Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 251: The War Games, Episode One
It's May 2006, and I've taken my friend Ben with me to Holt out on the Norfolk coast, where they're having a big Doctor Who celebration. Later that evening we'll settle down to watch The Idiot's Lantern play out on TV, but for now we're stood in the middle of a high street taken over by an attempt to break the world record for the number of Daleks gathered together in one place. I don't think they quite managed it.
Truth be told, the day was a bit rubbish, I seem to recall. Someone had dropped us off there in the morning, and wouldn't be back to collect us for hours. An early highlight was meeting Colin Baker, who surely has to be one of the nicest people ever connected to the series in any way, shape, or form, but then everything else was just a bit naff. There were plenty of stalls selling tat, none of which appealed to me, and I remember spending about an hour sat on a step somewhere while we tried to think of something to do.
The day got considerably better when we found a particular stall that was selling Doctor Who video tapes. It's funny how some things stick in your mind so clearly, but this is one of them. It was quite a small set up, a stall bordered with a rusty metal frame and covered with a blue tarpaulin on three sides and the top. They had loads of tapes spread out on the front desk, with more piled up on those cheap shelving units you can pick up in Argos all along the back. It was heaving with people, and you had to fight your way through the crowd a bit to reach the front and look through the collection.
I'd pooled my money for a few weeks in the hope that I might be able to buy something on this day out, and so far it had remained firmly in my wallet. Suddenly, I had the opportunity to spend it ten times over. All these VHS tapes, all these stories that we're miles away from any kind of DVD release! I can't remember all the ones I looked at - I must have picked up loads while trying to make my decision - but then I caught sight of one particular set up on the top shelf at the back.
The Time Lord Collection. A sturdy cardboard box wrapped around The Three Doctors, which I already had on DVD so wasn't that exciting, The Deadly Assassain, which was supposed to be a really good Tom Baker story in which he fights the Master on Gallifrey, and... no? Surely not? It can't be... a double tape release of The War Games, the epic ten-part Second Doctor story which introduced the TIme Lords to the series and saw Patrick Troughton's departure?!?!
It's strange, in 2013, with only a few DVD releases left before everything is easily available to pick up for a few pounds on Amazon, to explain just how exciting this was. I'd picked up one or two video tapes of the old stories on Ebay over the years, but they were usually the ones that went cheap - and thus weren't the ones with the best of reputations. Indeed, I took a flyer for the company selling the tapes on this day and handed out a highlighted version to family members when they asked what I'd like for my birthday that year.
The War Games had been released in 1990, and then again as part of this box set in about 2002. I think it was a limited edition, but I just wasn't aware of that kind of thing back then. To me, it was simply a chance to own The War Games. This story - mores perhaps than any other - was like a Holy Grail. It's ten episodes long! It's the first introduction of the Time Lords. The Second Doctor regenerates. I could type on for a half a million words and I'd never be able to accurately tell you how thrilling the thought of owning this box set was.
But it was out of my price range. Only by about £10 or so, but still. Thankfully, it was Ben to the rescue. I'd successfully managed to get him into the stuff they were currently showing on TV with David Tennant and Billie Piper, but he had zero interest in any of the old stuff. Indeed, Ben is one of the pair I spoke of during The Tomb of the Cybermen, who'd had the audacity to laugh at the silver giants! Ben stumped up the extra cash (for which I'm still thankful, seven years on) and I purchased this magnificent set.
If anything, it made the last few hours of the day go even slower. Not only had we now been round everything there was to see at this particular day out, but now I was holding a copy of The War Games in my hands, and simply couldn't wait to get home and watch it. I explained to Ben just how important this story was to the history of the series, but I don't think he really cared. I decided that I would ration the story out; no more than one episode a day (that sounds familiar), so that I could really make the most of it. Of course, that all went out the window once I'd gotten it home and put it in the video player because it was fantastic.
And, d'you know what? It still is. I've tried something of an experiment with today's episode, because I happen to be visiting Mum's house at the exact point that I should be sitting down to watch this one. So often throughout the course of the 1960s episodes, I've commented about how different it would have looked on an old telly compared to being on my Mac screen, so today I've hooked up an old VHS player to an old telly (it's from the early 80s, but I think it's about as close as I'm going to get) and popped in the VHS. The DVD is waiting at home for me in freshly restored glory, using better prints than were available to the VHS release, but I planned to have something really insightful and fascinating to say about the process of watching the episode in this way.
And I've completely failed! Because apart from noting that - yes - Patrick Troughton's face does actually look terrifying when you see it emerging from the title sequence on an old CRT screen, I've just been entirely swept up in the story, and I've not made a single other note about the way it looks on this old screen. Typical. If you want, you can pretend that I've said something really interesting here about it all.
Oh, but it is brilliant, this episode, isn't it? Right from the moment we see the TARDIS' materialisation in the reflection of a puddle on the muddy battlefield up to the second the Doctor scrunches up his face before a firing squad and a shot gets fired... every single bit of this episode is sheer brilliance.
I'm surprised to find how pleased I am to see the TARDIS back in history. We've not been anywhere before the 1960s since way back in The Abominable Snowmen, and I didn't think I'd been missing travels back into the past, but actually it feels fresh and different. It's probably helped by being an era that's so close to living memory (even more so on the original broadcast) and it makes it all feel that much more real.
This is especially true of the threat running through the episode. When the Doctor parts company with Zoe to be taken to a cell, he gives her a gentle kiss on the head and mutters 'Goodbye, my dear.' It's a simple moment, but it's so touching. Forget being stuck inside the Kroton's ship, or fighting the Karkus in the Land of Fiction, this is real, and there's an honest sense of danger to it all. The same can be said for the moment that Zoe breaks in to steal the set of keys. It feels far more dangerous than anything else in Season Six has - perhaps more than anything else in the Second Doctor's era. Being somewhere as sombre as the First World War, and being the final story for all three of our regulars, it all feels far, far, more true.
I could rattle on for ages about this episode, and the Doctor Who Online news page would disappear under a wave of my gushing with praise, so I'll stop now. There's another nine days to go with this one, so I'm sure there'll be plenty of time for me to say everything I could possibly want about The War Games.
For now, I'll settle for saying that I'm so happy that the story can produce this kind of emotion in me, all these years later, and having sat through so many other episodes already this year. This one really is something very special indeed.