Doctor Doctor Who Guide

The War Machines' is memorable for several reasons, most notably the change in the lineup of the TARDIS crew, and the fact that it is the first Doctor Who story to take place entirely in a contemporary setting. Compared with for example 'The Savages' however, it perhaps has an undeservingly high reputation because of these and other factors; on the whole, I consider it to be deeply flawed. One of the most interesting features about 'The War Machines' is the Doctor's immediate acceptance by the establishment. Whereas he and his companions are often distrusted when they arrive out of the blue and have to earn respect, here the Doctor strides straight into Brett's office and is warmly welcomed, and later repeats the trick with Sir Charles, which has an enormous influence on the way the story unfolds (incidentally, for those who haven't read it, this is explained in the novelisation – the Doctor name-drops Ian Chesterton, now a respected scientist). Whilst this is a novel approach (and of course foreshadows the Pertwee era UNIT stories), it is in my opinion to the detriment of the overall story. From the beginning the Doctor has a safe place to work from and can call upon support as and when he needs it. Although numerous soldiers get killed off during the warehouse battle, this results in a distinct lack of tension, with the Doctor never seeming to be in any danger. Even when WOTAN attempts to make contact over the telephone, the Doctor resists his influence with only brief ill effects, and this is the only time that he seems even remotely threatened. This problem is exacerbated because the Doctor guesses the nature of the threat that he is facing almost immediately, recognizing the General Post Office tower as a source of some malign influence, and quickly deducing that WOTAN is that influence. Later, when the first two War Machines are activated, he deals with them, and WOTAN, so easily that it seems he barely has to give them any serious thought at all. It is an unusual approach, and a novel one, but it robs the story of drama. 

Then there is the nature of the threat itself. I must admit personal bias and note that I loathe super-computers as villains, in Doctor Who or anywhere else, since they almost invariably become sentient, decide that they are superior to humans, and set about taking over the world. Since this is the first such story in Doctor Who and since this is purely a matter of personal opinion, I won't criticize 'The War Machines' for that, but I will criticize the execution. WOTAN is a non-entity; it speaks on only a handful of occasions, and then in a slow flat monotone which makes me want to mutter "get on with it" through gritted teeth. In order to compensate for this shortcoming, his brainwashed slaves explain most of WOTAN's plans, a plot device that just about works due to uniformly decent acting throughout the production, but smacks of clumsy plot exposition at several points. The War Machines themselves look OK in still photographs, but are distinctly under whelming on screen. In order to convey how dangerous they are, they break tables and spray dry ice in large diffuse clouds. I find it difficult to take them at all seriously as they trundle around London; whereas the Daleks in 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' glide elegantly and look menacing, the War Machines just look like bulky examples of sixties kitsch and not at all threatening. Are we seriously supposed to believe that WOTAN thinks it can take over London with twelve of these? They may be able to jam guns, but dig a few trenches around them and the old jokes about Daleks and stairs pale by comparison. Then again, there is no way War Machine number 9 could have got in the lift at the GPO tower, so perhaps they can fly…

This brings me to a massive inconsistency that strains suspension of disbelief to breaking point. WOTAN becomes openly sentient in episode one, and it is hinted that Brett is its first slave (certainly, since he's been working on it up until that point, I don't believe that it has already been plotting secret). Given this, we are supposed to believe that within twenty-four hours, WOTAN has recruited dozens of agents all over London (possible) who have time to hand in formal resignations (unlikely) and has constructed the complex electronic components required to construct the War Machines, which seem to arrive by aeroplane from all over the world pre-constructed in units, and shipped in packing crates with WOTAN's logo on them (almost certainly impossible, although if anyone has any fan theories to explain this, I'm always open to suggestions). This annoys me considerably every time I watch the story. 

My final problem with 'The War Machines' is Dodo's departure. Jackie Lane is by no means a bad actress, but she got a fairly bad deal as Dodo. Her first appearance is a contrivance bolted onto the end of the otherwise perfect 'The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve' and she therefore misses out on a decent introduction. She then gets a sporadic cockney accent in 'The Ark' apparently due to interference from on high (Lane was ordered to drop it by silly BBC personnel who objected to a regional accent in the show), and then suffered from inconsistent characterisation during the next three stories. Ironically, the first two episodes of 'The War Machines' give her a prominent role, as she is hypnotized by WOTAN and ordered to recruit the Doctor, and Lane plays her role convincingly. After being released from hypnosis by the Doctor however, she is shipped off to the countryside, decides to stay in 1960s London off-screen, and sends the Doctor her farewells via Polly. As a companion departure it is truly diabolical, especially after Steven's fine leaving scene at the end of 'The Savages'. Oh, and incidentally, I'm not going to add criticism of the use of the name "Doctor Who" rather than simply "the Doctor" during 'The War Machines', because there is other evidence that he might occasionally use such an alias and besides "Doctor" clearly isn't his real name anyway. But doesn't it sound terrible when some says out loud "where is Doctor Who"?

Anyway, enough negativity; there are a few things about 'The War Machines' that I do enjoy. The "swinging sixties" setting is well realized an entertaining, and the sight of the Doctor in a nightclub is rather amusing (especially the "fab gear" scene). The location too work is exemplary. The acting throughout is uniformly good (with the exception of Crimpton's OTT death scene), with Hartnell putting one of his most dignified performances. The cliffhanger ending to episode three is of particular note, as the Doctor faces down the first War Machine. What really make 'The War Machines' worth watching however are Ben and Polly. Because most of their stories are missing or incomplete (and possibly because they are later overshadowed by Jamie), Ben and Polly, like Steven, tend to be underrated. They are a great pair of companions and Ben's down-to-Earth working class cockney nicely complements the slightly snooty Polly. The scene in which the brainwashed Polly allows Ben to escape from the warehouse and later tells Major Green that she did it because he is her friend indicates how quickly they form a bond, since Polly is the only one of WOTAN's servants seen to be even slightly capable of resisting the computer's influence, and only to save Ben. It is also a pleasant change to have a couple of comparable age in the TARDIS again; after Ian and Barbara left, Steven played more of a big brother role to Vicki, Katarina, and Dodo, but Ben and Polly are on a more equal footing (although unlike Ian and Barbara, I never get the feeling that they are destined to become an item once they eventually part company with the Doctor). Both are immediately thrust directly into the Doctor's world, as Polly is hypnotized and Ben is captured by WOTAN's servants, and both managed to cope admirably with their experiences, neither seeming at all traumatized when they meet the Doctor in Fitzroy Square to say goodbye. Their accidental stumbling into the TARDIS also echoes that of Ian and Barbara. 

Overall then, 'The War Machines' is neither a complete success nor a total failure. It lacks a decent villain (at least in my opinion) and is a poor final story for Dodo, but adequately serves to introduce Ben and Polly. It is however, the weakest season finale in Doctor Who to date. Season Three has a far less consistent feel to it than its predecessors, partly due to several companion changes, but also adopts a more experimental air, with stories such as 'The Ark', 'The Celestial Toymaker', and 'The War Machines' all attempting to do new things with the series' format. It also boasts the first appearance of another member of the Doctor's own people aside from Susan, and reveals that history can in fact be changed. But of course, the series' biggest change to date is lurking in the next season…

Filters: Television First Doctor Series 3