Having kept him off stage for most of the previous episode while establishing the new series premise and companions, this is our first proper glimpse of the third Doctor in action. Interestingly, given both Troughton’s performance and producer Derrick Sherwin’s original conception of the new Doctor, he’s presented as a whimsical character (which is reinforced by the jaunty music Dudley Simpson adds whenever he is onscreen) which is quite unlike how Pertwee will develop the part.
New Doctor, new decade. Our first glimpse of the new lead is in the title sequence which pops in vivid reds and greens for anyone who had a colour TV, but for the majority of the audience still viewing in black & white is reassuringly familiar howlround patterns.
‘You have returned to us Doctor. Your travels are over.’ The final episode of the story, the Troughton years and the 1960s ties up the series as neatly as An Unearthly Child introduced it, 253 episodes ago. It all began with the Doctor declaring himself an exile, and promising one day he would get back. This is the day. And it ends with him exiled again, back to where he started: Earth, in the 20th Century.
After two months’ build-up, the climax delivers despite a clunky fight sequence and everyone seeming a bit less on top of their lines than they have been until now. The warmonger aliens are defeated in a fairly conventional way – having tricked them, and lured away most of their guards, the Doctor and the resistance are able to defeat the remaining skeleton staff in central control and bring an end to the war games. But the real issue is the Doctor’s inability to follow through on his promise to the resistance. With the SIDRATs running out of power (the episode’s one weak contrivance) and the TARDIS un-steerable, the only way to put things right is to call in the Time Lords.
This is an episode all about negotiating alliances. Again, the theme is explored in parallel with Zoe organising the various resistance groups into an army while in the central control the War Chief tries to tempt the Doctor into joining with him, as the truth behind the aliens’ plans becomes clear.
There’s a definite sense of events spiralling out of control in this episode – for both sides. The Doctor and his friends have essentially taken charge of the resistance, giving the orders, organising the troops and planning a strike at the heart of the warmonger aliens’ power. Meanwhile, the War Chief and Security Chief’s mutual suspicion has prevented them from taking effective action to re-establish control – and in response to worrying reports the big boss has arrived, and intends to oversee matters personally. The back-and-forth between the two sides is beautifully encapsulated in a neat bit of a dialogue:
WAR CHIEF: I suggest we pay particular attention to the 1917 zone.
SECURITY CHIEF: Is that where they are going?
JAMIE: Well, where are we going Doctor?
DOCTOR: Anywhere but the 1917 zone, Jamie.
As the second half of the story begins, the revelations begin to accelerate. Most notably, a couple of minutes in there is the first mention of the War Chief’s own people as the Chief Scientist mentions ‘the Time Lords.’ If it wasn’t already, it’s obvious that both the War Chief and the Doctor are fellow Time Lords, and their space/time technology has enabled ‘this whole disgraceful business.’ Zoe asks the Doctor how he is so familiar with the SIDRAT controls, and Jamie points out they they are like the TARDIS, while the Doctor only admits they are ‘a slightly different design’. After 248 episodes of the Doctor being a mysterious traveller in time and space, it seems that some of the mysteries are finally being addressed.
This episode takes place across two distinct settings: the American 1860s Zone and central control. And in both the TARDIS team are fomenting rebellion and organising alliances to take on the sinister aliens behind the war games. Frazer Hines gets the best material he’s had all season, convincing the pith-helmeted Russell, leader of the resistance, to hijack a SIDRAT (which we learn are green) to travel to the enemy HQ. Meanwhile, the Doctor runs rings around the Chief Scientist, deprogramms Carstairs, rescues Zoe and plans to travel back out to the various war zones to unite the various bands of resistance soldiers.
Again, the repetition of some elements of the story are mitigated by the steady escalation of revelations Dicks and Hulke offer up. In this episode, Jamie and Lady Jennifer are trapped in the War Between the States, captured by Union soldiers, then rescued by Confederate soldiers under the (inexplicable) leadership of Von Weich, who immediately orders their recapture. They’re then rescued by another Union soldier, and escape again, before being recaptured by the Confederates, and are finally rescued by a band of rebels from multiple war zones.
The War Games continues to drip feed twists and surprises with each episode. Here, we get our first glimpse of the central zone, where we learn Smythe and his “German” counterpart Von Weich are not human beings, and the serial’s title becomes apparent when the two of them begin to discuss a forthcoming battle as a good test of their respective troops’ morale, like they’re in a 1960s Fringe satire. We also meet the War Chief, a mysterious, saturnine figure whose interest is piqued by the Doctor, and whose thoughts we hear: ‘Time travellers… I wonder…’ And finally, we see the arrival of a time machine that’s bigger on the inside, which whisks the Doctor and Zoe away.