It's the end of a decade. There's a new Doctor coming and everyone's nervous about introducing a new lead - but first they have to finish the old one in some style. Nobody's sure it's going to work. The parallels between 2009 and 1969 are very noticeable in Doctor Who terms, but we're not here to talk about Matt Smith, we're here to bid farewell to the second Doctor.
OK, the negatives first: this story is of its time, on a budget and too long. A number of stories were planned to finish Patrick Troughton's tenure in the lead of Doctor Who in 1969 and a couple fell through, so this story gets padded, padded, padded to 10 episodes. The first couple are corkers - the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are stuck in what looks like World War 1, but then they're attacked by Romans. Eventually we're introduced to another of the Doctor's people, and in the final two episodes the drama ratchets up as we meet the Time Lords for the first time and they exile the Doctor to 20th century Earth, changing his appearance once more.
It's a strikingly bleak finish. There was no certainty the programme would continue at the time, so ending with the Doctor spiralling into the distance, clutching his changing face, his companions robbed of their memories of him by these heartless creeps, is an incredible downer. The Doctor hasn't even been able to resolve the central threat of the story himself, he's just had to go back to his people, cap in hand and beg for mercy.
It's brave, there's no doubt about that. The cast lifts the story above the dismal runaround it could have become. Brayshaw as the War Chief is suitably chilling, as is Madoc, almost unrecognisable as the War Lord. As to the regulars, their regret that this is their last time together looks very genuine. Troughton himself is allowed comic moments as he pretends to be an army inspector, his own particular brand of fearful reassurance is brought very much to the fore elsewhere but ultimately his resignation at his inability to beat the Time Lords, his quieter moments, this is what lifts his performance above everything that's gone before. The pacing is above the standard 1960s filmed-as-live TV to which the contemporary audience would have been accustomed but today's kids will find it slow. As his last story it's worth pausing and recognising that it was Patrick Troughton, not the first incumbent William Hartnell, who established that there could be more than one Doctor and that he could be different from his predecessors. This is who we have to thank (or berate, according to preference) for the show's longevity.
Technically, the prints have scrubbed up wonderfully using the VidFire technique; they look as though they were filmed last week, not 40 years ago. This isn't always an advantage - details that give away the studio-bound-ness of the as yet unnamed Time Lord planet were covered in granier prints but are obvious now (when the Tardis doors open there are times when the studio is now visible, for example). The DVD extras lift this release into the four-star category. My own favourite was the look back at the Patrick Troughton Doctor in the weekly comic strip in TV Comic - so often it's the trappings rather than the programme which really take you back to your childhood. There's a fan video featuring Jon Pertwee (!) which supposedly takes place between the end of this story and the beginning of the next - it's a curio rather than anything particularly great, but it's Pertwee's last appearance as the Doctor and nice to have. There are academics looking at the accuracy of the War Games and there is the inevitably hazy reminiscences of making the show, some 40 years later, and a timely examination of all of the regenerations. McCoy is generally agreed to have the worst start and finish.
But this DVD is essentially about the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. There's precious little left of his tenure in the BBC's archive and due to its being stretched to compensate for the other failed projects this might not be the best example; enjoy it for the beginning, the end, a brilliant performance from Troughton himself and a clutch of well-made extras that allow you a good old wallow.
EXTRAS **** As well as the extras mentioned above, there's also: an audio commentary with Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Philip Madoc, Jane Sherwin and Graham Weston, co-writer Terrance Dicks and script editor Derrick Sherwin; a featurette called War Zone, in which cast and crew recall the making of Patrick Troughton's swansong; featurettes on the technical and artistic constraints of makking black-and-white TV, the locations of The War Games, composing the music, the make-up, the concept of regeneration, the time zones in The War Games, and the story novelisation; the Second Doctor's comic strip adventures; a photi gallery; trailers; and Devious, a 12-minute Doctor Who adventure made by fans which takes place between the events of The War Games and Jon Pertwee's introduction in Spearhead From Space, and features Pertwee's last ever appearance as the Third Doctor.