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June 30, 2009

We Don't Want To Lose You, But We Think You Ought To Go

The War Games

Due to be Released: 6 July 2009

Produced by 2Entertain

(This review contains spoilers.  But come on...it was made 40 years ago.)

Title Here it is at last.  The War Games has long been recognised as one of the most important Doctor Who stories ever made, and you can make a shopping list of the things it introduced to the series, from the naming of the Time Lords and the first sighting of their home planet, to the trial of the Doctor and his eventual, slightly odd, exile: "You will be sent to a new kind of series, made in colour, with a bit of ITC and Quatermass thrown in, but you'll get much longer holidays".  It's also a story that set the parameters for a number of massive arguments that raged around fandom, the most persistent of which maintains that the series went downhill from the moment that the Doctor was identified as a Time Lord and saddled with a backstory that could only ever go on to provide diminishing returns.

This line of thinking holds that the Gallifreyan hairdressers' waiting rooms and potted plants of Arc of Infinity were an inevitable consequence of the moment when Edward Brayshaw's Security Chief recognised the Doctor in Episode 4, and this view of the Time Lords as a bad thing seemed to be reinforced when Russell T Davies brought the series back and only waited until the second episode before revealing that the Time Lords had been wiped out.  Of course, this was slightly undermined by the fact that the new series subsequently went on to mention the Time Lords in virtually every other episode, until by Series 4 whenever the Doctor got dewy-eyed and started to mention the Time War you could almost see the other characters rolling their eyes in the same way that Del Boy and Rodney did whenever Uncle Albert started telling his war stories.  The point is, that you can extrapolate all of these controversies from The War Games, and chunter on about them for months, but the story itself gets little attention.  If there is any consensus, it's that the adventure is a crashing bore, a tedious runaround, only redeemed by the last episode-and-a-half of beautiful, myth-making fanwank.  Well having watched this sumptuously produced DVD set, I can say to people who hold that belief that, in the words of Chris Morris, you're wrong and you're grotesquely ugly freaks.

you're wrong and you're grotesquely ugly freaks

Don't get me wrong - I was one of the grotesquely ugly freaks as well.  I hadn't seen The War Games for years, and I'm a sucker for an easy life, so assumed that my memory of being a bit bored the last time I watched it would remain my definitive judgment.  Within just a few minutes of watching this DVD release I realised that I was wrong.  Now, there are obviously certain things about the story that are undeniable - there are an awful lot of instances of the TARDIS crew being captured, escaping, and being recaptured, in fact the first capture happens about five minutes in, and the escape one minute later is actually a recapture.  So criticisms that the story is repetitive may well be justified, but repetitive is not the same thing as boring - there's a crucial distinction.  And it's worth taking a step back and considering what this story is about - there are lots of wars separated into time zones on an alien planet as part of an experiment to develop a fearsome and resilient army.  Now leaving aside the fact that this is quite barmy (this is Doctor Who after all) it is evidently going to be the case that each war zone is going to exhibit the common characteristics of warfare - treatment of the enemy, military justice, etc - so it's fairly obvious that when crossing the time zones the Doctor and company are likely to get more than their fair share of deja vu.  One of the most interesting things about The War Games is that there is no attempt by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke to maintain an air of mystery around the events.  Some writers may have chosen to wait an episode or two before revealing that an alien presence is responsible for the weird behaviour witnessed by the Doctor and his companions, but Dicks and Hulke reveal that General Smythe is an alien roughly ten minutes into Episode 1.  This immediately means we are aware that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are the only free agents (until they start gathering a resistance group) in a nightmarish world of amnesiac puppets, where every moment they seem to make progress is foiled by an alien donning a pair of Mr Magoo spectacles and returning them all back to square one.  Repetition is part of the point.

And yes, I'm aware that the length of The War Games was a consequence of a number of production disasters that led to the loss of both a six-part and four-part adventure, and that Dicks and Hulke had to knock out the scripts faster than Target novelisations of Tom Baker stories, but to me that makes the story even more remarkable.  It's all very well for Dicks to talk about the use of "return loops" (i.e. padding) within each episode, but the fact is that the central idea of the story was a stroke of genius as it gave narrative justification for an expanding number of similar episodes.  And just because you employ return loops doesn't mean that they can't individually be interesting in their own right.  Being recaptured by General Smythe is very different from being recaptured by the War Chief and his cronies.  The continuing development of the alien's own narrative is particularly engrossing.  The infighting between the War Chief and the Security Chief is fantastic, and their antagonism evolves throughout the story, not least when the Doctor arrives which sends the War Chief into a scheming frenzy, and the Security Chief into an even deeper pit of paranoia.  And all of this before the arrival of the War Lord, surely one of the most sinister characters to appear in the programme, made even more memorable by the resolute lack of a back story for him or his race.  But maybe I just enjoy thinking about a planet where Nehru-jacketed men with bottle-bottom glasses walk around flanked by gimps in rubber suits and bathing caps.  Imagine how weird it must look when they're all at the local supermarket.  Another positive side-effect of the production problems is that this story got the equivalent budget of two stories, which consequently means that the relatively few sets here get more money lavished on them and it shows.  The alien set looks great, and David Maloney's direction gets the best out of it, with the famously grim Brighton rubbish tip also setting an appropriate tone.

