Chapter 50. Doctor Who and the War Games (1979)

Synopsis: The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe between the trenches of the worst war in Earth’s history – World War I. Yet just a few miles away, the war is against Roman soldiers – and here it’s the American Civil War. As the time travellers make their way to the centre of the warzones, they discover a group of aliens controlling the battles as part of a hideous game. All too soon, the situation becomes too great even for the Doctor to handle. With no other choice, he is forced to confront his greatest challenge yet – his own people, the Time Lords…

Chapter Titles

  • Prologue
  • 1. Sentence of Death
  • 2. Escape
  • 3. The Time Mist
  • 4. Back to the Château
  • 5. The War Room
  • 6. The Process
  • 7. The Security Chief
  • 8. Battle for the Château
  • 9. The Trap
  • 10. Fall of the War Chief
  • 11. Trial of Doctor Who

Background: Malcolm Hulke adapts the 1969 scripts he co-wrote with Terrance Dicks.

Notes: The prologue is a mission statement from the ‘Chief War Lord’ (so the aliens are the War Lords, who aren’t named on TV; the War Lord is the leader of the aliens). They identify Earth as ‘the most war-like planet known to us’ and their project is called ‘The War Games’. Off the back of their last (unseen?) adventure, the Doctor has promised to take Jamie for a visit to his own time. On their arrival, he explains to his young friends the origins of barbed wire (the invention of ‘an American’ for the purpose of penning in cattle). He goes into detail about the purpose of trenches during World War I, in a time before the tank was invented, and the great loss of life involved in trying to capture ground from the enemy. ‘That’s a daft way to run a war,’ says Jamie, rather pertinently. The Doctor also explains the causes of the American Civil War to Zoe who, coming from the far future, has never heard of the United States.

General Smythe is ‘a huge man with a square jaw and cheeks like cliffs’. Captain Ransom reports to him that they have lost ‘twenty-nine thousand men in the past month’ and Smythe tells him that they’re fighting a ‘war of attrition’. Alone in his room, Smythe uses the hidden video monitor to report to a ‘fellow War Lord’ and request ‘five thousand more specimens’. 

Carstairs’ first name is Jeremy and his father is a factory owner in Yorkshire (but he chooses not to admit this to Lady Jenifer). Head of the military prison, General Gorton, can’t remember if he was born in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire or Berkshire. Two deserters, Willi Müller from Berlin and George Brown from London, witness the shelling of the ambulance and the vehicle’s sudden disappearance in the mist. In the Roman zone, Drusus Gracchus and Brutus Sullas also see the ‘square elephant’ vanish and assume it’s a ‘Gaulish trick’. Drusus vows that he’ll sacrifice ‘three goats, two pigs and a human slave’ in honour of the God of War. 

The War Chief is tall, with a uniform of ‘black with gold and red piping’. His fellow War Lords use a transport device called a ‘Space and Inter-time Directional Robot Allpurpose Transporter’, or ‘SIDRAT’ – a ‘tall black box similar in shape and size to the TARDIS’ (it’s mentioned only once on screen, by the War Chief, who pronounces it ‘Side-Rat’). The machines can deliver hundreds of soldiers to the various timezones and they are powered by green crystals that come from the ‘planet of the Time Lords’ (which the War Chief doesn’t name), but as these have worn out, the War Lord has used other materials that lead to a decreased lifespan. The Alien soldiers wear silver uniforms. The Security Chief does not like people to see how short he is, so he usually stands; he wears a ‘simple black uniform without braid or piping’ that makes him look ‘very sinister’. Foreshadowed before his arrival, the War Lord suddenly appears in the war room alongside the Security Chief and the War Chief and is not described at any point.

At one point, Lieutenant Carstairs wonders ‘just how many wars they have going on in this place’ – and it’s a fair few, as well as his own 1917 Zone: There’s an English Redcoat, taken from the battles of the Jacobite Rebellion of Jamie’s time; we learn of a ‘French Deserter’ from Napoleon’s army in Gorton’s prison; General Smythe references zones from the Dakota War / Sioux Uprising (from 1862), the Korean War (from 1951), the American War of Independence (from 1776), the ‘Punic Wars’ between Rome and Carthage and the ‘Mongolian Invasion’ of the 13th Century; the War Lord known as Count Vladimir Chainikof oversees the Russian side of the Crimean zone (at some point between 1853-56); there’s a zone from 1936 with Chinese and Japanese combatants, though this predates the second Sino-Japanese war by a year and would possibly have been the tail-end of the Chinese Civil War; in the Central Zone, the Doctor and Zoe see a mix of soldiers, including Aztec warriors, a Roundhead from ‘Oliver Cromwell’s time’, soldiers from the Franco-Prussian War (1870),, an Austro-Hungarian officer from the Boxer Rebellion (from where we later meet a Chinese soldier who joins the resistance), two women soldiers from the Spanish Civil War zone, a soldier from Catherine the Great’s army (presumably the The Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74), a Japanese Samurai warrior and a soldier in a suit of armour from an undisclosed period; Jamie joins soldiers from the Boer War from 1899 and a Chinese revolutionary from 1911. The zone for the American Civil War (or the ‘War Between the States’) is from 1862 and Hulke uses the term ‘Negro’ to describe an unnamed resistance soldier, which is period-appropriate but which may jolt the attention of modern readers (also, the role of Harper is absorbed into that of Russell). Arturo Villar claims that all of Mexico is ‘all war’, but he’s probably from the Mexico-American War of 1846-48. Another resistance soldier, Boris Ivanovich Petrovich, is from the Russian Revolution of 1812. 

