“The War Machines” (season 3, episodes 42-45. Originally aired June 25-July 16, 1966)
“The War Machines” closed out Doctor Who’s third season in 1966, but like “The Time Meddler” the year before, it doesn’t quite have the feel of a modern season finale—it doesn’t feel like the endpoint of some larger storyline in the series, though it does see an important cast change as the Doctor’s companion Dodo leaves in favor of newcomers Ben and Polly. But especially in hindsight, “The War Machines” did help set the stage for the truly seismic changes that were looming just over the horizon for Doctor Who. Two serials later, in “The Tenth Planet,” the series would undergo the single most important cast change in its history, when William Hartnell collapsed on the floor of the TARDIS and got up as Patrick Troughton—the first regeneration. It wasn’t just the lead actor that would change, but the style of the show itself—and while “The War Machines” didn’t anticipate the regeneration itself (I’m not sure if that idea had even been thought of yet), it did mark a bold step toward the kind of action-driven thrillers that would be the hallmark of the Second Doctor era.
In terms of the plot itself, “War Machines” is pretty good if not a classic, with an appealing B-movie sensibility—this feels like a better, if equally cheaply made, version of the kind of movie featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. (The War Machines themselves strike me as oversized versions of the homemade battletanks you see on Robot Wars, but like so many things with this series, you have to be willing to take the idea behind the actual effect seriously if you're going to be able to enjoy Doctor Who the way it ought to be enjoyed.) The Doctor lands in London with his current companion, Dodo, and is immediately swept up in an attempted takeover of the world by WOTAN, a highly advanced computer that (like Skynet in The Terminator) has achieved sentience and thinks it can do better than the imperfect humans who created it. Using mind control, WOTAN assembles an army of humans to do its bidding, and eventually builds a fleet of self-propelled robot tanks—one of which is captured and reprogrammed by the Doctor, who sends it home to kill its papa. Along the way, Dodo befriends Polly, the assistant to the scientist who built WOTAN, and later Ben, a lonely and disconsolate sailor who’s at loose ends due to six months’ shore leave and doesn’t know what to do with himself. Both Dodo and Polly are snared in WOTAN's web. After the Doctor snaps her out of her WOTAN-induced brainwashing, Dodo winds up disappearing almost entirely from the story in favor of her replacements, in what might be the cruelest ditching of a companion in the entire series. More on that in a moment.
One thing that might not be apparent to us seeing this in 2012 is that there’s a conscious attempt to make this story feel like it’s happening not on some faraway planet in the year 5000, but in the immediate present and right here at home. Except for a smallish scene in season two’s “The Chase,” “The War Machines” was the first time Doctor Who had come back to present-day Earth since the series’ debut. This was a purposeful move away from the historical stories and fanciful sci-fi that had dominated earlier—here, a big part of the thrill for viewers in 1966 would have been the notion that WOTAN and its War Machines were just a hair’s breadth away from being real, rampaging through their very own neighborhoods, next to familiar London landmarks like Covent Garden, Battersea Power Station, and, most importantly, the then-new Post Office Tower. Now known as the BT Tower, it was the tallest building in the United Kingdom at the time and, as the main telecommunications center in the country, was a living symbol of unnervingly pervasive high-tech. It’s the perfect lair for some Colossus-like computer like WOTAN, which actually wasn’t at all accidental—script editor Gerry Davis came up with using the tower as a main location for the story before anything else was in place, and writers Kit Pedler and Ian Stuart Black wound up inventing WOTAN to suit the tower’s particular qualities. The web came first, not the spider.
The move toward more action-oriented stories was probably inevitable, since they were clearly more popular than the historicals, but it also meant that the series was losing some of its creative spark in favor of a more formulaic approach. Action also wasn’t a great fit for the elderly Hartnell, whose health problems would force him to retire later that year. His increasing inability to remember his lines is all too apparent in the first scene, when he needs to express a feeling of psychic unease about the still-unknown menace in the Post Office Tower and nearly babbles it into incoherence. And his physical frailty also meant that Ben was pressed into service doing almost all of the running around and interaction with other characters that the Doctor might otherwise have done—which was not entirely bad, since that also allowed more time for the relationship between Ben and Polly to develop. Other than discussing strategy with the pompous civil servant Sir Charles, the Doctor doesn’t step up and take decisive action until the very end of “The War Machines,” when his scheme to capture War Machine No. 9 is carried out and quickly leads to WOTAN’s final defeat. But Hartnell also gets a terrific moment in the cliffhanger to episode three, standing his ground resolutely against the approach of War Machine No. 3 while behind him all the soldiers flee in panic, winding it up with a typically arrogant, defiant Hartnellian thrust of his chin. Usually the cliffhangers are all about highlighting how much danger the characters are in, but this one flips that notion on its head—we should be worried about the Doctor, because he’s facing down a tank that’s just mowed down a whole bunch of army dudes with guns (and, um, set some crates on fire with its deadly fire-extinguisher gun arm). But instead, his utter confidence is magnetic. How will he survive? The hell if I know. But the look in his eye tells me that he does, and finding out what he’s thinking is why I wanted to stick around for episode four.
