February 11th, 2012
It was the end…but the moment had been prepared for.
From 1963 through 1969 Doctor Who was a black-and-white serial that ran for nine- or ten-month stretches, that featured as a lead an unknowable elderly man who travelled through time and space with several companions of both genders, who tended to operate at the edges of the story, coming in to a situation that appeared stable and upending it within a matter of hours, while never really taking on the protagonist role. After this, it was a colour series that ran for six months at a time, and featured a dashing action hero and his glamorous female assistant, helping Earth’s military fight off alien invasions. Other than the fact that they both feature a character called ‘Doctor’ and have the same theme music, there is literally nothing to connect, say, The Mind Robber from 1968 and Doctor Who And The Silurians from 1970.
To show how much of a change just the shorter runs were to be, this was the fiftieth TV Doctor Who story, but we only got the 200th in 2010. We’re a quarter of the way through, and it’s only now going to start being what people think of when they think of Doctor Who.
But even though the series after this story was going to be radically different, the elements of it had slowly been shifting into place. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT had both been introduced as supporting characters in Earth-based stories, but more importantly, the behind-the-scenes personnel were getting ready.
There are four people who, more than anyone else, recreated Doctor Who in their own image in the 1970s – Robert Holmes, Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke, and all of them got their start working on Troughton stories. This one, Troughton’s last, is Terrance Dicks’ first script for the series and Hulke’s second.
And it is, luckily, a script that contains the best elements of both men’s work.
This is lucky because this is a ten-episode story – the longest the series would ever do, with the exception of The Daleks’ Masterplan – and it could easily have been dull and flabby. But despite its five-hour running time, this is far more watchable than many stories less than half its length.
Partly, this is down to David Maloney’s direction – as I mentioned earlier, Maloney was one of the two or three best directors ever to work on the series. But this is one of the very best scripts the show has ever had. Terrance Dicks is a hack, but he’s a hack who understands story implicitly. Every episode in this story has a moment near the beginning that answers a question that’s been nagging at us since an earlier episode, a moment in the middle that introduces another, more complex, mystery, and a cliffhanger at the end that makes us desperate to see what’s coming next.
What Dicks was not especially good at was doing stories that are about anything. If we look at the scripts he submitted to the show over the next couple of decades, we see a definite pattern. Robot is King Kong with a robot instead of a gorilla, The Brain Of Morbius is Frankenstein in space, State Of Decay is Dracula in space, and The Five Doctors isn’t as much an actual script as the best Doctor Who platform game never created. Only The Horror Of Fang Rock actually has much to say about anything.
And this is where Malcolm Hulke comes in. While Terrance Dicks is an unabashed old-school pulp writer (his novelisations of Doctor Who stories are famous for having chapter titles like Escape…To Danger!), Hulke was very different. His skills were primarily in characterisation (like Dicks he came from soap opera, and in his novelisations he often fleshes out the most minor characters, giving them extensive back stories where on TV they were ‘bloke who gets shot by alien’) , but unlike Dicks he was a profoundly political writer. He was, in fact, a member of the Communist Party Of Great Britain (not the organisation of the same name that exists today), a weird organisation which wanted to introduce Stalinism in the UK, but wanted to do it fair and square through winning elections.
It must be pointed out here that the CPGB was a surprisingly respectable organisation until the full horrors of Stalinism became known – many Labour aristocrats like Lord Healey and Baroness Kennedy were at one pont members. In fact, I’m a member of one of its successor organisations, even though I’m a Liberal Democrat – the CPGB disbanded after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reformed as Democratic Left, which turned into the New Politics Network, which then merged with Charter 88 to form Unlock Democracy.
So one can only assume so much from membership of the CPGB, and we should no more decide that Hulke was in favour of gulags and the massacre of the bourgeois than we should believe that of those who tweet their wish for ‘full communism‘ today. Rather, what comes through in all Hulke’s scripts is an instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors, whether that be aboriginal communities against colonialism or workers against the bosses (Orwell’s essay on Dickens seems almost to describe Hulke). He also has an absolute loathing for the military and all its works.
And it’s this loathing that comes through in The War Games, because at least at its start it is a howl of outrage at the First World War.
One must remember, here, that the First World War wasn’t just ‘in living memory’, but it was still for the most part thought of with pride. It had only ended fifty years before the writing of this script, and many of the people who had fought in the war were in prominent positions in public life at the time. Fifty years may sound like a long time, but the sixties themselves were fifty years ago now, and they are still ‘modern’ to us – we still get outraged at injustices perpetrated in that time.
So until only a few years prior to this story, the First World War was “the Great War”. It was a noble effort in which the brave British fought the beastly Hun. But that was changing.
Forty days before episode one of The War Games was broadcast, the film Oh! What A Lovely War was released. One of the landmark films in the anti-war movement of the 60s, it was based on a book by, of all people, the arch-Thatcherite Alan Clark. The Donkeys, Clark’s book, had popularised the phrase ‘Lions led by donkeys’ to describe what he considered the utter incompetence of the generals in charge of the British war effort during the early part of World War I. Clark’s book, and the subsequent popularisations of its central thesis, had helped change the War’s place in ‘our national story’ from one of our proudest moments to one of the most shameful. And parallels were being drawn with the war in Vietnam, with which Britain was, fortunately, not directly involved, but in which it was believed by man the Wilson government was far too supportive of America.
