The TARDIS materializes in the middle of a muddy field covered in barbed wire. The Doctor quickly deduces that they landed right in the middle of a World War I battlefield. They run into a cheerful aristocratic woman serving as a battlefield medic, Lady Jennifer Buckingham, but before they could finish proper introductions they’re rounded up by German soldiers, only to then be “rescued” by the British. Unfortunately, when the Doctor tries to sneak back to the TARDIS which is near the German line, the British officers suspect he’s a spy. The TARDIS crew are sent to a French chateau being used as a British base and the tender mercies of General Smythe, who immediately orders them to be tried for espionage and, in Jamie’s case, desertion His fellow two judges, who met the Doctor and his companions, are inclined to let them off, but Smythe is able to effortlessly hypnotize them into agreeing with his judgment: executing Jamie and the Doctor and sending Zoe off to a prison to serve out a sentence of hard labor. That night, Zoe takes advantage of the fact that, as a woman, she’s entrusted to Buckingham’s care instead of sent to the cells with the men to sneak away while Buckinghman sleeps. She manages to get the cell keys from Smythe’s apartments, but also notices an odd device hidden behind a painting. Unfortunately, she’s too late to save the Doctor from being taken to be shot at dawn. Luckily, a soldier shooting at the chateau inadvertently gives the Doctor and Zoe a chance to escape.
The soldier is caught and is shoved into the same cell as Jamie, who recognizes the man as a redcoat English soldier from his own time. Also Buckingham and a Lt. Carstairs start putting their notes together and noticing they have both huge gaps in their memory and vague recollections of being surrounded by sudden mist. Plus they begin to question the court martial and its verdict. The Doctor bluffs his way into the military prison and tries to save Jamie who had just made his own escape, but in the end they are recaptured and the redcoat is fatally shot. Luckily, by this point Carstairs and Buckingham know something is up and sneak the Doctor and the TARDIS crew out of camp in an ambulance. General Smythe tries to kill them all with a barrage, but the ambulance reaches a similar mist to what Buckingham and Carstairs encountered before. They seem to find themselves on a peaceful field, but suddenly they run smack into a Roman legion.
The Doctor and the others flee back into what the Doctor terms the 1917 “time zone”, where he correctly guesses they can find a map to all the different time zones in General Smythe’s safe. On the map, there’s a Roman zone, a World War I zone, an American Civil War zone, and a black gap in the center. Unfortunately, while on their way to investigate the center, they’re captured by Germans, landing them back in the literal crosshairs. They manage to escape, but not before the fact that they’re time travelers is reported back to the man responsible for the entire situation, the Master – I mean, the War Chief. Meanwhile the road to the center takes the Doctor and his crew into the American Civil War zone, where they run out of gas while escaping the Confederate Army and where Carstairs is captured. As they try to rest in an abandoned barn, however, they’re started to see a TARDIS-like ship, a SIDRAT, materialize with Union and Confederate troops disembarking. As the Doctor and Zoe go inside to investigate, the SIDRAT vanishes, leaving Jamie and Buckingham stranded.
Inside the ship, Zoe and the Doctor catch on quickly to the SIDRAT’s purpose: abducting hypnotized soldiers from across human history from before the end of World War I and transporting them to their proper time zones. The Doctor decides to wait until the ship returns to its home base. Jamie and Buckingham fare worse, ending up prisoners of the Confederacy. They’re rescued by a black soldier, Harper, who directs them to a safe spot but, unfortunately, he is captured for his trouble. The Confederate general tries to hypnotize him, but realizes that the soldier is immune since he is part of what he calls “the Resistance.” Back at the center of the time zones, Zoe and the Doctor are surprised to see that the mysterious base resembles a university. They join a lecture where the topic being discussed is how to perfect the brainwashing process – and the lecturer is ready to demonstrate on none other than Carstairs. The Doctor and Zoe can only watch as Carstairs goes back to believing that he is in a World War I military camp. Afterward, the Doctor gets up and plays the part of the obnoxious student to trick the lecturer into demonstrating how to reverse the process. And before they can reach the Resistance, Confederate soldiers catch Buckingham and Jamie and bring them back to the barn where Harper is also being held. This time, though, they don’t have to wait long for rescue. The Resistance apparently followed their captors and dispatches them easily. Back at the base, before the Doctor and Zoe can leave the lecture hall, they run into the War Chief. The Doctor and the War Chief recognize each other, much to the Doctor’s own horror.
