Tuesday, 31 May 2011

27: The War Machines - The Doctor's First Step Into The Here & Now.

Written By: Ian Stuart Black & Kit Pedler.
Companions: The Doctor, Dodo Chaplet.
Monsters/Villains: WOTAN, War Machines.
Brief Synopsis: At the top of the Post Office Tower, super computer WOTAN brainwashes humans to build War Machines in order to take over the world.
Rating: 9/10.

Now this is more like it! This present day (for the time), pre internet scare story really blazes the trail for future Doctor Who to come. Set in London, 1966 the Doctor saves earth from a super computer called WOTAN (Will Operating Thought ANalogue) that creates War Machines in order to take over the world. The architectural centre piece of the story is the Post Office (now BT) Tower. I guess this must have been appealing at the time. If they made this story today it would probably be the Gherkin.

The journey continues with the Doctor and Dodo. The story kicks off with a great opening shot of the TARDIS materialising at Fitzroy Square, London which was shot from the top of the Centre Point building. This story's got some great comic touches, like in order to keep any unsuspecting Bobbies away from the TARDIS, the Doctor hangs up an "out of order" sign. We get some great first time moments that will recur frequently in the future. Like the Doctor's modesty when he's introduced as a computer expert, he replies, "I dabble." The Doctor being able to sense danger or certain alien life forms. His disregard for authority in the form of Sir Charles, whom he describes as "The official mind [who] can only take in so much at a time." It's almost an early version of the relationship the Doctor will have with the Brigadier.

In many ways The War Machines is very ahead of it's time. It's 1966 so it's obviously pre-internet. However, here we have a super computer, WOTAN, connected to other computers all over the world. It's creator Professor Brett, it's chief engineer Professor Krimpton and Major Green claim that WOTAN knows everything and can answer any question posed to it. It even knows what T.A.R.D.I.S stands for and sounds like the early connection noise for the internet.

A scale model of WOTAN.
We are then introduced to the fabulous twiggy-esque Polly, played beautifully by Anneke Wills. Dodo is thrilled to be back on her home world and her home city and wants to go to the hotest night spot in town. So suddenly we're transported to the Swinging Sixties club: The Inferno; where we also meet down on his luck sailor Ben Jackson played by the vigorous Michael Craze.

The Doctor getting complimented on his "fab gear," with Polly & Ben.
There's a press conference scene which really reminds me of Jon Pertwee Who. People are starting to feel oddly. Brett feels like he's being watched and Dodo feels sick. WOTAN takes control of Brett, Major Green, Dodo, and Krimpton. I was particularly impressed with John Cater as Professor Krimpton. The last to succumb to WOTAN, his portrayal of a man fighting for control was performed with elan. 

John Cater as Professor Krimpton.
Then we hit the one huge glaring mistake with this story, WOTAN has decided that the Doctor is it's only threat and so should be captured, controlled and made to lead the invasion. If it wasn't for this one glaring error I'd give The War Machines a 10/10. As we reach the end of the first episode WOTAN declares: "Doctor Who is required... bring him here." 

A War Machine.
It gets serious fast as Brett suggests that War Machines must be built immediately, and they must enlist 'Doctor Who.' For anyone who hasn't worked out what I'm driving at here. His name isn't Doctor Who, it's the Doctor. The Show is called Doctor Who. This problem is easily solved by adding a comma. "The Doctor, Who is required, bring him here." And if you don't like that explanation, you can always just ignore it. 

I'm not particularly well-versed in it myself but apparently this story is quite heavily influenced by The Avengers which ran from 1961-69. The swinging sixties which has been fairly absent thus far smashes it's way on to the screen in this episode. There's tons of location shooting, including a fair amount in Covent Garden; which is where I work. It was a real treat to see Hartnell walking down streets I walk down everyday. They even have a genuine Covent Garden tramp. Who after attempting to doss in an "abandoned" warehouse ends up dead and somehow on the front page of the newspaper hours later.

WOTAN tries to control the Doctor over the phone but fails, Dodo is ordered to bring the Doctor to WOTAN, but the Doctor, Who realises that she is being controlled hypnotises her in order to break her conditioning. Dodo then gets sent away to the country to recover, never to be seen again. What a shame! I love how everyone just thought she was so rubbish they just ditched her in a really brief and unsubtle way.

Major Green and other brainwashed workers.
The Doctor asks for Ben's help to reconnoiter the area where the homeless man was last seen, but he is discovered by the War Machine. Polly gets taken over too and helps the rest of the brainwashed to capture Ben. Brainwashed Polly orders that Ben is to kept alive and used for labour. However her conditioning is clearly starting to break as she sees Ben escaping and doesn't try to stop him. 

