Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
16 Jan 2007The War Machines, by Eddy Wolverson
16 Jan 2007The War Machines, by Robert Newman
16 Jan 2007The War Machines, by Ewen Campion-Clarke
16 Jan 2007The War Machines, by Paul Clarke

Following his interesting little story “The Savages,” Ian Stuart Black pulls a double-header with “The War Machines” - Doctor WhoÂ’s first real ‘contemporary invasionÂ’ story. New producer Innes Lloyd had decided that he wanted to strive for greater realism within the series, and as such it was scientist Doctor Kit Pedler (who would go on to co-create the Cybermen) who pitched the idea for “The War Machines”, which for the first time sees the Doctor in the unfamiliar position (at least thus far) of liasing with the proper authorities to stop a self-aware computer, WOTAN, from taking over the world. 

Kit Pedler’s input to the storyline is evident throughout, the concept of ‘techno fear’ that runs throughout much of his work forming the backbone of this story. Whereas Pedler’s Cybermen would seek to replace their organs (and ultimately their very souls) with technology, WOTAN (pronounced VOTAN, apparently. Very German!) simply decides that mankind cannot progress any further and should be wiped out. The Post Office Tower makes a very good setting for this story, and is another example of how much more disturbing a story is when it is set somewhere familiar. In the previous season, the Daleks in the centre of London really helped raise the fear factor, and the production team had obviously taken that on board and even taken it a step further, setting the story in the present day – something that would be backbone of the series in years to come. The eponymous ‘War Machines’ themselves are the mechanical servants of WOTAN, which look like the sort of little tanks that you might come across in Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. They may look quite imposing on Blue Peter, but in the story come across as utterly feeble - defeated by everyday things like rope!

Also in line with Lloyd’s desire for realism, this serial introduces two new companions who are very much in tune with the ‘swinging sixties’ – seaman Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) and fun-loving secretary Polly Wright (Anneke Wills). Best of all, the second episode of this story sees Jackie Lane makes her final appearance as the dreadful Dodo. Appropriately, she isn’t given a decent send-off. In fact, she isn’t given a send of at all! After being brainwashed by WOTAN, she takes off somewhere to recuperate and then at the end of the story, when she’s no more than a bad memory in the minds of viewers, Polly passes a message to the Doctor that Dodo has decided to stay in 1966! In marked contrast to my feelings about Dodo, I am a huge fan of both Ben and Polly – two very underrated companions. Polly is introduced very early on and is cheeky, sexy and forward – a totally different breed of companion to the likes of Susan, Vicki and Dodo. In the Inferno Club that she takes Dodo to, we also meet Ben who at first seems to be the complete opposite of Polly – sullen, boring and withdrawn. Polly tries to cheer him up, and in the end he ends up rescuing her from a sleazy guy who won’t take no for an answer and hey presto, a very rocky friendship is born. He thinks she’s stuck up and christens her ‘Duchess,’ and she thinks that e has no sense of humour. How these two never got together on screen I have no idea… they’re the perfect match!

On the whole, I enjoyed “The War Machines” a great deal. Some of it has dated very badly, for example the Doctor ‘testing’ WOTAN by asking him to work out the square root of a massive number; a modern calculator could do it in seconds! There’s also some cringe worthy stuff, like WOTAN addressing the Doctor as ‘Doctor Who’ (perhaps he picked up some of those ‘Doctor Who Discovers…’ books à la “The Kingmaker”!) and the Doctor frequenting a nightclub, but on the whole “The War Machines” entertains throughout. After a very varied season in terms of quality, this story represents a definite step in the right direction for Doctor Who.

Moreover, from watching the VHS release of the story I couldn’t tell that there were still several minutes of footage missing; the Restoration Team did an absolutely first class job in restoring this one. The DVD-style bonus ‘Blue Peter’ clip was also a nice little touch, though it made ‘Totally Doctor Who’ seem positively grown-up!

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LetÂ’s begin by getting the positive points out of the way. ItÂ’s not dull. Well, OK, itÂ’s a bit dull, compared to the all-action extravaganzas of the twenty-first century, but itÂ’s not, say, The Sensorites. Each episode does noticeably advance the story, while Ben and Polly are lively and engaging. Michael Craze, in particular, gives a terrific performance and the scene in the nightclub is fun.

