Sunday, 26 July 2009
DVD Review: Dr Who: The War Games
It’s been a pretty decent year so far for the 2 Entertain releases of the so-called ‘classic’ Dr Who TV serials. A couple of bona fide classics have been released with the now-traditional smorgesborg of tasty extra features – ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘Image of the Fendahl’ – and the usual handful of real duffers from the fag end of the show in the late mid to late 1980s – ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ and ‘Delta and The Bannermen’- but in ‘The War Games’ we see the range take one of its too-occasional forays back into the hazy black-and-white days of the 1960s and deliver what is quite probably the very best classic Dr Who DVD release to date. For once not only do we get a damned fine serial which more than stands the test of time but we get a pretty breath-taking range of special features on a bonus third disc given over entirely to behind-the-scenes stuff and associated ephemera. Lovely.
‘The War Games’ is an important Dr Who serial for two well-documented reasons. Firstly, of course, it’s the end of several eras – it’s the show’s last fling in the 1960s, it’s the last of the black-and-white serials and, of course, it’s the last hurrah for second Doctor Patrick Troughton and his classic companion line-up of Jamie (Fraser Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury). It’s also the serial which blows the gaff on who the titular Doctor actually is. Until now he was a man of mystery, an alien traveller in Time and Space who, it appeared, had somehow managed to create a machine which could traverse all four Dimensions and had decided to dedicate all his time and energies to fighting the evils of the cosmos and generally righting wrongs. There’d been the odd hint of something more here and there; as early as the very first episode back in 1963 the first Doctor (William Hartnell) had hinted that he and his grand-daughter were “wanderers in the fourth dimension...exiles” and that they were cut off from their own people. But the series never found it necessary to build on this; it was enough that the Doctor could do the things he did and, when one body wore itself out, had the extraordinary ability to change his physical appearance and his personality. In TV terms then, when Patrick Troughton decided that three series was enough and that it was time to move on, the BBC faced the difficult decision of whether to axe the series once and for all or to try and pull the ‘new Doctor’ trick a second time and relaunch the show in colour with a third leading man. By virtue of a supreme bit of serendipity which saw two in-progress scripts collapse, script editor Terrance Dicks found himself with ten twenty-five minute episodes going begging and no final second Doctor story or stories to fill it with. Thus he drafted in his old writing colleague Malcolm Hulke and between them began to fashion an epic, a big, bold story which would finish the second Doctor’s tenure in style and finally – finally – cast a bit of light on the secret origins of the Doctor.
‘The War Games’ has developed a bit of a bad reputation over the years, much of it, it has to be said, courtesy of Mr Dicks himself who, in the intervening years (and even on this particular disc where he disparages the story frequently during his commentary contributions) has bemoaned its repetitive story-telling and episodes of going-nowhere padding. But, viewing the serial now in these ridiculously cleaned-up ‘I can’t believe this wasn’t made last week’ prints, it’s clear that Mr Dicks is being at best disingenuous, at worst downright rude and silly. I’ve not seen ‘The War Games’ since it was transmitted on UK Gold years and year ago and yes, I’d found it a bit heavy-going. But time can be a great healer and, in its new brushed-up version, it now comes across as the big, sprawling, imaginative epic it was always intended to be. Maybe because the current incarnation of the series is big and bold too it’s easier to recognise a similar sense of scale and ambition in the show’s older episodes. So whilst, at ten episodes, ‘The War Games’ goes on a bit, if it’s viewed the right way – two episodes at a time worked best for me – it really comes across as an exciting, big scale adventure with a nicely-seeded sense of foreboding as it moves towards its conclusion and the end of the second Doctor, with so much action and so much going on, it’s rarely boring and never less than thoroughly watchable.
