1969: The War Games

st-2z95It’s April 1969. In the 14 months since the last blog post, the world has changed. In the USA, a string of political assassinations and the escalation of the Vietnam War precede the election of the Republican Richard Nixon. In France, student riots briefly threaten the right-wing government, which nevertheless triumphs in subsequent elections. While in the UK, the Conservatives surge ahead of Labour in the polls, and, the day after Episode One of The War Games airs, troops are deployed to Northern Ireland to reinforce the RUC.

Across the Western world, after a decade of youthful rebellion, 1969 is the moment when the conservative Establishment reasserts its authority. Doctor Who has been ringing the changes as well. After The Web of Fear, Haisman and Lincoln’s next script is a stinging rebuke to the All You Need is Love generation, and while the Earth under siege format’s still going strong in The Invasion and The Seeds of Death, it’s been joined by odder offerings like The Mind RobberThe Krotons and The Space Pirates – the last two by Robert Holmes, the author of episodes of the weird alien invasion serial Undermind and the Quatermass-inspired movie Invasion.

Then there’s The War Games: the climax of both Troughton’s tenure, and Doctor Who in the 1960s. There are some very obvious things to say about this: at 10 episodes, it’s the longest serial since 1966. It’s the first story with Terrance Dicks’ name in the titles. He’s going to be the writer with the longest association with the series, and you can already see his respect for continuity in the scenes where he has Zoe and Jamie returned to their own times. It’s exceptionally well directed by David Maloney. And it introduces the Time Lords and sets up the third Doctor’s exile to Earth.

All these are true facts. But there are also some commonly-repeated fallacies. This isn’t the first story to be set in Earth’s history since 1967, because it isn’t set in Earth’s history, but on an alien planet. That’s important, because throughout Troughton’s era, we’ve seen that the Earth is the default destination for the TARDIS – the Doctor even comments on it in The Web of Fear. So it’s a marvellous twist when it turns out that this isn’t Earth, and that the Doctor has become caught up in events that transcend one planet and one time. Previous sci-fi/historical mash-ups have depended on placing something anachronistic into Earth’s past. The War Games flips this by placing Earth’s past into a sci-fi story: a trick that the series won’t convincingly pull off again until Enlightenment.

Another fallacy says the story is a nine episode story plus a practically stand-alone, one-part epilogue. However, that’s nonsense: the tenth episode is absolutely integral to everything that has gone before. This last point’s important, because some commentators have suggested that focusing on the last episode and ignoring the first nine is a mistake. And to an extent they’re right – why would you ignore the first nine episodes when they’re as compelling and brilliant as Doctor Who gets? But the fact is, they are a lead-in to the final showdown – just as the first six episodes of The Evil of the Daleks are only meaningful as a set-up to the confrontation with the Emperor and the Dalek civil war.

Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke make the story a gradual escalation. It begins with the TARDIS arriving in what looks like the First World War – and the Doctor immediately decides it’s far too big a problem for him to solve, and wants to just leave. Then it’s revealed that somehow there are Romans on the battlefield. Then that there’s mind control involved. Then that there are aliens involved. Aliens with TARDIS-like devices. Another one of the Doctor’s people. A plot to conquer the universe. And, finally, an intervention by the Doctor’s own people. There’s easily enough plot there to justify the 10 episodes, with revelations dropped in at regular intervals. The point being, by the end of Episode Nine, without us even seeing it happen, the stakes have got so huge that they’re beyond the Doctor’s ability to handle. It’s a neat way of bringing the story – which begins with the Doctor trying to run away from an insoluble problem – full circle. And it immediately establishes the Time Lords as a credible power because they can succeed where the Doctor has failed.

The final episode wraps up the plot quite cleverly, by having the Time Lords run their own version of the Nuremberg trials and condemn the warmongers to dematerialisation. The universe is saved, and the kidnapped human beings are returned to their own times. However, just as the Establishment is reasserting itself in the real world, so the Time Lords impose themselves on the Doctor’s universe.

Because, the 1960s ended in failure. The Summer of Love and the 1968 revolutions failed. The optimistic belief that youth could change the world was shot down. The War Games reflects this. The Doctor looks shabbier than ever before – coat ripped, trousers torn, hair a mess. He looks like he’s coming apart at the seams. Threatened by the Time Lords, he just seems impotent. Strangers wander in and out of his TARDIS; the War Lord tries to take it over, and the Doctor stands by and wrings his hands. This is abject. Even his final attempt to escape, through the strange, Tara King Avengers style sets of his home planet, is half-hearted.

Of course he mounts a defence of himself – bringing up images of his most iconic enemies – Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Yeti and, yes, the deadly robot Quarks (they were still flogging that dead horse right to the end). But he crumbles in the face of the greatest monsters of all. I’ve previously suggested that since The Evil of the Daleks, the producers have been searching for the next big monster. Terrance Dicks gives it to them. A people that stand by and do nothing while the Daleks wipe out billions; a people that smile as they wipe you from existence, and a people that are more interested in stifling revolution and preserving their own power than helping anyone else. No wonder the Doctor ran. These Time Lords are horrifying: the very embodiment of the deadening forces of conservatism sweeping the globe, crushing the spirit of youth. The British director Pete Walker made a series of horror films in the 1970s exploring similar themes, and over in the USA George A Romero had just made a starkly nihilistic zombie movie in which the hero is killed not by the monsters, but by the National Guard on the clean-up operation. Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke tell us that the real monsters aren’t besieging us. They’ve been inside the base all along.

And that’s how the 1960s end for Doctor Who: a brilliant masterpiece that is, at the same time, the bleakest story of all. The second Doctor is utterly defeated. He’s stripped of his companions, his TARDIS and his persona. He can’t beat the system, he can only surrender to it. Our last sight of him, this anarchic Doctor who defeated the Dalek Emperor, the Cyber Controller and the Great Intelligence, is swirling into the darkness, gurning and begging for mercy. There is no shred of comfort for the audience, no glimmer of hope in all of this.

It’s a quite brave culmination to six years of adventures, to have your hero brought so low, all his victories bargained against his continued existence. While he tumbles away into the darkness, the show’s about to go on its first extended hiatus: in the next six months, the production team have to find a way to continue the series when they’ve just got rid of its entire premise. Who will survive, but what will be left of him?

Next Time: “It’s an invasion, plain and simple.” The third Doctor arrives amid a Spearhead from Space

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