Monday, April 30, 2012

Phantom Who: The War Games

Welcome to Phantom Who, a new feature designed to go along with the Earth Station Who podcast, which I co-host. There I am known as “Dave” because “Phantom Troublemaker” takes up too much room on the stationary. Every other week there will be a new podcast discussing all things Doctor Who, with a central discussion about a particular story.

For the first year we are covering regeneration stories. Starting with An Unearthly Child and wrapping up the current regenerations with The Eleventh Hour, we’ll be covering the first and last stories of each of the first eleven Doctors.

Last time on Phantom Who…

The second Doctor, along with Ben and Polly, thwarted the Daleks’ integration into and eventual takeover of a colony on the planet Vulcan. From there, the evil fascist pepperpots were planning to propagate their species and launch a takeover of the entire galaxy.

Since then, the Doctor has had many adventures and gained new companions in the form of Jamie McCrimmon – a Scot from the 18th century – and Zoe Heriot – an astrophysicist from a space station in the 21st century.


Side note: I’ll go ahead and make it clear that this is going to be a lousy recap. The War Games is a ten-episode story and I felt every single one of those episodes. I really think it could’ve been shrunk down to five, but a couple of other stories from Troughton’s final days as the Doctor got cut and they had to expand this one to ten episodes basically at the last minute. And it shows. The story isn’t bad by any means, as a matter of fact it is a great concept. Part of the problem I had, though, was due to my misperception of the story going in. I was under the impression that it involved warrior races from all over the galaxy – Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, etc. – and was extremely disappointed when it turned out that the participants were all humans. That’s my own fault, though, and I have no idea where I got that idea. I think maybe I heard in passing that the above aliens appeared and assumed they were more active than simply being images in the final ten minutes (which is what ended up being the case). Also, I am not a huge fan of Doctor Who stories that are more historically oriented. So if my recap is somewhat truncated or I sound less than enthusiastic, don’t let that keep you from watching The War Games if you’re interested. 

Also, I seriously considered putting some pictures in these, but man. I just don't have the time. I'm going to have a hard enough time maintaining the blog over the next three or so months. I have to train somebody at work and I'm honestly not sure how I'm going to fit writing in. I will do the best I can, but I already know I am going to have to back-burner at least three really big projects that I was excited about until probably August. I don't know how the heck I'm going to get my Dragon*Con stuff done.

When the TARDIS materializes it is suggested that the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe are expecting to be on Earth. And things certainly do look Earth-y. The trio go wandering away from the TARDIS (because that’s what they do) and encounter a World War I-era ambulance being driven by a woman named Lady Jennifer. Well, I suppose she was a Lady named Jennifer. Anyway, they hitch a ride to wherever she’s headed, but are waylaid by German troops on the way.

They are rescued by some British soldiers led by a Lieutenant named Carstairs. He takes them back to the British encampment where a Major finds the Doctor and his friends just a bit suspicious. Meanwhile, Lady Jennifer and Lieutenant Carstairs realize they can’t remember a whole heck of a lot about this war and their parts in it.

The Major runs to tell his General what’s going on. We meet General Smythe and his sideburns and as soon as he hears about the Doctor and his friends he gets all shifty and suspicious and its obvious there’s something going on. General Smythe tells the Major to bring the visitors to him. After the Major leaves, Smythe moves a painting on his wall and reveals some sort of screen and equipment that are clearly not standard issue for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

The Major comes back into the General’s room a few minutes later and is confused to find him gone. When the General does return, he lays into the Major for just walking into his office without knocking or anything. I agreed with him. Then the General puts on some crazy Mister Magoo-looking glasses and tells the Major that he saw nothing and everything is totally fine, just go about your business and bring me those strangers. The Major – who has clearly been hypnotized – complies.

An overzealous Sergeant-Major brings the Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, Lady Jennifer, and Lieutenant Carstairs before the General. There’s a bit of business here where the Sergeant-Major is calling out marching instructions to the TARDIS crew and Jamie is bumbling about trying to keep up. Jamie gets a lot of funny little moments like that throughout The War Games. General Smythe immediately decides that our trio of travelers are up to no good. 
He forcibly re-enlists Jamie in the Army, claiming he is a deserter from the Highland Brigades; he sentences Zoe to prison and sentences the Doctor to be executed at dawn. Even the General’s people think this is a bit harsh, so he pulls out his hypno-specs and convinces them when the Doctor isn’t looking.

