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The War Machines

By Graham Howard

When I recently told a club member I was thinking of writing an article on The War Machines he asked somewhat incredulously, 'Why?' There may be a few others right now wondering exactly the same thing. Essentially, the answer is that I believe this story to be very underrated. Maybe 'classic' is too strong a term, and viewed by today's standards it might even appear rather dated. Nevertheless, in terms of those qualities which in my view make a good Doctor Who story, I would claim that The War Machines stands out.

Perhaps surprisingly, The War Machines is the first Doctor Who story, and Hartnell's only story to have a contemporary Earth setting (not counting An Unearthly Child or Planet of Giants) and it is interesting to see how his Doctor reacts in more familiar, 'real' surroundings. Although Hartnell does seem slightly less at ease than Troughton or Pertwee were in this environment he - as one would expect - still maintains his distinct persona. The story is also the first to show an alien type threat to a 'present day' Earth. It is also the first story to use the idea whereby something ordinary and mundane from everyday life is altered into something which becomes a source of fear to the viewer (for example a telephone as the vehicle for establishing mind control, or even the Post Office Tower itself which housed WOTAN). Of course this story also featured the Doctor in allegiance with the armed forces, an idea that was popularly reused many times in subsequent stories, most notably with UNIT. To quote well known British fan Stephen James Walker: "During the UNIT years we all grew accustomed to the idea of alien menaces stalking our streets, but in 1966 this new concept was quite unnerving indeed... I will never forget the feeling of originality and freshness associated with seeing the Doctor in modern day surroundings for the first time..." Another break from previous stories occurs with the introduction of Ben and Polly, arguably more colourful characters than Steven and Dodo, and as Walker notes, characters the audience would more readily identify with.

Written by Ian Stuart Black, The War Machines is the first story to exploit the creative team of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. Although Black has claimed he alone deserved credit for the story, Kit Pedler was credited for the story idea, and the story bears the hallmarks, both in style and content, of many of the stories that follow. The fictional extrapolation of what might happen if computer technology progressed to the point where it was possible to create a malevolent artificial intelligence seems consistent with what is known of the Pedler/Davis story creative process. Other sources have also suggested that producer Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis wished to create a story that would 'bring the programme into the 1960s' and bring the 'science' back into Doctor Who (enter Kit Pedler). And consider the similarities between the War Machines and Pedler/Davis' most famous creation, the Cybermen: both are logic-driven machine 'creatures' with little or no trace of humanity, both see themselves as superior to the human race and therefore its logical successor. They both appear to see the destruction of humanity as vindication of this belief...

For the remainder of the article I will explore the differences between the novelisation and the televised episodes. I do not propose list them all since they are very numerous, but rather, I will note some of the more interesting ones. In his novelisation of the story Ian Stuart Black has sought to expand and embellish the story in a number of ways. For the most part the story has greatly benefited from these changes. Hopefully, examining these additions will give some insights into the plot for those not familiar with it, while perhaps also illustrating how a good novelisation can improve on the original televised story. Of course, some of the additions made by Black may have simply been reinstated from unused portions of his original script rather than new creative ideas resulting from his writing of the novelisation.

The first changes Black makes occur at the very beginning of the story. The televised version shows opening shots of London followed by the Doctor and Dodo emerging from the TARDIS. In the book these scenes are further expanded with the shots of London being witnessed through the TARDIS scanner. Although the additional material could not be said to be relevant to the plot, it does serve to better establish the present day London setting to the reader than had Black adhered strictly to the televised scenes. Of note, Black has added an interesting aside where the Doctor, in seeing Dodo's reaction to London ('home') on the scanner, guesses "that she has travelled with him for the last time".