While Jamie uncovers a communications kiosk hidden inside the barn, Zoe is captured and hypnotized into answering questions about the Resistance and the Doctor. Meanwhile the Doctor, who is still on the run, manages to trick the lecturer into un-brainwashing Carstairs. Together they rescue Zoe, who remembers from the interrogation details about members of the various resistance groups across the zones. Back in the Civil War zone, the Confederate general, who like the other zones’ generals is working for the War Chief, manages to trigger an emergency alarm before being overpowered by the Resistance. The base’s guards are defeated, but not before they kill Harper. Jamie and three of the Resistance members hijack the SIDRAT the guard arrived in and are teleported back to the base. Trouble is stirring at the villains’ headquarters, though, as the base’s security chief sees the Doctor’s appearance as proof that the War Chief is planning to betray their race on behalf of his own people, the Time Lords. Realizing that one of his SIDRATs was taken over by the Resistance, the War Chief goes behind the security chief’s back to have the base’s guards ambush and capture kill Jamie and his comrades while the Doctor, Zoe, and Carstairs watch helplessly from a hiding spot and have to flee.
The security chief interrogates Jamie using the hypnotic machine and learns everything about the Doctor and the TARDIS, but tells the War Chief he learned nothing. However, the War Chief manages to get out of the security chief that he suspects him. The War Chief dares the security chief to take his suspicions to their superior, the War Lord. Elsewhere in the base, the Doctor, Zoe, and Carstairs save the members of the Resistance who accompanied Jamie and manage to take over the base’s controls, sending back Zoe and the Resistance members to recruit all the different Resistance cells across all the zones. Unfortunately, when the Doctor, Jamie, and Carstairs try to hide out from guards in the SIDRAT, the War Chief manipulates the dimensional controls outside the SIDRAT to threaten to crush them unless they surrender. An exhausted Doctor crawls out of the SIDRAT with a white flag.
Of course, it’s all a ruse. The Doctor takes advantage of the War Chief’s posturing to throw down a World War I-era gas bomb, giving him enough time to mess with the exterior controls and completely hijack the SIDRAT, but their grand escape only leads them back to being captured by General Smythe in the 1917 zone. Zoe along with the Resistance army quickly come to the rescue and kill General Smythe. Back at the base, the leader of the whole operation, the War Lord, shows up for an inspection and ends up doing damage control. He sends the whole combined forces fighting in the World War I simulation to wipe out the Resistance, but the Doctor figures out how to use the hidden controls in General Smythe’s chambers to put a time barrier around the chateau. The Resistance and the Doctor hatch a scheme to use the tech taken from the base to deprogram soldiers. Their plotting is interrupted when a SIDRAT appears and the security chief abducts the Doctor.
The Doctor easily resists the security chief’s interrogation machine until the War Chief steps in. Alone, the War Chief tries to commiserate with the Doctor, since they are both Time Lords who fled Gallifrey. He also admits that they chose to experiment with humans since they are purportedly the most vicious species in the galaxy, which the Doctor denies, but the War Chief declares it’s all for the greater good of bringing peace and order and that he intends to depose the War Lord once the experiments are concluded. Before the Doctor can react, the War Chief saves the Doctor in his own way by convincing the War Lord that the Doctor agreed to help them as a fellow rogue Time Lord. Afraid that the War Lord might follow through with his musings that they simply nuke the entire planet and leave, the Doctor plays along. Back in the zones, Resistance cells from other zones, including the Mexican Revolution and the Crimean War zones, are brought together with Zoe and Jamie’s help and launch attacks in all the zones, emptying the base of most of the guards. At the War Lord’s orders, the Doctor contacts Jamie and Zoe, claiming he’s taken control of the SIDRATs and that he needs all the Resistance leaders to come to the base. As soon as they arrive, however, the Doctor sics the guards on everyone.
