A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009.
The War Games is an exceptional Doctor Who story, with an outstanding opening episode. It certainly doesn’t hang about. The TARDIS arrives in the midst of the First World War, and the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are immediately swept into the maelstrom. Dodging a barrage of heavy artillery, they’re picked up by plucky ambulance driver Lady Buckingham (“I say! Are you alright?”), captured by German troops (“Hände hoch!”), before being rescued by Lieutenant Carstairs of the British Army (“I say! Who are those people?”). This is all within the first three and a half minutes.
In the eighth minute – we’re now behind the British lines – we have our first stunning twist; the first of many stunning twists. Sinister General Smythe is online and Skype-ing in his bedroom. Flippin’ ’eck. It makes your mind stand on end. Is Smythe from space? The future? If neither, he really should hurry back to Blightly and file a patent application on that talking telly. By the end of Episode One, the Doctor has been convicted of espionage in a sham court martial and lined up before a firing squad. There’s a crash of gunfire. Roll credits. And breathe.
1984’s The Caves of Androzani is rightly lauded as one of the greats. But here’s its first episode, 15 years early: the same plot beats, the same panicky feeling in your stomach as events slip so completely from the Doctor’s control, the same astonishing cliffhanger. Like Caves, it’s handled by an outstanding Doctor Who director – again, one of the greats. David Maloney’s location work looks like excerpts from a feature film. In studio, his cameras creep and swoop across some of Doctor Who’s best-ever sets. Maloney’s particularly creative with reverse angles as Smythe and his fellow villains spit vitriol via their webcams. And he’s lining up all these clever shots in something close to real time, with only around 90 minutes to record a complete episode. It’s an astonishing achievement.
Through the commentary and documentary on this disk, The War Games’ co-writer Terrance Dicks can’t stop putting himself and his serial down. “You can pick it up at any time in the next three hours, and nothing much will have happened,” he says mournfully. “It’s Doctor Who’s only ten-part story,” he adds. “Please God, may it never be done again.” We’re charmed by Dicks’ humility – as ever – but he’s completely wrong. Nothing much happens? What nonsense. Whole seasons of Doctor Who have passed with less incident than this one story. Every episode delivers a new twist, with the ground first prepared with subtle clues that flatter our intelligence. The Doctor is saved from the firing squad by a rogue shot from a sniper. It goes unmentioned, but isn’t that a hat from the American Civil Wars he’s wearing? The tall box that appears in Smythe’s room makes the sound of a TARDIS. A bloody TARDIS! Soon, we’re racing through different wars, learning that humans across history have been jumbled up together as part of an alien plan to form an army of galactic conquest. Again, it feels like a movie. Roman soldiers thunder towards us on a chariot. Jamie is hunted down by confederate soldiers on horseback. Even today, with its budget of millions, Doctor Who rarely delivers such spectacle. And then the tale twists again, as we find ourselves in the command centre of this insane battlefield, and again, when the War Chief and the Doctor make eye contact. The shock of their mutual recognition strikes the story like lightening.
With the cunning born of true genius, the writers keep the War Chief and the Doctor apart for nearly four episodes, and we ache for their confrontation. When it comes, the Doctor is still and sure. The War Chief, in a wonderful display of restrained camp by Edward Brayshaw, seems at first to be almost flirting with him. It’s more interesting than any conversation we ever witness between the Doctor and the Master. The Master is never in doubt of his own superiority, but the War Chief is a weak man who’s found strength only by hiding among bullies. He speaks of his desire for power, but really only wants the Doctor’s approval. Patrick Troughton effortlessly takes our hero from errant schoolboy to disappointed father, as the War Chief comes to sound like a panicked child caught in a lie. It’s a sublime scene.
The closing two episodes bring the biggest shock of all, with the Doctor brought to heel by the Time Lords, and finally obliged to explain what he’s all about; what he stands for. The recent DVD release of The Deadly Assassin has that story fresh in our minds, so we can again ponder the Doctor’s relationship with his own people. And I maintain my view that the Time Lords of The War Games are the more interesting, because they throw the Doctor’s own morality into sharper relief. One imagines it would have been easy – self-indulgent even – for our hero to leave the Gallifrey of The Deadly Assassin; a dull planet of fusty, unimaginative old men. Instead, here we have a Doctor who, when setting out into the universe to fight tyranny, also made a personal sacrifice. He’s abandoned a kind of utopia out of a burning need to do what is right.
The Doctor’s trial for meddling ends not with punishment but complete acquittal. Bowing to the case for the defence, the Time Lords send the Doctor where he can do the most good. Though their justification for changing his appearance seems somewhat muddled. As a child, watching this story on a bootleg video, I was bitterly disappointed with the regeneration scene. Having lived through Logopolis and Androzani, this climax seemed absurd and incomplete. But looking now at the details, I appreciate how truly chilling it is. The Doctor’s skin seems to blacken and burn. When he spirals away into oblivion, his hands desperately clutch at the empty space where his head should be. Far from being absurd, it’s the scariest regeneration of them all. It’s also Doctor Who’s finest cliffhanger, at the end of Doctor Who’s greatest adventure.
And so, my final remarks go out to Terrance Dicks, should he be listening… Terrance, you’re my hero. You deserve an OBE, a knighthood. But if you truly feel The War Games should come with an apology, then you’re also in need of a good talking to.