Lady Jennifer offers to keep an eye on Zoe since she’s a female and probably shouldn’t be stuck in a cell. It turns out Lady Jennifer is a much better ambulance driver than she is a guard, because she promptly nods off and Zoe escapes. Since we need to move the plot along, she heads straight for General Smythe’s quarters and finds the futuristic equipment. Zoe feels this is the sort of thing the Doctor should know about, so she just sort of trots over to his cell and lets him out. Surprisingly (for Doctor Who), the Armed Forces were smart enough to be keeping an eye on their prisoners and show up just as Zoe and the Doctor are about to leave to find Jamie.

The Doctor is taken straight out in front of the firing squad and tied to a post. A shot rings out and the Time Lord winces, expecting a bullet; but none comes.

It turns out the shot was fired by an attacking soldier. The firing squad stops what they’re doing to take care of that problem and the Doctor and Zoe make their escape.

Over the course of the next three hours the Doctor finds out that there are soldiers from many different Earth wars on this planet that most definitely is not Earth. There’s a part where the Doctor and company are attempting to make their way back to the TARDIS in the ambulance and the silliest-looking Romans you’ve ever seen crest a hill to attack. There are soldiers from the American Civil War, German soldiers, Mexican soldiers, French soldiers, and more. The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie endure an almost comical cycle of being captured and escaping from the various factions while trying to figure out what is happening on this strange planet that is divided up into many separate War Zones.

The German soldiers are being led by Captain von Weich, who has a monocle that does the same thing as General Smythe’s hypno-specs. Captain von Weich is also in charge of the Union troops in the American Civil War Zone. It turns out that von Weich and Smythe are working for a man called the War Chief. The War Chief is directing the action from a futuristic, centrally located bunker. He was hired by a mysterious, unseen (so far) man called the War Lord to coordinate the War Games and provide technology to facilitate them. The War Chief has fantastic facial hair and the second I saw him I thought he was probably a Time Lord.

Actually, a lot of people in this story have some pretty memorable facial hair. General Smythe has those sideburns, the Sergeant-Major has quite a mustache, the War Chief has the most ridiculous sideburn/mustache combo I’ve ever seen, and the War Lord… well, we’ll get to him.

Anyway, Smythe meets with the War Chief in the Central Zone and tells him about these time travelers that are running all over the place and confusing everybody by being extremely easy to capture but difficult to keep captive. The War Chief is not happy about this. He issues an order to all of the Zones that the Doctor and his associates must be captured. Which was kind of happening a lot anyway.

Speaking of which, the time travelers in question have entered the Civil War Zone and in a staggering turn of events managed to avoid being captured. While they are hiding out in a barn, a strange machine materializes and disgorges a couple dozen Civil War-era soldiers. The second I heard the machine I thought it was probably a TARDIS. The Doctor thinks the same thing, so he gets up and runs inside. Zoe shouts after him that it’s stupid to go running into some strange craft and then runs in right after him. Jamie is about to follow when the machine dematerializes, taking the Doctor and Zoe with it and leaving us with a near-upskirt as Jamie skids to a halt.

The Doctor and Zoe find soldiers from many different eras inside the machine. It ends up materializing in a sort of hangar bay in the Central Zone and the pair disembark to find out what’s going on. Everybody there is walking around in these zany, Willy Wonka-looking glasses, so the pair grab a couple and go to this weird seminar where a scientist is explaining the process for mind-wiping the soldiers and getting them deployed into the field.

Zoe and the Doctor are watching, somewhat appalled, when Lieutenant Staircase or Carstain or whatever his silly name is gets wheeled in. He was last seen helping the TARDIS crew escape from one of their many captors, and must have gotten busted in the process. Scientist explains that a small percentage of the soldiers have shown a certain amount of resistance to the brainwashing procedure and have formed rebel groups that are opposing… um, whatever is going on.

Side note: I have no idea who the heck the audience was that was sitting there listening to Scientist’s lecture. It’s just this bunch of people. Like, tourists or something. I just went with it because I was so pleased nobody was getting captured again.

