Written by Malcolm Hulke & Terrance Dicks
Directed by David Maloney
Yesterday the Egyptian army decided that enough was enough and deposed the country’s president. For the second time in as many years though, they do not have appeared to have done so to seize power for themselves, as one may expect, but because it seems to be what the majority of the country wanted to happen. which raises a number of interesting (to me, at least) questions. Not least, should the military serve the government or the people? The whole point of a democracy, of course, is that the will of the government is the will of the people, but to the best of my knowledge this has never actually been the case, which is why I’m a Kropotkinite, not a democrat. The difficulty there is that without some form of anarcho-syndicalist structure its not really possible to guess the will of the people, so who knows what the fuck most people in Egypt actually want.
Regardless of that, one thing the military is certainly not for is endlessly murdering each other for the shadowy purposes of some sinister alien oligarch, which is precisely what they are used for in arguably the finest Doctor who stories of all time, The War Games. After labeling many early stories as being too long, most of them seem to shrink away to nothing when compared to this ten part epic, but at no point does it ever seem drawn out or overlong. which is surprising, since it was never planned to be more than five parts, but was constantly extended throughout the writing process as other stories were dropped. Indeed, writer Terence Dicks has said a number of times that he only thinks the first and last episodes are any good. He is, of course, wrong: the whole thing is awesome. Its a real credit to both the writers and the cast that even during the seemingly endless parade of loops that make up the middle of the story, it never stops being entertaining.
But if any writers were going to be able to pull off a ten part story with only enough plot for five, it would be Dicks and Hulke. Mac Hulke always made his stories about something more than simply an action romp – this story, for example, is a strong allegory about the futility of war – while Terrance Dicks’ main concern is that the pace of a story never slowed, even for a single scene. The result of the two of them working together is a story that is an action heavy roller coaster* while actually having something to say.
And if any cast were ever going to keep our attention for this long it would be these guys. Troughton is on absolutely top form here, whether facing a farcical court martial or heading up a multi-era resistance group, he always seems to be just about in control, while his companions have some of their finest moments too. Jamie attempting to convince a Mexican bandit that he’s some sort of ferocious war-lord probably stands out as my favorite thing he ever did. The guest cast too are at times magnificent. Philip Madoc, a semi-regular on Holmes’ stories, is fantastic as the sinister War Lord, and Bernard Horsfall makes a very welcome return, this time as one of the prosecuting Time Lords.
But wonderful as this story is, I can’t watch it without a feeling of sadness, as it really marks the end of an era in Doctor Who. Not only does it mark the end of my favorite Doctor, and my favorite TARDIS crew, it also marks the end of the show as it was, about an endless wanderer in space and time, who has no real control of where he and his companions were going to end up next. for the next few years the Doctor would be more or less stuck on 20th century earth, and after that he seemed to learn how to pilot the TARDIS to a degree, so things would never really be the same again. Future script editor, and respected sci-fi write outside of Who, Douglas Adams once said that Doctor Who never recovered from moving into colour, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
Not that things necessarily went downhill right away. Doctor Who’s main strength, the thing that has allowed it to keep running for nigh on 50 years, is that it is endlessly adaptable, and can still tell a great story in any situation. We’ll find out how well it managed to adapt to probably the most drastic changes in its whole history next time, in Spearhead From Space.
*for 60s TV. Don’t expect Die Hard.