For the first time, Jamie begins to wonder who the Doctor really is and when he finally raises the question, the Doctor is about to tell him when they’re interrupted. It’s the Security Chief, and not the Chief Scientist, who first uses the term ‘Time Lords’. The War Chief reveals that the Doctor stole his TARDIS (The War Chief also has a TARDIS of his own, stolen like the Doctor’s and hidden somewhere). When the Doctor confirms this to Zoe, he admits that ‘it’s not one of the best models. The chameleon effect doesn’t work’ (Hulke previously referred to the TARDIS’s chameleon feature in The Doomsday Weapon and its use here still predates it being said on screen). During his trial, the Doctor mentions the Daleks, Cybermen, Quarks, Yeti and the Krotons. The Time Lords wear long white robes and they tack on an additional charge to the Doctor’s crimes of stealing a TARDIS, which is consistent with the version told in The Auton Invasion. Back on the Wheel, Zoe meets an unnamed man (not Tanya Lernvov as on telly). After the Doctor disappears, the prosecuting Time Lord admits that the Doctor ‘would never have fitted in back here.’ His colleague agrees, but laments: ‘It’s a pity. He would have brightened the place up no end.’ 

Cover: John Geary creates a mishmash of eras as the TARDIS stands in a battlefield where a Roman centurion approaches a British army officer. The 1990 reprint used Alister Pearson’s elegant monochromatic VHS cover with Troughton, the War Lord and a Time Lord in a grid of warzone triangles, accompanied by an American Civil War soldier, a Roman chariot and Lieutenant Carstairs.

Final Analysis: This is the longest novel since Doctor Who and the Cybermen, four years earlier. In condensing the ten-part epic from 1969, by necessity, Hulke makes it less of a Terrance-Dicks-style scene-by-scene adaptation, more a top-to-toe rewrite of the story with each chapter roughly covering a single episode. Although a lot of the beats are the same, Hulke is more concerned with creating the world for the reader than recapturing exact memories of a programme broadcast once a decade earlier. 

Hulke’s human characters are, as ever, multi-faceted and they reveal much about the societietal attitudes of their respective times: Carstairs is a loyal and patriotic officer who struggles to accept the deception of his superior officer, but also unpicks the inconsistencies of the Doctor’s Court Martial (and considering the horrific injustices he must have witnessed already, this is saying a lot); he also reveals a degree of inverted snobbery, choosing not to reveal much about his background to Lady Jennifer; Zoe reveals a fierce feminist conviction, stating her opinion that things would be better if women were in charge. Lady Jennifer disagrees, saying that, aside from periods of war, a woman’s place is in the home, a view that seems to be introduced to undermine her belief that ‘new socialists… believe in a lot of nonsense’ (though she later tells Russell that she believes that women should have the vote, so she’s quite complex too).

Hulke sums up the brutality of the First World War effectively through a combination of the Doctor’s mini-lectures and the reactions of the soldiers to newcomers, immediately accusing them of being spies and threatening them with being shot. Lieutenant Carstairs observes that the average lifespan of a British officer on the front line is only three weeks. As they part company on No Man’s Land, he asks the Doctor ‘Did my side win?’

‘Was all the death and misery for nothing?

‘You have answered your own question, Lieutenant. War is always death and misery, and both sides lose. I hope that one day you humans will find another way to settle your arguments.

This adaptation covers so much ground that in some ways it damaged the reputation of the TV episodes it was based on. Terrence Dicks’ natural modesty (and the pressures under which he and Hulke wrote the story) always led him to underplay its success, but some readers were entertained enough by the novel to assume that all the stuff cut from the TV episodes must have been needless padding. The DVD release restored its reputation as one of the best stories of that decade, but this novelisation is also a magnificent undertaking. Some characters are missing, some scenes truncated, but none of this leaves us feeling short-changed. We’re lucky enough to have both the TV and novel versions and both of them stand among the very best of their respective genres.

Malcolm Hulke died in July 1979, aged 54. This book was published two months later.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 50. Doctor Who and the War Games (1979)

  1. I’m so familiar with this story that I was shocked, nay flabbergasted, that I don’t actually have this book!! One of my fave stories, a momentous stepping stone in who lore.
    I remember the book rattling along, but oddly never felt the TV version slack. For 10 episodes it DOES indeed rattle along.
    Now, must dash, have to get a copy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This entry is almost as Herculean as the story itself!
    Applause from the gallery and beyond!

    The War Games is such a terrific story and so much better when ingested in smaller bites as you suggested to me and you were so right! (Don’t get smug, you’re still wrong about mushrooms)

    These entities are lovely little segments of joy and they brighten my weekends up no end!

    Liked by 1 person

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