gimps in rubber suits and bathing caps

Even though I consider any boring moments to be few and far between, my attention was always sustained by some wonderful acting performances throughout the cast.  David Savile (Carstairs) and Jane Sherwin (Lady Jennifer) are solid and believable goodies, as is Graham Weston as Russell the Boer War refugee.  There's an immaculate turn by Noel Coleman as the repellent General Smythe who first alerts us to the genuine nastiness of the aliens, which is later bolstered by David Garfield doubling up as equally unpleasant German and Confederate generals.  But it's the trio of alien leaders who really hold your attention.  James Bree and Edward Brayshaw put in arresting performances as the Security Chief and War Chief respectively, with Bree out-Daleking the Daleks with his staccato delivery, and Brayshaw going large with his florid depiction of a megalomaniacal traitor.  And then Philip Madoc enters the scene as the War Lord, and things go to another level entirely.  His performance is outstanding, and from the sharp lines of his stubble down to his soft voice and scary spectacles, he is immaculate.  Even when his character is dematerialised, he continues to underplay it merely intoning "No, no" in a way that makes his death even more disturbing. 

As usual, the regulars give it their all, with Patrick Troughton excelling over the final couple of episodes when the Doctor is increasingly frazzled and desperate as he realises events are beyond his control.  The consequences of his eventual solution lead us to the justly famous final episode, which ironically features about three attempts to escape and is probably more padded out than any of the previous nine installments.  This doesn't detract too much from the final impact however, as it's an impressively grim conclusion to a notably serious piece of work.  Zoe and Jamie depart with a proto-Donna Noble mindwipe, with Jamie deposited back straight into an unequal pitched battle with an armed Redcoat, while Zoe ends up on the most boring space station in the universe.  The latter features a wonderful, but heart-rending performance from Wendy Padbury, as Zoe struggles to remember her time with the Doctor but eventually says "I thought I'd forgotten something important, but it's nothing".  As if this wasn't angst-ridden enough, the Doctor is then catapulted into some kind of existential netherworld, spinning around like Descartes' mind before fading into echoing darkness.  And in this singular way ends one of the most remarkable of the Doctor's adventures, which here, in this stunningly restored version, should cause everyone to view it again with wonder.

Extras

The restoration on The War Games is so good that it would justify the release on its own, but there are also a large number of high-quality extras, even down to those regular features that are often taken for granted.  The production notes by Martin Wiggins are easily the best I've seen so far.  They are unobtrusive and clear even though they have a very complicated production history to convey, and this is all achieved within the very fiddly logistics of matching the notes to the screen while giving viewers enough time read them.  If that's not enough, Wiggins also manages to be witty, and there's a note about Zoe and spanking during episode 5 that was just one example that had me sniggering.  These production notes don't get enough praise, as when they're done well (as they are with bells on here) they add to the viewing experience tremendously. 

Kubrick would have been shaken

Commentaries are another de facto extra, and one that I'm a bit more wary of for a whole host of reasons.  The commentary participants here are numerous, as you'd expect for a such a long story, and the full line-up is Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Terrance Dicks, Philip Madoc, Derrick Sherwin, Graham Weston and Jane Sherwin.  There are some incidental moments of humour - the word bouffant is mentioned but not in relation to Pertwee; Dicks and Sherwin went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when on location and hated it (Kubrick would have been shaken) - and occasional moments of interest, such as Derrick Sherwin refreshingly still remembering Troughton's awkwardness on set during the period, and Philip Madoc explaining (when you can hear him over the others) how he decided on the characterisation of the War Lord.  But the overwhelming impression you get from the commentaries, in spite of Frazer and Wendy being as jovial as ever, is of a lot of half-remembered anecdotes from a group of people who have varying degrees of success in covering up their boredom.  This is fair enough and understandable, but if you're in a good mood and enjoy the story then treat with caution.  On a lighter note, the definite highlight is when Derrick Sherwin launches into an enthusiastic description of Wendy Padbury's bum in the famous scene in The Mind Robber.  He gets so into it ("you could make out every twitch of the cheeks") that you feel like shaking him and saying "Come on man, this isn't even the commentary for The Mind Robber stop slavering like a fanboy".  Priceless.