Oh, and they get rid of Dodo. ThatÂ’s about it, though.

OK, so the basic plot of a computer gone crazy would not have been quite so clichéd in 1966. It would be unfair to expect the writers to accurately predict future developments in future technology, so we can accept quirks such as a sentient computer capable of independent thought but without anyone having invented the monitor. I think making it capable of telepathy and hypnosis is stretching it a little, though.

The plot is so full of holes that it strains credibility far beyond breaking point, which is particularly frustrating because it has no real excuse. This isn’t a complicated story involving time travelling alien invaders – it’s a straightforward computer-goes-mad scenario. A second draft would surely have resolved most of the problems.

In the long list of improbable events, the most glaring is the impossible ascent of the the Post Office Tower by the reprogrammed War Machine at the end. The dead tramp appearing as front page news only hours after his body was dumped is pretty unlikely. The way the Doctor is instantly accepted by everyone as an authority would be fine if even the smallest suggestion of overcoming some initial difficulty, or explanation of how he was achieving this, was presented on screen, but it isnÂ’t.

All of these, though, are minor annoyances. The crucial problem with the War Machines is that WOTAN’s plans make no sense at all. As has been frequently pointed out, if it’s serious about taking over the world, it’s going a pretty strange way about it. Why not simply wait until it’s connected to all of the computers in the world? Why draw attention to itself by shooting people and leaving their corpses outside its secret warehouse, or trying to capture the Doctor? Why have the secret warehouse and the War Machines at all? How does it get all the War Machine parts – complete with logos – so quickly?

In short, WOTAN doesnÂ’t act like a computer at all, and certainly not a supremely intelligent one. Its attributes appear to be an ability to recognise the Doctor and the TARDIS, a rare knack for hypnosis (so good it can even achieve it over the telephone), and an addiction to insane evil schemes ostensibly aimed at world domination.

Sound like anyone we know? ThatÂ’s right, the whole thing makes perfect sense as long as you imagine that WOTAN is not in fact a sentient computer at all, but is in fact the Master, hiding under a table.

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Doctor Who isn't the perfect TV program. Every so often there is a story you won't like. Time and the Rani has vaguely decent acting and special effects, but an awful plot and dialogue. The Monster of Peladon manages to be the dullest piece of television ever, despite the fact half the cast are wearing badger afros and Alpha Centauri appears.

But The War Machines is the story that pissed me off. Here was a story I was not only embarassed about, but a story I despised. I wanted my money back when I got the video (coupled with the fact I was, genuinely ripped off - the special feature weren't on the tape). I watched it once, seethed, watched the repeat on television and my hate grew. Believe me, all those who enjoy and revere this story, I'm as surprised as you are. It's well made and directed, and is complete. The actors are good, the special effects reasonable, the cliffhangers exciting. I should like it. I should at least tolerate it.

In the first episode, we are treated to the first Doctor and Dodo. My problem lies with Dodo. Man, I know why she didn't last four episodes, and was brainwashed for most of the two she was in - she's awful. "Imagine," she gasps, "Scotland Yard whisked off into time and space!" Must I? You being whisked off in time and space was bad enough.

A policeman goes to check a police box. That wasn't there yesterday. But is out of order. With an old man and a young girl in front of it whispering. And the old man putting the sign marked OUT OF ORDER on the front. Yet does nothing.

The Doctor is a very well-travelled alien time traveler. Yet, he is stunned by the appearance of the Post Office Tower - and is convinced its alien design broods trouble. Unsurprisingly, he quickly changes his story when talking to the innocents working in it. Instead of being troubled by the architecture, he hastily changes his story and explains there is a "powerful magnetic field" around it which he can feel. Yet, a trained scientist does not question this or even comment.

