Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

This just might be the greatest Doctor Who story of all time.

I'm not talking about mind-blowing concepts or heart-wrenching social relevance here, I'm celebrating this saga's good all-round fun and quite shameless Doctor Who-ishness.

Admittedly, it does start-out as an Earth-bound story about zombies, but it soon gets past that. It so gets past that.

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe materialise in no-man's-land during World War One, where they get arrested as spies and subjected to a court marshall. It's headed up by this terrifying General, who keeps putting on his spectacles to all this weird music by Dudley Simpson, and instructing his associates what to believe.

Jamie and Zoe are sentenced to imprisonment, while the Doctor is led out to be shot by a firing squad. And he is. And that's just episode one!

What's that you're reasonably supposing? That there are still three more episodes to go? Try more like NINE.

Particularly from the music, it's obvious from early on that there is a much bigger picture going-on here, one that is initially unseen by the viewer, but completely invisible to the locals. They literally cannot see the futuristic communications equipment with which General Smythe liaises from "1917 zone" with his remote masters, just a blank wall.

There's something of a runaround for a few episodes as our heroes repeatedly get captured and escape. Like I said, this is unashamedly Doctor Who we're watching here. The scene in which the Doctor, breaking back into the prison to free Jamie, poses as "The Examiner" from "The War Office" is actor Patrick Troughton's finest hour.

There's then another runaround as they steal a war ambulance and make their escape through a strange mist that surrounds the area. They emerge from it in various other war zones from Earth's history, each with its own similarly sinister futuristic hypnotist in charge. (crikey – try saying that ten times quickly) The German leader controls people by wearing a monocle. When the dialogue is not in the local language, the accents are starting to make the whole thing feel like 'Allo 'Allo.

Abandoning their geographical map of all the different time zones, in the middle of the American civil war they find a machine not entirely dissimilar to the TARDIS. This goes on to herald the first flowering of Doctor Who's long-running policy on anagrams, when it turns out to be called a SIDRAT. If that palindrome's not inventive enough for you, its controls turn out to be the most genius ones ever used in any science-fiction production ever. You'll just have to take my word on that. Anyway, for now the SIDRAT enables the Doctor and Zoe to infiltrate the war-games' futuristic Central Control area.

Cue lots of psychedelic black and white sets with extras walking silently around with blank paper masks over their faces. It all looks quite wonderfully like some TV science-fiction show from the late 1960s.

There's a Security Chief with pebble glasses who delivers all his lines in a loud high-pitched monotone as though he's doing an impression of a Dalek. His scenes with the Chief Scientist, who's underplaying the whole thing for realism, make for some crazy duologues.

The Doctor and Zoe realise they can blend-in with everyone by just putting a couple of these handy spare paper-masks on over their faces and not get spotted, but the real genius is the guy who's in charge of all this.

He's called the War Chief. He has a really bad temper. But, best all, he's played by Mr Meaker from Rentaghost.

Oh... joy...

When he and the Doctor recognise each other, it's clearly because they are both from the same classic era of BBC television.

So everyone spends a couple more episodes running around between about three rooms at Central Control, getting captured and interrogated by the Security Chief, who complements his pebble-glasses by putting some kind of a truth machine number on over his head.

(this image from the Dr. Who Image Archive - thanks!)

So, so far the Doctor and friends have encountered some soldiers, then met their General, then met the Security Chief at Central Control, and then met his boss the War Chief. Can the big picture get any bigger?

Well, yes. Throughout, everyone at Central Control has spoken of the unseen higher authority of the "War Lord". When he shows up to take-over and tell everyone off in episode seven, he turns out to be played by Philip Madoc.

That's Philip "I play the bad guy in so many Doctor Whos that I've lost count" Madoc. Sheesh, this episode was broadcast in May 1969, when the last time he had appeared as a different character was only in January! Surely this is the guy who the Doctor should really recognise?

Anyway, the Doctor pretends to change sides in order to sort the entire tale out and save the galaxy, but here's the thing: he realises that the big picture has now become too big, even for him.

He reveals, for the first time in the show's six-year history, that in fact he is, and always has been, a wanted criminal on the run from his own planet. Now he has to ask the authorities over him for their help in returning the thousands of abducted fighters home, and in so doing give-away his location.

It's a real contrast with the any-old-thing-goes style of the current series. The tenth Doctor would just babble "Oooh, but if I just press this button here it'll make me God and reverse everything that's happened so far, wee-hee, look at me, I'm a fish."

But that didn't cut it in 1969.

The cliffhangers throughout this epic story are fantastic, but none more hopeless than that of the penultimate episode. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe running towards the TARDIS as the unseen 'Time Lords' seem to decelerate time around them. "Wwee hhaavvee ttoo ggeett aawwaaaayyyy..." they groan, trying, with agonising slowness, to just reach the key in the TARDIS' lock, mere inches away.

In the final episode, which at the time was theorised to be the last one ever, our heroes go on the run from the Time Lords, unsuccessfully. Then they stand trial before them, unsuccessfully. Then they try to escape their sentence, unsuccessfully.

Their big picture is now far too big, even for them. Their running around doesn't work any more. They are out of time.

The crushing, crowning glory of this epic ten-episode masterpiece is this: at the end, our heroes lose.

They actually lose.

Jamie and Zoe have their memories wiped of all their adventures in the TARDIS.

The Doctor is condemned to have his face and personality changed.

Tha TARDIS is disabled, incarcerating the new Doctor on one planet in one time, to never again travel until the Time Lords happen to feel like changing their minds.

Not really the victory we're used to.

As you may know, there actually was another series, in fact another twenty of them, and that's not even including the current revival.

And I'm sure you can guess what happened in the very first episode of the next series. The Doctor tricked the Time Lords, fixed the TARDIS, picked-up Jamie and Zoe again, undid their memory-wipes, and they all carried-on travelling through time and space again as usual.

No they didn't. This was a show that kept its word. They all served those sentences, the Doctor for an interminably long three-and-a-half years in BBC-time.

Aside from potentially wrapping-up Doctor Who for the last time, this story also does a grand job of summing-up the second Doctor's era. As well as the earlier-mentioned adoption of his false identity of "The Examiner" (a nod to Troughton's first full story Power Of The Daleks) it also recaps this Doctor's achievements in his trial scene.

Using a thought channel, he projects images onto a large screen of the various baddies he's fought over the last three years. You'd naturally expect some budget-saving flashbacks here, but instead the opposite happens. The parade of old monsters is brand-new specially-shot footage, featuring the original actors. That's impressive, given how many costumes hide the performer's face.

When Zoe is returned home to the Wheel from last season, she even encounters Tanya from that story. Given how many of those earlier episodes have since been wiped, this sort of footage is like golddust. I do hope someone somewhere has taken advantage of these shots when assembling the relevant reconstructions.

I have to take a moment here and say that I share the characters' sense of loss at the end of this story. I've now watched the whole of the Patrick Troughton / Frazer Hines era in the correct order and, thanks to breaks for the new series and moving to New Zealand, it's taken me six years.

In other words, for me, this guy has been the Doctor since 2003 – well before I even began this five year-old blog.

I'm so sorry to see that era go. Patrick Troughton has played the Doctor with such friendliness and authenticity that it's hard to prepare myself for the straightness that I know is coming with Jon Pertwee taking over. By the end, Troughton was reasonably playing the role with the same level of high-comedy that he used for his three returns to the show!

I can't believe he passed away over 20 years ago, at a science-fiction convention of all places.

The War Games is not high-brow stuff, but the story does all hold together for me, it's entertaining and thought-provoking throughout, and every single episode delivers.

What a fantastic high to go out on.

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