|'The War Games'-Originally Broadcast 19 April-21 June 1969|
Whenever someone reads or watches fiction for many years, there are certain narrative truths that become obvious and inescapable. The hero will always win and good will always triumph over evil. There are many works that prove to be exceptions to these rules (especially in modern fiction which seems determined to break these rules in the hopes of shaking viewers or readers out of their comfort zone, with varying degrees of success) but everyone loves a happy ending, and most creative people are willing to oblige. However, the minute William Hartnell's Doctor fell to the floor of the TARDIS in The Tenth Planet and changed into the Patrick Troughton Doctor, the idea that the hero could, at some point, be defeated became a part of Doctor Who's DNA. Sometimes the Doctor's defeats are grand sacrifices against the forces of evil, sometimes they are the result of putting a single life before his own, the few out weighing the many. Patrick Troughton's run as the Doctor comes to a close in the season 6 finale entitled The War Games, and it sets the standard for the Doctor's many regeneration serials to come with its epic story and heart-breaking conclusion.
The term "epic" in this case is quite literal. The War Games is a 10-part serial, making it the second longest serial of the series behind the 12-part The Dalek's Master Plan (third longest if you consider Trial of a Time Lord to be a serial and not a season long story-arc). If the story has any weakness at all, it's the length. The serial's length does include a bit of padding that makes parts of the stories somewhat tedious. There are ten separate occasions where our heroes are captured, then escape, then are recaptured or captured by a different group, then they escape again. The constant game of cat-and-mouse-and-cat-again gets a bit tiresome. The serial probably could have been cut down to at least 8 parts and been a much tighter story for it.
To the story's credit, the length allows writers Terrance Dicks and Malcom Hulke to reveal the truth about the titular war games in small, and surprising, pieces of information. The way our expectations are totally inverted about this serial being a run-of-the-mill historical is quite brilliant and all happens in a way that feels organic and allows the scope of the serial to settle in very well. The War Lords are a really fun set of villains especially in the way they callously plot the destruction of one another's groups of soldiers as if they were pawns in a literal game.
The serial contains some rather interesting commentary on the military and the effect it can have on soldiers. The War Lord's plot is revealed to be a way of creating the perfect group of Why Earth? They believe humans to be the most ruthless race in the galaxy. It's hard to overlook the anti-war statement being presented in this story. The soldiers the Doctor meets along the way in his travels aren't horrible, violent people, as the War Lords believe them to be, they're merely pawns who are, literally, having their free will taken from them thanks to the War Lord's reprogramming machines. The machines make the soldiers believe they're still on Earth and nothing has changed since they were plucked from their respective time streams. They are at the mercy of the chain of command, and the War Lord's military structure is a clear metaphor for the real world's military complex.
What The War Games is most well known for is its important addition to the show's mythology. For the first time we meet the Time Lords, and their portrayal as a cold, calculating, analytic race is perfect, especially in the way it throws lights on the Doctor's once unclear motivations. We understand so much more about the Doctor and why he ran away from Gallifrey when we see this sterile world for the first time. He wants to help, not watch. This scene establishes everything we know and understand about the character today, and for that, this serial's importance in the Doctor Who cannon cannot be understated.
Overall, I give this serial an 8/10. In spite of its pacing flaws, this serial acts as a mission statement for the series going forward. William Hartnell may have been the first Doctor, but he was the Doctor who had to learn to become a hero. It was the second Doctor who defined the Doctor's unique brand of heroism and raised the bar for every actor to come. This serial is a terrific conclusion to the Troughton era. Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines (Jamie), and Wendy Padbury (Zoe) were one of the best teams to step through the TARDIS doors and this serial shows them all at their best. As Zoe and Jamie walk away from the Doctor hand-in-hand, it's hard to deny you're watching the end of a defining era of television and a standard being set for future Doctor regeneration episodes.
The Regeneration Boxset is avaliable to order from the BBC shop now, and is due for release 24th June 2013