The War Machines

Airdates: June/July 1966 (4 episodes)
Written by: Ian Stuart Black, based on an idea by Kit Pedler
Screen Credit to: Ian Stuart Black, based on an idea by Kit Pedlar
Directed by: Michael Ferguson
The Story So Far: It’s London in the Swinging 1960s, and a Wagnerian robot high atop the General Post Office Tower seeks to conquer humanity… probably because the skirts have gotten too short, the hair too long, and the youth too insolent…
Novelization by: Ian Stuart Black (February 1989)

It was during the production of this story that producer Innes Lloyd finally got permission to replace William Hartnell as the Doctor (or, as the series briefly starts calling him from this point, Doctor Who).  And there’s one glaringly obvious reason why, setting aside all the behind-the-scenes stuff about Hartnell’s failing health and flaring temper.  It’s that, with Lloyd and Gerry Davis seeking to produce more science-oriented stories, they needed a lead actor who could convincingly rattle off scientific terms.  And, bless him, that was never Billy’s strong suit.

I’ll admit that I’ve never fully appreciated The War Machines.  The first two times I tried to watch this story on PBS, in movie format on late Saturday night with all the cliffhangers edited out (i.e. exactly the way early Doctor Who should never, ever be watched), I fell asleep.  As I got older and actually saw the whole thing, I acknowledged intellectually what the production team was trying to do, but was able to affect a smirky, condescending, I’m-30-years-into-the-future-and-better-than-you attitude about how they did it.

What, who wouldn't laugh at this conception of what supercomputers were once thought to look like??

What, who wouldn’t laugh at this conception of what supercomputers were once thought to look like??

Two things have helped me come around to love this story.  First, oddly enough, was my mother, who will never be mistaken for a Doctor Who fan (even after she asked to watch Vincent and the Doctor,  she complained: “I don’t understand why there was a monster in it”).  She once wandered into the room while I was watching the nightclub sequence in Episode 1 of this story, and immediately started breaking down the fashions. I wouldn’t realize this until years later, but in 1966, my mother was actually the same age and occupation as Polly was in this story.  And my mother, of all people, declared the Inferno to be authentic.

How about that?  In a story produced by the BBC about the early throes of the generation gap … they actually managed to put their finger on the pulse of 1960s’ youth!

The second thing that helped me out was seeing this story in sequence, as part of my one-episode-per-night series marathon.  Everything about this story is dated today.  The fashions.  The computers.  The science.  The “hypnotized” acting.  But… watching this after four-and-a-half months’ worth of serials put out by previous production teams… this story is epic.  Ground-breaking.  It moves.  1966, you’ve come a long way from 1963.

The real '60s.  Mind you, I live in Brooklyn in 2013, and you could drop Polly and Kitty right into WIlliamsburg and they'd probably be hailed as hipster trend-setters...

The real ’60s. Mind you, I live in Brooklyn in 2013, and you could drop Polly and Kitty right into WIlliamsburg and they’d probably be hailed as hipster trend-setters…

I credit Michael Ferguson for most of my new-found love of The War Machines. Doctor Who‘s beating heart in the Hartnell era was always young people in their 20s. Ferguson was 28 when he was hired to direct this story, his first Who assignment, and he quickly breaks the existing mold.  If An Unearthly Child was the show’s first pilot, for premise, and The Time Meddler was its second pilot, for reinvention of premise, then The War Machines is Doctor Who‘s third pilot, for style, style, style.

Ferguson is fond of swooping film camera angles.  We being with almost a crash-zoom on London, which at first you’d think is the TARDIS landing (and it’s not too far removed from the opening of Rose, the first episode of the New Series), but is actually WOTAN’s eye tracking the TARDIS’ arrival from the top of the GPO Tower.  There’s a lot of silent film acting as the Doctor and Dodo exit the TARDIS and joyfully realize where they are.  Lots of shots from the street zooming up on the top of the Tower, at a tilted angle — after The Twilight Zone made this kind of shot look cool and before Batman ruined it.

Who unto the Post Office Tower would go, must choose above, between, below.

Who unto the Post Office Tower would go, must choose above, between, below.

And Hartnell, failing faculties and inability to speak technobabble aside, looks amazing on film.  He’s back in his fur Cossack hat and cloak; Ferguson likes to shoot him from low angles, striding on film through streets and alleys.  When he grabs his lapels and looks haughtily down his nose at a War Machine at the end of Episode 3,  your knees will buckle.  Come to find out, John Wiles didn’t need to fire Hartnell… he just needed to hire Michael Ferguson to direct him.