Kneel before the Restoration Team! All hail the inventors of VidFIRE! This fresh print of The War Games dazzles with its beauty. A whole third disc of extras offers something for everyone. And while this review will offer some hopefully constructive criticism, it’s important to be clear on one point: a first class adventure combined with labour-of-love restoration and excellent bonus material make this the best Doctor Who DVD yet. Thank you, 2entertain.
War Zone, the production documentary, is a smart piece of work and, as with The Deadly Assassin, everyone is full of praise for David Maloney. On that DVD we learned that Maloney’s daughter once saved Tom Baker from drowning. Here we are reminded that his young son helped choose the battles to be fought in each of the time zones. What an athletic, educated family! We should surrender government of the country to them forthwith.
Jane Sherwin is the most charming interviewee, recalling her role as Lady Buckingham with great enthusiasm. She’s equally adorable on the commentary, which is more than can be said of her former husband Derrick, the producer of The War Games, who whines a catalogue of pretty criticisms through the whole thing. At first you feel it’s a pity that he fails to appreciate the excellence of his own work, but soon you’re praying for him to just bugger off is he’s finding it such a terrible chore. Over on the documentary, Sherwin has the look of Steven Moffat’s curmudgeonly uncle.
Time Zones promises ‘the truth behind The War Games’, and invites a likeable gang of historians to explain the background to the conflicts depicted in the serial. It’s well made, but shows poor taste by illustrating descriptions of the true horror of the Somme with footage from a Doctor Who serial. While they remind us that 20,000 young men were slaughtered by machine gun and mortar fire in one day, it’s wrong to cut to a series of squibs let off by the BBC visual effects department on a Brighton landfill. 20,000 men. In one day.
Stripped For Action, looking at the TV Comic adventures of the second Doctor, is another first class addition to the series, with enthusiastic contributors paying tribute to the crackpot creativity of these 60s strips. This is a unique take on Doctor Who, where our hero spends his idle hours inventing mechanical housemaids and indestructible cars, and defeats wily Quarks with little more than the weapons in his utility belt. And as Doctorly catchphrases go, “Die, hideous creature – die!” is some way from “Sorry, I’m so sorry.” The stories may be wild, and artist john Canning’s pan-faced hero may look like he’s been chasing parked cars, but no illustrator since has come as close as capturing the fundamental energy and eccentricity of Doctor Who. This all too brief programme pays him just tribute, and one is left praying for the day when the economics of Doctor Who publishing allow his work to be reprinted in a series of suitably lavish volumes.
Also from producer Marcus Hearn is On Target, the first in a new series looking at the beloved Doctor Who novelisations of the 1970s and 80s. Again, fans warmly salute a creative genius – in this case author Malcolm Hulke, co-writer of The War Games – but the documentary struggles to find a suitable way to communicate the richness of his work to the viewer. Actors read well-chosen excerpts from his novels, but accompanied by jarring montages of clips from the original TV episodes, which serve only to undercut the key point that Hulke’s characters are more vivid and real in his books. A description of the scarred Butler from Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion is matched to footage of the distinctly dapper Martin Jarvis from the telly original, and the disparity chafes the brain. In future instalments, perhaps commissioned artwork would help convey the vivid imagery of these books. Certainly, it’s essential if the series ever reaches Pip and Jane Baker’s work. One highlight of the Terror of the Vervoids novelisation – “The Commodore was unable to suppress a small grin at Mel’s cheeky parting crack” – is a subject upon which the full ingenuity of Adrian Salmon must be brought to bear.
Shades of Grey – a look at the pre-1970 television – is a series of disconnected anecdotes on a subject that deserved to be covered in greater depth. It’s also vaguely patronising. “Looking back, it’s tempting to write off black and white television as one generic whole.” claims the voiceover. No it isn’t. I don’t feel remotely tempted. But if you have a friend with fond memories of Quatermass the Wonder Horse, then this documentary is for them. “But what was the legacy of 1960s Doctor Who?” ponders our narrator. Oh I don’t know. 1970s Doctor Who?
Talking About Regeneration is great fun. Fan commentators and actors discuss this most tumultuous of Doctor Who events, offering observations ranging from the sage to the cheekily flippant. However, while one can’t argue with Joseph Lidster’s remarks that Hartnell’s regeneration “must have seemed so mad at the time” and that it “must have been astonishing for a kid watching [Eccleston’s demise],” one is left wishing that a suitable 53-year old and 14-year old had been invited to share firsthand reactions to the death of ‘their’ Doctor. After all, the most important aspect of regeneration is our powerful emotional response to it. Kate O’Mara (the wretched Rani) makes an unexpected guest appearance, and it’s cute how the camera shies from the close-up used for the other contributors. Very chivalrous.
Devious – a fan-produced video drama that roped Jon Pertwee into a crackers tale linking The War Games to Spearhead From Space – is too cute and well-meaning to face criticism here. Having once watched a version of this for a DWM feature back in the day, I was disappointed to find this presentation has modern CG effects slathered over it, which detract from its homespun charm.
I’ve reserved comment on the best until last. Martin Wiggins’ production notes on the second subtitle track must stand as the finest extra ever to grace a Doctor Who DVD. Full of information, insight and droll wit, this brings the story to life in so many different ways. The best bit is in Episode Seven, as the subtitles talk us through the movements of the cameras across the set over the course of a couple of scenes. That may sound dull, but it really, really isn’t. With ‘info text’ switched on, you feel like you’re watching the story for the very first time. And that’s a superlative achievement.