Doctor Who: The War Games DVD review

Patrick Troughton's final story as Doctor Who arrives on DVD. Can this 10-episode epic stand the test of time?

Doctor Who: The War Games

At ten episodes, The War Games ranks as one of the longest Doctor Who stories ever and it also holds the distinction of seeing the end to the the black and white era of the world’s best television show and the reign of one of the most beloved actors to play The Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Having said that, I’m not the biggest fan of his era but I was certainly most impressed with his send-off.

Normally, Who stories that overrun the four episode mark tend to sag and suffer from ‘to and fro’-itis or ‘corridor familiarity’, as it sometimes known. Pleasingly, The War Games, even at ten installments, keeps the momentum throughout. But what are these games all about …?

The Doc, Jamie and Zoe find themselves in what appears to be the fighting fields of World War I (or the ‘Great War’ as it was known before its more successful sequel came along). The trio are quickly separated from the TARDIS (I lurve it when that happens!) and get some help from the Brits, but it turns out that our heroes ain’t too liked by the top brass and everyone’s favourite Time Lord ends up in front a firing squad.

As the story unfolds we are treated to the sight of soldiers from the American Civil War, the Roman Army and more – though all is not as it seems. It becomes apparent, quite early on it should be noted, that these different peoples and times have been placed by a mysterious force. Alien tech is present (though not seen by The Doc and his chums for some time) and there’s hypnosis galore courtesy of some forboding marshsalls with thick-lens specs.

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And this is where The War Games excels – in its sense of mystery. There may well be a limited narrative for the most part, even co-writer and general all-round legend, Terrance Dicks, admits not much happens throughout, but the audience find themselves caught within the puzzle, curious to unearth the identity of the aliens involved. Of course, it transpires there are two alien species – one of which are the Time Lords.

Quite a denouement to say the least as we discover the Doctor’s race and their power over the universe. Troughton’s last scenes are odd and unnerving as he gurns and floats off into the abyss. I can imagine children all over the UK were distraught and the production team have to be commended as it was a very brave choice for a series finale. There’s a real foreboding sense (mainly in part because of the calmness of the Time Lords) that this might indeed be the end for our hero. (Don’t worry, though, kids. He did return!)

Troughton himself cuts an impressive figure and displays his range with some applomb, going from coward (run away!) to hero to buffon to posing as indignant army official to man beaten (at the hands of the Time Lords). But he is also supported incredibly well by an astonishing cast. As always, Frazer Hines (Jamie) and Wendy Padbury (Zoe) are nothing less than exemplary and this carries throughout the main players. Noel Coleman as General Smythe is just the right shade of bombastic and acts as a precursor to Stephen Fry’s Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth. Camping it up slightly, but still menacing, is the War Chief, played by Edward Brayshaw – who some of you may remember from Rentaghost. (I know I do!)

Counteracting this role is his superior, the War Lord, played by Who fan-favourite Phillip Madoc. He whispers his way through, chilling to the very end as he fights, ineffectively, it has to be said, against the Time Lords. I could go on as the cast list is immense but I will say there are a number of familiar faces to satisfy keen-eyed Doctor Who fans out there.

The production is stoutly served and, in particular, the location shooting is very un-Doctor Who (as noted in the commentary), very fast and superbly dynamic, constantly moving and energetic. From a design point of view, the aliens are hauntingly reminiscent of the 1962 film La Jetée – futuristic but uncanny at the same time. The Time Lords don’t come off as well but, thankfully, the performances carry them as all-seeing, all-knowing beings.

The War Games is an excellent introduction to the crazy black and white world of Doctor Who; the production values, the eerie score and cast are of a very high quality despite the story being stretched a tad. It also offers the first glimpse into the show delivering a mythology, painting the Doctor’s background more fully than the previous six years or so. This is one to sit down and cherish.