Ben gets back to the Doctor and tells him whats happening so Sir Charles calls a minister who gets the army involved. They're not quite UNIT but they're definitely laying the groundwork for their impending introduction. The army surround the Covent Garden warehouse but most are killed by the War Machine, with only a few men retreating. The soldiers guns won't fire. They seem to be magnetically jammed. It was only during this action sequence that I realised the near total lack of music throughout the story. This was apparently due to budgetary restrictions. It seems like all is lost as everyone takes cover from the War Machine, except the Doctor who slowly moves toward it. There's an odd moment of bad continuity for the "previously..." section of the last episode as not everyone is under cover. The Doctor survives as this particular War Machine is unfinished.

We then have another great first that will recur many times in the future in as far on as David Tennant's tenure as the Doctor. A television report. In this instance anchored by real life newsperson Kenneth Kendall. We also get a radio announcement. It's wonderful to see, this possible dystopia realised as the audience of the sixties would have experienced it through various medias.

Ken Kendall as himself.
The Doctor forms a plan to capture one of the War Machines. With the aid of Ben's bravery the Doctor creates a magnetic field around one neutralising it. The Doctor reprograms it to destroy WOTAN. He irresponsibly sends 'his' machine to take out WOTAN even though he knows Polly, Brett and Krimpton are there and might be in danger. Fortunately Ben goes to rescue Polly and manages to pull her from the room against her will before the re-programed war machine destroys WOTAN and Professor Krimpton in the process. With WOTAN's destruction all of the conditioning is broken.

By this point I have one question that has constantly niggled at me all the way through the whole of the story: Why is it pronounced VOTAN instead of WOTAN? Is it a German computer?

The Doctor leaves the scene in a hurry and back at the TARDIS he is just about to leave without Dodo; who we haven't seen since episode two when Polly and Ben show up with a message from Miss Chaplet, "She's feeling much better, she wants to stay here in London and she sends you her love." Ben and Polly bid their farewells - but at the last minute they go to give the Doctor back his key, and enter the TARDIS just as it dematerialises. I think we've got two new companions on our hands.

So long to the awful Dodo. Hello to the more promising Ben and Polly.
Aside from the terrible misjudging of the name of our protagonist, this has to be one of my favourite Hartnell stories. It's so much stronger than a lot of the other early stories, and although for most of Pertwee and a lot of Russell T Davis regime we were far too often earthbound it is a pleasant change for Hartnell to be defending the earth.

And that's the end or Season three. What a mad ride it's been. We met the Drahvins and the Rills, the Monoids, WOTAN and it's War Machines, the Celestial Toymaker, and once more the Meddling Monk and the Daleks. We went to ancient Greece, 16th Century France and the American Wild West. We lost 3 companions and gained 4. We saw just 17 out of 45 episodes with a whopping 28 missing ones. My favourite story from this season is this very story The War Machines, my least favourite is definitely The Celestial ToymakerOut of a possible 100 I scored this season 65/100. Giving it an average score of 65/100. With just one point less than season 1, things are clearly back on track after a bumpy season 2. But can season 4 prevail in besting season 1 for the top spot?

Join me next time for the start of Season 4 and Hartnell's penultimate story The Smugglers


Miss Katie said...

The war machines was awesome, but nowhere near as awesome as you! :)

Anonymous said...

Loving the blog mate! Keep it up!

I think this thing about WOTAN being pronounced 'votan' not 'wotan' is either a reference to the god - roughly the same as Odin (or to Wagner - he is a key character in the ring cycle); or alternatively there is a DC comics supervillan who is Wotan as 'votan', who fought Doctor Fate...

Anonymous said...

Very good stuff mate, actually makes me wanna start watching from the beginning,having only ever seen a handful of episodes- ever! You write really well too, insightful, well thought out, and relayed with obvious relish and an appropriate amount of love for the show itself. Excellent work, keep going. Greg Clarke.(so, not 'anon' at all!)

tigerna said...

Believe me when I say, the Avengers was actually miles better and more stylish by far than this episode!

Steve said...

Despite an unimpressive looking War Machine, and despite the rubbish way in which Dodo's departure is handled, this is truly one of the very best 1st Doctor episodes.  Other than the club (the Inferno, right?), it doesn't look very Swinging 60's, but the club scenes are enjoyable, Ben and Polly are the most dynamic companions since Barbara, Ian, and Susan, and it's great to see the 1st Doctor in a modern day story.  Also... "Doctor Who is required"... of course it is, of course it is.