As Scientist goes on to explain that there is a new process that will wipe even the dirtiest minds clean and that they’re going to use it on Lieutenant Starchase now. The Lieutenant caches sight of the Doctor and Zoe, and the Doctor motions for him to be cool. It’s hard to be cool when somebody is sticking your head into a device designed to erase portions of your brain, but Carstairs does a pretty good job. I kept waiting for the Doctor to do something clever and keep Carstain from getting mind wiped, but he didn’t. So the Lieutenant’s face goes all blank and then he stands up and starts ranting about Zoe and the Doctor being German spies. Oops.

The Doctor does what he does best and talks his way out of the situation, but then the War Chief walks into the room and gives the Doctor the ol’ hairy eyeball. Clearly there is some recognition on both parts. The War Chief sounds an alarm and the Doctor and Zoe take off.
Back in the Civil War Zone, Jamie and Lady Jennifer have been busy getting captured by and escaping from various military factions. Their latest escape was from a group of Union soldiers led by a very familiar commanding officer – von Weich! They were assisted by a Civil War-era rebel (against the tyranny of the War Games, not the tyranny of the North) who I do not wish to call “the Black Guy” even though he was quite literally the only black guy in the whole story. So I’ll call him Private Clyde.

Private Clyde is cool and actually does a very passable American accent, though it is not Southern. Actually, there was only one Southern accent amongst all the Civil War soldiers. I was dreading hearing one, but the guy that used it was actually very good.

So Private Clyde and his crew want to execute von Weich because they know he’s with the people that have stolen them from their timelines. But Jamie doesn’t want that to happen, which is good of Jamie but very stupid because it gives von Weich time to get to one of the comm units that is hidden in the barn and sound an alarm.

Somehow the Doctor and Zoe were separated and Zoe got waylaid by newly evil-fied Lieutenant Carstairs. From there she is taken to a groovy interrogation chamber where the Security Chief puts on the silliest hat ever and asks her questions.

Security Chief – “Where do you come from?”

Zoe – “Oh, please – take that off.”

Security Chief – “Where do you come from?

Zoe – “No.. really… it’s just too silly, I can’t stand it.”

Security Chief – “I come from…”

Zoe – “Argh! I come from the 21st century and I’m traveling with a Scottish piper and a Time Lord in a TARDIS and sometimes I like to put cheese on donuts when nobody’s looking and please just take that silly hat off!

While this is going on the Doctor happens across Carstairs getting mind-wiped. Again. I’m a little concerned about these guys and how casually the bad guys seem to be mind-wiping them all the time. It can’t be healthy. Anyway, the Doctor does his talky thing and he and Carstairs end up overpowering Scientist and forcing him into the mind-wiping chair. Then they go and find Zoe in the groovy interrogation room.

Meanwhile the War Chief and the Security Chief are having a little spat in the big map room. If I didn’t mention it, there’s a big room with this really cool-looking map/table thing showing all of the different War Zones. The War Chief is the guy that supplied the operation with the time-travel machines that are kidnapping the soldiers and ferrying them around. The Security Chief doesn’t trust the War Chief because he is a different species from the rest of the people in the operation and betrayed his own people.

Their disagreement is interrupted by the alarm that von Weich set off in the barn, so the Security Chief dispatches a machine full of troops to investigate. When the machine materializes in the barn there is a big fight between the Central Zone security guards and the rebel soldiers. The rebels win, but Private Clyde dies. The rebels see an opportunity to find the ones responsible for their situation, so they and Jamie pile into the machine and it dematerializes, leaving Lady Jennifer behind.

When the machine rematerializes back in the Central Zone landing bay, there are guards waiting. As the rebels exit the craft they are gunned down, including Jamie. I totally thought he was dead because neither he nor Zoe is in the next story. I had forgotten about him being in The Five Doctors.

A whole bunch of nonsense happens after that and I can’t even begin to try and explain it to you. It turns out Jamie and the rest of the rebels were only stunned. He gets interrogated by the Chief Scientist at one point and this makes the Chief Scientist think the War Chief is going to turn on everybody and summon the Time Lords. The Doctor escapes and helps people escape and gets recaptured and save Zoe and helps her escape and saves Carstairs and some guy kills von Weich. Seriously – it’s a mess. So much unnecessary stuff happens that I would have to go back and watch the middle five episodes of The War Games three or four more times just to put it together and I don’t want to watch this thing even one more time. What’s important is that we finally get to the scene that is the background of the DVD menu.