As Jamie, Zoe, and the resistance leaders are taken away to be brainwashed, the Doctor coaxes some information out of a trusting War Chief: while the SIDRATs are improvements on TARDISes in that they can be controlled remotely, a side effect of the technology is that the SIDRATs have a very short lifespan. So the War Chief desperately needs both the Doctor’s help and his TARDIS. On the other hand, the War Lord is suspicious of the Doctor’s heel turn, but the Doctor convinces him that he’s needed to improve their SIDRATs. Still, the War Lord tests his loyalty by ordering him to brainwash the prisoners, which gives the security chief an opportunity to get his rival the War Lord’s bestie killed by handing him over to an enraged Resistance. The War Chief intervenes and supervises as the Doctor begins “processing” the prisoners. While he’s gone, though, the security chief finds evidence of the War Chief’s plans to betray the War Lord and has him arrested. As he’s taken away, though, the Doctor has the War Chief drafted into the Resistance. The War Chief leads the Resistance to the base’s armory, giving them the means to take over the base. In the midst of the coup, the War Chief kills the security chief to “settle” his “personal debt”. The Doctor furiously demands that the War Chief send back everyone, but he confesses that only two of the SIDRATs are still functional. Both the Doctor and the War Chief realize that the only way to return the humans home is to call “them” in. The War Chief pleads, saying, “They’ll show no mercy”. While the Doctor mentally pieces together a box he says will serve as a distress call to the Time Lords, the War Chief tries to escape, only to run into the War Lord who promptly has him killed. The delay is just long enough that the Resistance, who were in pursuit of the War Chief, captures the War Lord. A nervous Doctor gets ready to send the signal, but tries to bid farewell to Zoe and Jamie, telling them the Time Lords will take them back to their rightful times along with the others. Zoe and Jamie refuse. The Doctor tries to take off in the TARDIS, but just as they’re within a few feet of the TARDIS, time suddenly slows down with the Doctor screaming, “We must get away.”
The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie manage to get inside the TARDIS and the Doctor prepares to take off. Zoe and Jamie are confused and disturbed about why the Doctor is so terrified of his own people and why he left his planet in the first place. He answers, “I was bored”, and that while the Time Lords only want to observe and record events, the Doctor yearned to see the universe firsthand. Unfortunately, his tendency to meddle went against the Time Lord ethos and made him a criminal in their eyes. The Doctor tries to escape by going to various planets, but a voice echoes in the TARDIS, demanding that the Doctor submit to his trial. Losing total control of the TARDIS, the Doctor finds that they landed on Gallifrey and sadly resigns himself to his fate. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe are brought before a courtroom-style setting where three Time Lords are presiding over accusations against the War Lord. Outside the court, though, a SIDRAT appears and the War Lord’s guards save their boss, kidnap the Doctor and his companions, and try to hijack the TARDIS. However, the Time Lords simply and casually thwart the attempt and pass sentence: total dematerialization for the War Lord and his guards. Now it’s time for the Doctor’s own trial. While Zoe and Jamie are held behind a force field outside the courtroom, the Doctor is charged with violating the law of non-interference. The Doctor turns around the trial, claiming that he fought evil while the Time Lords themselves are guilty of “failing to use their great powers to help those in need.” The Time Lords admit that the Doctor’s defense raised issues that need consideration. One of the Time Lords reluctantly agrees to let Zoe and Jamie say goodbye to the Doctor before they’re returned. They soon notice that the force field blocking Doctor’s cell has been left down, allowing them a chance to escape – or so it seemed. Finally, the Doctor somberly says farewell, already knowing that the Time Lords will erase all their memories of their adventures except their initial encounters with the Doctor. After reassuring the Doctor that Jamie and Zoe are alright, the Time Lords concede that the Doctor had a point about combating evil in the universe. To kill two birds with one stone, the Time Lords decide to let the Doctor protect the Earth, a planet they’ve noticed he’s particularly fond of, as part of his punishment in exile. When he protests that he’s too well-known on Earth, the Time Lords agree to change his appearance, despite the Doctor’s frantic protests.
The Doctor (on the Time Lords): “I suspect they’ll make me listen to a long, boring speech about being a good boy. They – they like making speeches.”
