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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t always feels like a special occasion when a serial from Patrick Troughton’s era of “Doctor Who” is released on DVD, since so little of his time as the central character even exists anymore. It’s of course a huge shame that any “Who” stories were junked, but the Troughton era was hit particularly hard, and only six of its stories exist in their complete forms (although the release of “The Invasion” a few years ago, with animation providing the visuals for Episodes One and Four, helps to bump the total up to seven). Troughton’s Doctor had a true sense of the magic of the universe about him, an attribute which trickled into his stories as well. On his watch, the series started shedding its “for kids only” formula, and began churning out some truly memorable sci-fi yarns.
This DVD release seems doubly special since “The War Games” was not only the last story of his era, but it was also the last “Who” story of the ‘60s, as well as the last to be shot in black and white. Clocking in at over four hours in length and spanning a whopping ten episodes, “The War Games” is truly something special – although the one aspect that makes it particularly noteworthy hasn’t even been mentioned yet. We’ll get there in due course, however, so hang tight.
The Doctor (Troughton) and his companions Jamie (Frazer Hines), the Scottish Highlander from the past, and Zoe (Wendy Padbury), the girl genius from the future, arrive smack in what appears to be the middle of World War I. “Appears” is the key word here, and over the course of several episodes of being captured, shot at, captured again, threatened, caught once more, escaping (several times), and loads of running around, they discover they aren’t on Earth at all, but rather an unnamed alien planet. A group of human-looking aliens have kidnapped groups of soldiers from numerous eras of human history and sectioned them off into separate zones, so that they believe they are still on Earth, fighting their respective wars. What is the aliens’ eventual plan? Well, despite having ten episodes in which to explore that issue, the mechanics of it remain fairly glossed over, but the idea seems to be to put together a “super army” for conquest purposes.
As you might guess, ten episodes is an awful lot of time to devote to one story (unlike, say, “The Trial of a Time Lord,” which broke its 14 episode story arc down into 4 different tales). Surprisingly, the first four or five installments do a fine job of building suspense and mystery, with one or two pieces of the puzzle coming together in every episode. Somewhere after that, however, the story begins wallowing in repetition, needlessly staving off reaching the finish line. There’s still the occasional good scene here and there, but you’ll inevitably end up feeling that the story needs to damn well get on with it. Then in Episode Nine, the whole thing picks back up again, and delivers a hell of a finale that from a history of “Who” standpoint makes “The War Games” must-see material.
Before “The War Games,” the series spent six years taking viewers on countless journeys with this alien known only as the Doctor. We knew he came from another planet, we knew he had a machine that traveled in time and space, and we knew he could change his physical form when near death. And over the course of six years, that was about all we knew of this mystery man. When the Doctor is left with the mammoth task of returning (presumably) thousands of soldiers to their eras of Earth history, he finds the task is too much, and so he’s forced to call upon his own people, the Time Lords. It is in this story that the viewer was first introduced to the Time Lords, and, in fact, the first time the Doctor’s race was even named.
Pretty much every other story featuring the Time Lords has already been released on DVD, and assuming you’re a fan, you’ve likely already seen at least some of those entries, but the way they’re presented here is a considerably different interpretation than what they evolved into later on in stories such as “The Deadly Assassin” or “Arc of Infinity.” Here they are men of few words, retaining an air of mystery about them, and appearing to possess psychic powers as well as a few other startling abilities that actually earn them the “Lord” part of their name. It was probably a wise move to eventually bring them down to a somewhat more human level. Had the series built on what was showcased here, the writers would’ve had little choice but to evolve them into gods, and let’s face it – any race that already has to the power to stave off death with such ease is already dancing with the heavens.
“The War Games” DVD is spread across three discs – the first two contain five episodes each, and the third is devoted completely to the extras. Still, the price tag is pretty steep for a single story that isn’t exactly stellar across the board. It’s difficult to recommend this story to people unfamiliar with it, while at the time it’s just as difficult to sway anyone from picking it up, since it’s such an important part of “Who” lore, and it’s just such a fantastic set. The transfer and restoration work are just freaking gorgeous, especially for anyone who’s sat through the muddy VHS and TV versions of it over the years, and the extras are substantial to say the least, as you’re about to find out.
Special Features: There’s a commentary track which spans the entire program, featuring Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Philip Madoc, Jane Sherwin, Graham Weston, co-writer Terrance Dicks and script editor and producer Derrick Sherwin. One wonders how on earth this group managed to find four hours worth of stuff to say, but they do an admirable job of keeping the chit-chat going. “War Zone” is a 36-minute making of/recollection of the story with well over a dozen opinions chiming in. “Shades of Grey” is less about “Doctor Who” and more about black and white British TV shows of the ‘60s. “Now and Then” is another entry in the ongoing look at the series’ location work. “The Doctor's Composer” is a real treat – a look back at much of composer Dudley Simpson’s work on the show. “Sylvia James – In Conversation” is a chat with the make-up designer. “Talking About Regeneration” is yet another great feature that dissects every regeneration scene of the Doctor’s life. “Time Zones” is a dry dissection of history vs. fiction as presented in “The War Games.”
“Stripped for Action – The Second Doctor” is another entry in the ongoing look at how each Doctor is represented in comic book/strip form. Even though I have no major interest in “Who” comics, I keep finding this series to be a fascinating extra whenever it shows up on a DVD. “On Target – Malcolm Hulke” is the first entry in a new ongoing series of extras for the “Who” DVD range; each entry will tackle the work of a different writer who was responsible for novelizing the serials back in the day. This looks to be quite a cool feature to keep an eye out for in the next couple years. As if all of that stuff wasn’t enough, there’s also the usual photo gallery, production notes option, DVD-ROM accessible material, and also three Easter Eggs.
Finally, there’s “Devious,” perhaps the most intriguing extra on the entire set. It’s a 12-minute selection of scenes from an elaborate fan-made film that, due to legal reasons, will probably never be seen in its entirety by the general public. “Devious” aims to fill in a gap between the Troughton and Jon Pertwee eras. It features an interim Doctor who must have been cast for his looks – a weirdly accurate depiction of what a cross between the two actors would look like – because he certainly can’t act his way out of a sack of weasels, and has zero screen presence. Anyway, the fans who made this film actually managed to get enough money together to hire Pertwee for one day in 1995, so that they could shoot a scene of their interim Doc regenerating into the Third Doctor. It would be the very last time Pertwee would play the Doctor, as he died a year later. The entirety of his performance from that day of work is here for fans to appreciate, and my hat goes off to the BBC for allowing its inclusion on this set.