You know the score. The TARDIS materialises amidst the mud and grime of the battlefields of the First World War. Within minutes the Doctor and his chums have fallen in with the local British hospital transport and been delivered to a nearby chateau where the British military are planning their strategy. Here a very strange court martial takes place and the Doctor is sentenced to be executed by firing squad... Whilst ‘The War Games’ looks as if it’s destined to be a gritty little historical war story, the very first episode subverts expectations by introducing the monocled General Smythe (Noel Coleman) who has some severely-impressive alien kit hidden behind a painting on his wall. Before long the Doctor and his friends find themselves travelling between war zones where soldiers from all across Earth’s history – first World War Tommies versus the Hun, raging Roman centurions, American confederates – are fighting an endless war in a hostile environment for the benefit of aggressive humanoid aliens working to create their own perfect army. Ultimately it’s an implausible and impractical story yet it’s hard not to be swept along by the scale of it and the breadth of the ideas it contains, especially when the Doctor moves closer to the truth and realises the enormity of the threat he’s facing and, ultimately, the risk it poses to his own future. There’s really never a dull moment because the narrative is always on the go and although many of the episodes involve little more than running around, fighting, hiding and escaping the whole thing rattles along powered by a typically charismatic performance by Troughton who carries everyone else along in his wake. But even if the storyline has run out of steam by episode nine – and there’s enough going on to ensure that it hasn’t – then there’s always episode ten where we finally find out the truth about where the Doctor has come from. With the machinations of the War Lords proving too huge even for the Doctor to cope with, he has to summon help from the one source he’d never have wanted to turn to – his own people. Episode ten sees our heroes rushing back to the TARDIS only to find themselves caught in a powerful force field and all their attempts to escape the oncoming storm from his own race come to nothing as the TARDIS is dragged back to the planet of the Time Lords.
Episode ten is brilliant, compelling stuff. Only now do we finally realise that this really is it for our hero and that, despite the best efforts of Jamie and Zoe and his own spirited defence at his trial – one which is only marginally fairer than the kangaroo court martial from the first episode – the Doctor has to face up to his indiscretions. But even now it’s not all over for the Doctor as the Time Lords, depicted here as omnipotent, flowing-robed Demi-Gods (the preferred depiction for many hard-core fans), realise that during his time on the run he’s fought the good fight and that he has a place in the scheme of things, even in their own non-interventionist Universe. So they banish him to his favourite planet (ours) and force him to change his appearance again. Troughton disappears into a spatial whirlpool, gurning and grizzling about the unfairness of it all, and an era comes to an end.
One of the great pleasures of DVD is the way it allows us to reappraise films and Tv shows we’ve long forgotten or never really appreciated. ‘The War Games’, stunningly-restored and presented with real care and devotion, is no longer a long, aimless time-filler but a bona fide Dr Who classic which closes the door on the show’s black-and-white era with style and gusto. Surprisingly brilliant.
The DVD Extras: Disc three is where the magic happens. As well as a commentary on every episode from the likes of Hines, Padbury, guest artists Philip Madoc (The War Lord), and Jane Sherwin (Lady Jane) as well as writer Terrance Dicks and producer Derrick Sherwin across the first two discs where the episodes live, the third disc boasts around three hours of bonus material which covers not only the serial itself but associated material connected with the show and TV of the 1960s. ‘War Zone’ is a detailed account of the making of the serial, ‘Now and Then’ is another in the series of short featurettes revisiting locations used in the serial (many of which are startlingly-unchanged), features on black-and-white TV in the 1960s, musician Dudley Simpson, costume designer Sylvia James, the 1960s Dr Who comic strips, script-writer Malcolm Hulke and a witty feature looking at the history of the Doctor’s regenerations throughout the series. Most intriguing – and bizarre – of all is an extract from ‘Devious’, an ambitious fan video production from the 1990s intending to bridge the gap between the end of ‘The War Games’ and Jon Pertwee’s debut in ‘Spearhead From Space’ in 1970. The USP of this rather...unusual...drama is that the production managed to coax a then elderly Jon Pertwee back into his frills to reprise his characterisation of the Doctor in a short sequence set aboard the TARDIS and segueing into the first shots of ‘Spearhead’. It’s an exhaustive, generous package and, along with the serial itself, makes ‘The War Games’ just about the best ‘classic’ Dr Who DVD release to date and an essential purchase for fans and casual newbies alike.