Doctor Who – The War Machines

For those rewatching the series in chronological order, The War Machines is something of a jolting experience. For the first time since Planet of Giants we have a story set entirely in modern day Britain and for the first time ever the Doctor is shown out and about, enjoying the sights of 1960’s London (especially the Post Office Tower, which back in the mid sixties stood as a key symbol of technological development).

With Dr Kit Pedler now onboard as the series’ scientific advisor, it’s easy to detect his influence. As would later happen in Doomwatch, a scientific hot topic (in this case the fear that computers could become sentient and take over) is at the heart of the story. Indeed, Doomwatch would tackle this theme some years later in The Iron Doctor.

In The War Machines, WOTAN – a super-computer with ideas above its station – decides that the human race should be under its control. WOTAN decides to achieve this goal by brainwashing selected humans and forcing them to build the titular war machines. This is where the logic of the story starts to evaporate as the WM’s not only look very clunky and inefficient, it’s hard to see how they could hope to subjugate a city (today London, tomorrow hopefully the world).

Earlier on, we saw WOTAN recruiting helpers via the telephone – broadcasting an irresistible hypnotic signal. If somehow WOTAN could have developed this idea (a television broadcast maybe?) then that might have worked a little better. Ah well, it’s too late to worry about the plot now.

Ian Stuart Black, returning for a second story in a row, took the original idea by Kit Pedlar (and then roughed out by Pat Dunlop – father of Lesley) and turned out the four scripts. As in The Savages, Stuart Black wasted no time getting the Doctor involved in the story – he gains access to WOTAN and its inventor, Professor Brett (John Harvey), with embarrassing ease and shortly afterwards becomes a house guest of Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn) in the same casual manner. This feels a little odd, but let’s just go with the flow.

The War Machines drops the Doctor right in the heart of Swinging London (well, let’s say it’s slightly swaying). The Inferno (“the hottest nightspot in town”) is a hoot, peopled with slightly jiving respectable types and library cues courtesy of Johnny Hawksworth.

At the Inferno, we meet Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze) who are Innes Lloyd’s attempt to create more modern companions (they certainly seem to be from a very different generation to Ian and Barbara). Next to them, poor Dodo is clearly surplus to requirements and after she suffers a spot of brainwashing from WOTAN, her time is up. Cured by the Doctor in episode two, she’s then packed off to the country for a good long rest and is never seen again.  Even though she hadn’t been with the series that long, it’s a remarkably off-hand way to deal with a regular character.

I wonder if a year later Wills and Craze remembered her fate when they were dispensed with in a similar fashion ….

One problem with The War Machines is that it employs good actors – John Harvey (Professor Brett), John Cater (Professor Krimpton) and Alan Curtis (Major Green) – and then rather wastes them since once they become slaves of WOTAN they just turn into dull automatons. I know that’s a point of the story, but it means that scenes with them are rather hard going.

Luckily we do have William Mervyn as the avuncular Sir Charles Summer, who teams up with the Doctor to form an agreeable double act. He’s a prototype of a character type who reappears time and again during the Pertwee era. But whilst the Pertwee Doctor delighted in clashing with figures of authority, the Hartnell Doctor is content to be more conciliatory (although the Doctor and Sir Charles do have a brief difference of opinion).

The fact that the army turn up (and prove to be fairly ineffectual) is another story beat that hints at the way the series would develop once UNIT became a regular feature.

Michael Craze is particularly well served during the second half of the story. With Polly now under the thrall of WOTAN, it falls to an increasingly hysterical Ben to raise the alarm. His anger at Sir Charles (when the older man dismisses his wild tales of killer machines) is well done as is the way Ben gradually becomes the Doctor’s side-kick. Given Ben’s military training it’s easy to see why he so swiftly defers to the Doctor (no previous companion or companion-to-be has ever called the Doctor ‘sir’ but it seems natural for Ben to do so).

Polly doesn’t have quite so much to do, but Anneke Wills is gifted plenty of close-ups as Polly begins to fight against WOTAN’s influence.

The conclusion of the story – the Doctor sends a reprogrammed War Machine to destroy WOTAN – feels somewhat anti-climactic. You can’t help but wonder how it reached the top of the Post Office Tower, where WOTAN had its base. Does the Post Office Tower have very large lifts? If so, then I wonder how the War Machine managed to select the correct floor with its big clod-hopping arms.

The War Machines is a real curio then. You have to appreciate the fact it was a trail-blazer in many ways – the novelty of seeing the Doctor in modern-day London, the introduction of Ben and Polly, the way it inadvertently foreshadowed the way the series would develop during the late sixties/early seventies – but the story doesn’t quite hang together. I’ll still give it 3.5 TARDISes out of 5 though.

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The War Machines

  1. The last William Hartnell story that exists in its entirety, and the only complete story with Ben and Polly. So it is a story that I have watched a few times.

    Someone in Doctor Who Magazine said somewhat controversially that Rose was the third truly contemporary Doctor Who story, Survival was the second, and the first was The War Machines. There is something refreshing about this story. If the chameleon circuit had worked the Tardis probably would have gone back to a police box for this one story.

    It was the first story to feature a real life tv personality as himself (Kenneth Kendall), something that would get overdone in the 2000s. In fact the two eras that were the biggest influence of the revival of Doctor Who were the William Hartnell era and the Sylvester McCoy era.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In this story WOTAN refers to the Doctor as “Doctor Who”. How did it know his surname?

    It’s interesting to rewatch this story today, as the mid-sixties setting has now made it a “historical”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well Wotan also knows what Tardis stands for so either it’s very clever or it has access to a good source of information.

      It’s one of the conventions of the Hartnell era that the lead character almost never introduces himself onscreen. Characters learn to call him “Doctor” either from companions or offscreen and most of the names he give are either aliases (e.g. “Dr Caligari”) or expressing a preference for “Doctor” to “Doc” or “great god”. But this is the period where he starts being a bit more open about his name in all its forms.

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