Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 027—The War Machines


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 027—The War Machines

By T. Scott Edwards

And so we reach the end of Season 3, one of the most insanely inconsistent series in the show's history – and what a way to end. The War Machines is a pivotal moment in the show – other than Planet of Giants, we've not visited the present day before, although of course it will become a standard location in the future. Whilst this adventure is certainly not the finest, it has some wonderful moments, says farewell to Dodo and welcomes the adorable Ben and Polly into the TARDIS.

From the opening titles, specially commissioned and wonderfully realised in their bold font, we are aware that something unusual is happening – the Doctor and Dodo step out of the TARDIS, seen materialising from a beautiful panning aerial shot, and Hartnell instantly gets goose-bumps – he senses an evil presence nearby, a feeling not unlike that he feels when near the Daleks. Of course, this is wonderful foreshadowing of a story which is to come in almost a year's time, but set on the same date as The War Machines. It utilises the inherent fear we all have of the dangers of modern technology – artificial intelligence now is something of a cliché, but at the time it is bold and new – WOTAN is terrifying precisely because it is incapable of error.

Quite how the Doctor and Dodo manage to infiltrate Post Office tower with such ease is beyond me. That said, I like that it manages to prevent an awful lot of back-and-forth before we get into the action proper, and takes us straight into the action. Once inside, the Doctor and his assistant are introduced to Professor Brett and his creation, WOTAN. An interesting side-note is the pronunciation of WOTAN, as though it started with a V. WOTAN is an acronym, and yet it is mispronounced by everyone – although, having said that, Wotan is the Germanic name for the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Odin. What's bizarre is how excited Hartnell's Doctor becomes by this machine, able to 'think' and answer a question about 5 times slower than it would have taken to type the question into a calculator. Also, quite how the computer is able to answer Dodo's question is unclear – how has it been programmed to know the answer to a question that no-one on Earth should know?!

Dodo's hypnotism by WOTAN is beautifully played, and wonderfully shot throughout the first two episodes – the director, Michael Ferguson, frames things with flair and style, and there are subtly used effects to hint at the effect the machine has on her. Jackie Lane is actually rather wonderful here; whilst she has been frustrating in her performance as Dodo in earlier serials, being unconvincing as a young and innocent girl, here, she is unnerving in how adult she suddenly becomes. The brief audio clip over her scenes in the nightclub, as well as the briefest flicker of the swirling overlay serve to remind the audience of her hypnotism.

Then the action moves to the 'swinging nightclub', The Inferno, with Dodo accompanying Brett's secretary Polly after asking to be taken to "the hottest nightspot in town", a club filled with people in 'fab gear' grooving down to music. God, it makes me feel old. But not as old as Hartnell must feel – once he arrives, he is referred to as being dressed like "that disk jockey", Jimmy Saville. His introduction to Ben and Polly firmly sets them both in place as the next companions, Michael Craze imbues his characterisation of Ben as courageous, honest and dedicated, whilst Anneke Wills' beauty is undeniable, and as the "Duchess" she brings class and dignity to the role, whilst also serving the role as a 'current' identification figure for the audience in a way that Dodo never could.

The cliff-hanger of episode 1 is one of the most frustrating moments in the show's history, though, providing no consistency whatsoever – almost as though Ian Stuart Black has never seen the show before, and as WOTAN mutters "Doctor Who is required!" I can't help but cringe. It makes no sense at all, and if it were just this once, it would be forgivable – but the name is used for the following three episodes. Whilst there have always been puns on this name, and in the future we will see him use Germanic variants on this and signing it off with his initial as W, never has it been explicitly stated in a serious context, and it just sits wrong.

Episode 2 introduces the eponymous War Machines of the title – and sadly, they are not as fantastically realised as they could perhaps have been. Clunky and ungainly, they are not quite the perfect creations WOTAN seems to think they are. The location scenes, though, where nameless brainwashed men – including Mike Reid – are building up the machines are wonderfully filmed, taken from multiple angles and the depth of field is lovely. Whilst the machines are made in exceptionally good time, considering the lack of technological advances at the time, I still feel they could perhaps have been a little better designed, made more streamlined. At times, it seems that the only thing that they can damage is boxes and crates, and that's by knocking them over whilst trying to turn around.

