The War Machines
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
hroughout most of the William Hartnell era of “Doctor Who,” stories basically fell into one of two categories: tales set far in the future or adventures set way in the past. But then “The War Machines” came along and changed everything by presenting a story set in London of the present day. Given that so much of the series today is reliant on such stories, it’s almost hard to believe there was a time when it wasn’t the norm, and yet for the first three seasons, the here and now wasn’t even a factor in the program.
Unfortunately, Hartnell’s Doctor was so accustomed to time travel, that by the time he ends up dealing with everyday, mundane people he ironically feels out of place and time. The one place his Doctor simply didn’t work well was in the here and now, and yet, as the story struggles against its previous templates to show, “Doctor Who” needed to become relevant in order to survive. Watch “The War Machines” and picture Patrick Troughton playing the Doctor and you’ve got a passable story. But Troughton’s not there – Hartnell is, and his Doctor continually feels at odds with the material. It’s a story with one foot in the past, and one in the future, and the two feet are running so far from each other that the story has a tough time trying to keep up.
None of this changes the fact that “The War Machines” is a fascinating slice of “Who” for those interested in the history of the program. The Doctor and his companion Dodo (Jackie Lane) arrive in 1966 London, and he senses a strange something or other coming from the recently opened Post Office Tower (which these days is known as the BT Tower). They go to the tower and meet Professor Brett (John Harvey), who has invented a massive computer called WOTAN, which knows everything and is capable of thinking for itself. As you can imagine, such a machine is destined to become an evil entity, and it begins building these clunky War Machines, which will help it to take over London and soon the world. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Dodo meet secretary Polly (Anneke Wills) and seaman Ben (Michael Craze), both of whom will eventually be instrumental in defeating the computer, and also end up becoming the Doctor’s new companions.
Much of the story is obtuse, and WOTAN and the War Machines are laughably ineffective by today’s standards. Sometimes you can forgive dated material and place it in the context of the time it was made, but this is a case where that’s really difficult to do. But at the same time there’s some wonderful stuff here that might be considered must see “Who,” such as the scenes on the swinging nightclub called The Inferno, and the couple of scenes where WOTAN actually refers to the Doctor as Doctor Who – the only time in the series this has ever happened. The machine bellows, “Doctor Who is required!” Heh. It’s also the only full story that exists featuring Ben and Polly, which in and of itself is bound to be of interest, as well as one of the worst companion exits ever from Dodo, who doesn’t even get to say goodbye to the Doctor.
On top of everything else, the Restoration Team has gone to great lengths to restore “The War Machines” so that it’s as close as possible to its original form, which according to one of the special features was no mean feat. “The War Machines” is not required, but it is certainly recommended to anyone wanting to see the bigger “Who” picture, warts and all, as it’s an important stepping stone in the show’s long history.
Special Features: An audio commentary with Anneke Wills and director Michael Ferguson is far more energetic than you might expect, and both participants have quite a bit to say. Further, they claim to have not even seen each other since the story was shot in 1966! “Now and Then” is a featurette on the locations used in the story. There’s also a selection of clips from “Blue Peter,” a non-“Who” related featurette called “One Foot in the Past” that talks about the history of Post Office Tower, and finally, “WOTAN Assembly,” which describes all the work that went into preparing the story for DVD. A photo gallery, production notes, optional Radio Times listings, and an Easter Egg round out the extras.