you could make out every twitch of the cheeks

There are so many feature extras that it's hard to know where to start.  I happened to watch them on the same day that Mark Gatiss's Radio 4 tribute to Target Books was transmitted, so it's probably not surprising that Marcus Hearn's On Target: Malcolm Hulke really stood out.  Maybe the impact of this feature depends on how much of a Hulke fan you are, but as I'm a paid-up member of the Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon Appreciation Society it really hit the spot for me.  There are readings from Hulke's work by Peter Miles and Katy Manning, and some lovely contributions from the various talking heads, with Gary Russell in particularly fine form as he nails the reasons why Hulke was so good.  This is a gem of an extra, clearly put together with great affection for the subject, and probably because of the general outpouring of Target-y goodness recently, I was actually quite moved by it.  On a lighter note, James Goss's Talking About Regeneration is a successful blend of humour and insight from various commentators on the subject of regeneration.  Amongst others, Rob Shearman (gorgeous as ever in maroon shirt), Joe Lidster and Kate O'Mara (!), make some very funny comments about the perils of turning into Colin Baker, and the importance of Bonnie Langford's death when trying to achieve a really convincing regeneration.  You also get to find out what Clayton Hickman considers to be the most pleasurable experience you can have.  Clayton - you really should get out more.

Other features include Steve Broster's War Zone, a 'making of' which contains some very good interview contributions from the late David Maloney, and a great anecdote from designer Roger Cheveley about MichaelJohn Harris and his big bag of explosives.  Paul Cornell crops up as well, and he seems to be very enthusiastic about Zoe's coat.  It probably says more about me, and not about him, that I tend to find Cornell a little bit irritating on some extras.  There's nothing wrong with what he says, indeed I nearly always agree with him, but I keep thinking about a phrase my grandma used about some people: "If he was a lollipop he'd lick himself".  Still as Auden almost said "Time will pardon Paul Cornell, Pardon him for writing well".  But it's an illuminating extra, as is another episode of Marcus Hearn's Stripped for Action where Gary Russell (on top form again) and others talk about the crazy comic strips of the Troughton era, and as a result I spent several days thinking about the logistics of skiing Cybermen.  Imagine what a ski resort for Cybermen would look like.  It'd be like The Pink Panther film only in metal, and with hardly any aloof countesses or David Niven.

Hodgson Of the remaining features I found a couple slightly underwhelming but that's probably just me being picky.  The Dudley Simpson and Sylvia James interviews were informative shorts but a little bitty.  More significantly, I think that the Shades of Grey feature probably emerged from a very laudable desire to contextualise early Doctor Who within the wider environment of the other programmes that were being made at that time.  This is close to the heart of archive television fans, many of whom were introduced to the world of 1960s/1970s television through their interest in Doctor Who, and it's nice to think of any new fans of the series coming to this DVD and similarly becoming inspired by the knowledge that there is vast range of old programmes waiting to be explored.  But purely as a standalone piece of work, I thought the feature was a bit of a hotch-potch with only the early part of the piece genuinely concentrating on the aesthetics of working in black and white, whereas the latter part used the phrase "black and white" as a synonym for "old television".  The final section of the piece entitled "The Sound of Black and White" being a case in point - the fact that a programme was in black and white had nothing to do with what the sound was like - it's all about the era rather than the aesthetic.  But that section is fine if only because it includes the clip of Brian Hodgson being interviewed by a woman who is clearly in love with him - watch her face throughout - she is completely enraptured.  Wonderful.

a bottle of wine. Or two

Of the other major extras (yes there are more) there is a piece entitled Time Zones which features some historians filling in the background to the various battles featured in The War Games.  I find it hard to be objective about this, as within two minutes of the piece starting I was confronted by Dr Martin Farr, who I've shared the odd pint with over the years through a mutual friend followed swiftly by Lindsay Allason-Jones who I've also encountered a number of times at various business meetings. This Newcastle University connection (see the recent Manchurian Candidate extra on The Deadly Assassin DVD) is getting too close for comfort.  But this is an informative extra, with the experts' combined efforts to understand which war David Troughton's character was supposed to be from, and their thoughts upon The War Games itself being particularly interesting.  From another planet entirely is fan film Devious, an attempt to bridge the gap between the end of The War Games and the start of Spearhead from Space which is particularly notable for featuring the last performance of Jon Pertwee.  I'm a bit of a fan film virgin, and genuinely don't know if this is at the good or bad end of the spectrum, but I do know that it was perfectly palatable when washed down with a bottle of wine. Or two.  And the commentary (yes there's a commentary) is also amusing, probably for the wrong reasons, but it's there if you fancy it.

I think I've banged on about this release for long enough now, but I hope appropriately so.  It's one of the best DVD releases of the range so far, and lives up to all the expectations that have been heaped upon it.  If I have one regret, it's that the planned feature on Patrick Troughton fell through for logistical reasons, but you can't have everything, and this release is more than enough unless you're really greedy.  The sum of its parts would be impressive enough, but the whole is outstanding.  Buy it.

Oh and there's a great Easter Egg on Disc 2.  Exile?

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