5 out of 5
Directed by: David Maloney
Over the course of the Hartnell years, Doctor Who had to shed its skin as an educational show, and along the way, it started to kick dirt across the surface of the world it was building. There wasn’t a lot of consistency to hang on to, but at least the sense that there were these different races with which The Doctor was familiar began to emerge, and by the time Troughton jumped in to the picture – immediately enlivening the vibe just by dint of the actor’s energy – the show was mostly down with carrying this forward. DW became a legit sci-fi show for some serials, playing with ideas instead of playing at being something more substantial, and building up that cache of bogeymen along the way. The show would still suffer from filler, and a sense of repetition, and forced dramatics, but it definitely began to have an established identity, with surges of creativity that pushed past budget limitations.
War Games – Troughton’s final serial, and perhaps coincidentally kicking off the first run of episodes that won’t be broken up by reconstructed ones, making it an easy “jumping on” point, chronologically – is where 6 seasons of figuring out what worked on the show finally allowed for a full-on, 10-episode culmination of Really Cool Stuff. The basic concept is fun, the characters are fun, the sets are fun – despite things like a refrigerator magnet set acting as computer controls – the conversations are fun, and then it jumps up like 5000% in badassness when the show makes good on that world-building to jump into the deep end: it’s not just “see you next episode,” but rather a whammy of a final ep in which the whole paradigm of time travel heroes is topsy-turnied by some revelations it’s better to experience oneself. This, to me, is where the show officially became the Doctor Who that I would watch on my dad’s VHS recorded-off-TV copies as a kid; where it became a genre into and of itself.
Even setting that aside, though, War Games is a winner. While there are a couple of “fake” cliffhangers, and constant separation of companions, these aren’t employed in the time wasting fashion in which they normally have been. Rather, everyone is always up to something in each episode, and that something is helping to move the story along in some way. We keep meeting new characters, and finding out new things, and getting a few zinger plot twists at different points that really keep you guessing and to what’s what. It’s the kind of interesting setup that can survive a sort of underwhelming “explanation” as to why it’s all going on (this is not the explanations in the 10th episode, which deal more with the entirety of the series as opposed to what’s occurring specifically in this serial), as the general concept is so interesting that it doesn’t really need a wowzer of a What and Why behind it. That concept: the DW crew land in the middle of a warzone, seemingly in Earth’s past. But when they travel through a weird cloud of fog, they find themselves in a wholly different war torn Earth area and era – different cultures, different languages! This seems to repeat, suggesting a patchwork land, separated by these clouds, all at war, but all from displaced times and places. There’re also dudes who can hypnotize by putting on their glasses, and machines that seem to appear and disappear for unclear reasons.
Our eventually shown baddies where some unflattering, full-body plastic black trashbag suits, and the sets warp and buckle at a touch. Massive fight scenes don’t seem very choreographed, so much as someone shouting “go!” and then everyone play wrestling. There’s the aforementioned refrigerator magnets. But there’s just so much energy and inspiration on display that it doesn’t matter – a very pure example of creativity helping us move past more obvious flaws.
It’s hard to say whether or not the ending has an impact if you are watching it as your first serial, but I think it’d be really intriguing either way, which makes War Games not only impressive for maintaining its entertainment value for a four hour runtime – much shorter serials have struggled! – but also a great showcase for classic Who, while also being a total landmark episode that changed the game for good.