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Extras As always 2|entertain know their audience and suit their product accordingly – the extras will tighten the trouser of even the most flaccid fan. Here’s what you get:

Commentary There’s one for each episode with rolling contributions from actors Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Philip Madoc, Jane Sherwin and Graham Weston, co-writer Terrance Dicks and script editor Derrick Sherwin. There’s a great sense of fun throughout (though some stories do get trudged out repeatedly) especially when they take to spotting actors from Eastenders. Thankfully, everyone remembers their time on The War Games with some accuracy but hold no specific reverence for the serial and are happy to point out the odd flaw (or lust after David Tennant). Watch out for the booming tones of Phillip Madoc, however – he may well bust your speakers with his bassy tones!

War Zone This is the documentary on The War Games with the cast and crew recalling the making of Patrick Troughton’s epic swansong. No stone is left unturned in their search for the ultimate tome on the show and it was a nice touch to include new series writers such as Gareth Roberts and James Moran who clearly have a tremendous amount of lurve for the ten-parter. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury provide much hilarity (not to mention flirtyness) in their recollections in between the facts.

Shades of Grey As is customary these days, the producers supply us with some background info, contextualising the episodes in some way. This documentary examines how the technical and artistic constraints of monochrome television conspire to affect the unique look and feel of early productions. It’s a fascinating look at why ‘black and white is better’, though whether or not you’ll agree with some of the contributors is another thing.

Now and Then The ongoing series visits the locations of The War Games forty years on. Sadly, this is the weakest of the supplementary materials and you’ll find it barely piques your interest.

The Doctor’s Composer Prolific composer Dudley Simpson looks back at his first five years of work on Doctor Who. I’m a bit of a music buff so this appealed to me hugely. Simpson recalls his time with much affection and knowledge.

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Sylvia James – In Conversation Make-up designer Sylvia James talks about her work on Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who stories. Although you may think that getting a make-up designer to do a piece is the proverbial barrel scraper, James is so enthused that this featurette is a little gem.

Talking About Regeneration To be honest, this could have been fleshed out to an hour or so of Doctor Who Confidential, so engrossing is it. The premise is simple – show clips of each Doctor regenerating and get various people from the show (‘classic’ and ‘new’) to chat about the merits of each one (with many opposing views). Simple and effective, and it’s always nice to see Peter “Davidson” Davison compliment the majesty of Nicola Bryant’s cleavage. Challenges the longer ‘main’ extra for brilliance and interest.

Time Zones Historians discuss the reality behind the various time zones featured in The War Games. Not as dull as it sounds as the boffins involved do seem to know about the show (as well as history) and incorporate it into their thesis.

Stripped for Action – The Second Doctor The continuing series of features focussing on the Doctor’s comic strip adventures looks at the Second Doctor. I’m not particularly fond of comic strips but this piece was immensely interesting and features a number of alumni expounding the values of Patrick Troughton (and his companions) in strip form.

On Target – Malcolm Hulke The first in a series of features on the Target range of TV story novelizations looks at the work of writer Malcolm Hulke. Although this featurette barely mentions The War Games, you’ll be drawn in by the enthusiasm of people like Gary Russell who grew up on Doctor Who novelisations. Even when I was a lad, the novels were the quintessential companion pieces to the show itself (before regular VHS releases), so this documentary certainly evoked a time where trips to the library would involve sitting and staring at the various Doctor Who covers deciding which one to read next.

Devious This is a fan film set between The War Games and Spearhead From Space that has the audacity to feature an actual Doctor – Jon Pertwee! Sadly, it was to be his last appearance as The Third Doctor before his death, and whilst he’s not on top form, it’s never less than a pleasure to see the man in action.

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Add to that bunch: three Easter Eggs (not the best, it has to be said), some cracking PDF materials (including production notes), the obligatory (but most welcome) Photo Gallery, a ‘Coming Soon’ trailer for the upcoming Black Guardian Trilogy DVD and the always essential Subtitle Production Notes.

As you can see, quite a selection of additional material that will leave even the most hungry of ‘Extras’ devotees satiated, satisfied and, dare I say, aroused.

Episodes:

5 stars
Discs:
5 stars
Doctor Who: The War Games is released on July 6.

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Rating:

2 out of 5