|Oh no, Jamie! World War I! This is almost as bad as
watching The Dominators!
It’s April 19, 1969. Desmond Dekker and the Aces are at number one with “The Israelites,” the first reggae song to hit number one in the UK. One week later The Beatles take number one with “Get Back,” their second to last number one single in the UK. It stays at number one for six weeks. Also in the charts over this time are The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Herman’s Hermits, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, The Isley Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Jones, and The Fifth Dimension. Of these luminaries, it is of course Tommy Roe who unseats The Beatles with “Dizzy,” before he himself is unseated by “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” the last time The Beatles ever hit number one. This happens the same week that episode nine of The War Games airs, and remains through the rest of Patrick Troughton’s tenure as the Doctor.
While in news of reality, British troops arrive in Northern Ireland to provide support for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Robin Knox-Johnston completes a solo circumnavigation, and Charles de Gaulle steps down. In the US, the first death from AIDS occurs, although it will be years before what happened is understood. Apollo 10 launches. There’s a bit of trivia most people would get wrong – what happened first, the first American death from AIDS or the moon landing? And, to grab a quick bit of intercontinental spirit, John Lennon and Yoko Ono do their Bed-In in Montreal.
But let’s actually take one historical event in this time period and unpack it, because it was truly something special, and forms a vital metaphor for The War Games. In Berkeley California, People’s Park was opened. Those of you with particular love of grammar fascism will note my use of the passive voice there. It is deliberate. It is difficult to call something like People’s Park something that opened. That implies some degree of planning and design. In practice, People’s Park was a plot of land seized by Berkeley University via eminent domain and then abandoned when proper construction stalled. Community members, irritated at this, proposed developing a portion of the plot as a park. And then, in the classic California guerilla theater style that had been out of date since 1967, they occupied the area and developed it into a park.
Then things got amazing. Governor Ronald Reagan, who had run on a platform that included accusing California’s colleges of breeding “communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants,” overrode the University’s promise not to begin developing the property without warning and consulting with the protesters, constructed an 8-foot fence around the unused lot to keep people from planting flowers there. A small riot erupted over this with protesters attempting to re-enter the park. Edwin Meese III, Reagan’s chief of staff and future attorney general, took charge of the response, authorizing police to use whatever means they wanted. Clad in riot gear with their badges obscured to prevent identification, the police stormed in, beating protesters and, in an egregious case, firing shotguns loaded with buckshot far more dangerous and lethal than normally accepted for crowd control. A student was killed and a carpenter blinded in the process. Hundreds of others were injured. Reagan followed this by establishing what amounted to martial law in Berkeley, imposing a strict curfew and lining the streets with barbed wire. Reagan defended his actions saying “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”
The conflict over the park would continue for decades.
While on TV… eesh. I mean, The War Games is not an easy work to approach. For one thing, it’s the second longest Doctor Who story ever, and unlike the longest, it does not divide logically into smaller pieces. This is an actual, honest to God ten part story. On top of that, we get two companion departures, a regeneration, and, oh yes, the introduction of the Time Lords. I mean, where do we even start here? Miles and Wood make an excellent case that the answer to this is generally “the wrong place,” arguing that the bit of this everyone makes a fuss over – the appearance of the Time Lords – is basically an irrelevant epilogue. As they put it, there’s a vast cosmic crime over the first eight and a half episodes, at which point the police are called. And inexplicably, fandom only cares about the police.
But how can you call this unfair? I mean, it’s true – the thing we’ve been stressing over and over again for two Doctors now is the fact that the Doctor is not yet a Time Lord. It was the thing we focused on with The Dark Path, we talked about it in The Sensorites, we dealt with it in The Time Meddler, obviously… this story looms over the whole of the 1960s, almost more than it does over the whole of the 1970s and 1980s. Miles and Wood ask, with reason, whether the nature of this shift at the end is sufficient to say that Doctor Who ended in 1969. And they argue, not unreasonably, that there’s a fair case it did. But the flip side of this, which they ignore, is that you can equally well argue that Doctor Who finally debuts here – that this is where the proper and understood mythos of the series kicks in.
It’s a little staggering, actually. I’ve watched the whole Troughton era now and immersed myself in 1960s Doctor Who and 1960s culture, and even still, watching The War Games, it’s easier to slide into the counter-historical reading in which the Time Lords stand revealed and Doctor Who as we know it really gets started than it is to read this as a conclusion to the Troughton era. So massive is the gravity of this final sequence. If one is to treat The War Games in its entirety at all – and let’s be honest, hardly anyone actually does; to hear people describe it, the contents of about 2/3 of the final episode are more important than the entire rest of the story put together – it’s still tempting to treat it as a two-story hybrid in which the story about humans and war comprises eight episodes followed by an epilogue about Time Lords.