Now, onto WOTAN. Why not call it "Woe-tann" but "Vow-tarn" - I mean, the Professor isn't foriegn, is he? He doesn't have an accent and "Brett" isn't the most exotic of names. And after designing this fabulous machine, Brett has no idea what it can do or what it knows - hasn't he even bothered to check? [I now know, however, that this pronounciation is from Wagner's ring cycle, but it doesn't excuse the fact this is never referred to in the story itself. With Dodo around, anything can be explained realistically to the audience]

"You've made a machine that can think of itself?" the Doctor boggles. "AND NEVER MAKES MISTAKES?" Um, Doc, that police box you fly around in also thinks for itself, remember? And those spaceships you muck about on in the future - do you think they might be descended from this marvellous machine? These devices that save lives every day and allow humanity to progress SCARE you? The first thing you ask this know-it-all is a square root question. It isn't a calculator, Doctor! Why not ask it one of those "fox-the-computer-logic-tricks"? Or the square root of minus three? Come on, you luddite, do something! Is he just worried that this sort of technology shouldn't be available yet? Because his reaction is more "Burn the heretic!" rather than "You've invented the internet 30 years early".

Dodo asks the computer what "Tardis" means. And it knows. Is the fugitive time traveller on the run at ALL worried about this? Nope. It also knows about a human called "Doctor Who". Now, I could cope with this if it was talking about Peter Cushing and the humans got confused, but, come on... A human? HUMAN? The "who" bit I can cope with, but "human"??? This computer knows everything but thinks humans have two hearts?? OK, he didn't (maybe) have two hearts then, but he's not a human being at any time!

WOTAN just bugs me. Why does it want to conquer the world? Um... it thinks it can do a better job than humanity. And how does it demonstrate this? By making weapons of mass destruction that slaughter everything in sight. Is this ironic? No, it's stupid. In X days, it will be connected in computers all over the planet and have a world wide web of fear and chaos which it can conquer humanity. Instead, it wants to take over London with an army of fridges.

This plan, it should be pointed out, is so freaking obvious a bit part character - Kitson - works it all out by the end of part one and is not impressed. The plan is also predicted by an American journalist, and the idea is dismissed. "It would have no reason to conquer the world," Grover insists. And he's right. It doesn't. But it's doing it anyway, wouldn't you know?

How does it become sentient? No one knows or cares. It seems to take days to create a telepathic hold on Brett, who complains about sensing someone watching him, yet takes minutes to conquer Dodo. OK, bad example - her brain isn't exactly amazingly deep and powerful - but in one night it takes over half a dozen scientists via a phone line. Why? It only uses them as slave labor anyone can do - Polly replaces a few with ease - and their disappearance simply causes suspicion. "Work like the machines!" roars that nutter at one point. Seriously. "Do not stop, do not waste time!" Has this guy ever used a machine? Then he decides to gun down a worker for target practise. One of the special, brainwashed workers that they need so badly. Why not use that tramp? Oh, no, the wonderful computer logic has decided to club him to death with spanners and dump his body right outside their workshop (admittedly, a very creepy and scary scene - but illogical and ultimately pointless). That should keep the authorities guessing.

It can communicate telepathically with Brett, but no one else, and relies on a print-out machine. Quite sensible, as its voice box sounds like a strangled pig. Why not get Brett to attach something it can actually work with? It has to send Polly to the others in order to relay the complicated message "Stop killing passers by and dumping their bodies in the street". I mean, get real: a computer doesn't realize that using its slaves for target practise will require replacements until the last minute, and then doesn't even hypnotize them?

And why does it start this plan all over a few days instead of before the story starts? Does it need the Doctor? Why? The plan works fine without him and, in fact, hits snags becuase they want to capture the Doctor. Dodo, despite being controlled by a logical, computerized mind, cannot come up with a convincing cover story and her attempts to capture the Doctor ("Let's go down into this dark alley, Doctor!") aren't exactly subtle. How can Dodo act like Dodo "convincingly" but Brett cannot? Surely, the best thing to do would be to go to a press conference, smooth out all the wrinkles ASAP and then return with Kitson. No, instead he appears robotic, stares blankly into the distance, and acts suspiciously. Kitson, however, acts true to himself, showing a bit of sadism and, oddly enough, total stupidity. WOTAN presumably designed the War Machines and - if it actually was a genius - would fit it with an off-switch. Or, at the very least, have some idea what to do if it attacked him, so why doesn't Kitson try to reprogram the War Machine instead of just diving in front of its poison gas jets? The controls are on the OUTSIDE for heaven's sake!

