Monday, June 29, 2009

 

DVD Taster: Doctor Who – The War Games

With Planet of the Dead released today on DVD and – the first Doctor Who made for High-Definition TV – shiny blu-ray, naturally I’m celebrating it with a preview of next week’s DVD… A three-disc special release of the final Doctor Who story made in black and white. I’m looking forward to the multitude of extras, and to a great story looking better than ever before. And in an epic spanning humanity’s most terrible wars, Pop-Art aliens and the sinister Time Lords’ first appearance, its most captivating scene has the villain chatting up the Doctor.

That Golden Moment
“We were both Time Lords…”
Running for ten episodes of rolling revelations, The War Games opens with the TARDIS’ striking materialisation in First World War mud, opening out across other wars and into a dastardly alien scheme: not to start the wars – we can do all that for ourselves – but to recruit an army from them, because they believe “Man is the most vicious species of all.” The aliens themselves are a race of Napoleonic bureaucrats; short in stature, set on galactic conquest, squabbling amongst themselves, paranoid and insecure. Standing out like a tall, dark light bulb (were this in colour, he’d be purple as his dialogue) is their scientific and military advisor, the War Chief, a tall, charismatic aristocrat grabbing the attention amid their pettiness. Proclaiming himself “superior,” he has the arrogance of a Time Lord and, what do you know, he’s a defector – so while his allies need his expertise for their plan, they don’t entirely trust him. Well, that’s underselling it a little; their Security Chief, inevitably the most insecure of the lot, is looking for any excuse to shop him to their boss, the War Lord.

With such a fraught home life, it’s no surprise that when the Doctor turns up – at last someone who’s his social equal, and equally flighty by Time Lord standards – the War Chief blossoms; he wants to win the Doctor over (and another TARDIS would be handy, too). Offering our hero a share in ruling the galaxy as joint leader is something new… We’ve not had a villain try to seduce the Doctor before, and the Doctor even seems to be wavering as he protests. Do you think he’d have fallen for it if there’d been champagne and a rose? When the Master enters a couple of years later, he has several similar moments (most of all in a story written by one of The War Games’ co-authors and script-edited by the other), but rarely with quite such yearning. The War Chief even puts his life on the line to save the Doctor, and it seems less his fellow Time Lord that our hero objects to – though he might cavil a little at ambitions “to bring a New Order to the galaxy” – than his unsuitable friends:
“And help people like that conquer the galaxy?”
“Not people like that – people like us.”
Though earlier weeks had more shocking scenes of war’s brutality, and most fans remember the story’s conclusion when the Time Lords demonstrate their power, for me Episode Eight’s dance between the Doctor and the War Chief is both a golden moment in itself and the pivotal moment of the story. We see the Doctor pulled between his people and power on one hand, and his friends and freedom on the other, with the War Chief letting his guard down because he wants something more – a moment that will bring him down (allied to his pride: just as the aliens pose as officers who dominate the humans, he thinks of himself as the officer who dominates them).

Edward Brayshaw gives a glorious performance as the War Chief, melodramatic and the centre of every scene – contrasting with the meaner aliens he’s joined, whose leader is the only one with any real presence (and Philip Madoc’s War Lord is another contrast again, sardonic, underplayed and deeply sinister). He’s there to shine, and he goes for it. Patrick Troughton, on the other hand, gives one of his best performances as the Doctor, but steals the scenes with quiet authority rather than flamboyance. For me, he’s the most mercurial of Doctors; such a terribly good actor that at his best, he’s unbeatable, but you can tell more than with any of the others when he’s a bit bored and isn’t really trying. This story, his finale, clearly gets his attention. Look at the body language in his scenes with the War Chief, alone together or gooseberried by the suspicious aliens: much of the acting’s very theatrical, with everyone in this episode turning their backs on each other. But while the War Lord’s turning to smile a secret smile and the War Chief’s declaiming to the end of the stalls, Pat’s doing natural TV acting, his back to Mr Brayshaw apparently because he’s wandering about, tinkering with the big control table, as if simply oblivious to the man chatting him up.

