“The War Machines” is a very atypical Hartnell story, to say the least. With no companions except Dodo, and with the first Doctor in a contemporary setting, this really does feel like something new, concluding the story variety of season three nicely. After three years on the air, Doctor Who is still innovating, still taking new directions with its story scenarios.
The Doctor and Dodo land in London in 1966, not long after the General Post Office tower has been completed. The Doctor ‘scents’ something evil from the tower, and goes to investigate, with the bemused Dodo tagging along. It’s interesting that he mentions the Daleks, when of course we later learn in “Evil of the Daleks” that they are active on Earth on this very day. In any case the narrative doesn’t address the question of how the Doctor is allowed into a secure area that houses the world’s most advanced computer, but he is and he examines the machine, named WOTAN, with great interest. Incidentally, in a nice bit of predictive science fiction (or a writer familiar with research going on at the time), three years or so before the precursor to the internet was first created the story talks about linking up computers all over the world with WOTAN as the central hub. We’re introduced to Professor Brett, who built the computer, and his secretary Polly, who forms a near-instant friendship with Dodo. This leads Polly to take Dodo to “the hottest nightspot in town”, where they meet Ben Jackson, a local sailor with a shore posting. While Dodo parties, the Doctor investigates WOTAN, sure that there’s some problem with the machine. And of course, the Doctor is right.
I’ve never been too impressed with WOTAN’s plan. For such a supposedly brilliant computer, it seems to bank a lot on the success of its war machines, mobile robotic tank-like creations that move slowly and are prone to programming error. The large-scale threat these things supposedly represent is laughable. But on a smaller scale, the machines and the gang of brainwashed fanatics who are building them pose a threat to lives and property in portions of London, particularly once it’s revealed that the machine is able to force a malfunction in the army’s weapons so that guns will not fire and grenades will not explode. Put in modern terms, WOTAN’s army is essentially a group of domestic terrorists, so while they won’t be conquering the world, they do pose some danger to the locals.
So the megalomanical machine is convinced that he has to take over RIGHT NOW (or as Brett puts it, in the next few days), or else the planet’s progress will be at a standstill. In the course of an evening, WOTAN calls and brainwashes hundreds of men. We only see a few dozen constructing one machine, but dialogue indicates that 12 machines are being constructed all over London. And it has to have been planning this for some time to have all the components ready for delivery, in boxes marked with a W logo no less. Not too shabby. But it does pose the question: why not just hypnotize heads of state and take over the world that way? Why all the attempted subterfuge with the machines? Why don’t the hypnotized men lock the warehouse door to prevent being discovered by passing tramps and curious sailors? WOTAN isn’t a very competent villain. But it’s just clever enough to be dangerous.
Ben alerts the Doctor, and steps are taken to investigate the threat. The war machine and the hypnotized followers rout the army unit sent to investigate, but the Doctor figures out that the machine was put into operation too soon, and once the attack on it stops, it grinds to a halt. A second machine goes rogue, and the Doctor is able to capture it intact with the army’s help. He reprograms it to go and attack WOTAN, ending the threat rather easily. How does the massive machine get up the tower? Freight elevator of course. Professor Brett survives, but I’ve always felt sorry for Crimpton, the poor brainwashed electronics expert who buys it.
Poor Dodo gets a horrible last story. She’s hypnotized by WOTAN early on, and after being de-hypnotized by the Doctor, is sent into the country to recover. That’s the last we see of her. Polly delivers a message from her at the end of the story indicating that she wants to stay in London, and the Doctor reacts indignantly. As should the audience at this pitiful excuse for a companion’s departure. Dodo isn’t the most popular of companions, but she’s not that bad. And she’s really fun in “The Gunfighters”.
Ben and Polly, on the other hand, get a pretty good introductory story, and both are well-characterized. Polly is bright, cheerful and friendly, and good with people. Ben has a sarcastic sense of humor, but is someone who quickly forms friendships and shows loyalty to his friends. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s a crying shame that so many of the episodes with these two are missing.
I’ve seen this story in three different forms now, each with an increased level of quality. The first was the syndicated version back in the mid-80s, not long after the story had been recovered from overseas, and the quality was iffy with plenty of cuts. I then bought the story on VHS in the late 90s, with the added Australian censor footage and the Blue Peter clip of the man in the phone booth who reports the war machine. And finally the recently released DVD of the story, with cleaned up picture and sound, and all gaps filled in with the soundtrack and patches from other parts of the story if no visual exists. The deleted scenes didn’t detract greatly from the story (indeed, the trimming of the warehouse fight might be considered an improvement), but it’s still nice to have them back, making “The War Machines” as complete as it’s ever likely to be at this point.
Is the story a success? If WOTAN is seen as the incompetent villain that it is, and his machines are viewed as the small-scale threat to local lives and property, sure. If the viewer tries to take WOTAN’s world conquest plans seriously, the story falls apart, because it’s obvious that the plan the computer hatches is absurd. Despite that, “The War Machines” is a fun story, and makes for a memorable end to the third season. I enjoy the characters and the location filming, and Ben and Polly are excellent new companions for the first Doctor.