Monday, August 22, 2011

Doctor Who Story 027: The War Machines


Doctor, WHO Is Required? 

The War Machines is a curious Doctor Who story in that it's the first to try to reflect the times in which it was filmed.  Until now, the series hasn't had a Companion that truly appeared to be from our time.  The young Who girls (Barbara and Sara Kingdom being adults) are removed from the late 60s: the Doctor's granddaughter Susan was a schoolgirl, Vicki was a teen from another time, Katarina a Trojan handmaiden, and Dodo was a simple (and simple-minded) Cockney.  However, at last, we get a girl from Swingin' London.   The story itself reminds me of An Unearthly Child: both start well, then in the ensuing episodes the story starts going down. 

The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his Companion Dodo (Jackie Lane) have come to 1966 London just as the General Post Office Tower has opened.  At the top of the tower is the super-computer WOTAN (Will Operating Thought ANalogue).  There, they meet WOTAN's creator, Professor Brett (John Harvey) and his secretary, Polly (Anneke Wills).  WOTAN itself and its creator's desire to link it up with all computers around the world troubles the Doctor.  Unbeknown to them, WOTAN has strange powers of its own, and soon appears to hypnotize Dodo. 

Polly takes Dodo to a swingin' club, The Inferno, while the Doctor investigates his suspicions of WOTAN.  At the club, they meet sailor Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), who is down because he won't be sailing out as he'd hoped.  WOTAN suddenly has got it into its head that humans have reached the limits of their potential, so naturally it has to take over.  Soon, he has conquered the minds of Brett, Security head Major Green (Alan Curtis), and Professor Krimpton (John Cater).  Dodo's mind has also been overtaken by WOTAN, and the computer sends a message to her: bring the Doctor to WOTAN.  As WOTAN puts it, "Doctor Who is required" (more on this later).

Dodo fails to deliver the Doctor to WOTAN, but no matter: WOTAN has decided to build the war machines, robotic weapons that will aid it in its conquest of Earth.  The Doctor becomes highly suspicious of Dodo's odd behavior and on learning of the death of a tramp whom they had encountered earlier at the Inferno.  The Doctor releases Dodo from her spell and she is sent to the country to recover, staying with relatives of Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn), the head of the Royal Scientific Club and civil servant charged with linking WOTAN to all other computers. Polly is sent to find Professor Brett, but she too falls under WOTAN's spell.  Ben discovers the making of the war machines, is captured but spared to be slave labor.  Everyone making the war machines is so zombified that they don't bother guarding the doors, allowing Ben an escape.  He rushes to the Doctor and Sir Charles, telling them the danger. 

The Doctor then goes with an unbelieving Sir Charles to find the war machines have indeed been created, and are now about to commence their takeover of London, then the world.  Fortunately, not all war machines have been unleashed, with only two actually attacking.  The Doctor manages to disable one and uses it to attack WOTAN itself.  In the end, Polly gives the Doctor a message that Dodo has opted to stay in London, which surprises and slightly displeases the Doctor.  Both Polly and Ben see him enter the police box, wondering what is going on.  Ben has a TARDIS key, and they go in, just as the TARDIS dematerializes...

Ian Stuart Black's script for The War Machines is a story that has a great deal of potential, but as the story proceeds it slowly starts to sink.  First, there is the design of the actual War Machines.  They look a bit like the Daleks' poorer relations.  I thought the War Machines were actually pretty silly and inept in terms of conquering Earth but given that it was a rushed job I cut them some slack.  Second was the actual defeat of the War Machines.  The Army couldn't defeat these tanks with brains (which is what they basically ended up becoming) but the fact that the first War Machine stopped because it was put into operation before it was ready makes me wonder exactly how WOTAN could be considered the Ultimate in Thinking Machines.  It couldn't even think that the machines would require more time or that they actually weren't necessary to rule the Earth. 

Come to think of it, WOTAN is remarkably inept for all its power.  It can control people through some form of telepathic ability (I figure it must produce high-frequency radio waves that can control people's minds), but of all the people it choose to help it capture the Doctor, WOTAN chooses Dodo?  Dodo, bless her heart, is one of the the dumbest Companions the Doctor has ever had.  Granted, there is a logic in choosing the actual Companion to try to lure the Doctor into its sinister web of world conquest, but it really isn't much of a surprise when Dodo is given this charge. 

Somehow, I think it would have been better in my view if she had been an unwitting partner in crime, or at least if the agent's identity had been held back as a cliffhanger.  We could have wondered, if director Michael Ferguson had held back some information (thus we could have wondered if perhaps either of the professors or maybe Polly were the danger) and allowed time for The War Machines to build up.  We plunge into WOTAN's coup in Episode One, and I think it would have worked better for the story if the super-computer had been introduced, then gone mad either at the end of Episode One or throughout Episode Two, then had them seize all the world's computers and attacked man that way (Y2K, anyone?).

This is because, as I found while watching The War Machines, the actual war machines were pretty inept (though the idea of jamming all weapons against it was a good idea).  Oddly, it bears repeating at how poor the results for the actual war machines were once we see them.  Going back to being a poor relation to the Daleks, I think it has something to do with the single eye in their design.  Furthermore, when Ben is menaced at the end of Episode Two, it brought back memories of Barbara being menaced by the title character at the end of Episode One of The Daleks.  I did think if WOTAN had such power over the human mind, why didn't it simply hypnotize all humanity into submission rather than waste time building these silly machines? 