The Doctor, Carstairs, and the guy that killed von Weich are in some room that is closing in like an old Batman ’66 trap. Eventually they have to surrender and are captured, but the Doctor escapes almost instantly this time. It’s really starting to get a little silly. Okay – we actually left silly behind a long time ago.

As a matter of fact, things are getting so out of hand that the War Lord decides he needs to show up in the Central Zone to take control and holy shit, you guys the War Lord is Steve Fucking Jobs:

The Doctor is so screwed now.

He, Zoe, and Carstairs have made their way back to the British encampment and the soldiers there are so sick of the routine of capturing and escaping they decide, just to shake things up, to kill General Smythe rather than take the Doctor prisoner. So the Doctor is holed up in the British HQ with the rebels now and the War Lord sends all of the brainwashed troops to kill the meddling Time Lord. This time there is no chance of escape, so the Doctor reconfigures the local Time Zone control unit to create a safe zone around the British HQ. Only it isn’t all that safe because a bunch of Security Guards from the Central Zone show up and capture the Doctor(!).

The Security Chief tries to interrogate the Doctor like he did Zoe, but the Time Lord has been around and seen (and worn) his share of silly hats and the interrogation hat has no effect. Since the Security Chief can’t make any headway with the Doctor, the War Lord assigns the War Chief the job and finally we get the confrontation between the two Time Lords.

For the first time ever it is explained that the Doctor is a renegade Time Lord who stole his TARDIS, and it turns out the War Chief is, as well. He is supplying the War Lord and his people with limited-capability TARDISes so they can create the perfect army to take over the galaxy and enforce peace. He does the Darth Vader bit (eleven years before Vader did it) and tells the Doctor that together they can overthrow the War Lord and rule the galaxy together. He even says “Galactic Empire”. Before the Doctor can reply, the War Lord shows up and tells the Doctor he had better join their effort or else. Apparently he didn’t overhear the War Chief’s planned mutiny even though he was about three feet away when it was being spoken of.

Zoe, Jamie, and Carstairs decide to organize all the rebel groups for an assault on the Central Zone. To do this, they decide they need a crazy Mexican stereotype, so they contact Arturo Villa, who is like Pancho Villa but with a Japanese first name. For some reason. Villa shows up with his troops and demands to meet with the leader of that rebel cell. Zoe is the brains of the operation at this point, but a savage like Villa isn’t going to accept some silly woman as a leader. This leads to my favorite scene in the whole story. Jamie comes out all dressed up like some kind of revolutionary and has a meeting with Villa, with Zoe providing a whole lot of overt guidance throughout. They finally agree to a plan that involves sabotaging the control units in all of the various Time Zones in order to draw out the Security Force, at which point they will steal a TARDIS and assault the Central Zone.

Their plan actually goes off without a hitch, to the point where the War Chief is ready to detonate a neutron bomb to get rid of the rebels. But the Doctor steps in and says he can halt the revolution and the War Lord agrees to let him try. He then contacts the rebels and tells them he is sending a TARDIS for them. They all hop on board and are brought to the Central Zone, where they are met by a cadre of Security Guards led by the Doctor, who tells them to surrender.

After the rebels are led away, the Doctor confronts the War Chief and tells him he knows all about his little plan. The War Chief doesn’t really want to be BFF co-rulers of the galaxy with the Doctor! He just wants him for his fully-functional (well, mostly) TARDIS.

The War Lord then makes the monumentally stupid mistake of putting the Doctor in charge of mind-wiping the captured rebels, but the Security Chief – who, like Stone Cold Steve Austin doesn’t trust anybody – just sort of throws the Doctor in with them. They all think he betrayed them and Villa in particular is about to kill the Time Lord, but he explains about the neutron bomb and they see reason. The Doctor pretends to mind-wipe Jamie and the other rebels so they can overthrow the War Lord.

Meanwhile, the Security Chief has managed to find recordings of all of the mutinous conversations between the Doctor and the War Chief. You can practically see his little head glowing with joy. He moves to arrest the two Time Lords, but then everything just kind of goes to hell. The rebels rise up and chaos ensues. During the fight the War Chief manages to kill the Security Chief and, seeing that the rebels are going to win, sneaks off to steal a TARDIS. Unfortunately for him, the War Lord is just kind of hanging around the TARDIS bay with a bunch of Security Guards and they blast him.

