And they say Sixties stories are slow. Not The War Machines, at least not Episode (pause for drum roll…..cymbal clash!) 1. It’s more like one of those disorienting sci-fi films where the hero is trapped in some virtual world and the only clue to its unreality is the sudden jump cuts between locations with barely time to think. Think Forest of the Dead, but made in 1966.
For instance, no sooner has our doddery old Doctor (William Hartnell, at his most erratic) and diminutive young Dodo (Jackie Lane, about to be dumped unceremoniously from the show in Episode 2) arrived in London, than the Doctor decides he must investigate the Post Office Tower, because, of all things, he gets a prickling sensation on his hand.
Suddenly, he’s there, being welcomed into the very heart of operations by Professor Brett. “Ah, Doctor!,” declares Brett, on first sight of this odd old man and his teenage sidekick. “I understand from Major Green you’re a specialist in computer development.” And that kids, is apparently all you need do to gain access to the room that holds the world’s most powerful computer. Just find credulous old Major Green. Security’s not his strong point. Spin him some old bollocks about being an expert. Maybe slip him a fiver.
The computer in question is WOTAN, so powerful that it can derive the square root of a five digit number and knows what TARDIS stands for (it clearly as access to Wikipedia). Dodo, no doubt feeling a bit intimidated, starts to get a bit woozy. Her forthcoming replacement, Polly (Anneke Wills, all legs), finds her a seat and gets her a drink. As she recovers, Dodo says the most unlikely thing:
DODO: I’m so out of touch. What I’d really like is to go to the hottest night spot in town.
POLLY: Oh that’s easy, the Inferno.
Jump cut! And we’re there. Now, I’m too young to have ever visited a hip, basement-style club in 1960s London. For all I know, they were exactly like this. Groovy tunes played on a turntable, just enough room to dance at a respectable distance from members of the opposite sex and telephones on the bar where you can make and receive calls. But here’s the thing about the Inferno: it’s open in the middle of the day. Polly and Dodo seem to skive off their during Polly’s lunch hour and the joint is already jumping. Come down during afternoon tea for a sneaky gin & tonic and a quick flirt with a sailor! I suppose it makes sense in a decadent, Mad Men kind of way.
It’s certainly still daylight outside when the Doctor catches a taxi to the Royal Scientific Club to catch a press conference about WOTAN. There Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn) talks about C-day, when WOTAN will be linked to all the world’s other major computers, forming an internet of about half a dozen. He illustrates this world wide web with a big cardboard poster, with big black texta lines. Take that, PowerPoint!
Anyway, Sir Charles soon falls prey to the Doctor’s charms. The two exchange about three sentences at the press conference, but that’s more than enough for the wily old Doctor to inveigle his way into Sir Charles’ life. The next thing we hear Sir Charles and his family have invited the Doctor and Dodo around to visit. Is this normal behaviour? Does Sir Charles often pick up strays at pressers and invite them home for a sleepover? What did the Doctor say to him between those few introductory sentences and collecting Dodo from the hottest dayspot in town which so endeared him to them? It would be prurient of me to suggest anything untoward is going on, but I’ll just quietly mention that we never meet Mrs Sir Charles and the Doctor takes to putting his arm around Sir Charles’ shoulder in a very familiar fashion in Episode 4.
Meanwhile, WOTAN is up to no good. It’s been quietly running a subroutine plotting plans for world domination. Its opinion is that mankind has reached the zenith of its advancement and will progress no further, which is pretty rich coming from a machine which is still using a dot matrix printer. But it’s hard to take over the world when you’re an inanimate object the size of a newsdesk, so it hypnotises Dodo, Green and Professors Brett and Krimpton to be its hands, legs and everything else.
Let’s pity, for a moment, the actors playing Brett and Krimpton (John Harvey and John Cater respectively). Once hypnotised they have nothing to do but stare rigidly into the middle distance and spout expositional dialogue at each other.
And let’s marvel, for a moment, at Doctor Who’s long tradition of the casual use of the title “Professor”. Exactly which professorial chairs and which universities do Krimpton and Brett hold? How many years of work and research did they need to achieve the heights of academia. Answer: who cares? Everyone in a lab coat’s a bloody professor in Doctor Who.
And let’s linger, for a moment, on the idea that a computer could hypnotise anyone. Some ideas about technology in The War Machines are quaintly outdated; WOTAN for example takes up an entire room, a visual expression of the belief that a big computer is a powerful computer. We can put that down to The War Machines being a product of its time.
But other ideas are pure superstition – like the notion that a computer might develop sentience and turn bad was a kind of phobia that lingered in popular culture well into the 1980s. Could you sell a mad computer story today, I wonder? Surely not. Let alone a story about one which could exert control people’s minds. And yet… New Who has dabbled with technophobia. Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel made a threat of bluetooth headsets. And more recently, The Bells of St. John made the wi-fi the method of attack. So it’s obviously still good fodder, even if it runs the risk of eventually making a story seem as dated as The War Machines.
But back to WOTAN’s plan. Remember that it has just procured itself some human slaves. It’s only now it can start building its War Machines (and what a terrifying, slimline design it chose. Like a trundling vending machine). And this is where The War Machines slows down as we get two episodes of building the machines. First you see, you hire some workers, then you find a warehouse (make sure it’s conveniently located near the hottest nightanddayspot in town). Then you have to build the things, test them and kill a tramp before you can unleash them on an unsuspecting public. Has there ever been another Doctor Who story which basic structure is “Ah ha! I’m the villain! Now can you amuse yourselves for a couple of episodes while I build some monsters? Won’t be long.”
It all works out in the end. The Doctor, in a deeply unthrilling sequence, traps a War Machine is a kind of electric pen after it wobbles slowly into it. Then, in what is eventually established as one of the show’s most reliable tropes (which started, as we did, back in The Dalek Invasion of Earth), the Doctor turns the villain’s foot soldiers against it. Specifically, he reprograms the War Machine to attack WOTAN. He must have also programmed it to fit through the doors of the Post Office tower and squeeze itself into a lift. It’s all a bit odd really, because of all the Doctors, Hartnell seems the least computer savvy of the lot. But he stabs randomly at a few buttons on the side of the vending machine and that seems to do the trick.
It’s been a busy story. Companions have come and gone. A new modern tone is established. The army have become allies. The Doctor seems to be wearing a bit thin. It’s all been a bit clumsy and disjointed, but it smells of the show’s future. How ironic then, that this is a story about our deeply held unease with the future itself.
Links to Terror of the Autons: Both introduce new companions. And The War Machines as a proto-UNIT story is in some ways an ancestor to Pertwee’s earthbound stories.
NEXT TIME: I think one of us is being extremely stupid… We’ll next discover The Armageddon Factor