I submitted a book proposal to the Black Archive’s Doctor Who series for “War Games”, then asked to un-submit it when I realised you only got two goes a year, and that given the upcoming schedule of calls I was already going to have to eliminate Three, Five or “Unquiet Dead”.
I thought you might enjoy the sketched-out book anyway. It’s not my BEST take–I didn’t have time to rewatch “War Games”, as I would have liked (it’s a COMMITMENT), but y’know, it’s some thoughts maybe someone else might like to take up.
Let me begin by saying that I realise asking for The War Games is jammy beyond jammy, a vast vat of the viscous stuff. It’s the biggie: all ten plump little episodes, and all the plot and canon formation that goes on within those confines. Yet because it’s so important, even as one wonders how to do it justice, one is almost obligated to ask!
I love the whole idea of this range, of finally doing litcrit/textual work on Who in addition to production-focused criticism. Not that a production perspective doesn’t yield something valuable, but for so long we’ve been talking about Who as craft and never as art. Black Archive feels like such an exciting, past-due addition to (re-direction of?) the conversation, that chips away at that craft/art false binary and allows these approaches to productively speak to one another.
Precis of the serial. We might find this phatic–surely if you’ve bought this book you know this episode like the back of your hand? But often the memory does cheat. Beyond that, an attentive reading often draws my attention to things I hadn’t previously seen in a text, or changes my thinking about the relative weight of given elements. It also gets readers and author on the same page re: thematic concerns.
This is also a good place to nod to other critical treatments of the serial, and to do a quick ‘literature review’. There’s a great deal of spilt digital ink, fanzine material, etc., on this serial that I’d need to read and re-read. (There’s also a fun commentary on the War Chief’s project management skills: https://orangeanubis.com/tag/patrick-troughton/ .)
There’s something to be said here about the choice of periods or war-zones (euro-heavy, relatively temporally compressed), the BBC’s broader costume drama tendencies/this serial as historical fiction, and about War Games’ not wholly unprecedented but still ambitious exploitation of the show’s time-jumping formula.
2. “Man is the most vicious species of all.”
Having set up the plot, we can turn to the War Lords’ endeavours. I’d like to pay particular attention to a line of thinking the War Chief articulates:
“Consider their history. For a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose.”
Who pulls this ‘wicked, naughty humans!’ business almost as constantly as it pulls ‘x species spurred human development/x sits underneath the surface of the Earth like a fae kingdom’. It appears to be quite a mature critical gesture: the emerging British national epic holds up a mirror to the country which, until very recently, had an empire the sun never set on. Actually, however, I think the ‘savage humans’ accusation functions more like a Bakhtin carnival. This faux-criticism defangs anxiety about whether the viewers are at all implicated by the actions of the baddies: whether they’re ever more Dalek than Doctor. The important thing in this exoneration mechanic is not that the Doctor denies the War Chief’s charge in the next line (it is indeed patently ridiculous in the show-universe, often asserted but simply silly when Daleks et al exist). The important thing is that the charge is made, that we the audience roll around in a moment of liberal smugness at our own ability to see our faults, and then excuse ourselves of them. You can’t look at this instance of ‘consider their savage history’ without examining Who’s long fascination with this topic.
Despite having access to time-travel technology that could theoretically enable them to pluck human soldiers from wars yet undreamt of in our own time, the War Lords only collect combatants from the Great War and earlier. A line about the potential danger of ‘technological advancement’ allows the serial to elide World War II (‘too soon’ for contemporary viewers). This technological excuse is somewhat curious given that while atomic science was indeed playing out somewhere, a great deal of trench equipment, like the Fullerphone, remained consistent across the wars.
But where, in the War Lords’ cavalcade of conflict, is empire? Only five of the eleven conflicts might offer significant numbers of non-white European combatants on either side (and of these, WWI is often perceived, and here depicted, as a ‘white’ conflict—though granted we don’t hear much about the Greek and Roman zones). Imperial examples of human viciousness (the quality the War Chief suggests is being cultivated and selected for by these experiments) are erased because they aren’t classed as true ‘battles’ between equal opponents: war is collapsed down into a chivalry narrative, and history into ‘half a million years’ of people (all people, we must suppose) ‘systematically killing each other’, without particular ascriptions of blame or power imbalance implied. History becomes a sort of evo-psych pageant of inevitability. I think it’s actually fairly powerful that Two treats this as simply stupid: it’s a bad plan based on a bad take.
