A story without The Doctor landing on present-day Earth these days scarcely bears thinking about. Seems that The Doctor just can’t get enough of Britain in the early 21st century. A life with a shaky economy, miserable weather and Brexit is enough to send your average Brit packing his or her bags and booking a one-way ticket to Outer Mongolia - but not The Doctor. Maybe he’s just itching for a verbal scrap with Cruella De Mayhem, a foe even more evil than a horde of Daleks, Cybermen and Mandrels put together.
Wasn’t always that way though. Although we saw The Doctor skulking about in a scrapyard in 1963, it’s not until The War Machines that we get to see him stroll about in contemporary Britain. Three years have passed, and The Doctor and Dodo land at the height of the Swinging Sixties in the scorching hot summer of 1966. Mercifully there are no references to The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine or England winning the World Cup: Ah, the days before Three Lions blaring out of every loudspeaker: Heaven.
Instead, The Doctor and Dodo are too busy investigating spooky goings-on at The Post Office Tower. Turns out that a revolutionary new computer’s being developed. It may look like the computer from kiddies programme Chock-A-Block, but WOTAN (Or Will Operating Thought Analogue to the uninitiated) is THE computer of the hour. It can think for itself. It can talk (in a husky, echo-y voice that makes it sound like Zoltar from Battle Of The Planets down a wishing well). Oh, and it can also print off replies on an old-fashioned printer. Clearly, Alan Sugar wasn’t losing any sleep.
The War Machines is the first of its kind to broadcast the message that COMPUTERS ARE BAD. Not that I needed telling. They’re slow. They contain viruses. They always crash when I switch the damn things on.
But at least they’re not hell-bent on global domination as WOTAN is. WOTAN (or really, as everyone pronounces it, VOTAN) considers humans to be an inferior species, and so plans to make them subservient to machines. It does this by hypnotising those nearest to it, including creator Professor Brett, Major Green and Professor Krimpton, a man who resembles Penfold from Dangermouse. Plus poor old Dodo. You can tell when someone’s been hypnotised, because the character starts talking in a very loud hammy monotone - a bit like Simon Cowell playing Widow Twankey in his local panto.
The message is hardly subtle these days, but for the time, it was topical. Back in the 1960s, there was less reliance on technology, so the fear of computer dominance was a viable theme to explore. Given that these days, we’re all too dependent on technology, the concept of The War Machines was ahead of its time.
As if that’s not bad enough, WOTAN orders the construction of the eponymous War Machines: a batch of cumbersome-looking mobile computers on wheels. In all honesty, they’re not a credible threat. They have all the speed of an OAP’s mobile scooter and look like they were designed by a slightly disturbed four-year-old at playgroup. Even when one of the machines faces off with The Doctor at the end of Episode Three, it’s a bit laughable, since The Doctor could outpace it just by hopping blindfolded. Nice idea, but these days, the War Machines are too lumbering to be a convincing Monster Of The Week.
Which applies to the story as a whole. The idea of the Earth being taken over by an omnipotent computer was, at the time, quite a novel one, and quite a disturbing one at that. Problem is, the story’s talky and also a bit silly in places for it to succeed. WOTAN, for example, is reduced to talking in clichéd threats, and for some reason, keeps referring to The Doctor as 'Doctor Who' (Or Doctoooooooooorrrr Whooooooooooooo as it keeps saying).
The action sequences are also clunky, despite the efforts of newcomer Michael Ferguson. It’s hard to make a giant cardboard box on wheels come alive, and as hard as Ferguson tries with lots of fast cuts and zoom-ins, the scenes in the warehouse seem to drag on for aeons. Despite that, Ferguson’s direction is a breath of fresh air. He brings a pacy style of direction to the show, with faster editing techniques, unusual camera angles and some effective location shootings. He’d reach a pinnacle with his two Pertwee stories, but The War Machines, at least succeeds in its trendy visual style.
Appropriate, given that we’re now in a trendier Britain than ever before as The Doctor even gets to go to a nightclub. It’s refreshing to see Doctor Who embrace contemporary Britain, even if it is slightly dated thanks to the fashions and the groovy Hammond Organ music pumping out of the crackly speakers. Plus, we get our first modern companions: Ben and Polly. Both are more Sixties than Ready Steady Go - Polly with her fake eyelashes, mini-skirts and legs up to the sky, and Ben with his wideboy Cockney persona and tendency to call The Doctor, Doc. Both Anneke Wills and Michael Craze make Polly and Ben likeable, welcome additions to the programme - even if Polly starts out as a spoilt, snobby madam. They both work well with The Doctor, although Hartnell’s evidently finding it hard to get used to the new, trendy style of companion.
As for poor old Dodo, she gets one of the most undignified send-offs in the history of Doctor Who. After falling under the influence of WOTAN, she’s shunted off to the country to recuperate - all off-screen. There’s not so much as a brief farewell scene. While Dodo wasn’t the most memorable of companions, it seems a bit harsh to cart her off midway through the second episode without any proper goodbyes. Jackie Lane is quite good when Dodo falls under the influence of WOTAN - it’s too bad that she wasn’t given adequate enough material to work with in her brief stay as the companion.
As it is, The Doctor’s off on new travels with two brand new stowaways. The War Machines may have its flaws, and may be a little too dated, but it does point the way forward for Doctor Who. Trendier companions. Mini skirts. Pacier direction. All around the corner, and waiting in a season that would contain the biggest change of all…
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