Even the fight sequences, which bored me in the mid ’80s, are unlike anything the show had ever attempted to this point.  While Ferguson here is merely workshopping the style that would take off in The Ambassadors of Death (but sadly lacking Dudley Simpson’s harpsichord-based UNIT theme music), there are still powerful shots of the War Machine bursting through stacks of crates, or even a wall (clearly inspiring the “Hey Kool Aid!” commercials of the 1970s), or leaving flames in its wake.  Episode 4’s action sequences are a succession of near-Impressionist images: a spinning bicycle wheel, a zoom-in on an abandoned car-radio, a doomed man hiding in a phone booth.  Oh, and real people, sitting in a pub, watching actual newscasters cover the unfolding disaster on TV…

Oh, yeah!

Oh, yeah!

Of course, not to say that Ferguson is flawless here.  Everyone gets to do hypnotized-acting.  Professor Brett.  Major Green.  Professor Krimpton.  Dodo.  Polly.  The Doctor.  A bunch of extras.  With the exception of John Cater as Krimpton (who’s nearly the best thing about this story, even though he’s only a tertiary character at best), Ferguson doesn’t really manage to get everyone in synch.  Hartnell’s “pained” acting in this story gets a bit comical in places.  Dodo’s take on being hypnotized is to act haughty and obnoxious, but nobody realizes she’s even changed.

The script isn’t flawless, either.  The basic 10-word plot was conceived by Dr. Kit Pedler, the production team’s new scientific adviser (it would take years before they spelled his name right in the credits), and after original serial author Pat Dunlop quit part-way through in order to honor other commitments, Ian Stuart Black quickly returned to write the thing, even though he’d just written the previous story.  And the time strain does show.  We learn that WOTAN is a powerful computer… because it can calculate the square root of a five-digit number.  The sexual politics are really hard to unravel, with both the Doctor and Professor Brett sporting secretaries, and Ben warning Polly to be “careful who you encourage” (after he beats up Polly’s would-be rapist in the Inferno).  But, even as badly dated as all this is, it’s worth it because, in a generation-gap battle between impulsive Ben and stodgy bureaucrat Sir Charles Summer, the Doctor, that old man in the “fab gear” (who is, even more disturbingly from today’s perspective, likened by Kitty to “that DJ”… Jimmy Savile…), takes Ben’s side.  Don’t trust anyone over 30…. or under 900!

Professor Brett (John Harvey) declares that bow ties are cool.

Professor Brett (John Harvey) declares that bow ties are cool.

Actually, most of Hartnell’s performance is pretty intriguing in The War Machines.  As noted above, he looks great.  And, in keeping with his role in The Savages, we have the earliest incarnation of what is now considered a Troughton-esque Doctor — one lurking around the margins of the story, quietly figuring out the bad guys’ plot, and devising a way to beat them, while remaining largely silent, keeping his own counsel, and revealing his plans only a little bit at a time, even to his companions.  We saw some of that in the previous story and it’s even more pronounced here.  He even demonstrates mind-control powers for the first time, as he frees Dodo from WOTAN’s influence.  It only falls apart in Episode 4, when he’s asked to deliver tense technical explanations and can barely muster up the words.

Here are two exquisite examples of this new approach to the Doctor, making him a more mysterious, powerful figure than before.  In Episode 1, shortly after being enslaved by WOTAN, Professor Brett crashes a press conference, acting very abrupt and demanding. In one shot, he’s in the foreground, surrounded by his fellow scientists and a gaggle of reporters — and there’s the Doctor at the back of the shot, looking right at him and figuring out (before anyone else) that Brett is a man possessed. As before, Hartnell looks striking in his silver wig and fur hat.  And then, at the Episode 3 cliffhanger, as everyone (including the military) scurries away from the rampaging War Machine, it’s the Doctor who literally stands up to it, without having clued us in beforehand as to how he knows he can stop the machine.  Black’s novelization does give a scientific explanation for how the Doctor wins this confrontation, but with a visual like that, no explanation was necessary…

Doctor Who is required... to be AWESOME.

Doctor Who is required… to be AWESOME.

And then we have the new companions.  Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) both make a huge splash, and suddenly you realize why Innes Lloyd was so eager to dump the previous crew and bring in his own team.  Stephen was brash and funny and worked well with a Doctor who explained his every move; but Ben is unquestioningly loyal and is (I realize this is heresy to everything I’ve been saying ever since The Time Meddler) better suited to this new vision of the Doctor than Steven would have been. And, by being given actual personality traits, Polly makes a bigger impression than Dodo ever could.  I was smitten from the early moment in Episode 1 when, after admitting that WOTAN is the better typist, Polly wryly wrinkles her nose at the machine.  Polly and Ben’s meet-cute at the nightclub is the Swingin’ Sixties version of Ian and Barbara hooking up in a science lab.  The pair bring great energy to their roles, such that I didn’t have time to miss Steven… and, of course, with Dodo infamously exiting the story in Episode 2 without a farewell scene, clearly Lloyd couldn’t wait to clear the decks either.

