Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday Cult TV Flashback # 4: Doctor Who: "The War Games"

Doctor Who ran for 26 years on the BBC. It's the longest running science fiction TV program of all time, and for good reason. Although far too many serials featured that hoary old idea of an alien invasion of Earth (on Doctor Who by Daleks, Cybermen, The Kraal, the Krynoids, Sutekh, the Terileptil, etcetera etcetera), other stories during the two-decade-plus run proved absolutely brilliant. The series is being re-imagined in England as I write (now in its second season...), and most folks already know what the show is about: the adventures in time and space of a strange bird called the Doctor, a Time Lord from Gallifrey and a consummate scientist, meddler and philosopher. Although seven actors played the lead character from the 1960s to 1989, the original series never lost its identity, its sense of fun, low-budget ingenuity and social conscience.

The change in lead actors (and companions...) actually granted the show a sense of re-birth and re-vivification every few years, and each Doctor's era is remarkably different in tone and concept from the one before. The landmark first Doctor (William Hartnell), a crankly, curmudgeonly fellow, oversaw a span of mostly historical adventures set during Earth's past. The second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) was a more affectionate and child-like traveler through space, and some of his stories were quite horrific ("Tomb of the Cybermen"). Dashing Jon Pertwee played the Third Doctor as a kind of Quatermass/James Bond swashbuckler, relegated mostly to Earthly adventures in the 20th century. Tom Baker - the best known Time Lord to American audiences - oversaw what many believe is the series' golden-age, a post-Star Trek voyage through time and space incorporating horror ("Planet of Evil"), heist-comedy ("The Ribos Operation"), political drama ("The Deadly Assassin"), the fantastic and just about anything else you can imagine. And on the show went, until the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), who was a slightly darker Time Lord, one with secrets and mysteries...a master manipulator and chess player.

Critic John Baxter called Doctor Who a "good example of what may be done with limited facilities if a producer has imagination," (Science Fiction in The Cinema: A Complete Review of SF Films from A Trip to the Moon [1902] to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paperback Library, 1970, page 187). Scholars Jone Clute and Peter Nicholls have noted it is a "notably self-confident series juggling expertly with many of the great tropes and images of the genre...At its worst merely silly, at its best it has been spellbinding, (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1993, page 346.)

In the early 1990s, Epilog Magazine hailed the program as "perhaps the greatest science fiction series of all time..." (Epilog 11, October 1991, page 29). As you might guess, I've been a long-time admirer of the series myself, and in 1997 I wrote a book about the show entitled
A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television. The Earthbound Time Lords called my book "the strongest of critical works on the program...the definitive work on the program, one that will be used for years to come," Cult Movies called it "necessary reading," and Doctor Who Magazine noted that "spending time with Muir will breathe fresh life into your view of a series you thought you had sussed." Given my love of the series, it was only a matter of time before I included it here for a Friday Cult TV flashback.

And the serial I want to focus on, in particular, is one that I believe doesn't garner nearly enough attention among the fans, at least not anymore. There are any number of great serials I could focus on (and may do so in the future), including personal favorites like "Robots of Death," "Ark in Space," The Talons of Weng-Chiang," "The Aztecs," "Genesis of the Daleks" and "Tomb of the Cybermen," but I wanted to go back in time to a period when the universe of the Doctor was still a dark mystery, and we didn't necessarily understand his origins or his people. The serial I refer to is "The War Games," a 243-minute, ten-part epic that aired from April to June of 1969, and was written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, and directed by David Maloney. This story finds our good Doctor (played by the late Patrick Troughton; pictured above) and his companions Jamie and Zoe landing the T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) in what seems to be a World War I battlefield. However, they soon learn they have landed on alien planet filled with war zones from various Earth time periods (including the American Civil War, World War I, the Crimean War, and so on.)

Fifty-thousand abducted humans are being made to fight in these wars at the pleasure of a deadly alien being known as the War Lord, a tyrant hoping to construct the ultimate army for his strategy of galactic conquest. After much running around, the Doctor defeats the alien War Lord with the aid of the human resistors, but comes to realize he cannot send all 50,000 humans home using the T.A.R.D.I.S. It is simply beyond his capabilities. He needs help, and so must summon the Time Lords - the very people he ran away from - for help. In doing so, he exposes himself. The Doctor is captured by the Time Lords, put on trial for interference, and before the tenth episode (a season finale...) ends, the Time Lords mete out a terrible justice not just to the War Lord, but to the Doctor as well. This is, lest we forget, Patrick Troughton's final show as the star of the show.

