The Second Doctor finale The War Games is now almost 50 years old, and marks several important milestones in Doctor Who’s history – it is the final episode of the Classic era to be broadcast in monochrome, and it is the final episode in the distinguished run of the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton. Unusually for a Classic Doctor Who story, this episode is ten parts long, giving it a total run time of almost 250 minutes, making it quite the epic. But almost 50 years later, how does this climactic finale hold up?
The vast majority of the early parts of this episode can be summed up in three words all too familiar to fans of Classic Who – ‘capture and escape’. This method of storytelling can get somewhat tiresome, but in fairness to this story, the setting and characters vary dramatically throughout the early episodes thanks to the intriguing and fantastically executed central premise – the idea that the TARDIS lands in what seems to be the First World War, that is actually another planet upon which various wars from throughout human history are being played out in the titular ‘War Games’, allowing for some dramatic variations in setting that keep things interesting.
Most of the first 5 episodes revolve around the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe finding their bearings in this strange setup – at first, the episode takes its World War 1 setting very seriously, and it should be noted that the writers and producers took extra time and care to ensure that their depiction of the Great War was both respectful and accurate. This is complicated somewhat as the story progresses, however, and as the truth unfolds the World War 1 setting falls away to make room for depictions of the American Civil War and the War Lords’ headquarters. Speaking of the War Lord, both he and the War Chief are great characters – the dialogue between the Doctor and the War Chief in particular is fascinating, especially given what we know in hindsight about Gallifrey. The War Chief is somewhat of a ‘prototype’ for the character of the Master, who would debut on the show just 2 years later in 1971’s Terror of the Autons, but this does not mean that the War Chief lacks his own distinct personality – his lack of a prior relationship with the Doctor allows him to be manipulated in a way that the Master would never have been.
As usual, Jamie and Zoe are both fantastic in this story, a fact that is made all the more tragic by the fact that this is their final story. The eventual fate of the duo is heartbreaking, but anticipation of this does not overshadow the entire story in the way that, for example, Adric’s death does for an episode like Earthshock. One of the best things about The War Games is how varied it is, and although it is a whopping ten parts long, the format takes full advantage of the unique setting to keep things refreshing every couple of episodes. In a similar fashion to a story like The Trial of a Time Lord, the episode’s unusual length is warranted thanks to a good use of setting and using changes in location to advance the story. Jamie and Zoe do just as much to advance the plot as the Doctor does, and Jamie in particular shows just how much he has learned during his travels with the Doctor in some fantastic scenes, making this episode an essential for fans of these companions.
This story also features the departure of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, and his regeneration is perhaps the strangest of them all. The seemingly omnipotent Time Lords in this story appear far more benevolent than how they are depicted in later media, and the circumstances behind their appearance present a turning point in the Doctor’s character as he finally realises that he has encountered a problem that is beyond his ability to resolve. The War Games does a great job of maintaining tension, and there is a continuous sense that the stakes are high as the Doctor and his companions make their way through Earth’s various wars – in fact, this may be one of the most divisive Doctor Who episodes in terms of engagement – on the one hand, ten parts is definitely too long for any single Doctor Who story, and yet The War Games seems to defy this by effectively breaking the runtime into distinct sections, each with their own individual setting, villains, obstacles and outcome, that all roll together at the end and blend seamlessly onto one long narrative. This episode is similar to Genesis of the Daleks in the sense that on paper it would seem as though the run time is too long, and yet the actual execution subverts expectations for an overlong Doctor Who story and turns it into an epic that maintains the engagement of the audience throughout thanks to clever narrative techniques.
Overall, The War Games is a great watch for so many reasons, and whilst it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea either due to the subject matter, the length or the era from which it originated, for fans of the Second Doctor this is definitely a must-watch, and fans of Classic Who in general should definitely give it a chance. The final episode in particular is heartbreaking but hopeful at the same time, and given the hindsight of knowing that great things are yet to come, the ending is as bittersweet as it is dark and gripping.
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