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The War Machines

Reviewed by Bevan Lewis

"I Dig Your Fab Gear"

In mid-April of 1966 Time magazine carried a cover story entitled 'Swinging London'. It proclaimed that "in this century, every decade has its city... and for the Sixties that city is London". The times were a'changin' led by a dynamic youth culture. The Beatles dominated the music charts with Day Tripper, Paperback Writer and Eleanor Rigby, along with other bands such as The Who, The Kinks and The Small Faces. Carnaby Street was a mecca for the 'new look', epitomised by models such as Twiggy, and films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf challenged preconceived notions of decency. Technology was flying ahead - six rockets entered outer space in 1966 and computer development was also rocketing ahead.

It was always a question of when rather than if Doctor Who would reflect these changes directly in a story. Verity Lambert's departure had created the opportunity to take the series in new directions. New script editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd were more successful than their immediate predecessors (Donald Tosh and John Wiles respectively) in making changes to the direction of the series, despite William Hartnell's hostility. The War Machines was the first story to be developed from scratch by the new team, and it brings a clear and decisive change towards a gutsier and scientifically based style.

One of the pleasures of viewing The War Machines is that the preconceptions which normally haunt our viewing of any story are virtually non-existent. Most of the comments that I have read about the story tends to focus on its importance in terms of the overall development of the series. The story often seems to be seen as a very crude prototype for the UNIT era stories, a story whose sole merit lies in its historical importance. The lack of comment is of course the result of the fact that the story has been virtually unseen in the last thirty years. The programme has not been seen on British terrestrial television since its original screening in 1966 and its sole New Zealand screenings were between June and September of 1969. Marcus Hearn's articles on the BBC's audience appreciation research offer some interesting contemporary perspective. Apparently a large number of participants labelled the story "preposterous" claiming that "it was all too clear that new ideas were running out; it was time the programme was rested". The production team were presumably not too disheartened by these comments - virtually every response in the history of the programme made the same point! Other respondents were more positive - "It made a pleasant change to see Doctor Who in contemporary London, apparently, and several remarked that he was 'right back on form'".

The fact that The War Machines represented a new era in the development of the programme was reflected both on-screen and off. The opening sequence of each episode saw the use of innovative 'computerised' lettering for story title and authorship credits, creating an immediate air of modernity. This was quickly reinforced in the first episode by a series of effective panning shots over the rooftops of London, and by the sequence where the Doctor is forced to hang an "Out of Order" sign on the TARDIS. Unlike earlier 'groundbreaking' stories such as the first Dalek story and The Web Planet, The War Machines was not granted a Radio Times cover. However the location filming provided the opportunity for quite extensive press photographic coverage of the new adversaries, supplemented before transmission by the appearance of a War Machine on Blue Peter, introduced by a suitable awed Christopher Trace.

It is certainly fortunate that this important story has been released on video at a time when BBC Worldwide is showing increased gusto in the packaging of Doctor Who merchandise. Investing in such an extensive restoration process (detailed in DWM Issue 253) at all was not strictly essential, however it has resulted in what are remarkably good quality visuals and sound, as well as the inclusion of much 'lost' material. The addition of the Blue Peter item and the BBC1 channel identifier really enhances what is a time capsule of mid-sixties London. For this reason I was rather disturbed to learn that the Australian and New Zealand versions of The War Machines on video excludes the Blue Peter material.

The story itself is based upon an idea contributed by Dr Kit Pedlar, better known for his later role in creating the Cybermen. This was his first involvement in the programme, and was in fact inspired by a 'brainstorming' session when he and Gerry Davis first met. The basic story revolves around the recently completed Post Office Tower. A computer called WOTAN (pronounced Vo-tan after the supreme god in Germanic mythology) develops the ability to think for itself, and decides that "Earth cannot progress any further with mankind running it". WOTAN uses hypnotic control over humans to make them build 'War Machines' at strategic locations throughout the world. The theme of out-of-control technology is of course a staple component of much sci-fi, and was particularly chilling at a time when large computers, scarcely understood by the general population, were being used more extensively. The dehumanisation of being recognised only as a number was bad enough before telefantasy series set about exploiting the public's fears. Less than a year before The War Machines was shown The Avengers had tackled the subject in The Cybernauts. In this case the manic technology was under the control of the evil scientist Dr Armstrong who dreamed of designing "a small complex computer... incapable of a wrong decision", eventually leading to government by automation. Although The Cybernauts and The War Machines had many elements in common - most notably the ability to knock over many stacks of cardboard boxes - Ian Stuart Black was writing for a younger audience. Thus The War Machines was even more fantastic - the computer thinks for itself and exerts hypnotic powers. In some respects this is a weakness in the story. WOTAN is certainly less than articulate - in fact it has trouble deciding whether it should give instructions via ESP, teleprinter or verbally. Characters such as Professors Brett and Krimpton, and Major Green, are intended to vocalise for WOTAN in scenes such as the one cut from the original transmission in Australasia where Professor Brett calmly states that "All human beings who break down will be eliminated." The real problem is that these characters are hypnotised automatons. A clinical and quite mad character such as Dr Armstrong in The Cybernauts is far more threatening. In this respect comparisons can be drawn with another Doctor Who story which deals with similar themes - The Green Death. Although this story also has a dastardly computer which can think for itself and exert mind control, it is helped on an almost equal basis be Stevens, who I believe is quite threatening and effective. Of course many fans possess harsh pre-conceptions of WOTAN - given a single line of dialogue it manages to commit a fundamental continuity error by referring to the Doctor as "Doctor Who". Even more cringe-worthy is the BBC's inclusion of the line above the blurb on the back of the jacket - does the BBC have no shame, or is this a covert attempt at legitimising "Doctor Who" as the Doctor's name? Fans have certainly had lots of fun explaining the line, including Jon Preddle's 'over the dishes' discourse in TSV 52.

