Doctor Who #246: The War Games Part 1

"They didn't look like spies." "Spies never do."TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Apr.19 1969.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands in WWI trenches, but there's something strange going on with the British unit's commander.

REVIEW: That's a shocking intro, with all guns blazing, and what at first looks like the last great historical story as the TARDIS lands in the middle of No Man's Land, circa 1917. The dirt flying, the barbed wire and debris, the antique ambulance, the mud pit, it's all very convincing. The sets look retroactively pulled from Blackadder IV, and so I believe we're in TV's iconic World War I. Something's not quite right, of course, and initially, the episode plays a pleasant game of keeping the truth from us. People talk about how they've forgotten wheres and whens, but it seems innocuous enough. And General Smythe is interrupted just as he's about to open his hinged portrait. But they don't make us wait too long, and at the 8-minute mark, there's confirmation that Smythe is not of this world/time, a high-tech monitor in his room, mysterious vanishing acts, and those creepy bottle-bottom spectacles he uses to hypnotize any officer not adhering to the truth of this reality.

As the episode proceeds, incongruous elements start piling up, but it's a mystery to the audience as to what it all means. Even the British stiff upper lip seems strange in this story, as soldiers (and Lady Jennifer) are much to upbeat for their circumstances. The kangaroo court-martial is a most absurd, Kafkaesque sequence, that seems to follow a script no matter what the Doctor says. This is made more absurd by our heroes impatient yet dutiful military marches in and out of the room. It seems they're doing what's expected, just like the other characters under Smythe's control are, but with their own defiant spin put on it.

Though innocent of espionage charges, Zoe will turn into a spy as soon as her guard falls asleep, allowing her to conduct the luckiest search in Doctor Who history. That trench coat looks really good and appropriate on her too. It's all too easy in the end, and the escape attempt fails, with the Doctor being shot at dawn. It's a classic cliffhanger they bring right up to the gunshot, so you can expect a cheap out in the next episode. But that's neither here nor there. Whatever minor quibbles I have are just that, minor.

REWATCHABILITY: High - We're off to a great start, one that makes me wish historicals were still part of the series' format, but the SF mystery is one that will take us all the way to the end of the Troughton era, so I can't really complain about the weird directions it's all about to take.


Anonymous said...

Awesome episode, I was hoping this would get a "High". I only wish they had made it look mostly like a historical a little bit longer.


Siskoid said...

I agree, because I like historicals so much, but it doesn't replace it with padded fluff at least.


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