A Special Look at: The War Machines

This post begins a series based upon classic Doctor Who serials, and what better way to begin than with one of my favorite of the earliest serials: The First Doctor’s story, The War Machines. It’s a wonderful story with a classic science fiction trope: Computers taking over the world, which, though seems silly now, was a perfectly acceptable story for the 1960s.

 

According to the Den of Geek review:

The TARDIS materialises in a London square in 1966 and the Doctor (William Hartnell) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) are initially impressed by the newly-completed Post Office Tower. The Doctor senses “something alien” about the tower and decides to investigate. Using his scientific credentials to gain access, the Doctor and Dodo meet Professor Brett (John Harvey) and his secretary Polly (Anneke Wills). The Professor demonstrates his life’s work – an exceptionally advanced computer named WOTAN-Will Operating Thought Analogue device, which is able to think for itself.

Polly takes Dodo to a nightclub, The Inferno, where they befriend young sailor Ben Jackson (Michael Craze). The Doctor meanwhile attends a press conference at The Royal Scientific Club headed by civil servant Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn). The assembled journalists are intrigued by “Computer day” when WOTAN will link up with all the major computers in the world, thus creating an advanced problem-solving network.

WOTAN, however, has its own agenda and begins to take control of human minds, starting with Professor Brett. Dodo complains of a headache and later receives a hypnotic phone call ordering her to bring the Doctor to WOTAN.

Under WOTAN’s influence, Professor Brett organises a skilled labour force to build mobile computers capable of immense power dubbed ‘war machines’. A local tramp meets a violent death when he accidentally intrudes on a warehouse making the nasty devices.

The Doctor and Sir Charles Summer become concerned by the sudden disappearance of a number of public figures. The Doctor contacts Professor Brett’s office and is nearly hypnotised. Dodo, believing the Doctor has succumbed to the hypnosis, reveals WOTAN’s grand plan. The Doctor reverses Dodo’s hypnosis and, concerned for her health, sends her to the country to recover.

Gradually the war machines take to the streets of London, smashing anything that gets in their way. Polly has disappeared and Ben, aware of the war machine warehouse, decides to look there for his friend. Ben discovers Polly, hypnotised by WOTAN, working as part of a labour force. Ben plays along with her, helping in the work party. Eventually Ben escapes and informs the Doctor. Together Ben and the Doctor manage convince Sir Charles to take action – the army is drafted in…

The army surround the warehouse only to be confronted by a war machine. Weapons prove useless and as everyone else dives for cover the Doctor stands firm in the war machine’s path. The machine’s programming is incomplete and it comes a halt. The Doctor with help from Sir Charles, sets up a magnetic field to trap the remaining war machine. The trapped machine is reprogrammed to attack WOTAN and avert the attack of the war machines. WOTAN is destroyed and those under its influence are returned to normal. Ben and Polly, free of her hypnosis, return a key to the Doctor. They follow him into what they believe to be a humble Police Box…

The War Machines is the first full Doctor Who story to be set in contemporary time. It marked a new direction for the series after over two years of past and future adventures. As part of the new direction, the Doctor was given two new companions. The more naturalistic performances of Anneke Wills and Michael Craze as Polly and Ben give the series a more realistic edge. Jackie Lane’s performance as Dodo seems rather stagy by comparison.

William Hartnell gives a very good performance especially at the close of episode three, when he stands alone in the path of a war machine. Hartnell was not a well man by this stage in his tenure as the Doctor, but he is on particularly fine form in his scenes with William Mervyn as Sir Charles Summer.

 

The story generally holds up well given that it’s over forty years since original transmission. However there are a number of plot holes: Dodo’s rather hasty exit midway through episode two seems almost careless – surely the character deserved a better send off? Another irritation is WOTAN and several other characters referring to the Doctor as “Doctor Who”. Although confusingly billed as such in the credit sequence to many early episodes, “Doctor Who” is the name of the programme, not the character.

The serial epitomises the “white heat of technology” which was very much a theme in Harold Wilson’s government of the day. Indeed, the Post Office Tower was opened by Wilson the year before The War Machines was made. Dr. Kit Pedlar, when applying for the job of Doctor Who‘s science advisor, was asked to suggest a storyline based on the newly-opened GPO Tower. The War Machines was based on his idea of a computer able to think for itself. It could be argued the show was keen to feature a major London landmark. Certainly this trend continued with the use of St. Paul’s Cathedral as a backdrop to the Cybermen story The Invasion, and – more recently – the London Eye had a pivotal role in Christopher Eccleston’s debut Rose.

 

The serial makes one aware just how far technology has come since 1966. The war machines are described as “mobile computers”, yet are nearly 7 foot tall. Think how much we can now squeeze into something like an iPod. Credit where it’s due though, the prediction of linked computers across the world is surely the internet in all but name…

All in all The War Machines is an interesting departure which in turn paved the way for such stories as The Faceless Ones, The Web Of Fear and The Invasion in Patrick Troughton’s time and the numerous UNIT stories of the Jon Pertwee era. The serial has much to do and, to be honest, doesn’t quite succeed. Nevertheless there is much to recommend it. If nothing else it remains a wonderful snapshot of mid-sixties London. Imagine what it would have been like in colour…

 

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