It’s a far, far better moment than any that poor old Dodo gets. I can’t say that I warmed to her character at all, but the manner in which she was written out of the series is breathtakingly brusque, and mirrors the way actress Jackie Lane was fired behind the scenes. I haven’t seen any of the previous Dodo serials—though both “The Ark” and “The Gunfighters” are on the shortlist for future reviews—but based on what we see of her here, it seems like a no-brainer to get rid of her character in favor of the far more lively and charming Ben and Polly. Then again, this is also a terrible showcase for Dodo—she gets maybe five minutes of screentime as the Doctor’s full-fledged sidekick before becoming the square third-wheel to Polly at Club Inferno, and eventually a mind-controlled stooge for WOTAN. Then the Doctor rescues her from WOTAN, and boom!—she’s gone, off for a 48-hour sleep that removes her from the rest of the plotline—and Doctor Who entirely.
That’s the part that stands out as needlessly peremptory: Not only is Dodo robbed of a farewell scene, but the Doctor actually calls her “ungrateful” when he’s told she’s not returning—which isn’t necessarily fair, because we never get to hear Dodo’s side of the story for why she stays behind—and worse, the real reason she left was that the producers thought Lane looked too dowdy and old, and, according to Davis, “we thought the audience would identity better with this leggy swinging Sixties girl.” Even if you prefer Polly to Dodo, you have to admit that’s cold. At least when Adric was killed in “Earthshock,” the audience was asked to care about it. There’s an interesting storyline here that maybe Dodo truly is unworthy of being part of the TARDIS crew, that her capture by WOTAN somehow counts as a true betrayal of the Doctor, but there’s not enough of her in the story to make that work—it’s left tantalizingly unexplored, and Dodo is not merely cast aside but condemned the way old Soviet leaders were posthumously torn down to pave the way for the new order.
That said, although the way the story pushes Dodo out is unappealing, the characters who replace her most certainly aren’t. Ben and Polly are the liveliest and most interesting characters in the story, and it’s fun to watch them growing towards friendship (and, I’m guessing, eventual romance) despite their misunderstandings and personality clashes. Ben’s frantic insistence on rescuing Polly also provides the story’s only real emotional stakes. The Doctor certainly doesn’t—he behaves coldly not only toward Dodo but also people like the scientists Brett and Krimpton who are still under WOTAN’s control when War Machine No. 9 is set to destroy it. Although the Doctor correctly notes that they’ll all return to normal once the supercomputer is switched off, he either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that WOTAN will use them to defend itself even if it means their deaths. It’s rather sad to see Krimpton, after his impassioned speech about the importance of free will and human life, used as cannon fodder during the climactic fight scene.
But I digress—I was talking about Ben and Polly, who were very much a new kind of companion for the Doctor, a deliberate and largely successful stab at bringing in some of the youthful energy and spirit of the swinging 1960s as well as the first more-or-less overt boyfriend-girlfriend pairing in the TARDIS, making them a precursor to Amy and Rory in the current era. (Although I lean toward the idea that Ian and Barbara were not just fellow teachers but a couple, their relationship was never, as far as I know, more than platonic on screen.)