New Who’s post-empire masculinity crisis in part arises from the Classic Who’s refusal to think about empire during Decolonisation. Arguments that Classic Who was a children’s text (always dicey to begin with) can’t wave away the show’s preoccupations and the subjects it chooses to engage with. For this section I’d draw in part on Aishwarya Subramanian’s work on post-war British children’s fantasy and empire.
I think it’d be interesting to talk a little about ‘war gaming’ in the historical training scenario sense. I recently presented on class in Dickens adaptations over the decades at Historical Fiction Research Network’s annual conference (and there should possibly be a note about class in the war-zones, in this treatment). While there, I heard a rich paper on war games as historical fiction, part of (in this paper’s case) the British navy’s curation of its self-image. I think good stuff could come of returning to that scholar’s discussion of war-gaming as training tool and image curation.
Obviously there’s a doubleness to the serial’s title. The War Lords are engaging in literal war games, while the episode sets up a disturbing picture of war as always essentially homogenous, always run by and conducted at the behest of faceless, interchangeable outsiders. The Security Chief and the War Chief’s petty in-fighting adds to the serial’s sense that this is what war is always like. To the people playing with human lives, the war games might as well be Homeward Bounders. The idea of higher beings testing or playing with humans in this way has a pedigree in fiction and SF that could be usefully illustrated in this volume. (For example I would be a little surprised if Homeward Bounders didn’t derive somewhat from War Games–after all, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series is so ‘I watch Who with my children’ I’d swear to it, with citations.)
Further thought about the catch-and-release plot business of the episode ought to go here, under the general rubric of the extent to which this is ‘war as game’ for the Doctor and his companions as adventurers, and thus for the audience at home. It’s a counter-intuitive story, more novelistic than reminiscent of modern television. So few of this serial’s events matter in a plot-arc sense, giving rise to questions about what we get out of television, making us question what we get out of television, how a story attains and sustains attention, and the relationship between narrative space and character construction. War Games is a story built on delay, escape, and characters never being in the right place at the right time for the real plot to occur. The serial’s confrontations are ducked and dodged until the last possible moment. This is a story about surviving a situation, not rushing in to face opponents. I wouldn’t claim this as an intentional artistic move, but the kind of Falstaffian attitude about war that emerges certainly suits the second Doctor. Yet the Doctor’s Hal in this story, too: taking up his portentous heritage and claiming responsibility in summoning and then reckoning with the Time Lords, throwing off his joker persona (which is both authentic and a front) even while contesting with the indifferent paternalistic authority of his people.
This element will probably get fleshed out as I think more about the precis.
4. “his own people, the Time Lords”
A really exciting section! Obviously this serial narratively develops the Time Lords, and there’s incredibly rich stuff to dig into regarding their presentation here. Gaiman finds this their only satisfying outing (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2007/05/nature-of-infection.html):
“In my head the Time Lords exist, and are unknowable – primal forces who cannot be named, only described: The Master, the Doctor, and so on. All depictions of the home of the Time Lords are, in my head, utterly non-canonical. The place in which they exist cannot be depicted because it is beyond imagining: a cold place that only exists in black and white.”
Ultimately I really disagree with Gaiman on this. I love what the Time Lords do in War Games, but for somewhat different reasons, and I wouldn’t give up the sociological function the Time Lords play in other stories (which allows the Doctor’s characterisation to develop by providing him with a contextualising background). This book wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the serial’s treatment of the Time Lords, and the things this development of them enables the canon to do. It’s far beyond ‘they stick Three on Earth’—the Time Lords’ existence (and increasingly, their culture) illuminates the Doctor’s particular character from here on out. The Doctor also enters a new stage in his relationship to the Time Lords, here.
It’d be interesting to read this discussion of non-interference against Star Trek’s concurrently-developing prime directive. Both are narrative devices with clear story-world functions, but do also signify politically, in alignment with and against the shows’ broader aims.
