Monday, May 24, 2010

Classic Doctor Who Reviews: "The War Machines"

Doctor Who Starts to Grow Up

The Plot: The First Doctor and companion Dorthea "Dodo" Chaplet land in (then) present day London having left another traveling companion, Steven Taylor, behind on an alien planet to broker peace between two disparate societies. The Doctor notices that construction has completed on London's latest landmark -- the Post Office Tower -- and also notices that he detects a very palpable air of menace coming from the Tower... so of course he decides to investigate. Inside the Tower he finds the government is putting the final touches on the most powerful, smartest computer to date... WOTAN - Will Operating Thought Analogue. Soon WOTAN will be tied to all the other computers in the world in a massive web of shared knowledge. Unfortunately, the computer programmers have done more than they realized. WOTAN is not only smart it has become sentient and it has decided that the best way forward for humanity is for it to control the world.

WOTAN soon hypnotizes the scientists who created it and a number of other people including the Doctor's companion, Dodo. With this enslaved force WOTAN orders the humans to begin building war machines -- all terrain vehicles it can control and use to conquer the city of London and then the rest of the world. WOTAN desires one more component though... the mind of the Doctor and it sets Dodo to lead the Doctor into a trap.

When that fails it falls to the Doctor's new aqauintances, sailor Ben Jackson and secretatry Polly Wright, to help him put a stop to the war machines as well as WOTAN.

My Take: It's the swinging sixties mate! At the top I titled this review "Doctor Who Grows Up" and in a sense it does mark the series taking it's first tentative steps towards a more mature outlook.

