Doctor Who #124: The War Machines Part 1

"DDDOCTORR WHOO ISS RREQUIREDD. BRING HIM HERE!"TECHNICAL SPECS: The War Machines is available on DVD. First aired Jun.25 1966.

IN THIS ONE... Meet Ben and Polly! In swinging 60s London, the Doctor investigates the sentient computer WOTAN who is taking control of people, including Dodo.

REVIEW: Though we've had little bits of 60s London before (Ian and Barbara's return home, Dodo's pick-up), we've never sen a complete adventure take place there. That, in addition to the various changes instituted by the production team, make this very different than what has gone before. In a way, it almost feels like a new pilot. Now that they've done away with episode-specific titles, the production is free to experiment with giving each serial a clearer identity. Each episode of The War Machines starts with a flickering title card in a "modern computer" font, with modem-like sounds in the background. I love the approach, but it's not one we'll see a lot of. The episode begins with building-top shot of the TARDIS materializing on location, and immediately, the focus is on the then-new Post Office Tower, a famous London landmark. We've seen that sort of thing before, but as background (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, for example), not as an actual plot point. The monster in this story will be housed there. It's telecommunications as a danger, as Ian Stuart Black continues to indulge his fascination with the evils of progress.

And though the Doctor is wearing his hat from the first episode, he's as off-model as he was in The Savages. As soon as he sees the Tower, his skin crawls like he's got Spidey-sense, and claims to have the same sensation when Daleks are nearby. And he magically gets into the Tower as a "computer expert" like he's already got UNIT credentials or psychic paper, though of course, neither yet exist. Obviously, he must've been up to something while Susan was going to school, but it's still a completely different way to handle the character. And what of WOTAN calling him "Doctor Who"? The computer seems to know a lot of things it shouldn't, and I don't think it's explained in the serial (so see Theories), but calling the hero Doctor Who isn't even a true fact (or is it? there is evidence that points to the "Who" sound at least being part of his true name, although it might be the name he gave at the door, one of his aliases like John Smith). WOTAN is much like Colossus of Forbin Project fame (the book came out in 1966 too... connection?) - a living internet who wants to do away with human beings. Unlike Colossus, he's also got the ability to hypnotize people through sound, sending a coded message via airborne or phone line modem. It's especially creepy if you're a Dollhouse fan. Where WOTAN fails is in his design. The fact that they've given him a face, not unlike the one worn by the Toymaker's robot, in fact, is rather silly. But the superimposed hypnotic disc and eerie music when he does his thing is good and serves the 60s atmosphere.

Speaking of 60s-isms, Dodo is nearly invisible in the story even though she plays a big part. Why? Polly, Polly, Polly, that's why. Anneke Wills' portrayal of the soon-to-be companion is fresh and sassy, warm and cheeky, fashionable and naturalistic. It puts to shame the character of Dodo, meant as a backgroundless cipher, vaguely childish in a children's television presenter kind of way, and a plain, dowdy one at that. In contrast, Polly isn't only connected to her world, with a job and friends who would miss her were she to leave, but constantly making new connections, here with Dodo and then with sullen sailor Ben. Polly's world is the swinging 60s and she knows where all the fabbest clubs are - the Inferno is a strange grotto of a place - places where Dodo melts and disappears, just as her personality (what little there is of it) will be absorbed into WOTAN's network. Michael Craze as Ben is by comparison the lesser of the two new cast members, but still makes an impression. He's got that period slang down (birds and duchesses, oh my) which is sure to bug the Doctor, and a deep need for adventure. He didn't sign up for no barracks duty! He's quick to come to Polly's defense and can handle himself in a fight. It's like these guys are auditioning to be new, younger, hipper versions of Ian and Barbara, and they just got the part.

THEORIES: I've addressed why WOTAN would call the Doctor "Doctor Who" in the main review, but what about its knowledge of what the acronym TARDIS stands for? Has the Doctor left this information somewhere in history to be indexed in WOTAN's considerable databanks? Or is there a more immediate answer? Is it, for example, in contact with the TARDIS itself? We've seen it take control of people through phone lines, and the TARDIS does have a phone in its exterior shell. Could the Post Office Tower be broadcasting a signal that can be picked up by other machines like the TARDIS? Maybe it's even why the Doctor felt something was off as soon as he stepped out. If WOTAN has access to at least some information from the TARDIS' databanks, that would make it even more dangerous, and perhaps even have sparked its leap to sentience. Alternatively, might we see in its Nordic call sign an echo of the evil god Fenric? If an entity like that was behind the computer, it could explain why it has so much knowledge and power, though the guiding hand behind WOTAN would not be revealed by serial's end. And then there's the novel Original Sin that claims Tobias Vaughn (The Invasion) funded the research that created WOTAN, so there's a Cyberman connection there, if you want to acknowledge it.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - It feels like a new beginning, and Polly especially makes a great first impression. It's amazing how often we'll return to this episode's structure in future.


d said...

I think Polly was the 1st "one for the Dad's" companion!

Siskoid said...

Given the supposed age of most of the Who girls to that point, that would have been creepy.

LiamKav said...

Those two statements are not, depressingly, mutualy exclusive.

Regarding the Doctor sensing the Daleks nearby... when the (second) Doctor eventually drops Ben and Polly off, it's at around the same time they left, isn't it? And then he gets into a Dalek adventure whose name escapes me. So it's possible that he is actually sensing the Daleks, rather than WOTAN.

(Why can I now set things to email me when someone posts after I've posted? I liked that.)

Siskoid said...

That's a fine theory. It's true that there must be two other threats operating in London on this day: The Chameleons and the Daleks!

(Do you mean that you could or could not do this before/now? I've never seen the option on this old template of mine.)

LiamKav said...

On the older template, after I had signed in to my blogger/google account, there used to be a tick box that said "email me if someone replies to my comment". I'd then get an email whenever there was a comment posted on that post. It's not there anymore. (Also, the "prove you are not a robot" words are now bloody hard to read. But that's not your fault. Hopefully.)

Siskoid said...

None of it is. Blogger has been frigging with the comments form for weeks now, and it keeps changing. Today it's almost full screen instead of a thin column. I can't figure it.


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