Well I’ve been a bit busy getting my crap together as I’m off to the Edinburgh fringe festival in just over a month, so maybe it’s been a bit of a blessing to not have Doctor Who on to distract me. Funnily enough the last episode of the current series finished just in time for me to go and compere the Rhodes Rock festival in Greece and that exciting week needs a multitude of blog entries of its own.
So in the meantime, on Brian Gallagher’s recommendation I got around to watching The War Games. I watched it many years ago on VHS and I think I borrowed it from a friend. Back then it was quite expensive to buy the video tapes of Doctor Who and this was before they started showing the episodes on UK Gold. So all my geeky Whovian friends would all make sure we didn’t overlap when buying the tapes and shared the joy by lending them to each other. It was like when my friend Paul Stroud and I slowly got all The Beatles albums this way.
When I originally watched The War Games I was completely blown away by how brilliant it was. It was also amazing because there wasn’t (and still isn’t) many Patrick Troughton episodes out there, so it was amazing to have such a good story intact. If my memory serves me correct it was kept in the BFI as an example of good British television.
The greatest thing about this DVD release is the quality of the print. I and I’m sure many of us, are so used to seeing grainy copies of black and white television programs it’s difficult to imagine them as being crystal clear. This is what the DVD release of The War Games is like and because it’s from the late sixties there’s a Dr Strangelove type chic about it. The wooden ray guns, the sunglasses with crosses on them, the plastic shower curtains in the middle of the room may have looked a bit cheap a decade down the line, but now it looks fabulous and quaint.
To be honest, on paper the story shouldn’t have worked. It was hurriedly written by Terrence Dicks and Malcolm Hulke and the amount of times they get captured and escape beggars belief. And boy can you tell they didn’t have the biggest budget in the world, but every scene is spot on. Even the so called hordes of Roman soldiers that number around 15 and the daft Mexicans that are supposed to be ruthless but are really comical add to it. All in all it’s one of the best Doctor Who stories. I’d probably put it in my personal top ten.
There are some truly brilliant performances. It felt more like watching a stage play as you could regularly hear footsteps walking on wooden sets and I mean that in a good way. I never tired of General Smyth played by Noel Coleman. This was good old fashioned British acting at its best. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in a supporting role as good as this. Jane Sherwin is fabulous as Lady Jennifer Buckingham. She’s terribly jolly hockey sticks all through and stiff upper lip, hoorah. The War Chief played by Edward Brayshaw is not only brilliant, but he looks fantastic too. He is incredibly stylish and you could easily get away with wearing that cool outfit at a party, in fact my friend Ricardo Lewis wouldn’t have looked out of place next to him. But I would say my favourite character in the whole story is James Bree who plays the Security Chief. He spends his entire time speaking in a staccato robot like voice and is completely stiff. Again it shouldn’t work, but it’s an inspired performance. The bit where The War Chief and the Security Chief bicker is pure television joy. It’s raw and you can tell they didn’t have a chance for many retakes, so it’s not an antiseptic watch like a Michael Mann film. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Michael Mann, I particularly love Heat and Manhunter, it’s just a world away from his very structured and thought out way of directing.
The sets in The War Games have gone from probably being a bit clunky and laughable to actually very cool. For example, the controls to the sophisticated futuristic technology are just shaped magnets stuck to a sheet of metal. This is supposed to be the technology of a highly advanced civilisation and all the rooms are about the size of a large lounge, but the ambition is incredible. There are so many sets and quite a few outdoor scenes that you can forgive the slightly unbelievable small size of the offices and spaceship interiors.
And there were plenty of moments that were the inspiration for The Doctor’s Wife. Obviously there was the box that the Doctor sends to get help from the Timelords, but more tellingly are the few comments Jamie makes about the Tardis never taking the Doctor where he ever wants to go. I felt a funny warm feeling in my tummy at that moment. The whole story brought back some good memories and it was lovely to think that one of my favourite episodes of all time is still as wonderful as I remember and that there’s a direct link to another wonderful episode written 42 years later.
And let’s not forget that this is the second time the Doctor has encountered another Timelord (the first was the Meddling Monk in The Time Meddler). But this is where the Timelords are actually named for the first time. Then there is the regeneration. At the time they hadn’t chosen the next Doctor so we don’t get to see him transform.
This is one of the best stories ever, but possibly overlooked a little due to its incredible length. At 25 minutes an episode you’re looking at over four hours of viewing. Plus there’s a 3rd disc with lots of extra footage that I still need to plough through. It’s certainly value for money if nothing else. And did I mention watchable? I watched the whole thing over two days. 4 episodes one day and 6 the next.
9 out of 10.