This was the first story to be so obviously set in current times and take advantage of the trappings. Certainly the first episode "An Unearthly Child" had been set in 1963 but it was never overtly ABOUT 1963. The characters really could have almost been picked up from any point in time. Likewise, although it is not stated, the episode "Planet of the Giants" was set on roughly contemporary Earth but, again, the time period wasn't really that relevant to the story. "The War Machines" set in 1966 London takes advantage of the fact by giving viewers a (admittedly naive) view of urban youth culture. Even with this rather idealized portrayal it is still more than what the series had shown before.
When it comes to the new companions, Polly is much more a modern girl and immediately comes off as much less naive, older, and more practical than previous female companions. She is a young woman of independent means, having a career and, presumably, her own place. Likewise, Ben Jackson is a departure. The first companion with a lower class background. With his Cockney accent and the fact that he is just a plain enlisted sailor (no officer here) he is virtually a walking blue collar.
Yes, there is some cringe-worthy attempts by the writers at crafting slang of the times and the Inferno nightclub where Polly takes Dodo is a bit... well, pathetic... considering the music seems to be provided by a record player. I suppose the BBC didn't want to spring for a band or even extras trying to look like a band. Overall, however, there is a very different aura to the whole story.
It is also interesting to note that the Doctor seems very much in his element here. He somehow wrangles a private tour of the WOTAN facility and he seems to be quite chummy with a number of people in power all without any explanation. I suppose we are meant to assume that he manages it with consumate diplomacy, name dropping, and/or display of his obvious superior knowledge.
The story itself also represents a kind of "sign of the times" in that, as the 1960's advanced and more things became automated there was an increase in these types of stories... the idea that one day machines might replace man. Or where the line between man and machine might blur. We saw this theme pop up again in the 1980's with movies like War Games, Short Circuit, and Electric Dreams. Here we have a computer that somehow (never really explained how) manages to take control of people's minds. While it is a far-fetched idea, the scene of Dr. Brett struggling to hold onto his humanity against WOTAN's control and eventually losing is chilling. Likewise, when the WOTAN controlled workers are urged by their fellow human to "be more like the machine" and be tireless. We see the consequences of this as one worker drops from exhaustion and is simply pushed out of the way as the others are told that those who "break down" will be eliminated. It is the heartless, cruelty of a machine logic. Later, however, we are given some hope as we see Polly allow Ben to escape from the clutches of WOTAN (although why they didn't just call up the computer and let it put the whammy on him instead of leaving him to run around loose is a plot hole) and have her humanity start to surface when confronted about the "betrayal" to the machine.
But this one really is the Doctor's story through and through. He swans through the whole thing in his black cape, giving orders as if expecting to be obeyed and generally being the smartest guy in the room. He is at some of his most authoritative and actor William Hartnell takes to every bit of it. There are a couple of scenes where he does chew the scenery like a colony of termites but this is a rare showing for Hartnell. Despite the many opportunities he had for going over the top throughout the years he rarely did it so he can be forgiven here. Also, to my eyes he seemed a bit more frail here than he had in previous stories. This may just be my perception but it was true that this was the last story of the 1965-1966 season and Hartnell would only do two stories (four parts each) in the 1966-1967 season before leaving Doctor Who. Despite that seeming frailty one has to admit that Hartnell simply owns the scene where one of WOTAN's robotic, titular War Machines advances on the military and they retreat while the Doctor slowly strides forward and raises his chin in defiance. It kicks ass.
The plot holes and square attempt to be hip on the part of the writers aside, there are a few other problems with the story. One of the most annoying is the fact that WOTAN refers to the Doctor as "Doctor Who" throughout the story. "Doctor Who is required" it says. Although the program was called Doctor Who and although Hartnell was always billed in the credits as "Doctor Who" it had never been a part of the program to actually CALL him "Doctor Who". The fact that WOTAN does it just feels and sounds wrong every time it comes up.
The other problem is with Dodo. Dorthea Chaplet was a bit doomed from the start. I don't think the writers could have thought through her nickname before they hung it on her otherwise they might have picked something else. It's lent itself too well over the years to snarky comments about the character's intelligence. Although, admittedly, she also, sadly, fell hard into the 'traditional female companion' mold so she never managed to come off as all that intelligent which added to the validity of the snark.
Originally, Dodo came from what was then the present day -- 1965 -- and was meant to be a bit lower class and have a cockney accent. If you watch her first story, "The Ark" there are some scenes where you can still hear traces of it; they actually had started filming with the cockney background for the character before the BBC cracked down and declared that there would be no 'lower class' characters in Doctor Who. This seems funny since, only about a year or so later, they would add Ben Jackson who would be allowed to have a lower class background. It also smacks of a double standard in that a male character would be allowed to be cockney but not a female one.... but I digress.
At the time there were certain standard roles for the companion characters -- the female companion was to be the "heart" of the TARDIS. She would be young, sweet, and would be very empathic. She would make decisions based on her "heart" and she would often feel compassion and sympathy. The male companion would be harder, he would be the "tough guy", the protector, the action hero and usually was supposed to be more cynical. As such, Dodo came off in most of the scripts as a rather fluffy, silly girl who was too kind hearted for her own good. In point of fact, so kind hearted as to be annoying.
I should say that I'm not much of a fan of the character of Dodo but even I have to say that the character, and actress Jackie Lane, got more than a raw deal out of "The War Machines". The BBC, deciding that the character of Dodo wasn't "working out", opted to write her out with this story. Whereas other companions got their moments to say goodbye or got their dramatic exits, Dodo is deprogrammed by the Doctor (in the first example of the Doctor's talent with hypnosis), given a post-hypnotic suggestion to sleep, shuttled off to the country to "rest" after her ordeal, and never seen from again. The Doctor learns that Dodo will not be rejoining him when Polly comes to deliver the news that Dodo has decided to remain behind in her own time period. It is probably one of, if not the worst, send-offs for a companion character in all of Doctor Who history.
With Dodo gone we now get the two new TARDIS companions -- the mod set Ben and Polly who run onto the TARDIS when Polly impetutously decides they need to personally return the key the Doctor dropped. And with that, the series takes at least one tiny step forward in introducing some new kinds of characters and having had an adventure in a different type of setting.
Despite the flaws, "The War Machines" is one of my favorite stories. The plot of "machine vs. man" is still a fun one to see explored in it's historical context and there are aspects of WOTAN which sound remarkably like the modern World Wide Web -- making the writers more forward thinking than they could have known. The Doctor gets a showcase for his more authoritative side and gets a truly "Crowing Moment of Bad Ass" (thank you TV Tropes) here and that is always good. And finally, despite the questionableness of the BBC writer's ability to write "hip" Ben and Polly are truly personable, charming characters and actors Anneke Wills and Michael Craze do an excellent job with the material.
As a little bit of trivia... Anneke Wills was, at the time, married to Michael Gough who most will know from his portrayal of Alfred Pennyworth, Batman's butler, in the Tim Burton Batman movies. Gough had played a Doctor Who villain called the Celestial Toymaker in the previous season and had a ball on the set. After hearing how much fun it had been, Anneke was encouraged to audition for the role of Polly.

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