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Doctor Who VI.7: The War Games

July 18th, 2009 (11:34 am)

I had intended to work last night, but indulging myself in a Co-Op pizza margherita and a glass of wine somehow defeated that aspiration. Instead, I finished viewing The War Games DVD with the commentary track and production notes.

The War Games is a long story, and the cast and crew did not sit through all ten episodes at once; this leads to various participants referring to things discussed 'yesterday'. It's one of the more disappointing commentaries, though it held much promise. Producer Derrick Sherwin and co-writer Terrance Dicks have vastly different memories of the circumstances in which the story was commissioned, with Sherwin jovially remembering the story lengthening by several episodes as it was written, in contrast to Dicks's more sober recollection that the story was commissioned as a ten-parter to fill two gaps in the production order. Dicks's memories concur, largely, with the extensive surviving documentation summarized in the production notes. It's hardly surprising that this is the case, though; Derrick Sherwin moved on from Doctor Who a few months after The War Games was broadcast, while the programme has consumed a large proportion of Terrance Dicks's subsequent working life.

The mythology of the series was still fluid when Sherwin was script editor and producer in 1968/69. Martin Wiggins observes in the production notes for episode ten that people involved in earlier Doctor Who series had conflicting ideas about who the Doctor was and how he had obtained the TARDIS, which influenced both the text and performance of scripts but which never became concrete. Terrance Dicks remembers that the Time Lords were Derrick Sherwin's idea, but Sherwin assumes he inherited them. I suspect that the backstory of the Doctor's origins had evolved through a process of Chinese whispers, successive team members retaining what appealed to their imaginations or (most importantly for a production-line series like Doctor Who) the practical concerns of the moment. The Time Lords serve an immediate purpose in sentencing the Doctor to a change of appearance and exile to Earth. It's perhaps surprising how infrequently they are mentioned during Jon Pertwee's first season, but that also illustrates how their introduction was a means to an end, and how their return to prominence in the subsequent Pertwee seasons likewise enable format changes, such as the introduction of the Master as a regular villain and the Doctor's gradual return to time/space travel.

The production notes also reveal how far the intentions of the writers of The War Games could be changed by Patrick Troughton's tendency to paraphrase his lines rather than deliver them verbatim. As scripted, the Doctor would have described the Time Lords as the rulers of his own kind, rather than "my own people", changing the emphases, potentially, of decades of fan argument between those who think all the people of Gallifrey (not, of course, named as such here) are Time Lords and those who think that they are an elite. Other lines lost, I think for timing reasons, would have taken on the Doctor's statement back in the Hartnell era that he had built the TARDIS, with the Doctor admitting that he had lied to his companions and thus to the audience. Had this stood, the War Lord's line in the middle of part ten, asserting that the Doctor was after all able to steer the TARDIS, would seem less like the desperate rantings of a thwarted paranoid megalomaniac, and instead a perspicacious observation by someone who had the measure of the Doctor's evasive character. Given that the Doctor's control of the TARDIS from season ten onwards has been much better than it was in the first six series, despite several hiccups, perhaps the War Lord had a point; though we are here delving into Cartmel masterplan territory and the ideas lurking behind Remembrance of the Daleks and the New Adventures books.

Of the characters in The War Games, the one whose absence is most felt for the second half of the story is Lady Jennifer Buckingham, played by the producer's then wife Jane Sherwin. It's good to hear a divorced couple getting on as well as Derrick and Jane Sherwin seem to in the commentary. Lady Jennifer's disappearance from the story is remarked upon by the assembled cast and crew members on the commentary track, and also in Martin Wiggins's production notes, where it's stated that in the original storyline for episode five she was to travel to the alien control centre with the Doctor, Jamie and Carstairs, holding the alien officer Von Weich as a hostage. Instead Von Weich was killed off and Lady Jennifer stays behind to take charge of the human resistance's nursing arrangements. The reason why the characters weren't taken forward is never stated, but it was probably an economy measure, given the commitment to bringing in new principal characters such as the War Lord, and reminding the audience of the diversity of the conflicts represented by introducing the Mexican bandit Arturo Villar. This is to be regretted; Jane Sherwin and David Savile (Carstairs) work very well together on screen. Their characters are fairly young but older than the childlike Jamie and Zoe. Crucially, they hold positions of responsibility, and as the reality of their situation dawns on them they are called upon to face bizarre circumstances in the spirit of rational enquiry. These factors, together with their scepticism towards and then strong working relationship with the Doctor, make them very reminiscent indeed of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, appropriate for the story which brings the Doctor's meanderings begun in An Unearthly Child to an end - though the differences between the 1963 series and that of 1969 are perhaps more marked than the similarities.