So the scenes at the beginning of this story, which seem pretty dark now (the TARDIS crew emerge laughing and joking with each other, only to find themselves in the middle of No Man’s Land – they never laugh together again), and which still pack a powerful punch (David Maloney clearly thought so – the opening to Genesis Of The Daleks five years later is almost an homage to his own earlier work here), would have been very, very disturbing at the time. Some of those watching this on broadcast would have fought in the war it was depicting. More would have fought in the Second World War, and the parents of the children watching would almost certainly have strong childhood memories of the gasmasks shown in the war scenes. (Those memories would be very visceral – there was a lot of gasmask-fetish pornography produced for people in that generation…) And the war it was depicting was one that had become a political football fifty years after it had ended.
And The War Games absolutely takes a side in that debate, and comes down firmly against the officer class. It turns out in later episodes that what we’re seeing is not really the First World War at all, but that soldiers from both sides have been kidnapped and brainwashed into fighting on an alien planet, along with soldiers from various other wars from Earth’s past. This might seem like a let-down after the brutality of the early scenes, but if anything it reinforces it. The officer class are literally from a different planet, and the officers on both sides are colluding with each other for their own interests and slaughtering the foot soldiers on both sides, who only fight because they’re brainwashed. The Doctor and his friends are given a show trial and sentenced to death without ever being able to defend themselves. And the only people who manage to shrug off the brainwashing refuse to fight on either side, but instead band together to attack the officer class.
It might not be the most subtle story ever, but it’s about as political as Doctor Who ever gets, and it’s very clearly taking a side.
The Doctor and his companions are lost in the middle of all this, trying just to stay alive as events unfold around them, and we discover what’s happening through their eyes, as first we see the General has a telecommunication device that wouldn’t have been possible in 1917, and then we see Roman soldiers and American Civil War troops, and eventually we discover that the whole thing has been a plot by an alien called the War Lord, and another one called the War Chief.
Who is a member of the Doctor’s species.
Previously we’ve only seen two other characters from the Doctor’s home planet, The Meddling Monk (a harmless buffoon of a character, albeit a villainous one), and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan. This is different. The War Chief is malevolent, manipulative, dresses all in black, has evil facial hair, and uses mind control on his victims. He is, in short, another one of the prototype-Masters who have been popping up. (Some fans claim he is the Master in an early regeneration. This is contradicted by some of the books, but those books are pretty bad, while The Book Of The War, the best Doctor Who-related book ever, hints that it’s the case. When in doubt, I go with The Book Of The War.)
By the end, the Doctor has no choice, no escape. He does the only thing he can do – he calls in the rest of his race.
Here we see the Time Lords for the first time, and they’re clearly evil. This can seem less obvious in retrospect, when they’ve been softened and humanised, but they appear here as a clear parallel of the War Lord (we might presume there is a planet of War Lords just like a planet of Time Lords, and there might be a planet of Space Lords and so on). They’re aristocracy, and this is being co-written by a Communist.
And they do in the last episode exactly what the villains do in the first – they put the Doctor on trial. But unlike his first trial, the Doctor doesn’t plead not guilty, because his crime here is interference.
“All these evils I have fought, while you have done nothing but observe! True, I am guilty of interference. Just as you are guilty of failing to use your great powers to help those in need!”
Throughout the Troughton era we’ve had television cameras viewing people, immaterial observers watching, and the threats of surveillance and mind control as being the two worst things that can ever happen. Now, in seeing the people the Doctor has been running from, we can understand his opposition to these things all too well – the Time Lords are cosmic voyeurs, who sit back from a position of power and watch the suffering of others.
But whether innocent or guilty, the result of both trials is the same. In the first episode, the Doctor’s trial ends with him in front of a firing squad. Here, the Doctor is forced to regenerate (though the term is not yet used – he’s just ‘getting another face’), and this life is over for him. Worse, he’s being exiled to Earth.
But most horrifying of all is the single most retconned scene in the whole of Doctor Who:
Zoe : Will we ever meet again?
The Doctor : Now, Zoe, you and I know that time is relative, isn’t it?
(Jamie and Zoe are sent back to their own times)
Doctor: They’ll forget me, won’t they?
Time Lord: Not entirely. They’ll be returned to a moment in time just before they went away with you. They will remember their first adventure with you, but nothing more.
Jamie and Zoe’s development as characters – everything they’ve learned, everything they’ve seen, everything they’ve become – is ripped away from them. Jamie goes back to being an illiterate soldier in the eighteenth century, and will probably not live much longer. Zoe goes back to her job on the wheel in space. For them, these stories never happened. Only the Doctor will remember.
And the Doctor… the Doctor is to be trapped in one place, in one time. His panic as he realises this is Troughton’s finest moment in the part.
In the end, the bad guys win. The people who watch with disinterest as others suffer, who want power for the sake of it, and who have absolute control but use that control not to help people but to crush any dissent, destroy the little scruffy man who wanders around the universe helping people fight powerful oppressors. The next time we see him, he’s a totally different figure – a tall, patrician aristocrat who stays in one place and helps the military.
The voice from the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. The waiters were turning back to their work. One of them approached with the gin bottle. Winston, sitting in a blissful dream, paid no attention as his glass was filled up. He was not running or cheering any longer. He was back in the Ministry of Love, with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in the public dock, confessing everything, implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The longhoped-for bullet was entering his brain.
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding ! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast ! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
George Orwell – 1984