Aired 19 April – 21 June 1969
As the 1960s came to a close, Doctor Who found itself facing another crisis. Ratings had dropped significantly and Patrick Troughton had decided that his third year in the titular role would be his last. With the concept of a total change in appearance and attitude of the Doctor already established in ‘The Tenth Planet’- not fully fleshed out as the regeneration concept known today- a change in lead actor was certainly a viable solution to part of the issue. To save ratings, however, something more drastic was going to have to change, and the idea of exiling the Doctor to essentially modern-day Earth was established by the end of the Second Doctor’s era. Though ‘The War Games’ is absolutely the end of an era as it is the final episode to be shot in black and white and the final story for Troughton’s Doctor, Frazer Hines’s Jamie, and Wendy Padbury’s Zoe Heriot, it also has to justify the coming changes, and an introduction to the Doctor’s own race, the Time Lords, who put him on trial for his constant meddling in history forms that justification.
However, jumping ahead to the introduction and trial in the final episode of the ten-episode ‘The War Games’ does a grave injustice to the preceding nine. Although the plot is perhaps a bit too circuitous and repetitive for both the heroes and villains, a necessary side effect of having to create such a long story to fill the production order, the story told is a thrilling one with a strong sense of progression and fantastic payoff that serves as a strong farewell to this incarnation of the Doctor and, indeed, to an entire format of storytelling itself. For those watching who are familiar with the Tenth Doctor trying his best to stave off regeneration after his harrowing comparisons of it and death, the Second Doctor’s forced regeneration here also takes on much more meaningful weight.
Landing the Doctor and his companions in the battlefields of World War I between the British and German trenches is an early sign that this serial is going to be something wholly different from the more fantastic serials of this era, and all of them promptly almost being killed by mortar and gunfire ingrains this serial in the very grim dangers that humanity itself presents in its darkest times. In a way, this historical setting hearkens back to the historical style of serials that has been so numerous during the First Doctor’s era but fallen by the wayside following ‘The Highlanders,’ and on initial viewing this implies that the Doctor will be beholden to the customs and ways of the times, unable to interfere as he normally does when science fiction elements enter the story. Yet as the story quickly reveals that the British General Smythe is somehow hypnotizing his underlings and using obviously anachronistic and alien technologies, it’s clear that the Doctor is the middle of something much more complex and open to his ability to help.
Very slowly, ‘The War Games’ reveals that the events portrayed are not even on Earth at all but rather on an unnamed planet where Smythe and his superiors have brought together soldiers from throughout history to battle. To that effect, one of the most fascinating characters in Doctor Who to this point is introduced in the War Chief, another renegade of Time Lord society who has constructed TARDIS-like machines for his compatriots, allowing the Doctor to see for himself how disastrously and morally wrong the ability to travel in time and space can be in the wrong hands. The story expertly uses its slower pace to build up the atmosphere and conflict of the war zones while slowly transitioning to the more incredible facets of the War Chief’s plans and the resistance comprised of soldiers from all across history.
The dangers and consequences of the interference and brainwashing obviously spur the Doctor and his companions into action even while in a very dangerous progression of backdrops, and the senseless killing that accompanies war is certainly front and centre both from the soldiers’ and their superiors’ differing perspectives. It’s also quite telling, though, that the Doctor tries to run away from these dangers on several occasions both before and after he fully realizes what is going on, perhaps an omen of the coming of the Time Lords but certainly a concept that directly relates to the Third Doctor’s emphatic inability to escape from his exile after the forced regeneration. Regardless, as he constantly finds himself intimately involved with the actions of the War Zones’ masters, the story gradually shifts solely from the Doctor’s path to victory and more to the dissension and mistrust among those rival allies as differing objectives and motivations make themselves known. Compared to the unity of the rebellion army, this helps to create an inversion of the typical base under siege story that has been so prominent in Troughton’s era up until this point.
Yet before ‘The War Games’ reveals the greatest insight into the Doctor’s past, it introduces the War Lord as the leader of this group of scientists and strangely non-military group of antagonists. Strangely, although he has the ultimate power in this base, he never seems to pose much of a threat to the Doctor himself, instead disdainfully ordering others around with extreme self-control even as he has to settle disputes between his underlings. Philip Madoc exudes a sense of tempered power behind his glasses, making the War Lord a dynamically intriguing foe who makes an immediate impact in his short time on screen and flatly orders the execution of the War Chief. Established as a Time Lord, there is the possibility that the War Chief regenerated into someone else, but the character’s body is never seen again after being dragged away; this is ultimately an unimportant fact except that it has created the theory that the War Chief and the Master may be one and the same given their similar motivations and penchant for villainous interference.
Ultimately, the Doctor stops the devastation behind the War Zones relatively easily, but it’s the fallout and resolution that causes him the greatest distress. Now charged with reprogramming the brainwashed soldiers and returning them to their original times and realities, the Doctor realizes that he simply doesn’t have the capacity or skill to handle all of this by himself, sending a message to the Time Lords explaining the situation and asking for help. This results in an ominous wind that announces the Time Lords’ impending arrival, and it’s an extremely effective moment when the Doctor grabs his companions and tells them to run rather than to meet members of his race directly. Before anyone appears on screen, the Doctor explains their civility and godlike powers and that he ran away from his planet due to boredom, wanting to explore the universe for himself which is something Time Lords in general would never consider. Of course, the Time Lords’ strict non-intervention policy is ultimately the Doctors’ undoing as they take away his ability to flee by taking control of his TARDIS.
Ending ‘The War Games’ with a shocking defeat for the Doctor as he loses both his current life and his current friends is a bold choice for the serial, and this disgrace at the hands of his own race undoubtedly feeds into his successor’s bitter hatred of his own race. There is another theory that has since been given credence by BBC novels that the Second Doctor actually became a knowing agent of the Celestial Intervention Agency in between the beginning and end of the regeneration sequence shown on screen- in effect explaining away the aged appearance of Troughton and Hines in ‘The Two Doctors’ specifically- but that, again, is a topic of discussion and not wholly relevant to this story or to the Pertwee stories that would follow. While the concept of the rigors of regeneration is downplayed by nearly everyone, the return of the Docotr’s companions to their own times with all memories of their times with the Doctor erased except for their first adventure is painfully and cruelly resonant. This is ultimately the story of the consequences of the Doctor being an agent of change even though he has announced on several occasions that nobody has the right to change even one line of history. Yet, conceding that there are still evils to be fought, the Doctor is still allowed to do what he is naturally drawn to do, just in a more controlled manner. ‘The War Games’ is a tragic ending for the Second Doctor, but a fitting one that also encapsulates everything that is so great about the lead actors and the era itself.