An alien race lead by the War Lord (Philip Madoc) has been kidnapping and brainwashing soldiers from wars throughout Earth History to fight in war-games on another planet. The TARDIS appears in the middle of this game. The time-travellers find barbed-wire and gasmasks in a blasted landscape and believe they have landed in World War I. The viewer believes it is a historical story. Lady Jennifer Buckingham (Jane Sherwin) is driving an ambulance full of soldiers across no-man’s land to Ypres in an ambulance and picks them up. The BBC scored a genuine WWI ambulance, which was a nice touch, though the accelerator and brake of the antique vehicle were reversed, and Sherwin had a hard time driving it. She brings them to Lieutenant Carstairs (David Savile). As usual, they are suspected of being spies by General Smythe (Noel Coleman), and are found guilty in a strange trial. When other officers protest that there is no proof, the General puts on his glasses and they give in to his wishes. It’s a Jedi-like mind-trick. Zoe manages to sneak into his office to swipe the cell-keys to free the others and finds a computer screen behind a painting.
A Redcoat is put in Jamie’s cell. He believes it is 1745 and mumbles about a strange mist. At first, they tangle like the life-long enemies they are, but then they stage a fight to overpower a guard and escape. All the time-travellers escape in the ambulance driven by Lady Buckingham. They pass through a mysterious mist and find themselves attacked by Roman Legions and a war-chariot, and quickly drive back into 1917. After some business and running back and forth, they are surrounded by Germans. They tell the German commander where they come from and show him the sonic screwdriver, but General von Weich (David Garfield) puts on his monocle and convinces everyone that they are spies. As soon as they are taken away, he contacts his superiors on a computer screen. The alien War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) demands to see the prisoners immediately, but they have escaped.
The fugitives find themselves in 1862, smack dab in the middle of the American Civil War. The ambulance runs out of gas and they continue on foot. Hiding in a barn, they discover a TARDIS-like device materializing. This is the War Lord’s SIDRAT—Space and Inter-Time Directional Robot All-purpose Transformer—or TARDIS backwards. A troop of Civil War soldiers come out. The Doctor and Zoe venture inside and it de-materializes, separating the group. Inside, they find soldiers from various periods in a dormant state. Jamie and Jennifer are arrested by the Confederates as spies, then rescued by Union soldiers, who turn out to be the resistance to the powers that have created the War Games. They have broken their conditioning and are immune to hypnosis. Soldiers wearing uniforms from a dozen different wars—thanks to the BBC costume department—make a fascinating rebellion. When the writer was first told what War Games was all about, he asked his 12-year-old son what wars they should include and was given a list.
There is the usual round of captures, rescues, escapes, and more captures through various time-zones of Earth History—Roman, Greek, Crimean War, World War I, the Peninsula War, the American Civil War, the English Civil war, the Mexican Civil War, the Thirty Years War, the Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War--enough, in fact, to fill ten episodes, as the Doctor discovers that the whole thing is a creation of a renegade Time Lord, who is training the perfect army, of course, in the name of Peace. The War Lord learns that the War Chief has been plotting against him and kills him. The Doctor supports the Resistance and defeats the War Lord. But all these innocent, mind-altered soldiers must be returned to their own times, and only the Time Lords can do this, so the Doctor is forced to alert them. He and his companions flee in the TARDIS, but it is diverted by the Time Lords. The War Lord is put on trial, found guilty, and dematerialized, all memory of him erased from the timeline, as if he had never existed. We think execution is the ultimate penalty, but the Time Lords go much further than that.
It seems, however, that the Doctor is wanted for several crimes himself, including the theft of the TARDIS and massive interference in the lives of lesser species. The Doctor rebelled because he was bored. The Time-Lords are all-powerful, but they do nothing but gather knowledge. The Doctor wanted to explore space-time and could not stand back and do nothing when the helpless were in danger. Zoe and Jamie have their memories of the Doctor erased and are returned to just before leaving on the TARDIS; they will live out their lives as if the last year or so had never happened. The farewell scene is a tear-jerker. The Doctor is put on trial and defends himself dramatically, pointing out that his interference with the timeline of many worlds was always to protect the innocent from evil forces like the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Ice Warriors, etc. He presents various moments from his time-stream as evidence; ironically, many of these images are the only remaining moments of some episodes. He is sentenced to exile on Earth and forced to regenerate.
The Second Doctor went out with a bang. This was the last story broadcast in black and white, and introduced the Time Lords and the Doctor’s back-story, which has been expanded and built upon for decades. The tale, which could have been slow and tedious at ten episodes, was full of action, the music was great, and the sets, whether historical battlefields or science-fiction corridors, were pretty good. The story featured a half-dozen villains—all different, and all despicable. Patrick Troughton’s son David appeared as Private Moor. Novelist Diana Gabaldon was inspired by War Games to set her Outlander historical romance series in Jacobite Scotland and to name her protagonist Jamie.