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Doctor Who: The War Games

01/02/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Doctor Who: The War Games in the USA - or Buy Doctor Who: The War Games in the UK

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region 2 DVD: pub: BBC BBCDVD 1800. 3 DVDs 10 * 25 minute episodes with loads of extras. Price: 11.88 (UK) if you know where to look) stars: Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Edward Brayshaw and Philip Madoc.

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Back in the days of video tapes, when 'The War Games' was released it became one of my first purchases. It might have been lengthy at ten episodes but it was also significant in that it was actor Patrick Troughton's last story before he regenerated into actor Jon Pertwee and the first of two regenerations in the original run where we didn't see the replacement in the finale. Outside of 'Planet Of The Spiders' (the final Pertwee story), it is also one of the longest delays before being released onto DVD which finally happened in 2009. Of real significance is that it also gave much of the information about the Time Lords and the Doctor's back history that is still relevant to the present day. We don't get the Time Lords' home planet's name until the Tom Baker regeneration but that's a mote point. We do, however, come across the third renegade from the Time Lords in the shape of the War Chief (played by New Zealander Edward Brayshaw). The second, if anyone is counting was the Meddling Monk.

The Doctor and his companions, Jamie (actor Frazer Hines) and Zoe (actress Wendy Padbury) arrive in what appears to be the battlefields of World War One and dodging a bomb strike. Captured and given a court martial, Jamie is to be sent to his regiment, Zoe to prison and the Doctor to be shot as a German spy. The latter is foiled by a sniper attacking the compound. On the run, they discover that they aren't on Earth but on one of a number of time zones where across the ages, various Earth wars are going on by brainwashed humans and it's being governed by an alien race who sees the winning humans as their army to take over that part of the galaxy. The War Chief had supplied them with space/time technology but was also waiting for his own opportunity to replace the alien War Lord (played by Philip Madoc) at a later time.

The best way to describe 'The War Games' is like a role-playing game except it uses real people. Something none of this unnamed alien race foresaw was that some of the stronger-willed humans would break their control and form a resistance which the Doctor aided in unifying as he takes over some of the alien technology. There's a lot of conniving and backstabbing even with the alien race and the renegade War Chief is rarely fully trusted. In many ways, he can be seen as the prototype for the Master. Before anyone draws that particular link, even Time Lords can be killed outright and he, without really giving away a spoiler, is a casualty.

A lot of the story is about them being captured and escaping from various time zones as well as the alien stronghold. 'The War Games' was brought in when two other stories fell through and script editor Terrance Dicks was told to do a big story to cover it as quickly as possible. He brought in Malcolm Hulke and the rest is, shall we say, history.

Considering how fast it was written to being filmed, this really is a marvellous epic. Back in the late 60s when it was first aired you were drawn in and the same applies today. Even the sound effects will send a chill to your bones as it hits all your senses and wondering what the final solution is. In this case, the Doctor has little choice but to call his own people for help.

With so much of the Troughton years missing, this is also the first time I've seen the second Doctor's sonic screwdriver in many years. It first appeared in 'The Web Of Fear' and wasn't used that often as script editor/writer Terrance Dicks explains that he didn't want it to become a crutch to get out of danger, which unfortunately it has become in Russell T Davies' tenure. What struck me about the first version of the sonic screwdriver is how much it resembles a pen torchlight that you could have bought in the 60s.

The audio commentary is a game of musical chairs with so many people brought in to have their say. Not only do we have Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury but also from the cast, Jane Sherwin, Graham Weston and Philip Madoc. From production, producer Derrick Sherwin and writer Terrance Dicks are added to the mix.

In the audio commentary no one had any idea why the aliens wore their hypnotising glasses in the headquarters. What they forget is that apart from hypnotising, they are the equivalent of the larger masks that convince the Earth military they aren't seeing some sort of futuristic setting. They also didn't know where the Doctor acquired his smoke bombs from when it's pretty obvious that he found them when they snucked the WW2 overcoats and gas masks.

The extras fill an entire DVD. Picking out favourites is difficult. Certainly, composer Dudley Simpson gives some interesting insight into composing Who music with a lot of early clips. An examination of Malcolm Hulke's work on the series and novelisations is also insightful. There is also a piece about the various regenerations and the second Doctor's comicstrip adventures in 'TV Comic'.

If you're a Who fan then this is essential viewing without me having to tell you. As the last black and white Who, it also signifies the end of an era. An unreserved recommendation for it to belong to your collection.

GF Willmetts

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