Watching The War Games seems to exhaust those watching for commentary purposes. By the end we know too much about 'loop scenes' and can spot all the redundant lines of dialogue brought in to stretch out the middle episodes. Nevertheless a lot of it is very good indeed, particularly the performances from Troughton, Hines and Padbury, all of whom know their roles and the limitations and purposes of those roles very well. It knows how to address the family audience - I've always appreciated the juxtaposition of the Doctor's dialogue with the War Chief with Jamie's and Zoe's clowning with Arturo Villar, balancing a scene whose tension relies on words with one based on wordplay and dressing-up. Philip Madoc convinces entirely as a man who knows how he might rule the universe, whereas Edward Brayshaw's War Chief has the ambition to get there, but one is never convinced that he would know what to do with the power other than make grand and probably repressive gestures. For all its longeurs, it's still an essential purchase for Troughton fans in particular, and for its achievement in matching so many of its ambitions and creating an arresting atmosphere - the photo gallery on the DVD includes colour pictures both of the alien base sets, whose bright colours and deceptively simple designs are just right for a species who control human beings by manipulating their sensory perception - it remains one of the high points of Doctor Who in the 1960s.


Posted by: viala_qilarre (viala_qilarre)
Posted at: July 18th, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)

I must get this DVD. I don't buy all the classic series DVDs as they come out (mostly because of lack of funds), but this one seems so pivotal that it's a must-have.

I've often seen reference to the 'Cartmel masterplan' and understand it to be some grand scheme that Cartmel was going to unfold if the next season of classic Who had ever happened. Do you have a link for a precis of this?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 18th, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC)

Most classic series DVDs fall into a wait-and-see category with me too, as they usually fall below half price somewhere within eighteen months; but this one is already subject to some good discounts, with Tesco selling it last week at £13.71 in shops, and early orderers through Play.com (though not me) buying it for £12.99. I do recommend it.

Another detail which I didn't mention, but which hasn't been widely remarked upon before this restored release, is Troughton's use of his recorder as a telescope. This never appears in scripts and before restoration the idea that the telescope the Doctor uses in part two was his recorder was a minority view; I'd never noticed it. Now it's very clear that it is.

Of the first few links regarding the Cartmel masterplan called up by Google, this is probably the best. The whole idea needs to be treated with caution, as the document summarizing the plan was drawn up after season 26 was made, when Virgin were commissioning the New Adventures.

Posted by: Virgers! How are we doing with those explosives? (tree_and_leaf)
Posted at: July 18th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)

other story lines allocated for the season would have had the Doctor gain a new companion as a favour from a former cat burglar-turned-aristocrat he would help out in a serial prior to this one.

Hello there, Lady Christina...?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 18th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)

Most definitely, though I think whoever wrote the article got their wires crossed. Marc Platt has spoken of a businessman with countercultural/borderline criminal associations, who is helped out by the Doctor in a story set in the late 1960s. The businessman would have lived in a houseboat, and I suspect the BBC lawyers might have run a fine rule over this story to prevent a certain bearded record label owner sueing... but as part of the deal with the businessman, the Doctor would gain some sort of claim on his first-born daughter. Twenty years later, the daughter has become a cat burglar for kicks. Under cover of attending a party, she breaks into a vault in her ball gown - to find the Doctor waiting for her there. Andrew Cartmel has disassociated himself from this storyline, and so it may have arisen from discussions between Ben Aaronovitch (who seems to have been retained somehow as an assistant script editor in season 26, and hoped for the job proper in season 27) and Marc Platt in the period between Cartmel leaving for Casualty and the news that season 27 wasn't going to happen.

Posted by: John E (john_amend_all)
Posted at: July 18th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)

He uses his recorder as a telescope in The Invasion as well. Or, alternatively, the recorder prop was reused to represent a telescope.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 18th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)

So he does - and probably in others, too. Sherwin and Dicks seem to think this was something worked out between Troughton and the props team without reference to the producer.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: July 19th, 2009 10:59 am (UTC)
Doctor Who

Most classic series DVDs fall into a wait-and-see category with me too, as they usually fall below half price somewhere within eighteen months

I haven't got around to upgrading most of my videos to DVDs, but I recently noticed Amazon selling most of their Doctor Who DVDs for about £5 (excluding p&p), including some fairly recent ones.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 19th, 2009 12:14 pm (UTC)

I think Amazon's prices over £5 now include P&P if you go for second class delivery. They tend to peg many of their prices one penny below those of play.com .

Interesting to see The Tomb of the Cybermen retailing for near cost price - I gather it's been deleted pending the release of a special edition next year as part of a box set.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: July 19th, 2009 12:27 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

Interesting to see The Tomb of the Cybermen retailing for near cost price - I gather it's been deleted pending the release of a special edition next year as part of a box set.

Maybe they are trying to clear their stocks before the release of the box set.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 19th, 2009 12:30 pm (UTC)

By cost price I meant full price, sorry - it's being sold as a rare item, I think.