I’ve previously mentioned the Doctor’s choice to call in the Time Lords at great risk to himself as a particular moral turn for him. I think the importance and severity of this are underscored by that desperate scene of he and his companions struggling to attain the TARDIS as the Time Lords arrive. The power and threat of the Time Lords in the episode merit extensive discussion. We slip quickly from hitherto unseen telekinetic technology (the summoning box) to the terrifying unhappening of the War Lord, galactic exile for his entire species, invasive memory erasure for all the humans involved (including well-loved companions), and a more serious violation of the Doctor’s autonomy and body (and perhaps of the program format itself) than the show will ever again undergo. It’s an incredibly dramatic, daring choice, and in some ways it’s hard to imagine a contemporary program taking these sorts of risks or establishing these sorts of stakes.
And of course, while we’re here, is the War Chief the master? What does such a reading offer, and in what ways is it unsatisfying? This isn’t a question that needs a singular, definitive answer: in fact such a thing is undesirable. Clearly he’s a production-side harbinger of that character, a sort of test-run of the idea. Within the text, however, the War Chief seems to suspect the presence of someone known to him from almost the first sign of trouble. He and the Doctor’s recognition of one another seems intensely specific. It weakens the Master’s character somewhat if the Doctor has a score of such old frenemies, and despite the War Chief’s plan and treatment of the Doctor fitting so neatly into the Master’s MO in many ways, it’s also difficult to imagine the Master subsuming himself for years in a plot in which he was merely a functionary for other forces, losing even his name in the process. It’s also dramatically unsatisfying, in this regard, that the War Chief expends so much of his energy on his rivalry on the Security Chief. There’s a lot to say here about back-readings, why the show wanted a ‘Master’ shaped character, how it came to develop one (which the War Chief, like the Monk, is and isn’t), influences and experimentation.
And of course, courtesy of our aforementioned hirsute friend, there’s that brilliant bit at the end of ep six/beginning of ep 7 with the shrinking TARDIS/SIDRAT. It’s one of a handful to times a TARDIS becomes an alien, hostile, dangerous environment. The Edge of Destruction, the Master’s booby-trapped TARDIS in Frontier and the beginning of Castrovalva also come to mind immediately, of course, but it’s a relatively rare development. The device de-naturalises the semi-domestic space of the TARDIS, stripping back some of the safety the viewer has come to associate with the ship and laying the groundwork for the serial’s deeply unsafe ending. The serial’s conclusion is itself full of de-naturings. By the end of the story the Doctor and the own TARDIS will be deeply divided, and the Doctor will be unable to fully access his own mind.
5. “Memory’s a funny thing out here. Can’t always remember things myself.”
We can’t help but conclude with a discussion of the forced regeneration and the similarly forced removal of Zoe and Jamie’s memories, which echoes the memory-distortion the War Lords imposed on their victims. Jamie is literally released back into his own war zone. It’d be good to say a word on this in terms of the experience of watching Who in that era, without much ability to ‘summon back’ the show when it was gone. This effect has been course exacerbated, or perhaps simply extended, by the loss of so much Two-era footage. Our current reception of the show is laden down with memory. For the modern viewer, Early Who always carries the weight of the intervening years between production and reception on its back. It’s also laden with the reception-drag of and the totality of Who that will come (like a sort of age-reversed Aeneas and Anchises).
This was also an interesting time for traumatic memory loss in the public discourse. Psychoanalysis was in the air and the then-contemporary thinkpieces, getting heavily re-worked by second wave feminists. These thinkers’ emphasis on female sexuality brought Freudian memory-constructions, which were developmentally associated with assault narratives, under particular scrutiny. Psychoanalysis also gave extensive attention of the Great War, trauma and memory. It’d feel remiss not to spend a few pages dealing with the analytic dimensions of the serial’s treatment of extraordinary forgetting.
Questions of agency abound for the human soldiers, the exiled War Lords, the Time Lords, the Doctor and his companions. Canon and paracanon attempt to address aspects of these, as does media fandom to an extent. What do these fictional readings tell us about the elements of War Games that resonated with or continued to disquiet people over the decades?
A consideration of the aforementioned themes, in cross-chapter conversation, and a word about War Games’ legacy for the Who canon and in broader culture.