Episode 2 also features the final scenes played by Jackie Lane, and it seems a shame, and rather undignified – her final moments are sat, slouched in a chair, with Hartnell hypnotising her before sending her off to the countryside to recover. Whilst she has never been a favourite companion, it seems a little unfair that she is so swiftly swept aside in favour of Ben and Polly; in her final serial, we would expect her to take some part in the action, and at least have had a proper farewell scene. Instead, she gives a great deal of WOTAN's plot away when the phone rings. Hartnell's phone call is a wonderful moment, though, and his gurning in agony is marvellous. The "special properties" of his ring, mentioned in The Daleks' Master Plan, are put to use to break Dodo's treatment, before she is swiftly sent packing.

The scenes with the War Machines at the episode's end are strange to watch – whilst the testing of the weapon are horrific, using it on a willing volunteer from the manufacturing line, albeit missing him by miles despite his respectable death scene, the scenes in which they text the manoeuvrability of it are bizarre, cutting as they do between film and video, and as such using two different props, with two different numbers – one second we are watching WM9 destroy some crates, then suddenly we're faced with WM3 ploughing through some boxes, hammer flailing.

Ben's bravery is the driving force of episode 3 – he willingly walks into danger, hoping to aid the Doctor, and his noble self-sacrifice is terrific. Likewise, the scenes between Polly and he are great to watch, and the dynamic is lovely; despite her brainwashing, she is able to fight her conditioning to save Ben's life, demanding that he be spared to join the workforce and then allowing him to escape. My only issue with this is that Polly is able to fight the hypnotism. When Krimpton was brainwashed in episode 1, he had a marvellous speech as he grabbed either side of his head, espousing the virtues of humans – "There's nothing more important than human life. Machines cannot govern man!" – before succumbing to the warbling of the machine. He fought it, yet still lost. Polly, however, shows no sign of trying to fight it, yet is still able to override her prime directive from WOTAN.

What is magnificent about episode 3, though, is the pre-emptive appearance of the Army, foreshadowing the UNIT family in advance. The scenes are beautifully shot, utilising clever sleight-of-hand to create an epic feel, using multiple shots of the same truck, and double casting the cast as soldiers. That said, I am so thankful that this episode exists in its entirety – the entire sequence feels like it goes on forever, and if this were missing from the archive, god knows how this serial would fare – for about ten minutes, all that we can hear are whooshes and booms. It does, however, all lead up to that magnificent moment, and that infamous cliffhanger, where Hartnell stands, alone, in the face of adversity, and with a War Machine powering down on him.

Episode 4 is fabulous, though – the use of a real newsreader, Kenneth Kendall, delivering the news that all of London should stay indoors, safe, as well as the voiceover of radio presenter Dwight Whylie (the first ever speaking part for a black person in Doctor Who) add a sense of gravitas to proceedings, reminiscent of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast.

There are one or two strange moments, but they're easy to ignore just because this is so much fun – Quite why Brett is still chiming out orders, for instance, when WOTAN's machines are now built and it is moments away from completion of its mission. How on earth a War Machine managed to get up to the top floor of the Post Office Tower is another such mystery. But it doesn't really matter. The function of episode 4 is to cement the presence of the new companions, have the Doctor save the day, and for the group to move off – and it does so wonderfully. Michael Craze is magnificent in his scenes with Hartnell – the way in which he accidentally insults Hartnell for being an old geezer – "a bit past that sort of lark" – is delivered with a wonderfully dry wit, and the Doctor's reaction is perfect. Interestingly, the production team managed to get the most out of Craze, also having him provide the voiceover providing the public service announcement telling the public repeatedly to keep off the streets.

But of course, the Doctor does save the day – after capturing a War Machine, he reprogrammes it, and it somehow scales the many floors of the Tower to attack WOTAN. With the dreadful creation destroyed, all of the pre-programming and hypnotism is broken, and Brett and Polly are back to normal – although the unfortunate Krimpton, who put up such resistance, is killed in the last few moments. All over the country, the War Machines cease functioning, waiting for a command that will never come. But as I mentioned earlier, and it is still something which grates on me, there is the lack of farewell to Dodo. True, she was mildly frustrating in almost every story, fluctuating wildly depending on who was writing for her, and Jackie Lane was hardly the most versatile or polished actress the show has seen. But for the conditioning to have been broken, and all 'slaves' to have returned to their original mental state, we could at least have expected her to return in person to say goodbye to the Doctor. After she'd thrust herself upon him in The Massacre, she has been through a lot with the old man in his box, and passing on her best wishes via Polly – "She says she's feeling much better and she'd like to stay here in London, and she sends you her love" – seems a little strange. Still, at least she had the good sense to leave her key with Ben and Polly, and as they race back to the TARDIS and jump in, moments before dematerialisation, my heart skips a beat...

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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