There’s also an intriguing detail about the way the new companions wind up traveling with the Doctor that suggests something important about his character: Ben’s key. The reason that he and Polly are able to follow the Doctor into the TARDIS is because, in an earlier scene in part four, Ben picked up the Doctor’s TARDIS key when it fell out of his cloak. But in that final scene, the Doctor still has his own key, which we see him use to open the TARDIS door. So whose key does Ben pick up? The most likely possibility, I think, is that it’s Dodo’s key. That in turn suggests that the Doctor must have taken it away from her after sending her off for her 48-hour nap, meaning he knew she wouldn’t be coming back, which casts his comment about her lack of gratitude in an even worse light—not only did the producers fire Jackie Lane, the Doctor fires Dodo. And it also suggests that he deliberately planted that key with Ben and Polly, thinking correctly that he could manipulate the timing of his departure such that they would become curious about why he disappears into an old police box and barge in after him, at which time he could dematerialize the ship and take them with him. The Doctor has decided that they’re the right sort of people to travel with him, and he’s surely correct in thinking that, but he doesn’t bother to ask them—he just kidnaps them, the way he did with Ian and Barbara in “An Unearthly Child.” It’s worth noting also that in the opening scene of the next story, “The Smugglers,” he acts as if he’s surprised and angry about seeing them (“What are you both doing in here? How dare you follow me into the TARDIS!”), though it seems vanishingly unlikely that he could really not have known they were in the console room when he took off, and indeed it’s more likely that he was waiting to be sure they were along for the ride.
One last thing that struck me as odd is the way WOTAN behaves, even considering that it’s a telepathic megalomaniacal supercomputer that wants to take over the world. It has to do with its relationship to the Doctor, and just how self-aware it actually is. The fact that the story lacks a definitive, direct confrontation between the two characters, though, means that I’m not sure if the story truly supports my theory of what’s going on here. and I could be mistaking sloppiness on the part of the scriptwriters and producers for a deliberate plan. Bearing that in mind, a couple of facts to consider: First, WOTAN correctly answers Dodo’s question about what the acronym TARDIS stands for, when there’s no possible way it could have that information in its databanks. True, we do find out pretty quickly that WOTAN has the power to mentally control humans, and it might also have the related ability to read minds, so maybe it just plucked the answer out of Dodo’s own head. But then there’s the way it phrases the demand that forms the first-episode cliffhanger: “Doctor Who is required. Bring him here.” What’s wrong with that phrasing is that our hero is never called “Doctor Who” in the story itself—not just in “The War Machines” but in every Doctor Who episode for nearly 50 years. He’s only called “Doctor Who” in the title and the closing credits. Now, that could simply be a sloppy mistake in the script that was just never edited out. But how about the fact that WOTAN is listed in the actor’s credits—as playing itself. What if WOTAN is not merely a computer that woke up one day and became a sentient being, but a computer that woke up one day and realized that it was a fictional character in the TV series Doctor Who?
If so, no wonder it was so insistent that it wanted the Doctor to come back and confront it—if you’re playing the villain on a Doctor Who serial, that’s what’s supposed to happen. You prove your worth by getting the Doctor to treat you as a major-league threat. That might also explain why the War Machines it designs have one camera-like eye, two armlike limbs consisting of a gunstick and a club, and the general appearance of a human-sized tank—it’s trying to recreate the Daleks, the Doctor’s most popular enemies, and capture some of that popularity for itself. (Which is what the producers were trying to do also, really.) If that’s the case, it’s not coincidental that the Doctor’s sense of foreboding about WOTAN in the opening scene is explicitly linked to the Daleks. And it also puts a new spin on the Doctor’s reaction after WOTAN’s failed attempt to mind-control him over the phone in episode two: “It was if something enormous and terrific was trying to absorb me!” (And it’s very interesting, with all this in mind, to consider that the final-boss enemy in the most metatextually self-aware story in series history, “The Mind Robber,” is also a faceless computer.) If all that is true, then WOTAN’s true goal is not to take over the world or to exterminate the human race, but to be taken seriously as a worthy competitor to the main character of the show. In which case, it fails: The Doctor refuses to grant WOTAN its demand of a face-to-face meeting, and kills it by sending one of its own bastardized creations to shut it down. It’s almost as if he knew all along what the real stakes of the story were, and beat WOTAN by ending the story on his own terms.
• Most of season three suffers badly from the BBC’s old, shortsighted policy of erasing shows to make room in their archives. Besides “The War Machines,” only “The Ark” and “The Gunfighters” exist in complete form, with seven other stories including the epic 12-part “The Daleks’ Master Plan” in fragments or missing entirely.
• Anneke Wills, who plays Polly, got the role in part because she was married to Michael Gough, who’d appeared earlier on Doctor Who as the title character in “The Celestial Toymaker” and is far more familiar to most of us as Alfred in the Tim Burton-era Batman movies.
• Upcoming schedule:
May 13: “Destiny Of The Daleks”
May 27: “The Claws Of Axos”
June 10: “Resurrection Of The Daleks”
June 24: “The Ribos Operation”
July 8: “Revelation Of The Daleks”
July 22: “Black Orchid”
Aug. 5: “Remembrance Of The Daleks”
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Dominators”