Although the preoccupation with the threat of technology is important, it is really only subplot to what is an attempt to create an immediate and threatening story of attack. The target audience was, I suspect, far more interested in the gas-blasting machines attacking London than in the computer in the Post Office Tower. Unfortunately the realisation of the War Machines has not stood the test of time - they are rather unmanoeuvrable beasts. Although the ending of the story leaves the possibility of further threats (we do not see them actually being destroyed), behind the scenes there was little likelihood of their return. Having said that, the realisation of the battle sequences with soldiers at the warehouse where they are being constructed are very effective (moments here brought flash-forwards (!) to Robot). This can be credited to extremely good editing for the time, due to the fact that these sequences were recorded on film (at the time videotape editing was virtually non-existent). This would in fact have to be the most sophisticated piece of location filming completed up to this time. The fast-paced shots of the machine running through boxes, shooting out 'steam' and close-ups of the terrified soldiers as they realised that their weapons were ineffectual create one of the best realised battle sequences in sixties Doctor Who. The scenes were certainly a dramatic contrast to The Invasion a couple of years later where the climatic battle happened off-screen.

The contemporary London setting was clearly aimed at achieving direct viewer identification, and as a result of that fear. From including what were recognisably London landmarks to using genuine newsreaders, the story used techniques dating back to the Quatermass serials in the 1950s, and even the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. In this sense the story was a prototype for The Web of Fear and The Invasion later in the 1960s, and for the earlier Pertwee stories. The possibility of hypnosis from the telephone in your living room, or attack whilst using the local phone box provide an immediacy in the danger later achieved through devices such as Yeti in the Underground (Web of Fear), Cybermen at St. Pauls (The Invasion), shop mannequins coming to life (Spearhead From Space) and even telephone cords (Terror of the Autons). It was these devices pioneered in The War Machines which I believe created some of the most effective and memorable moments in the series, far more successfully than events in the rather rarefied settings often used up until this time.

Empathy was also created with the introduction of two new, recognisably contemporary characters, Ben and Polly, who find their own world under threat. It is fortunate that they were well developed characters (compared to companions like Dodo) in the early scenes of the story in the Inferno, through their use of vernacular. We find Ben suffering from depression, and his intervention to save Polly's honour from the attentions of a lecherous Cockney 'wide-boy' mean that within only minutes of their introduction these characters are able to credibly carry much of the action. Michael Craze and Anneke Wills' relatively solid performances help in this process, and indeed they sadly rather show up Jackie Lane. Although Lane was just 'finishing off' her contract with this story, and despite the fact that she had never been granted a particularly strong character, I would have to say that she seemed to impart more emotion and authenticity after rather than before she was brainwashed. I feel a degree of sympathy for her however, as she must have one of the least thrilling send-offs of a companion, being banished to the country half-way through the story.

Ben and Polly certainly needed to work well - sadly William Hartnell's deterioration in health is quite marked in this story, especially when viewed fairly soon after some of his early stories. Much of his dialogue is delivered with uncertainty, leading to obvious difficulty with cues, for William Mervyn (Sir Charles Summer) in particular. Although in terms of the overall plot the Doctor's presence is very important his physical screen time seems markedly reduced from early adventures. Related to this is one of the few faults with the plot itself. His involvement in the story simply doesn't ring true - he has to be involved through the rather dubious device of a 'strange feeling' about the Post Office tower, and seems to be immediately accepted by Professor Brett and later Sir Charles. The later Earth based adventures involving the second Doctor are far more effectively devised - in The Web of Fear he already knows Professor Travers, and by the time of The Invasion he knows Lethbridge-Stewart.

His attitude towards the establishment is right on mark however, establishing benchmarks for the second and early third Doctor eras. In particular an exchange in the fourth episode will ring true for many Pertwee fans. Sir Charles Summers, a bureaucrat with direct access to 'the Minister', proposes an attack on WOTAN itself in the tower. The Doctor responds; "That is very dangerous Sir Charles, and if I may say so your strong-arm methods have already got us into plenty of trouble".

Although there are both good and bad performances, the design of the story is consistently excellent. Although the warehouse is realised simply it is quite effective, as is WOTAN itself. Most impressive however was the interior of Sir Charles' house, which was of sufficient standard for any top-of-the-line adult drama of the time. The brief scene of the television announcement in the pub was also great - it would be interesting to know whether this set was 'borrowed' from elsewhere.

The director, Michael Ferguson, explained what the producers were aiming for - trying "to find a middle path between pure fantasy and a kind of realistic projection of future technology" The War Machines is wonderful as an effective prototype for a succession of stories which created greater tension through posing a direct threat that the audience could identify with. For viewers today it has an added bonus - it harkens back to the days (real or unreal) when the death of a tramp would appear on the front page of the London papers, and when an explanation of the concept of computer programming was seen as necessary on a television science fiction programme. The story can be seen as the beginning of a new era. The Doctor returns to contemporary London for the first time in three years for a story which combines gritty realism with characters which reflect the interests of an older audience. It is certainly not the best of the years of the First Doctor - Hartnell by this time clearly does not have the ability to convey the same wonderful sense of the alien and the mysterious that is present in his early stories. However it is a story which shows signs of a new sophistication in television production, one which the budget would never allow the series to exploit consistently.

The First Doctor Handbook by Howe, Stammers & Walker, Virgin 1994
Doctor Who: The Sixties by Howe, Stammers & Walker, Virgin 1992
Doctor Who Magazine Issues 229, 253, 254

This item appeared in TSV 54 (March 1998).

Index nodes: The War Machines