Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"The War Machines"

Aired Jun 25 – July 16, 1966

4 Episodes

Story 27

Written by Ian Stuart Black

Directed by Michael Ferguson


When the TARDIS arrives in London, 1966, the Doctor visits the recently completed Post Office Tower, having sensed evil emanations from the building. There, he meets Professor Brett, who demonstrates his revolutionary new computer, WOTAN, standing for Will Operating Thought Analogue. Designed as a universal problem-solver, the machine can actually think for itself. Moreover, it is shortly to be linked up to other major computers around the world - a project overseen by civil servant Sir Charles Summer.

All is not as it seems, however, as WOTAN has decided that humans are inferior to machines and should therefore be ruled by them. Exerting a powerful hypnotic influence, it initiates the construction of War Machines, heavily-armed, self-contained mobile computers, with which to affect its plan of world domination. The War Machines prove more than a match for troops, but by establishing a magnetic force field the Doctor is able to capture one of them. He then reprograms it to destroy WOTAN.

Now back in her own time, Dodo decides to leave the Doctor at this point. However, the Doctor soon finds himself with two new companions, Brett's secretary Polly and her merchant seaman friend Ben Jackson, whom he inadvertently whisks off in the TARDIS when they come aboard just as it is about to dematerialize.


The third season, one of the series' most successful and bold, ends on a high note with The War Machines. It's ironic that a season that was amongst the most variable in terms of tone and style ends with a story that establishes many of the concepts that would form the backbone of the show for much of the next decade, effectively ending the variation of the Hartnell years.

The War Machines is the first time an adventure had been set on contemporary Earth since Planet of Giants nearly three years earlier, and it immediately makes an impact. My decision to watch Doctor Who in transmission order allows me to feel something similar to what the audiences of the time must have felt, and I have to admit, the more fantastical settings of these years was starting to become a little tired. Putting the danger in familiar surroundings gives the story a sense of urgency and increases the stakes. The juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane (a tactic first employed in The Dalek Invasion of Earth) is a quality that would become a hallmark of the programme's success from this point forward.

In fact, much of this story can been seen as a template for what Doctor Who would become over the next eight years. The whimsical and flexible nature of the show would change into more straight forward action adventure or space opera, set either in futuristic settings or contemporary Earth, culminating in the action oriented Earth-bound era of the Third Doctor.

A lot of why this feels so fresh comes from the superb direction of newcomer Michael Ferguson. His camera work is energetic and mobile, utilizing plenty of zooms, quick cutting and tracking shots which result in a story that has a much quicker pace than most of the First Doctor era. This feels modern, and as a result the show feels revitalized. In fact, the direction often serves to offset the many weaknesses of the scripts.

The story relies far too heavily on convenience and coincidence. It happens in the opening minutes when the Doctor arrives at the Tower and is immediately welcomed into the situation and shown around as if he were some sort of VIP. Of course, it's common for the Doctor to enter a situation and take command, but there's not even one line of dialogue where anyone questions who this crazy old man is and what he's doing there. Then it's simply too convenient that the warehouse where the War Machines are being built is next door to the night club that Polly, Dodo and Ben go. And if WOTAN hypnotises people to ge them to work for him, why doesn't he hypnotise Ben, regardless of Polly's suggestion? The answer is because Ben needs to be able to escape to move the plot forward. Finally, why exactly is "Doctor Who required?" And how does WOTAN even know about him? We never find out the answer to either.

Other than those significant issues the story works pretty well, and it's actually a nice showcase for Hartnell who really is at his most imposing and formidable here. The cliff-hanger with him facing down the advancing War Machine is great, as is his active role in eliminating the menace. Far from the feeble, half-dead reputation of his later period in the role.

Alas, poor Dodo, we hardly knew ye. I'm certainly not Dodo's biggest fan as I found she alternated between boring and annoying for most of her run. She's really interesting in her first five minutes, before the BBC ordered her to be toned down from a Cockney kook into a bland non-entity. However, none of that was the fault of the actress, it was the result of decisions from above and lack of care by the production team. It must have been particularly hard for Jackie Lane to watch herself be replaced by the kind of modern, edgier companions she was designed to be and certainly could have done herself. The fact that she is basically kicked to the curb and disposed of off-screen is a terrible disservice to the actress, and kind of contemptible of the production team.

The companions she is being replaced by are immediately more interesting and well-written than Dodo ever was because they're approached as characters with personalities, not simply as an expository tool for the audience. Michael Craze and Anneke Wills are great, and they have ample chemistry with each other, making it fun to watch them bicker and flirt. They do feel like they're straight from the swinging sixties, with Polly's miniskirts and false eyelashes, and Ben's cockney edge, and that makes them totally different from any companion the series had before. 

The War Machines is a solid, if flawed, close to the season, and its freshness heralds an upcoming period of incredible change for the series.

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