Doctor Who Project: The War Machines

Well, hardly a specialist, sir, but I dabble. Yes, I dabble.

Doctor Who‘s third season ends as the entire series began, in 1960s London, and in many ways, the season’s final story, “The War Machines,” (Story Production Code BB) takes its meager strengths from being set in quite familiar surroundings. Ian Stuart Black’s tale of an artificial intelligence bent on destroying its organic creators could easily have transpired on some distant planetoid in the far future, but such a danger arising from a laboratory atop the newly completed Post Office Tower in London just at the point when computers were beginning to make inroads into public consciousness provides sufficient narrative impetus that we can almost ignore the sloppy plot.

The Post Office Tower . . . of Doom!

Writing his second Doctor Who story, Ian Stuart Black again shows no sense of familiarity with (or worse, no respect for) the series’ norms and established precedents. The Elders in his “The Savages,” aired immediately prior to “The War Machines,” track the Doctor through space and time somehow, which the Doctor himself has not yet accomplished through three seasons, while here the villain of this story, the awakened computer WOTAN (Will Operating Thought Analogue), refers to the Doctor as, egads, “Doctor Who.” In “The Savages,” at least, Black has characters specifically note that they do not know the Doctor’s name; here, even henchmen spout the offending phrase:

Professor Brett: Top priority is to enlist Doctor Who. He has advanced knowledge which WOTAN needs. Doctor Who must be enlisted into our services tonight.

Much about this story suggests a break from past precedent and the dawn of a new era, as the production team was obviously complicit in this breach of naming protocol. After three seasons of not being able to get back to contemporary London, the TARDIS materializes there with nary a remark from the Doctor. He merely pops an “Out of Order” sign on the rather beat-up looking police box door and, sensing that something is very “alien” about the Post Office Tower, arranges confabs with the leading scientists and civil servants of the day.

A Broken TARDIS?

We have no lead-in from a prior story—and no lead-out from this story to the next—to explain why and how the TARDIS has arrived at the next destination. The Doctor just shows up, senses something is wrong, fixes it (ostensibly because he has nothing better to do), and disappears. Even the interactions here with the military, a first, will become commonplace in the next eight seasons. A format has arrived. Even the episode titles are different, in a computer font with an animated effect. To go along with this change in sensibility, two new companions arrive, every bit products of ’60s London, and one companion is almost literally sent out to pasture.

And how does the Doctor fix a maniacal computer bent on the eradication of the human species? With punch cards, of course.

Advanced War Machine Programming 101

Much like the punch cards, alas, the plot is full of holes.

The nature of WOTAN’s self-awareness remains unexplored; the computer simply starts to think for itself and decides that the earth cannot progress with humanity in charge. It must be confessed that, for a hyper-intelligent super-computer, WOTAN does not pose much of a threat. It possesses the ability to hypnotize human beings via sound vibrations (hopefully a bug and not a feature) and so enslaves workers to build it an army of eponymous War Machines, with which it will take over the planet. WOTAN proclaims that the Doctor’s intelligence must be harnessed for this effort, but that notion is dropped by the end of the second episode and serves mostly as a vehicle for writing Jackie Lane (Dodo) out of the series.

Dodo and the Doctor

How WOTAN knows anything at all about the Doctor (including the meaning of TARDIS, which Dodo asked it) receives zero explanation. One might hypothesize that WOTAN, with its links to computers around the world, taps into the databases of some sort of ur-UNIT or ur-Torchwood-type organization which has been keeping tabs on the Doctor on Earth, but there’s nothing in the story to support or suggest such a reading. We have the problem of the Elders from “The Savages” all over again: how does anyone even know who the Doctor is? The premise of the series so far has centered on his relative anonymity.

For that matter, how is the Doctor able to secure a visit to a theoretically high-security computer lab housing the machine that is scheduled to control all other computers in the world? And how does he manage to ingratiate himself with Sir Charles Summer, the civil servant in charge of the WOTAN project who the ear of the Minister of Defense? Possibly during his earlier stay on Totter’s Lane he developed these contacts, but again, there are no details in the story to back up such a concept.

