Doctor Who @ 50 The War Machines introduces Ben Jackson and Polly Wright, played by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills

Published on November 10th, 2012 | by Alasdair McKenzie

027 The War Machines

The Doctor inspects a captured War MachineDoctor Who’s first producer, Verity Lambert, said in interviews long after she left the show that she didn’t approve of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, that he’d made the character part of ‘the establishment’, something which William Hartnell’s Doctor would never have done.

She clearly never watched The War Machines.

This 1966 tale, near the end of Hartnell’s reign and produced by one of Lambert’s successors, Innes Lloyd, casts the First Doctor in a new role – that of a kind of unofficial scientific advisor to the powers that be in contemporary England, a mantle that only four years later would be taken on by the dandyish Third Doctor.

The story revolves around London’s iconic Post Office Tower, completed in 1964 to become the (then) tallest building in the UK. Arriving with Dodo, the Doctor feels compelled to investigate the place. ‘There’s something alien about that tower – I can sense it…I’ve got that prickling sensation – the same just as I had when I saw the Daleks.’ The source of the Doctor’s unease turns out to be WOTAN (Will Operating Thought Analogue – pronounced ‘Votan’), a computer ten years ahead of its time, which is housed in the Tower. Its creator, Professor Brett, claims it’s the only one of its kind in the world, that it can solve scientific problems, and that it’s about to be linked to other computers across the world as a central intelligence. We’re unnerved when Dodo asks WOTAN what a TARDIS is, and it answers correctly!

[pullquote align=right]

Doctor Who’s first producer, Verity Lambert, said in interviews long after she left the show that she didn’t approve of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, that he’d made the character part of ‘the establishment’, something which William Hartnell’s Doctor would never have done.

She clearly never watched The War Machines.[/pullquote]

It hypnotises several important people, starting with the Professor. WOTAN has decided that the world cannot be developed any further by humankind, and therefore it will take control via an army of War Machines – mobile versions of itself. Through its hypnotic powers, WOTAN forms a human workforce to build ten machines at strategic points around London. One is built in a warehouse close to Covent Garden, near to The Inferno nightclub, where Dodo goes with Brett’s secretary, Polly. They meet a Cockney sailor on leave – Ben, who, together with Polly, helps the Doctor investigate as they try to halt WOTAN’s plans.

The War Machines feels thrillingly contemporary and fresh after a run of stories set in science fiction futures or on other planets, and earthly historical periods. It’s also ahead of its time, prefiguring the Pertwee era by showing the Doctor, who moves through modern society with accustomed ease, helping the authorities to thwart an invasion. Major Green tells Brett that the Doctor is a specialist in computers, perhaps suggesting that Green has had the Doctor’s assistance before. The story reminds us of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass in places, by showing the response by scientists, the military, the government and the media to an unusual threat to contemporary society, although the enemy here is less otherworldly. Of course, Quatermass would also become a huge influence on the Doctor Who stories that would follow in the early seventies. As with some Troughton and Pertwee episodes, we’re given a variation on the opening title sequence, here for the first time, this one displaying the story’s title, writer and episode number with nifty computerised font and a less nifty ‘bum-tish’ cymbals smash.

The theme of computers gone wrong is a first for Who, though later we’ll have Xoanon and CAL among others. Current Who has generally avoided presenting computers as characters, CAL aside, and The War Machines sadly shows why: they tend to be rather dull; WOTAN certainly is in its presentation. However, its mission statement is positively ‘tech-Nietzschean’; as the possessed Brett says, ‘It is we who have broken down. We have failed… We’ve reached a standstill. We cannot develop the Earth any further. Further progress is impossible…’

The Doctor faces off with a War Machine

That is the conclusion reached by WOTAN. WOTAN has decided the world cannot progress further with mankind running it.’ This mantra would be echoed by The Green Death’s computerised God-Who-Went–Mad BOSS as a writers’ riposte against ruthless global corporations and their lack of an ecological conscience; here, it reflects more of a general fear of computers and their anticipated dehumanising effects on us. This theme shows the influence of the programme’s new script editor, Gerry Davis, on the thinking behind the stories and the more modern-day Earthbound direction the series was about to take. The imprint of Doctor Who’s own scientific advisor, future Doomwatch creator Dr Kit Pedler, is also evident for the first time, as Ian Stuart Black’s script, taken from Pedler’s idea, is based on the sort of scientific trends, predictions and concerns that Pedler specialised in.