Zoe: “Doctor, will we ever meet again?”
The Doctor: “Again? Zoe, you and I both know time is relative, isn’t it?”
Ooh, boy. In terms of importance, this is the most significant bunch of episodes in the history of the entire franchise, even more so than the first episode of the 2005 show. There’s a lot established here that would become the foundations of the character and his world. You could even go so far as to say that this is the second start to the series, as we learn more about not only the Doctor’s origins, but his character and motivations (and arguably more than the classic series or the 2005 series have revealed since). But War Games is also hugely important for what it meant for “Doctor Who” in terms of the production.
First, the obvious—this is the end of the Second Doctor era (although not the last Second Doctor story presented in the television series). But it was also the finale for the entire original black-and-white, serial incarnation of the show. From here on, the show would be in color and episodic. In other words, the show became “modern”. For me, the show becoming episodic means if I continue with this writing the summaries won’t be such a pain anymore!
The other really big thing is this is the first time the audience sees Gallifrey, although it’s never named in this serial, and the first time we learn the name of the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, although it’s still a matter of some contention among diehard fans whether or not Time Lords refers to the entire species or it’s a rank given to select Gallifreyans. Honestly, the franchise has paid less attention to the distinction than the fans do.
Here is where the Doctor first admits that he stole the TARDIS and that he left Gallifrey because he was “bored.” The Doctor also claims that he and all Time Lords live forever “barring accidents”. This bit is contradicted later on when we find that Time Lords can indeed die from old age, but to them “old age” is something like 12,000 years, so by human standards they do practically live forever.
Okay, now strap yourself in because we’re going to tackle the issue of what exactly happens to the Second Doctor. And you’ll probably need a graduate degree in Whoology to follow along.
For starters, the idea that the Doctor regenerates in this episode is entirely retroactive. Like how the Second Doctor was originally just supposed to be the First Doctor at a younger age, the Second Doctor is explicitly said to be just changing his appearance here. Weirdly, regeneration makes more sense, which the writers must have realized down the road, because as soon as we get to the Third Doctor it’s clear his personality radically changed too, but, unlike the First Doctor’s “regeneration”, it’s impossible to say that regeneration is what’s happening on screen. Of course, that didn’t stop fans from trying or from the BBC as labelling this as a regeneration story. At any rate, maybe the biggest problem later continuity creates, if you can get past the “regeneration is clearly not what’s happening” here hurdle, is that it makes the Time Lords’ actions toward the Doctor much darker than the story intended. At best they’re executing him in a way, at worst they’re chopping centuries off his overall lifespan. Then there’s the fact that Patrick Troughton ages in later stories and that the Doctor is working for the Time Lords in both the stories he appears in later in the television stories, among other things.
The Discontinuity Guide — the White Guardian bless it — got around that with the “Season 6b” theory. In it, the Doctor’s sentence of exile was delayed so he could serve under the auspices of the Time Lords’ secret investigative organization, the Celestial Intervention Agency, and that his regeneration wasn’t caused by the Time Lords, but unknown circumstances. It still doesn’t jibe at all with what we see on screen, but it’s a clever patch job that got quasi-official recognition when Terrance Dicks himself, the co-writer of War Games, referenced the theory in the Past Doctor Adventures novel Players.
Another, albeit very minor, bit of continuity weirdness is that the War Lord’s race is never actually named in this story. The canonical name of the War Lord’s species — which is, well, War Lords — seems to have come along in the episodes’ 1979 novelization.
Outside all that, this is the first and only appearance of the War Chief, the second Time Lord foe the Doctor faces in the show. If the sculpted beard and the Nehru jacket were familiar, well, it’s probably not a coincidence that the writer who would go on to create the Master, Terrance Dicks, co-wrote this. Plus, just like the Master, the War Chief has a past history with the Doctor. I’m not quite sure if there are real world reasons or Dicks thought it worked better in story to have a new character, but, really, you almost could count this as the sort-of-first appearance of the Master. In fact, various Who novelizations, including ones written by Dicks, played around with the idea that the War Chief and the Master are the same Time Lord under different titles, but it’s far from canonical, even in the spin-off media.