Quibbles, certainly, given the series’ spotty record on canonicity at this early date, but one can overlook such details when the story itself moves with sufficient pace and vigor and contains an internal consistency. Said consistency and pacing are lacking. The timeline makes no sense—parts for the War Machines are airlifted into London (in crates bearing WOTAN’s personal logo!) mere hours after WOTAN hypnotizes its first four human victims, as WOTAN decides it needs to take over London in less than a day. A dozen complex war machines are thus assembled overnight in a dozen locations, unseen by anyone except an unfortunate vagrant whose death in the wee hours of the morning is reported (complete with pre-deceasement photograph) in that morning’s newspaper for the Doctor to read about over coffee with Sir Charles. From the Doctor’s arrival in the shadow of the Post Office Tower to the defeat of WOTAN, less than twenty-four hours appear to elapse.

Those poor, poor fruit crates.

The plot certainly doesn’t feel that fast. The initial military confrontation with a War Machine drags on in a montage of repeated shots of the cumbersome robot crashing through boxes and spraying dry ice smoke through a Dalek-esque gun arm, and the Doctor’s final showdown with a War Machine involves trapping it in-between four sets of electro-magnetic cables on a street at the bottom of a hill. The War Machines display less spatial awareness than Daleks with coats over their viewer turrets.

In an unsatisfying ending, rather than confronting WOTAN in person atop the Post Office Tower, the Doctor reprograms the captured War Machine to attack WOTAN. While this turncoat robot does destroy WOTAN, it also kills one of the hypnotized scientists who was working for WOTAN, an outcome the Doctor uncharacteristically brushes aside, proclaiming, “There’s nothing you can do for the poor fellow!” before moving on to more pressing matters. WOTAN has the (unexplained) ability to jam conventional weapons, rendering even grenades inert, forcing this indirect approach, but there’s no cleverness on display and even less compassion, traits we’ve come to expect from the Doctor at this point.

Adding to the insult, Jackie Lane receives an undignified exit from the series, shuffled off for a rest cure in “the country” after the Doctor breaks WOTAN’s hypnotic spell over her. At the end of the story, Polly merely conveys to the Doctor that Dodo wishes to remain in London and sends her love. One certainly understands the Doctor’s indignation at yet another Susan-replacement leaving him, making his comment about her “ungraciousness” explicable, but that doesn’t excuse Ian Stuart Black and the production team for such an exit. Even much-maligned Dodo deserves better. And, sadly, Jackie Lane proved her acting chops with her portrayal of a hypnotized Dodo in this story, possessed of a welcome bit of acerbic bite and a range of emotion denied her in her few prior outings as a companion. Change is indeed the watchword at the end of the third season, though, so out she goes.

The Business End of a War Machine

“The War Machines” is not all bad. The models for the War Machines do have a certain menacing size and look as though they had been cobbled together overnight while still retaining a lethal look. It’s obvious much care went into their creation, and while they may not stand out as iconic, they serve their purpose nicely. The London locations make for fun viewing; the conceit of the spiffy new Post Office Tower, festooned as it is with microwave dishes, captures the contemporary fascination with the building; and the arrival of new companions Polly and Ben injects a freshness to proceedings. Anneke Wills and Michael Craze both exude personality and youth in a way Dodo and prior companions never quite did. Even Susan felt rather old for her age; Polly and Ben appear nineteen going on twelve at times. William Hartnell displays good chemistry with both, though sadly, that won’t matter for much longer.

The Doctor, Polly, and Ben

Hartnell appears in fine form, though again the Doctor doesn’t really do very much in this story beyond poking around an immobilized War Machine and, in a nice bit of bravado, staring down one of the robotic beasts as soldiers flee behind him. It feels obvious at this point that the First Doctor is being written out of the show.

Special mention must be made of John Harvey as Professor Brett, the lead scientist on the WOTAN project and the first person hypnotized by the mad machine. When Brett is directing the workers in a warehouse to capture the vagrant who stumbled upon the operation, he sounds every bit like a Dalek, with a high pitch on the end syllables: “He is a dan-ger to us! He must be dest-roy-ed!” Like Jackie Lane, Harvey uses a wildly different vocal pattern when hypnotized, nicely conveying the change that has overtaken him.

Leafy London Street, with TARDIS

Season three of Doctor Who ends with no cliffhanger, no sense of what is to come beyond the Doctor’s inevitable discovery that Polly and Ben have snuck aboard. Instead, we close with a very nice shot of the TARDIS dematerializing on a leafy London street. A fine closing scene that almost salvages the story preceding it.

(Previous Story: The Savages)

(Next Story: The Smugglers)

Post 27 of the Doctor Who Project

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