On 'The War Games'. From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon.
The last Doctor Who story of the 1960s is the high point of the
show’s attempts to engage with the radicalism of that era. It was made
just as the worldwide protests against the Vietnam war reached a
crescendo. It’s been called an ‘anti-war’ story, but this is wrong.
It’s an anti-imperialist story and, up until the last episodes, it
Pacifism is not advocated. Carstairs uses his pistol to protect the
Ambulance and the Doctor never bats an eyelid. The Resistance kill
guards all over the place. The Doctor’s aim for much of the story is to
raise an army to fight the aliens. 'The War Games' supports
The violence that 'The War Games' condemns is that of imperialism.
The aim of the aliens is conquest. That’s all that lies beneath
everything that goes on in their War Zones. Meanwhile, ‘Butcher’ Smythe
and von Weich amuse themselves playing Risk with human lives.
It goes beyond noticing that top brass can be callous. The British and
German commanding officers have more in common with each other than with
their men. They are fundamentally different – alien – to the grunts
whose lives they control and squander. They report to the same system
of aggressive expansion, and both keep their communication devices
hidden behind portraits of their monarchs. Under patriotism,
This is really about class. The generals are one class, the soldiers
are another. Carstairs and Lady Jennifer are posh but, otherwise, the
soldiers in 'The War Games' are the workers (and peasants) of the world.
They’re pawns on the board of the ‘great game’. The map of the War
Zones even looks like a game board. Those soldiers who throw off their
mental processing (ie the ideology of their rulers) start cooperating
across lines of nationality and race. Russell looks like he comes from a
British imperial war of the 19th century, but he treats Harper, a black
man, as a trusted ally. They even start to overcome sexism. Zoe
lectures Arturo Villa about tactics and forces him to listen. Kidding
aside, Jamie supports her. When the soldiers fight together instead of
against each other – like Jamie and the Redcoat with whom he’s
imprisoned – they can end the war. That’s why the First World War Zone
is constantly referred to as “the 1917 Zone”, because it was in 1917
that a revolution in Russia started a chain of events which lead to a
revolt against the Kaiser and the end of the slaughter.
Terrance Dicks’ story about people on a game board (which he tells
repeatedly) probably got inflected with revolutionary politics via
ex-communist Malcolm Hulke. 1968 re-radicalised him, it seems.
However, in the end, although the Doctor’s vanguard conquers the
imperialist stronghold and stops the war, they don’t take over.
Instead, the Doctor calls in the ‘good’ establishment to clear up after
the ‘bad’ establishment. The Resistance will end up back in their
‘real’ wars, their minds wiped of the internationalism and solidarity
they learned through struggle. Dumped back in Scotland in 1745, his
memory altered, Jamie goes back to attacking Redcoats rather than
teaming up with them. In fairness, he is ousting an
invader, but this turnabout still highlights faultlines in the radical subtext. The
Resistance is never a mass movement. There’s elitism in the idea that
only a superior few can see through the brainwashing. The Doctor’s aim
turns out to be reformist rather than revolutionary. He collaborates
with the forces of law and order to curb the worst excesses and then put
things back the way they were. So Russell, for instance, will go back
to his imperialist war without any memory of his alliance with a black
All the same, this story remains remarkably radical in its portrayal of
war as a great conspiracy of conquest, perpetrated by a cynical ruling
elite to whom all generals on all sides belong, reliant on the
brainwashing of the ordinary soldiers who - if they only realise it -
can stop the whole thing by cooperating in revolution. Perhaps this
sort of thing was only possible in 1969. Perhaps.