There are some pretty good standouts in the guest cast, too.  WOTAN gets his own credit (“… and WOTAN”).  William Mervyn, as the Government figure responsible for WOTAN’s funding, strikes just the right notes of pompous stuffiness civil servant can-do. John Harvey looks great in bow tie and lab coat, and though Professor Brett is under WOTAN’s hypnosis for most of the story, manages to sneak in some good acting moments — I like his little smile of relief after an intruder into the first War Machine’s secret hideout is killed; it’s such an inhuman moment.  Ric Felgate (the director’s brother-in-law, who would also return in Ambassadors) plays a very unlikely New York-based journalist, with a bow tie and a gum-chewing habit.  Best of all is John Cater as Professor Krimpton, who first fiercely resists WOTAN’s hypnosis, and then becomes the most devoted slave of all.   He’s got a wicked gleam in his eye as he organizes the telephone hookup via which WOTAN mind-controls its victims.

Bow down to WOTAN, the great, all-powerful WOTAN

Resistance is useless.

Aren’t the opening titles eye-catching?  Who would continue experimenting with special episode-credit sequences for the next four seasons.  But, as a virtual pilot episode, The War Machines is still not quite perfect.  The Web of Fear, The Invasion, and Spearhead From Space would all further polish the formula of Doctor-plus-military-foils-invasion-of-Earth.  This is our first evil-supercomputer plot, and our first look at mind-control; later serials would tackle these concepts with a little more sophistication.  The Doctor being called “Doctor Who” is jarring, with no explanation is given for how all these eminent figures (including the cabinet Minister who shows up in Episode 4) all know who he is and trust him implicitly — later on, Troughton and Pertwee’s Doctors would have to fight (or, in the latter case, bully) their way into high estimation.

Interestingly, Black’s novelization (based on his original scripts, rather than on the videotape) posits that it was Ian Chesterton who trained this new generation of computer scientists, and whose name allows the Doctor near-instant access into such high circles. Of course, the neckbeardy fanboy in me knows this couldn’t possibly be the case; Ian was a high school chemistry teacher, not a computer scientist, and returned to London in the warmer months of 1965, only a year before this story’s July 1966 setting — so didn’t have time to become so influential (he said, with a petulant whine).  Still, never mind the details.  Let’s just assume this bit is canonical.  It’s too cool to ignore

In the novelization, this one is called VALK.  Because, you know, calling its boss WOTAN wasn't obvious enough.

In the novelization, this War Machine is called VALK. Because, you know, calling its boss WOTAN wasn’t an obvious enough reference…

Black’s novelization is worth a read, by the way.  Although pretty slim, it does go into more detail about WOTAN’s thought processes; there’s a nice moment where Professor Brett, about to be hypnotized, is glad that he’s created something powerful enough to take over his mind.  More detail is given about the creation and evolution of the War Machines.  The Doctor knows instinctively, as soon as the TARDIS lands in London, that Dodo is going to leave him (a foreshadowing we were cruelly deprived of on TV!).

The TV story is best known, perhaps, for two rather clunky moments that don’t work.  We get Doctor Who‘s first comedy hobo, who, after a chase through the War Machine’s warehouse that’s crying out for some Benny Hill music, is brutally murdered by a group of brainwashed scientists.  This death helps the Doctor solve the plot, though — after this nameless hobo’s head shot turns up on the front page of the newspaper the very next morning.  Exactly the way the death of a random tramp would never be publicized in real life…

London's most famous hobo, about to meet his end.  Good thing the Guardian already had his file photo.

London’s most famous hobo, about to meet his end. Good thing the Guardian already had his file photo.

And then there’s the famous moment in Episode 2 where the Doctor aimlessly wanders around the room, saying, “I wonder, Sir Charles, do you suppose…”, reads some papers on the table, and then limply concludes, “No, I don’t suppose you would.”  The Discontinuity Guide has this as Hartnell “seemingly making it up as he goes along,” and it’s impossible to watch the moment now without breaking into paroxysms of laughter.  But… it’s in the novelization, too, meaning that, more likely than not, Ian Stuart Black actually scripted Hartnell to act this way!

There’s just one more thing about the story, of course, that doesn’t make sense.  WOTAN, whose name is a High German variant of Woden, has planned to take over the world on a Monday.  Uh…. shouldn’t that be Wednesday?   You know, the day of the week named after him?  This makes about as much sense as the latest Thor movie being released on Wednesday…

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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