I want to focus on "The War Games" because it is a beautifully-shot addition to the Who canon. Fans like to complain how cheap the series looks, but in the early, black-and-white days of Hartnell and Troughton, the series compensated for its low-budget with some exquisite visuals and beautiful camerawork, and this serial, perhaps, takes the cake in that regard. The first episode of "The War Games" opens with a long shot view of what seems a barren World War I battlefield. A slow tilt down by Maloney's camera reveals a pool of muddy water and flotsam, and then - in the pool's reflective surface - we see the T.A.R.D.I.S. materialize. Taken by itself, this is an artistic alternative to the "standard" opening of many a serial, a simple landscape shot with the T.A.R.D.I.S. merely appearing suddenly. But much more than that, the pan across this battlefield and the appearance of the T.A.R.D.I.S. in a kind of swamp uniquely expresses the isolation and desolation of this war zone. It's just an artistic and beautiful way to begin a show, and it's appropriate we see a reflection of the T.A.R.D.I.S. first, because in some senses, this serial is about a "reflection" of Earth, a simulation of Earth Wars, but not the real thing.

The War Games" also features a break-neck staccato pace, often to the cacophany of blaring German machine guns. When the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are assaulted, there are fast cuts in the show, and every episode is like that, moving at cliff-hanger speed. But then comes the final turnaround in the ninth half-hour. After episodes and episodes of rapid-fire battles, hair-raising escapes, last-minute rescues and the like, we have hardly had time to catch our breaths. But then, after the Doctor has summoned his people and is trying to escape so as to continue his adventures, slow-motion photography is employed to denote the inescapable fact that the Doctor can no longer continue to run, His very enemy is time itself - the enigmatic Time Lords. No matter how fast the Doctor runs, he cannot escape. The dramatic utilization of slow-motion photography in the closing portion of episode 9 is made doubly effective by all the staccato editing in the previous parts. By this point, the audience has been through one fast-paced scrape with the Doctor after another, and so we are not prepared for the impact of the slow-motion interlude, the fact that the Time Lords can and do intervene, and actually slow time to a crawl, hindering our hero's escape.

Yet dynamic visuals alone are not the only reason to remember the season closer for Doctor Who's sixth year. More importantly, "The War Games" tells a great story (and one repeated on Star Trek Voyager many years later, featuring the Hirogen and holodeck simulations of World War II and other battle scenarios...). And it isn't just about endless war. "The War Games" is one of the best examples of the Doctor's personal heroism. Here, his life and very future are at stake, but he puts that aside to help the human fighters. He contacts the Time Lords, even though he knows for him it will spell certain doom. And let us not forget that this serial came at a time in the series history when the Time Lords are a mysterious and frightening people.

In fact, as depicted in "The War Games," they are the most frightening villains the series has ever dramatized. They are invincible and powerful, able to control time. And they have a cold, draconian sense of law and justice. They punish the War Lord (after torturing him...) by wiping his existence from the record of time, a horrendous and heartless fate. Then, in an act of vengeance almost totally unjustified, these Lords of Time trap the War Lord's entire planet in a kind of stasis/forcefield. Cleverly, the final episode of "The War Games" shows us this evil, merciless "Time Lord" justice first, and then proceeds to the trial of the Doctor second. By this time, audiences understand that there will be no mercy. In the end, the Time Lords kill this incarnation of the Doctor, make his companions (Jamie and Zoe) forget their time with him, and exile the new incarnation of the Doctor to 20th century Earth. At the end of the show, it is quite sad and touching to see the forced separation of the Doctor from his companions, but still the Doctor knew that in saving the humans from the War Lord, he would face consequences. Talk about courage...

As a fan of mystery and unanswered questions in my drama (see my entry on Space:1999's "Force of Life,") I love this depiction of the Time Lords as strange and terrifying, and was saddened as I watched this element of the drama change with time. By the Pertwee years, the Time Lords were like "M" in the James Bond flicks, occasionally dispatching Pertwee's Doctor on important assignments and missions. By the Baker and Davison years (and serials such as "The Invasion of Time" and "Arc of Infinity,") the Time Lords were just another alien race - like the Vulcans or Klingons. Yes, they controlled time, but they were vulnerable to invasion, mired in their own petty politics, and in all, theTime Lords had lost their sense of menace and awe. This just reminds me how series' change ideas and conceits as they go forward over the years, and Doctor Who - being so long-lived - naturally had more of this kind of change than any other series.

So on this Cult TV Friday Flashback, I remember the visually dynamic, frightening and even touching Dr. Who serial from 1969, "The War Games" - the last gasp of the Patrick Troughton era. See it if you can. If for no other reason than Patrick Troughton's goodbye to his companion Jamie, and his admonition to remember that "time is relative."

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