The War Chief’s Death Scene is AMAZING.

Back in the map room, the Doctor has realized that with nothing more than a bunch of limited, broken down TARDISes there is no way to get the thousands of soldiers back to their own times. He has no choice but to summon the Time Lords to help out. This involves making a cube out of some pieces of paper and I wonder if this cube doesn’t have some relation to the ones seen in “The Doctor’s Wife”.

The Doctor does his best to escape to his own TARDIS with Zoe and Jamie before the Time Lords arrive, but time slows down around them. There is a desperate race to the TARDIS and the trio almost don’t make it.

But they do.

Once inside, the Doctor activates the controls to try and find a location outside of the Time Lords’ vast influence. Unfortunately this leads to such silly things as the TARDIS being attacked by sharks and alligators and I really don’t want to discuss that.

What I will discuss is how the Doctor explains that the Time Lords are a bunch of boring, stodgy snobs who don’t ever want to get involved with life, the universe, and everything. He couldn’t stand it, so he stole a TARDIS to go and see the sights.

After several stops, the Time Lords finally recall the Doctor’s TARDIS and its passengers to their home planet (which is not named). The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie are brought into a large chamber where the War Lord is standing trial. As the Doctor is about to testify, a bunch of Security Guards show up and rescue the War Lord. Just as they are about to escape to a TARDIS, a force field surrounds them, the Time Lords pronounce them guilty, and erase them from existence. It was pretty creepy, actually. They were very casual about it. The Time Lords also stated that they were going to lock the War Lord’s planet away due to the war-like proclivities of his people. Yikes. Don’t piss of the Time Lords, I guess.

After they are done with the War Lord and his goons, the Time Lord council turn their attention to the Doctor. They tell him they are sending his companions back home. Zoe and Jamie are both sent back to times directly after their first encounter with the Doctor, with their minds wiped as though they never actually traveled with him.

As for the Doctor, they tell him they are going to change his appearance and exile him on Earth, since it seems to be his favorite planet.

This whole next sequence was weird and kind of ridiculous and actually bothered me quite a bit.

First, the Time Lords tell the Doctor he can choose his appearance and he makes this big show of not liking any of the crummy drawings they show him of possible looks. I find it odd that such a highly evolved society doesn’t have artists capable of producing images better than what we saw. After he refuses all of their terrible suggestions they tell him fine, he’s getting changed anyway and we get one of the worst scenes I have ever seen in the history of Doctor Who.

Patrick Troughton has been a lot of fun as the Doctor every time I have seen him. He is obviously a very gifted actor and he just as obviously took the role of the Time Lord very seriously. But the regeneration (though it is not yet referred to as such) scene is just fucking awful. The story ends with the Doctor just sort of spinning off into the darkness. It’s worth noting that the actual regeneration was not shown, which I did not know until now. No Jon Pertwee in this episode.

Actually, having seen that I wonder if Stephen Moffat (or whoever is in charge at the time it comes up) couldn’t get away with claiming that wasn’t even a proper regeneration, just a change of appearance. The Time Lords never explicitly state they are taking one of his regenerations.

  • One of the writers – Terrance Dicks, who I normally have a very high opinion of - referred to the ridiculous amount of being captured that happens to the Doctor and company as a clever way to lengthen the story out to ten episodes. It may have served its purpose, but I certainly wouldn’t call it clever. My eyes were sore from all the rolling.
  • There is a fan-made short film in the DVD set called “Devious” that is supposed to take place between this story and the next one – Spearhead From Space. It’s not very good and doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it does feature Jon Pertwee in his final appearance as the Doctor.
The good parts of The War Games were very good. The long parts were very long. I can’t imagine I’ll ever watch this again in its entirety. The stuff with the War Lord and the Time Lords was all pretty excellent. The story was solid and even the effects were quite good for the most part. All of the actors were great except for Patrick Troughton at the very end. I can’t imagine what led to… that.

Come back next time for Spearhead From Space, which is the next story in the series and the first story for Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor! I’ve actually seen this one before and really like it for the most part. Plus – Shower Scene. Ooh, yeah.

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