50 Years of The War Games, Patrick Troughton’s Last Serial

Fifty years ago today was a monumental date in Doctor Who history. It was the original airing of Episode 10 of The War Games – 21st June 1969. This is significant, as it brings to an end the Patrick Troughton era, as well as the black and white era of Doctor Who. The episode also contained the departure of series regulars, Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines (although legend says they were both asked to stay on and declined).

When Doctor Who returned 6 and a half months later (196 days to be precise), it was a complete and total overhaul. New Doctor, new companion, the show was in colour, the number of episodes per series was halved (roughly). The War Games Episode 10 to Spearhead from Space Episode 1 is about a titanic a shift in tone as Survival Episode 3 was to Rose. It was that different. I have to wonder if viewers in 1969/1970 had the same kind of feeling when Jon Pertwee returned – “Is this the same show anymore?”

The 10th episode brought in 5 million viewers – a high point for the serial was Episode 2 with 6.3m, and the low point was Episode 8 with just 3.5m.

To me, The War Games Episode 10 is what I consider to be “essential viewing” for Doctor Who fans. While I realise the black and white era can be hard to take for fans who only know the 2005 revival, I always push this one. Episode 1 of An Unearthly Child gets a lot of credit for “launching the concept”, but Episode 10 of The War Games (coupled with about the last 8 minutes of Episode 9) was responsible for many firsts in the show’s history as well.

The first time the words “Time Lords” was mentioned was at 16:37 of Episode 9 (by Patrick himself). The first time we see a Time Lord was in Episode 10. The idea that a Time Lord regeneration can be “controlled” in any way was first brought up in Episode 10. The first time we saw Gallifrey was in Episode 10 (although the word “Gallifrey” wasn’t used until much later – 1973’s The Time Warrior in Jon Pertwee’s final series). There was a scene fairly early on where Troughton’s Doctor expounds on some of this stuff, claiming he was “bored” as the reason when asked by Jamie why he left his home in the first place. The claim that Time Lords can “live forever, barring accidents” was first made here, too.

Episode 1 of Unearthly Child and Episode 10 of The War Games are the two single episodes from the black and white era that I will eventually get around to showing people who get into Doctor Who, as some of the basic core concepts are established here. I also will push the last few mins of War Games Episode 9, as they are pretty well connected.

A couple of observations about the plot here. When the Time Lords finally do away with the War Chief, they also nuked his entire planet from existence too. That’s glossed over, but the Time Lords’ solution is genocide? Always felt that was a bit harsh. Secondly, returning Zoe to the end of The Wheel in Space, and Jamie to the end of The Highlanders… Didn’t the Time Lords create radically different timelines? As events originally occurred, Jamie and Zoe had left these spots, so returning them means they carried on with their lives at this point. Things are different now at those points in time. Gotta love time travel games!

Is there anyone reading this article that was around at the time these episodes originally aired? Am I way off or spot on with my allegation of “complete tonal shift” comparable to the 2005 re-launch? Let me know in the comments.