I’ve mentioned the Master, and many people argue that the War Chief’s the same man. Well, perhaps functionally he fills that role for this story, but there’ll be plenty of other Time Lord conquerors to come. He doesn’t have the Master’s faintly unhinged sense of humour, and he’s far more direct; he also doesn’t look ready for a sequel by the end of the story, nor – unlike the Master – does he know the Doctor well of old (though they do recognise each other, in an electric moment). On the other hand, he is indeed a Time Lord with an ambition for conquest, overweening self-confidence, a Nehru jacket, facial hair and an unwise alliance with double-double-crossing aliens. You can certainly see the seeds of the Master in him, but not only the Master. The War Chief is also the prototype for another forthcoming character: tall, flamboyant, glamorous, constantly proclaiming himself above the less advanced military to whom he not only acts as scientific advisor but frequently directs. If the War Chief is the Master, he is also clearly Jon Pertwee’s Doctor.

Something Else To Look Out For
This story’s one of the series’ longest, and probably the most successful of its ‘epics’ – definitely one of the reasons why Doctor Who is brilliant. Despite being written in a crisis pretty much as it went along – with even its co-author regarding it as too long – for me the structure is a miracle, with constantly unfolding and increasing levels of revelation and threat, superb cliffhangers that usually advance the plot and the only flabby points in Episodes Five and Six, between the tension and mystery of the first half and the looming shadow of the Time Lords in the second. It races along at a far better pace than quite a few stories half its length. It doesn’t flinch from the horrors of war, and as part of that subtle message portrays the upper officer classes as a parasitic alien species all in it together to send the working fighting man to his death – highlighted by the resemblance the moustached officer and shabby little corporal we meet in the trenches bear to Captain Blackadder and Baldrick.

The script has striking concepts, shifting though time zones, bookended by grossly unfair trials that ignore the Doctor’s defence and sentence him to death, one by 1917 officers and the other by the Time Lords; the design is equally striking, with grimly realistic war settings for the humans and full-on ’60s op-art craziness in concentric rings for The Interrogation Room That Jack Built. Despite my love of geometric monochrome patterns, though, I’d love to see the uncropped photos of the giant arrows in the aliens’ War Room in colour – I’ve seen a cut-down shot, and they look terrific… And, of course, having made you think the aliens and the War Chief were the ‘big bad’ throughout, it ends by establishing the Time Lords as the most effective villains the series has had so far, ruthless self-styled gods who exercise absolute power but answer to no-one.

I’ve not yet seen the DVDs, but the three-disc set boasts far more special features than usual. Every episode has a full commentary – expect Terrance to be very bitchy – and production notes, but there are also documentaries on making this story, on making the series in black and white, comparing the story’s locations now and then (a visit to Brighton’s glamorous tip), features on the composer, the make-up designer, the political and military history, the Doctor’s regenerations… I’m particularly keen to see what they make of the Second Doctor’s comic-strip adventures (Quarks!) and, in the first of a new series of pieces on the Target Doctor Who books, of the novelisations written by The War Games’ co-author Malcolm Hulke, probably the most consistently impressive and inventive of Target authors.

If all that hasn’t convinced you, there’s a particularly fine ‘Coming Soon’ trailer on last week’s DVD release, Delta and the Bannermen; if you don’t have that, it’s only up on YouTube so far in a rather distracting aspect ratio. Worth a look, though, for compressing ten episodes into a minute and a half with a clear narrative, fast editing, and a great ‘thoom’ to end with.

The War Games is released on DVD on Monday the 6th of July.


Incidentally, you might also like to look out for a similarly-named drama made at a similar time, Peter Watkins’ The War Game, an evocation of nuclear war so harrowing the BBC held it back for twenty years, and his earlier drama-documentary, Culloden, which takes one of the same periods The War Games touches on. The BFI brought it out on DVD a few years back, and it’s superb – telling the story of a battle in a reportage style that gives it freshness, immediacy and brutality, a style that Doctor Who’s never yet borrowed on TV; I wonder if the new production team might consider it?

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Comments:
I've just finished watching it and it was most enjoyable. Thanks for the recommendation!
 
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