But we know enough, by this point, to know this must be the wrong way around – that reading this story as the start of the Time Lord era cannot possibly be correct and that there must be some story that actually aired in mid-1969 and was experienced by people for whom the revelation that the Doctor is a Time Lord from an unnamed planet is in some sense a surprise and not the completion of a lore they knew going into Totters Lane forty-nine stories earlier.
Though we should perhaps note that this supposed crowd is somewhat more obscure than we might hope. This story got brutalized in the ratings, coming in dead last among Troughton stories and with the second lowest average viewing figures in all of Doctor Who. (Only The Smugglers did worse.) Episode eight was watched by only 3.5 million people – a feat that 3/4 of Battlefield, the worst-rated story of the season the show got cancelled, managed to top. As many people watched the last episode of Survival in 1989 as saw Troughton’s regeneration. This is perhaps part of why this story is so distorted in the memory – its supposedly key scenes were not widely seen. For all its classic status, this story was not widely seen, and thus could not have been widely remembered on its own merits.
Still. We have to figure this out. Because this story is a vital transition point in Doctor Who, and that means we need to see what’s going on here, as opposed to what we imagined to be going on years after the fact. So let’s start at the very beginning of the story. Where we open with the TARDIS arriving in the midst of World War I. What’s perhaps most worth remarking on here is how unusual this is. The last time the TARDIS appeared in Earth history at all was nearly two seasons ago with The Abominable Snowmen. The last time it appeared in a known point in time and in the midst of a real historical event was The Highlanders. In other words, the very format of this is odd for Troughton. In a very real sense, this story is dragging him back to the absolute beginning of his tenure. In fact, the beginnings of The War Games and The Highlanders are markedly similar. One of the big character points for Troughton in The Highlanders was the scene in which he flatly told Polly he was fine with running away if he was avoiding cannonballs. Likewise, here, once he figures out that he’s in the midst of World War I, he wants nothing more than to get out of there immediately.
We should also stop and look at what World War I was. World War II’s reputation as “the good war” may be an endlessly contested point (especially in the UK, where the restraint/military action debate between Chamberlain and Churchill is viewed as a fundamental and continually rehashed debate about the nature of military power in the modern world), the fact that World War I was the bad war is almost, at this point, beyond all doubt. Sparked, essentially, because of a pile of century old alliances required particular actions in response to the assassination of an Austrian archduke. All parties involved expected a brief military conflict that would clean up some of the alliances and allow everybody to get on with their lives.
Instead they got the wholesale massacre of a generation of European men in the most brutal war in recent memory. As was explained memorably in the novelization of The War Games (which I remember with some fondness), World War I fell in an unfortunate midpoint in the development of military technology trench warfare with artillery, machine guns, and poison gas was an absolutely gruesome practice that involved catastrophic death tolls for even the minutest of tactical gains. It was World War I that brought to popular awareness the concept of post-traumatic stress, or, as it was known at the time, shell shock.
In other words, if restaging the Chamberlain/Churchill debate endlessly in things like The Abominable Snowmen, The Dominators, and The Krotons was a serious debate about moral responsibility and war, restaging World War I was something completely different – almost necessarily anti-war, and, in 1969, that meant specifically anti-Vietnam. World War I was the crowning example of military folly – the point where it became obvious that being a soldier wasn’t a fun game played in the name of patriotism. The phrase “war is hell” started here
So when the Doctor shows up in World War I, we’re supposed to view him as landing somewhere truly awful – something that hasn’t happened, again, since about The Highlanders. Which is actually a bit strange if you think about it. The anarchist Doctor was always most interesting as a figure of social justice – as the force that tears down unacceptable structures and would not stand for evil. And yet the show has, since the awesome power suggested by The Power of the Daleks, mostly squandered this, dropping him into safe, banal situations. Mostly it’s only been David Whitaker who has managed to come up with ways to push the Doctor in interesting directions, although Robert Holmes has made a late bid for brilliance. The rest of the regular writing stable has been a mess of generic bases under siege.
In a sense, then, The War Games opens by rerunning the structure of the Troughton era at high speed. Its first episode doesn’t quite look like a World War I historical, but it appears closer to that than to anything else that Doctor Who has, in six years, set us up for save perhaps for The Time Meddler, with its constant sense that there might be something wrong with history. But slowly, from there, the story grows. What initially seems like a story about soldiers being hypnotized and meddling with time turns inexorably into a bigger and bigger story.
