Doctor Who: The War Machines Review

The War Machines is a lot of things, it’s the last entirely complete Hartnell story in the archive, it’s Dodo’s last story, it’s Ben and Polly’s first story and their only story that’s not either missing entirely or filled in with animation and it’s an extremely rare contemporary First Doctor story. Is it also a good story though? That’s the main question, so let’s find out!

Synopsis:

The TARDIS lands in London, near the Post Office Tower, where the Doctor and Dodo meet Professor Brett, the creator of WOTAN. In four days’ time WOTAN will be linked to other major computers to take them over, including those of the White House, Cape Kennedy and the Royal Navy. Sadly for Brett he’s not as in control of the A.I. as he thinks he is…

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

The Good:

Ben and Polly meet for the first time in a swinging 60s bar! … a.k.a. “a bar” given it was contemporary at the time…

It’s certainly an odd sight, seeing William Hartnell’s Doctor walking around “modern day” London. Even weirder is that it’s London in the mid-60s, complete with “groovy” club scene for the kids at home, something I associate with people looking back at the era, so it’s a good laugh. Beyond the setting though and we have basic, but fun “rogue A.I.” story. Professor Brett (John Harvey) has created WOTAN (pronounced “Votan” despite no one involved being German…) an impressive “thinking computer” that is so successful it somehow has been given the go ahead to connect itself to all major computers around the world from its base in the London Post Office Tower, an exciting new landmark of the time. WOTAN though soon reveals that not only has it achieved sentience but has hypnotic powers, soon controlling the minds of his two lead creators in Professors Brett and Krimpton (John Carter) as well as Major Green (Alan Curtis).

Meanwhile The Doctor and Dodo arrive and soon visit WOTAN, the latter of the two immediately being put under its control. She goes off to a club with Brett’s Secretary, the debuting Polly (Anneke Wills) and the two meet a sad sailor named Ben (Michael Craze) there, who they cheer up. The next day, as WOTAN begins construction on its War Machines Dodo returns to The Doctor, who at this point is hanging out (so to speak) with local government higher up Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn) and soon arranges WOTAN to hypnotise The Doctor. He resists and therefore finds out about Dodo’s hypnotism, using his skills to break the spell over her but she “won’t wake for 48 hours” (more on that later) so The Doctor begins to rely on Dodo’s new friends in Polly and Ben for help. Polly is also brought under WOTAN’s control and begins helping out in a War Machine factory which Ben soon finds out, only barely escaping the warehouse with his life to give The Doctor the information.

“These things? Replace the Daleks?! Hmmph. I think not.”

Sir Charles leads an assault on the warehouse and a single War Machine nearly wipes out the whole troop due to its weapon disabling abilities, but The Doctor manages to stop it. After hearing about 12 more machines (or is it 11 more for a total of 12… I can’t remember…) The Doctor arranges to capture a fully working War Machine and then reprograms it to head back to WOTAN and destroy it (the War Machine being immune to the hypnosis). Ben rushes to the Tower to save Polly before the whole room explodes and WOTAN is finished. The Doctor leaves London but before he does Ben and Polly sneak on board the TARDIS…

It’s a fun four parter, and Polly and Ben’s introductions are well handled.

The Bad:

“I’m sorry Dodo, you’ve been mind controlled, our time together is at an end.” “Oh. Okay then.”

The worst thing about the story is without a doubt how they handled Dodo’s exit. Remember in my brief rundown I said how Dodo’s breaking of the mind control would take “48 hours of sleep” to heal form? Well, that WAS her exit, sleeping on a chair and hearing that a relative of Sir Charles would look after her, then at the end of the story Polly hands The Doctor a note from Dodo which effectively reads “thanks for everything but I’m staying”. I know Dodo wasn’t exactly a long lasting or memorable companion, but she definitely deserved more than THAT.

The only other thing that still gets me about The War Machines is… The War Machines. Now, having a large prop driving around the place is impressive for the time, but given the story they’re just not very intimidating, let alone believable enough as a force that could take over London. Their “guns” just fire smoke, they have very, VERY slow moving arms that swing down with some force if you happen to be directly under them and one of the tests of these killer machines involved it very slowly driving into a stack of empty boxes and barely knocking them over. Mid-60s BBC TV budget is a great and valid excuse and everything, but even considering that it was a bit… too naff for me. At least it was funny, I had a huge smile on my face as the “terrible War Machines” were flailing about but it has to be made clear that was the opposite reaction they were going for…

Oh and WOTAN constantly calls The Doctor “Doctor Who”, which is just an error due to the early period of the show, so while it stands out as “wrong” nowadays I can forgive it quite easily.

The Continuity:

Soldiers firing guns in current-day British streets?! What do they think this is, the Third Doctor era?!

Not a lot, really. Ben and Polly are eventually dropped off on the same day they left in Second Doctor TV story “The Faceless Ones” (in equally naff fashion to Dodo, really…), and Ben later proposes to Polly at the Post Office Tower as seen in the Ninth Doctor comic “The Love Invasion”.

Although WOTAN and its War Machines never directly return (well, beyond a Torchwood audio called “The Law Machines”, apparently…) the parts that made it are used to create a new terror to humanity in the Third Doctor Companion Chronicle “The Last Post”.

Overall Thoughts:

“I. Wear. Bow-ties. Now. Bow-ties. Are. Cool.” “… What?”

The War Machines is a fun story, with The Doctor working alongside the military to take down a threat to modern day London feeling very Third Doctor-y. It has a few issues, some bad and some funny, but overall it’s a good story and a fun introduction to two new companions. Well worth a watch, especially as it actually wholly exists, which is a rare thing for this period of the show…

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