Finally, I thought the worship that WOTAN inspired in its brainwashed work crew bordered on the cult-like, which would be very odd given it's a machine.  This is perhaps a minor point, but it does support my earlier point that if WOTAN had wanted to control humanity, all it had to do was hypnotize them into submission.  If they had gone this route instead of going through the trouble of building the war machines, it would have made the menace more real and dangerous. 

As a side note, there is a strange discrepency in The War Machines.  When the tramp stumbles across the warehouse where the war machines are being built, the system warns of an intruder almost immediately.  However, when Ben brakes into the warehouse, the system doesn't warn them of an intruder until a much longer time.  Even WOTAN needs a tea break I imagine. 

However, I think The War Machines works best when NOT dealing with the science-fiction elements but instead with the human elements.  Polly is an exciting character: a fun-loving girl who loves being young is a breath of fresh air from the dim character Dodo is.  Wills' performance as this cheerful girl who loves a good dance and has great confidence in herself makes her a wonderful introduction.  Same for Craze's Ben: his Cockney sailor is a perfect counterpoint to the more posh Polly.  He has the requisite action-hero credentials (sailors are not wimps), but we also see he has a heart (as when he shows his sadness at what is suppose to be the hippest club in London) and fear (when he confronts the machines). However, Ben is a little dense when not realizing that Polly was under WOTAN's power.

 Of special note is Mervyn's Sir Charles: he plays the civil servant as the typically clueless individual in power, but one who takes things with the usual British non-chalance.  Big machines are threatening to take over the capital, being controlled by a super-computer that can think for itself?  Well, we'll just go over and stop it--job's got to be done so as to not interrupt tea-time. 

Surprisingly, Lane's Dodo is actually rather menacing when controlled by WOTAN.  She plays these scenes not with a sense of urgency but of unnatural calm, making it even more unnerving that someone as dumb as Dodo would be the source of the danger.  In short, Dodo in her final broadcast story, managed to make the character one that provided a form of suspense, even danger.

However, even if Dodo is one of the least popular and effective Companions in Doctor Who history, her disappearance in the middle of Episode Two was a shameful way to have her leave.  She should have been allowed a greater departure than just being shunted off into the countryside. 

I'd like to take this time to address a controversial part of The War Machines.  In Episodes One and Two, WOTAN calls the Doctor "Doctor Who" (as in "Doctor Who is required").  To make things worse, both professor keep calling the Doctor "Doctor Who", which makes no sense since Who is not his name.  This is the first (and as far as I know, only) time the Doctor has been called "Doctor Who" on-screen (not counting in-jokes or titles like Episode Five of The Chase: The Death of Doctor Who, or the Third Doctor story Doctor Who & The Silurians).   This gives us a strange controversy: how can he be "Doctor Who".  The answer to this dilemma is actually pretty easy as far as I can see it.  WOTAN has no idea what The Doctor's true name is.  Being a machine (and thus, not having any imagination), it wouldn't think of calling him "The Doctor" because it isn't specific enough; it would resort to the closest word it could find: an unknown person would be a Who.  Since WOTAN doesn't know his name, it would make sense to a machine (emphasis mine) to call him "Doctor Who".  His minions, meekly following WOTAN's example, would copy WOTAN's phrasing and call him "Doctor Who" as well.  There, problem solved. 

The War Machines, sadly, is the final complete First Doctor story.  In an ironic twist, the only known surviving clips from the next story, the now-lost The Smugglers, are ones that were deemed too unsuitable to broadcast.  The story after that, The Tenth Planet, is incomplete with one episode missing.  Unfortunately, the missing episode is the final episode.  As if that weren't bad enough, that episode is the first one to ever show a regeneration: from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton.  An important piece of television history was lost (perhaps forever) due to the BBC's shocking lack of foresight.  It is possible that The Tenth Planet will be released with the missing fourth episode animated or somehow reconstructed, so we may still be able to review that story.  However, The War Machines is the last First Doctor story that survives intact (though it took a great deal of work and search to get what we have now). 

Compounding things, the Second Doctor has fared worse in surviving stories.  His first SEVEN stories are incomplete, with his first two stories (the six-part The Power of the Daleks and four-part The Highlanders) having no surving episodes whatsoever and only a few clips.  The first full surving episode of the Second Doctor is Episode Three of the four-part The Underwater Menace.  Two of the four episodes of The Moonbase do survive, and thanks to that and the release of the audio of the missing stories in the Lost In Time DVD, it affords us an opportunity to review The Moonbase as if it were complete (which is what we did for the First Doctor story The Crusade, which has a similar situation).  That being the case, I will have a short retrospective of The Underwater Menace and then a full review of The Moonbase

The War Machines has at its heart, a good idea, but the execution was terribly rushed.  It has the plus of introducing two new and exciting Companions in Ben Jackson and Polly, but on the whole I found The War Machines didn't function very well.

Next Story: The Tenth Planet


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