This is where the single-story aspect of The War Games proves most significant. Unlike The Daleks’ Master Plan, The War Games is a story where a single situation gets worse and worse. There are places where The War Games drags, certainly, but for the most part it’s a steady escalation of problems. What starts seeming to be mind controlled soldiers becomes a war across timelines which becomes a cruel game run by evil overlords seemingly for their own amusement which finally becomes a massive galactic war crime.
Except for a brief moment this doesn’t seem like an escalation. When it turns out that what we thought were the grimy horrors of World War I are actually just a game being played by aliens, it comes mostly as a relief. (Which is why the cliffhanger to episode two – they cross the mists in World War I and are attacked by Romans of all things – is far more interesting and exciting than the Doctor getting swept away by a machine that will obviously take him to the central command of all of this stuff at the end of the next episode. The episode two cliffhanger throws everything we think we know out the window. The episode three cliffhanger is little more than “and then the Doctor gets to the place where he can advance the plot.”) It’s just aliens! The Doctor can handle a fake World War I run by aliens! I mean, it’s a pity they’re not Cybermen or something really easy, but still.
But wait a moment. Look at the sheer strangeness of that. It’s a letdown when it turns out the Doctor isn’t stuck in something real but is instead in the midst of a completely over the top and mildly illogical alien scheme. That may be how the suspense swings, but it’s a huge problem in terms of the psychedelic transformation that sparked the Second Doctor’s tenure. The point of that transformation was that the Doctor realizes there are monsters in the world – terrible darknesses that have to be fought. But what we see, as we breathe a sigh of relief that it’s only psychotic aliens, is that these monsters have been paper tigers. The Doctor has been hiding behind them. He can’t handle the truly scary things. Never mind the corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. What about Earth?
Except that the show is cleverer than that. Of course it is – this is written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. Dicks will never get called a genius by enough people, due in no small part to the ruthless narrative efficiency of his genius, but the fact of the matter is that he’s very, very good at stitching bits of a story together. Hulke is probably recognized as the better writer, with his specialty, as we’ve already seen in his previous effort, being that he creates situations with far more depth to them than they initially appear. They are the exact two writers this needs. Because once the lens zooms out and we see the aliens, we assume that’s it – that’s where the real story is.
We’re wrong, and Dicks and Hulke (I suspect mainly Hulke in this case) pull off a brilliant end-run on our expectations. Sure, defeating the aliens is relatively easy. But that’s not what the Doctor is actually trying to do. Just because it turns out that the Doctor didn’t land in World War I does not, after all, mean that he isn’t dealing with real humans. This point is reiterated over and over again. The cliffhanger to episode four, in which Carstairs holds a gun on Zoe, is horrifying precisely because he’s been an ally that we’ve grown to trust and now has had his identity taken away. The bulk of what is moving about episode six is watching Moor’s struggle with his conditioning. Over and over again we are told, implicitly, that the real problem isn’t these aliens but with fixing the horrible abuse they’ve put the humans through.
This is flagged to us perhaps most clearly by the fact that the aliens, although, you know, alien, do not actually act like traditional monsters. In fact, the basic setup of a squabbling War Chief and Security Chief under the command of a War Lord who tries to administer between them is actually extremely familiar. In fact, look at it this way – the War Chief is trying to ally, on his own terms, with the resistance and the alien outsiders, even though such an alliance is doomed because they’ll betray him in the end, and the Security Chief is trying to stop him. Where have we seen this before?
Only in every base under siege story of the last three years. Which is brilliant. In its middle section, The War Games is a base under siege story in which the TARDIS crew are the monsters and the villains are the base. They flit around the edges of the base, gathering an army, picking away at its defenses, and steadily close in while the base descends helplessly into internal squabbling. It’s hard not to view this as an overt critique of most of the Troughton era. (And note that since Dicks took over as script editor, there’s been exactly one base under siege story, and Dicks rewrote most of it because he was unsatisfied with Hayles’s original script, suggesting that the traditional base under siege model was never much to his liking.) The Doctor, this suggests, has perhaps been on the wrong side in his endless fighting with monsters. The point of his regeneration, after all, was a dark mirror to humanity. The point of Mondas was never “fear monsters.” It was “fear a part of yourself.” And this has always been my complaint about the bases under siege: that they ignore people.
Which is ultimately where the sting in the trap is. The Doctor doesn’t have any real trouble stopping the War Lord. That’s easy. What he can’t manage is the people. He has no way of getting all the kidnapped soldiers home. And so he has to call in the Time Lords.
What does this mean? Here we must be very careful. As I said, one cannot walk anywhere near this part of the episode without confronting the future. But we’ve done it before. And it’s important here, because the Time Lords remain mysterious here. Their planet is never named. The nature of their civilization is never really shown. They’re even very different in some ways from what we’ll later see. For instance, they seem to use the SIDRAT machines the War Chief uses primarily, and not TARDISes.
