What might be interesting would be something about the differences between working in mono and in stereo, though that would be an item for a McCoy DVD.

“Now and Then” (9:35) is a visit to the locations of the The War Games forty years on. The infamous rubbish dump is no more, and is now common land.

“The Doctor's Composer” (17:33) is a look at the work of one of the show's most prolific crew-members, Australian composer Dudley Simpson. Interviewed at his home in Sydney, he talks about how he came to be hired, and detailed some of his music choices for each serial he worked on. This featurette covers his work for the show in the Hartnell and Troughton eras, with his work for later Doctors reserved for a future DVD.

Similarly, “Sylvia James – In Conversation” (8:27) is an interview with the make-up artist.. She began on the show with the Hartnell story The Savages and continued until the Tom Baker story Terror of the Zygons, but worked particularly regularly with Troughton, and that's the era that she discusses. She mentions the changeover to the (then) high definition of 625 lines, which meant a greater attention to detail.

“Talking About Regeneration” (24:25) discusses each one the Doctor has had, including a few misfired ones (Baker to McCoy, McCoy to McGann). The lack of success of the latter led to there not being a sequence showing the Doctor regenerating into Christopher Eccleston, instead letting the rebooted show hit the ground running.

“Time Zones” (15:22) is this DVD's history lesson, wherein experts in the various eras and wars represented in The War Games give a background to each conflict, and also mention the show's success in depicting them. The serial's version of World War I gets a thumb's up as a good low-budget representation.

“Stripped for Action” (13:47) is another in the series looking at the Doctor Who comic strips, here those featuring the Second Doctor. Jamie gets to play too. This is more for those with a specific interest in this minor part of the Who mythos, but you can't deny it's well put together.

“On Target – Malcolm Hulke” (20:01) is an overview of another important part of Who spinoffery, those Target novelisations that introduced many a young fan to the history of the show, particularly those of the stories we had been too young to see (and now cannot see, but that's another issue). This piece features those written by The War Games co-writer Malcolm Hulke, and serves as a profile of him, ending movingly with Terrance Dicks's account of Hulke's funeral. While I'm in favour of profiles of Who's key writers, I'm not so sure about concentrating on the Target novels is quite the way to do it. If any other Target writer should be featured, it's Dicks, but he's already had a featurette devoted to him on a Who DVD. (I understand that a piece on Ian Marter's Target novels is in preparation). There certainly should be a general overview of the whole Target range, of course.

Devious (12:17) begins with a caption that tells us what we need to know: it's an amateur Dr Who video made by Stephen Cranford, Ashley Nealfuller and David Clarke. All three provide a commentary for what is a depiction of what may have happened between the end of War Games and the start of Spearhead from Space. It's notable for featuring Jon Pertwee's last appearance as the Third Doctor. The commentary begins eerily with Pertwee's voice in an answering machine message.

The extras conclude with a self-navigating stills gallery (6:33), a coming-soon trailer for the Black Guardian Trilogy box set (1:10). Available in PDF format are the Radio Times listings for The War Games, BBC Enterprises's sales literature for the serial and original design plans for the SIDRAT.

There are two Easter Eggs. On Disc One, highlight the Doctor Who logo at the top of the menu screen for an audio-only item: unedited location sound recordings (19:16). On Disc Two, go to the Subtitles menu and click down to highlight a link to a rather different take on the Doctor's trial, involving the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets (5:52).

And that's it. In length and other ways, The War Games is a major piece of Who history and this three-disc set is one of the DVDs of the year.

8 out of 10
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