There’s a minor point here, too. This is the very first time the Doctor uses the adorably lazy alias, “John Smith”.
As you can tell from the length of the “Continuity Notes” section, it’s easy to overlook the actual story given how monumental War Games is in the franchise’s and the character’s history. After all, War Games was the last story before what was one of the biggest reworkings of a television show in history. Even though the show goes on for another two decades, War Games can still be seen as an epic finale to the first era of Doctor Who.
Luckily, though, the story holds up to this legacy. Sure, it has problems, many of them rooted in the show’s use of the serial format. The plot is stretched thinner than it should be, which is a problem especially because War Games is ten episodes long, with the Doctor and the companions running through the same perils and getting caught by the same villains multiple times. There’s also some ways the show didn’t age well in ways that are not surprising given the time it was made but which also ruins some potential. The character Harper, who is genuinely a black American Civil War Union soldier, is killed off at a point where he doesn’t serve as much more than a plot device. There’s no attempt to actually make a commentary or present a more complex character here even though all the pieces are right there. Also Lady Jennifer Buckingham is basically chivalrously shut out of the story by Jamie, even though she had the potential to be an interesting female heroine like Zoe. And the less said about the portrayal of a Mexican guerrilla leader, the better, although there is a rather cute moment where Zoe recruits the guerrilla leader into the Resistance but, because of his sexism, Zoe has to talk through Jamie.
It was also a bit too campy for me, even by the expectations I had as someone who’s watched all of ‘60s Doctor Who, that the villains were all named “security chief” and “War Chief” and “War Lord”. It doesn’t help that there really isn’t a reason for the War Lord to be in the story. Pretty much everything he does could have been done by the War Chief, who is a more interesting villain because of his personal history with the Doctor anyway.
But besides these problems, this is a worthy send-off to one of the most celebrated Doctor and companion teams, Zoe and Jamie. The mash-up of historical settings and a high-tech alien threat is carried off perfectly and is a nice encapsulation of what the show’s about and has the potential to be. The War Chief is also a pretty good if a tad underutilized villain, which explains why he gets “reincarnated” as the Master. There’s a certain subtle solidarity between him and the Doctor as unrooted renegade Time Lords even when they’re in conflict that makes him one of the less one-dimensional villains of the whole black-and-white period of the show.
But the real gem here is the tenth episode. The Doctor is victorious as always, but he is terrified at the mere prospect of running into representatives of his own species. It’s a tour de force performance by Patrick Troughton, whose fear is palpable and convincing and thus is as disconcerting for the viewer as it is for the audience. True, the Second Doctor has had plenty of moments where he’s fearful and even cowardly (at least seemingly so) before, but this is unprecedented. The Doctor, who has faced down armies with flinching, is completely unraveling and we don’t know exactly why.
Then the Time Lords show up. They do act benevolently, but at the exact same time they are frightening in a way that justifies the Doctor’s anxiety. For all his incredible intelligence and abilities, the Doctor is truly helpless before them. And even though they are kind and compassionate toward Zoe and Jamie, their efficient brutality toward the War Lord and the detached way they go about handling the Doctor are sobering. It’s a characterization that’s difficult to pull off, which is probably why it doesn’t last (that the 2005 series has basically reduced the Time Lords to a bunch of bungling bureaucrats whom the Doctor can defy with impunity, embracing a decline in characterization from the original series rather than fixing it, is an issue for me, but that’s a whole other conversation).
The heart of the story is actually not in the Doctor finally returning to Gallifrey, but in his farewell to Zoe and Jamie. There is a genuine sense of bittersweetness that wasn’t there even when the first companions—Susan, Ian, and Barbara—left the TARDIS. The Doctor knows they’re returning safely to their normal lives, but that not only will he never see them again (season 6b aside), but that they will forget practically all of their adventures together. Now ‘60s Doctor Who was capable of more darkness and tragedy than modern audiences would assume, but this is, I would argue, where the dramatic potential for this one-time kids’ educational show and its premise and universe really gets realized, if only briefly.
Join me again as a say a fond farewell to the Second Doctor and get ready to reverse the polarity!