The second thing to note about the Time Lords is that, contrary to assumptions, they are not, in this story, defined primarily in terms of the Doctor. Yes, the fact that they are the Doctor’s people is absolutely crucial to why we care about them, but in a story in which the primary villain is called the War Lord, introducing the Time Lords as another faction makes sense primarily in terms of this. But who exactly is the War Lord? It’s never particularly explained in the story. His entire planet is apparently villainous, and he’s its leader. They’ve got a bit of a galaxy conquering obsession. And that’s about what we have.
But we can make at least some inferences. First of all, The War Games is not a pacifist story. The Doctor is all in favor of armed resistance against the games, after all. It’s not that war is bad. It’s that war for its own sake is bad. That is the primary crime of the War Lord – that he is making the humans fight wars for no purpose other than the glory of war. In other words, his sin is not that he is the War Lord, it is that he has allowed War to get out of control.
Likewise, the Time Lords seem extremely detached rulers. Their fundamental law, after all, is non-intervention. But they are not wholly detached. The Doctor has no doubt that they’ll intervene to deal with the War Lord. In other words, it is clearly not that they oppose intervention so much as that they oppose, and this is a word that is familiar in talking about the Doctor’s own people, meddling. This is made all the clearer when the Time Lords make a great show of accepting the Doctor’s plea that there is evil that has to be fought. They don’t disagree with any of that.
So what is it about the Doctor’s actions that they find objectionable? Narrative logic dictates that it must be the same thing about the Doctor’s actions that failed him in the rest of the story. After all, this has been a coherent ten-parter by and large, and so one assumes it’s not just going to jettison its themes at the last second. The Doctor failed and had to call in the Time Lords because, at the end of the day, he was incapable of dealing with the problems of humans beyond fighting monsters for them. Because, in the end, he was as out of his depth as the villains – stuck defending against crises with no real skill anywhere else. The Doctor’s crime is that he was only ever really good for bases under siege. That he might throw himself into a crisis, but he’d never throw himself into the aftermath.
Which is the thing that almost everybody misses about The War Games. The story is a blistering condemnation of the Doctor. It firmly sides with the Time Lords. Part of this is how thoroughly the Doctor is beaten. His companions are taken away, he’s forced to regenerate, he’s exiled, and, on top of all of that, he meets his final end gurning helplessly on a TV screen. This is a particular insult – for his entire tenure, Troughton peered knowledgeably out of video screens, seeming to have a genuine level of control over the technology he existed in. Here, in his final seconds, he’s beaten by one. Humiliating. Utterly defeating.
Frankly, even the Doctor seems to side with his accusers. He makes a show of running, yes, but in something we’ve never really seen before, he seems to give up. Not just in the sense of knowing he’s beaten, but in the sense of feeling as though he deserves it in some sense. Oddly, its Troughton who is most responsible for this final selling out of his own character, infusing lines like “I had every right to leave,” his goodbye to Jamie, or the story’s best line, shortly after Jamie and Zoe promise always to remember him, turning to his Time Lord captor and saying “They’ll forget me, won’t they?” with a weary sadness that suggests that he has, on some level, always known this was coming for him.
And yet there’s more than that. Troughton, in his final scene, goes out of his way to make his character look bad. Given some last banter and badgering with authority, he gleefully overplays it, filling the Doctor with sudden pomposity and outright irritatingness (look at how much of a brat he is over picking a face). Whereas the Time Lords act relatively friendly, exchanging bemused smiles with each other at the Doctor’s antics, and generally seeming like benevolent adults trying to lightly punish a misbehaving child so he’ll improve his ways. So when the Time Lords finally get irritated at him and stick him into a monitor, it feels like he deserves it.
But in another sense, this is the real endpoint of the 1960s. The revolution failed. However much we may have liked it – and for my part, I loved it, especially in the Doctor Who sense in which the psychedelic revolution is literally embodied in Patrick Troughton’s Doctor – it failed. It’s time to break up the band. It’s time to face the reality that the bad guys aren’t external monsters, but the people who want to send riot police to crush the sex deviants planting flowers. It’s time, in other words, to face reality. This is the message every sane and useful mystic in the world will tell you. It’s all well and good to journey among the interiors of the mind and at the furthest fringes of consciousness and reality. It’s all well and good to face gods and demons and encounter the fundamental truth of the universe. But the real test is what you can bring back from those mystical realms to reality. The real test is how you can live as a mystic in the real world.
The Doctor, like psychedelia, failed. Now it’s time to come back down to Earth.