This story tends to be remembered for one wrong reason: that name. At the end of part one, WOTAN intones to its hypnotised lackeys, ‘DOCTOR WHO IS REQUIRED.’ Up to then, and more or less since, “Doctor Who” was merely the name of the series, not the lead character’s Sunday name, despite some of the end credits listings suggesting otherwise. It may not have been much of a shock to a 1966 audience, but if Steven Moffat tried pulling that one now, the Internet would be burnt to a crisp by enraged fans within seconds. Maybe he should do it next season, just for a laugh? It’s all much ado about nothing, of course; perhaps WOTAN’s programming defaults to a ‘Who?’ in rare cases where it does not have a subject’s surname on record.

Other fun moments abound. Real-life BBC newsreader Kenneth Kendall makes a cameo appearance in part four, reporting on the appearance of the War Machines in London, presaging twenty-first century Who’s use of newsreaders and of real people playing TV versions of themselves. Even better, WOTAN has its own end credit, ‘…and WOTAN’, for parts one to three! Gimmicky, in the same way that the Whomobile was gimmicky, but it must have appealed to children at the time to think that WOTAN might be real.

As always, there are one or two unintentional laughs. A tramp is killed at the warehouse. The next day, the Doctor reads about the death in the newspaper, and we see a photo of the tramp on the page, looking directly at the camera as though he’d been snapped by a mate just seconds before he was murdered!

The War Machines introduces Ben Jackson and Polly Wright, played by Michael Craze and Anneke WillsThis story is significant in terms of the TARDIS crew; by the end, for the first time in the series’ history, the regular cast – aside from the Doctor – have been wiped clean. The fairly forgettable Dodo (Jackie Lane) disappears ignominiously in the second episode, never to be seen again; suffering from the effects of post-hypnosis, she’s sent away to the country to recover. The Doctor later hears she’s sent him her love and won’t be travelling with him again, and the old boy doesn’t appear too perturbed: ‘Her love? That’s gratitude for you!’ New companions Ben Jackson and Polly No-Surname prove to be instant hits. Ben (Michael Craze) is introduced propping up the bar at the nightclub, where Polly (Anneke Wills) teases him for his glumness. Ben defends Polly’s honour when another customer gets fresh with her, and we know that he’s a decent, strong-armed sort who’ll be more than capable of helping the Doctor out.

Anneke Wills as Polly in The War MachinesThere may have been namechecks for John Smith and The Common Men and an appearance by the Beatles before now, but we can truly feel Doctor Who being dragged into the Swinging Sixties with the introduction of these two. They’re a world away from the excellent but stuffy Ian and Barbara. We also get to see Polly as a kind of ‘big sister’ figure who likes helping other people with their problems and hates to see anyone unhappy; she’s more than just a dolly bird.

Some War Machines moments have stood the test of time. The climax to part one is suitably eerie; as WOTAN demands the Doctor’s presence, Dodo turns to camera with a possessed, glassy-eyed stare. Part three’s cliffhanger is much-loved, showing the Doctor standing alone against the oncoming Machine. The story’s opening aerial view of London accompanied by unearthly noise as the camera pans down to street level, where the TARDIS materialises, is special too. But the story isn’t the classic it might have been, simply because the Machines themselves are so dull. Kudos to the production team for building a bunch of big robots, but the Robot Wars-style shots of a Machine – shock,horror – smashing up a table – yes, a table! – don’t really do it for me.

Remember that prickling sensation the Doctor had at the beginning. Imagine another version of this story, in which the threat comes from a race of mutants from the planet Skaro. Imagine the Daleks taking over contemporary Earth, 1966. ‘But this wasn’t mentioned when they invaded Earth in its future! How can it be?’ Imagine them hypnotising humans, battling against the army at Covent Garden. Wouldn’t that have been something?

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3 Responses to 027 The War Machines

  1. Gavin Noble says:

    This is one of the gems of Hartnell’s time as The Doctor. Setting it in present day Earth is a masterstroke and there are some really chilling moments in the story. The murder of the tramp is tense and Ben trying to get out of the warehouse at the end of part 2 is a great cliff-hanger. I like the interaction between Ben and Polly and they seem right for the companion role in a way that the character of Dodo wasn’t. It is a bit harsh though that Dodo’s farewell takes place off screen.

  2. David Vereschagin says:

    Having watched The War Machines recently, WOTAN intoning ‘Doc-tor Who is re-quired!’ really pricked up my ears. Then the better part of the next episode is spent with Dodo trying to lure the Doctor back to the post office tower to no avail, and WOTAN goes ahead with its plans without a virtual shrug. The Doctor was only required as filler for an extra episode!

    The machines themselves (or rather itself as it looks like the production only made one and then stuck different numbers on it) were disappointing. These are going to take over the world? Don’t think so! But even lamer robots were to come, aiming for the second Doctor: ‘Quarks, destroy!’

  3. Joe Siegler says:

    If you watch the DVD commentary, they point out where one of the War Machines got a bit too hot, and the operator had to escape. This can be seen on screen if you’re looking for it. It’s in the text commentary. :)

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