The original title for this story was The Computers. Odd, because there's only one computer involved. This story is called The War Machines. We see two and only one plays any role in the story. It does not wage war, but runs downtown and attacks phone boxes. Thank god the military are using easily jammed weapons like machine guns and grenades that, like every one knows, can be frozen by a "magnetic field". Yes, should have thought of that. A bit of magnetism stops a thermo-nuclear reaction in a grenade, huh?

The Doctor walks in and out of situations in this story like he owns the place. Now, I can believe that. Seriously. The Doctor can bluff his way through a variety of situations and this is no exception. But we don't see him bluffing. One minute, he walks through a street, the next, he's been allowed to the top floor of the GPO tower, into the most important part of the structure with a computer. And they don't even know his name. Bit of an explanation would help. Some say he is in fact being respected because he is a mate of Ian Chesterton. Sigh. Ian Chesterton? The bit-part science teacher who eloped with a history teacher for two years before arriving back in mysterious circumstances with a tan? He had that much respect in the scientific community? Look, I had a science teacher called Hillyer who took two years off because he snapped his Achilles tendon. I don't think I could wander into someone's office, house and home with that kind of name drop. I don't think the Doctor could, either. Why DIDN'T they explain that bit at the time. Would have been so difficult?

Finally, when the Doctor de-programs Dodo and sends her to the country to recover. After the disaster, he waits outside the TARDIS for her. Why? Why not pick her up from the country house? The only reason he'd be waiting was if he got a message from her telling him to - so why does she apparently change her mind? And why does she tell Ben and Polly? My head hurts. Who Killed Kennedy comes up with a complicated explanation that Dodo was captured by the CIA and brainwashed. Fair enough. That's the explanation in 1996. What excuse did they have at the time, huh?

However, I cannot leave the review unfinished. Every story has a good side. So, I should do the positive elements in this story, for, yes, there are some. That crash-zoom at the start of the story as we see the TARDIS appear on a street corner. Very nice. Ben and Polly are magnificent in this story and it is a damn pity there isn't another complete one with them in. The Doctor being mistaken for a DJ - how cool is that? And it's great to see the First Doctor getting on so well with just about everyone. This guy really HAS been everywhere. No complaining about the noise, the fashions, the drinks... That noise WOTAN and the War Machine makes manages to keep on the side of freaky and not become irritating. Kitson's little speech about humanity, though rather corny and delivered at the wrong time, is very good - no matter what, a human life is more important than any machine. Sorry, K9. The bit where a baddie explains that Dodo has failed to capture the Doctor is surely cutting edge; in any other story, she would have been punished or killed for her failure. The blank roboticness of the brainwashed people are very creepy. And Polly... Jeez, I'm still impressed at her total lack of blinking. She does have big eyes, doesn't she? Another point in The War Machine's favor - a note of subtext. Just as WOTAN (for want of a better word) rebels against the humans, one of his war machines rebels against him. Nice irony, that.

The cliffhangers are pretty good, all in all. The Doctor standing up to the War Machine is very good - though, I wonder what the hell he was going to do if the bloody thing wasn't impressed by his Tiannamen Square tactic. And Ben getting caught in the spotlight's pretty freaky. Am I wrong, or does that W for Wotan appear in the end credits all the time? Nice corporate logo - no alien invader should be without one (and I'm looking at you, Daleks). The Doctor ducking out when no one notices is cool, too. And isn't this the first time in the show someone is hypnotized for GOOD reasons?

A lot of plot details don't make sense, but here is an explanation:

WOTAN isn't Y2K compliant. In fact, he's so badly designed that he went doodally 34 years early. This whole plan goes to pieces because WOTAN is utterly insane. Thus, all his followers are, as well. You know, the story makes a lot of sense all of a sudden.

That is why I think this story is worst. Any good potential is wasted in this. A plot that doesn't make sense on the first viewing, is full of ridiculous cliched dialogue and pointless action sequences and a pathetic Dalek substitute. People say this is a template for the Jon Pertwee era. I think they're being very rude.

Nevertheless, think I can forgive The War Machines. But its faults are numerous and it seems written for something that isn't Doctor Who.

If only Kitty had been in more of the story.

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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 flyÂ…

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 seasonÂ…

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