The next change is significant. On the televised version the Doctor senses something alien about the Post Office Tower visible from where the TARDIS lands. Shortly after we see the Doctor and Dodo being shown the WOTAN computer. In the book, presumably in order to explain the apparent ease with which the Doctor and Dodo gain entry into the complex, which would conceivably have tight security precautions (the Doctor says in the book "you can't have any old person drop in here"), Black has devised a convoluted and somewhat doubtful explanation. The Doctor surmises that Ian Chesterton "a clever fellow... I imagine in today's world of technology" is a "name to be respected" and believes he may have assisted in the construction of the Tower. He goes further in claiming that "Ian would probably have trained today's scientists" and would have turned out to be a professor or a don, and makes the perplexing statement that Ian "made a big impact on science at the start of the decade". All of this seems a long way from what we know of Ian Chesterton's days as a secondary school teacher and I'm not aware of anything from the televised stories that would confirm such speculation. I wonder if Black is (mistakenly?) assuming that the story is set in the Seventies, which would give Ian a few more years to make this "big impact". In trying to solve a minor plot weakness, in my opinion Black has raised much more difficult questions and what is more, the Ian Chesterton link is tenuous to say the least. And strange that in this situation the Doctor never thinks to contact him even to say hello. Black takes his explanation yet further with the Doctor forging (!) a letter of introduction and with the Doctor being quoted in one of Ian's books. I concede that this addition does serve to establish the Doctors credentials better than what is shown on screen and it also gives Black the opportunity to stress the Doctor's intellectual brilliance/superiority, but nonetheless it still seems awkward and contrived.

On the topic of the Doctor's intellectual superiority, there are several other scenes in the book where Black has sought to highlight the Doctor's intelligence, which does make the Doctor seem more central to the plot (and better explains WOTAN's desire to add the Doctor to the Cause). As a result the character of the Doctor could be said to benefit from all this - but surely it wasn't necessary to introduce Ian Chesterton to achieve this outcome?!

One thing Black hasn't changed is where, in order to test WOTAN's capabilities, the Doctor asks it to work out the square root of 17422 - surely this is an absurdly simple calculation for such a powerful computer as WOTAN - especially one advanced enough to have voice control?

Black has added numerous pieces to better emphasize the cold, machine-like nature of WOTAN, notably in describing how the human mind is affected once controlled by WOTAN. For example: Major Green was "totally dedicated to his new master. There would be no qualifications; he was ready to die in its service." In another scene Brett coldly contemplates his imminent death, which he knows will occur when WOTAN has no further use for him. Pieces such as these help build the atmosphere of the story and further add to the impending threat to humanity.

WOTAN desires the Doctor's brain for "the Cause", and the WOTAN controlled Dodo is attempting to lure him into a trap so that two men nearby, also controlled by WOTAN, can overpower and capture him. The televised story shows two men in the shadows, one holding a bottle probably containing chloroform, whereas in the book this has been changed to a hypodermic needle. The reason is not obvious - perhaps a needle was considered more sinister?

Black has changed the references to "Doctor Who" uttered by WOTAN to "the Doctor", perhaps acknowledging the mistake in the televised episodes.

In describing the preparations for WOTAN's takeover, freed from budgetary constraints, Black has greatly expanded on the televised glimpses of this activity, better conveying the huge scale of the operation and further adding to the believability of the "vast, powerful, dedicated machine" of which WOTAN now is comprised. In later scenes Black indicates that the BBC, radio stations and "other centres of communication and transport" are taken over by WOTAN. In another scene, he indicates that the warehouse that has been identified by Ben as being a possible source of WOTAN activity has "hundreds" of people working on the War Machine, whereas on television it is only "about twenty". Of note, Ben had earlier thought it strange that such a "vast increase in scientific technology depended on primitive human labour" which is an interesting irony not brought out on screen.

Thanks to Ben, a warehouse where a War Machine is being created has been identified. There are supposedly twelve War Machines under simultaneous construction although only one is ever shown. The army moves in to neutralise the menace. In the book Major Green (head of security at the Post Office Tower housing WOTAN) becomes aware of the military presence via "instruments on the panel before him" and "allows" them initial entry. On television the soldiers' weapons appear to have jammed immediately whereas in the book this only happens after WOTAN/the War Machine has "learned" how to do this. This ability to learn is stressed in the book but only vaguely implied on screen.

To explain the inability of the tramp, and later Ben to escape from the warehouse where the first War Machine is being constructed Black indicates that the doors are all fitted with electric locks which can be centrally operated to prevent people escaping. However, this raises the question of why the doors were left unlocked so as to allow people to get in the first place!

The Doctor is staying with Sir Charles Summer, responsible for the implementation of Computer Day, the day all computer systems are to be linked to WOTAN. Black has noted that "it takes the Doctor's digestive system a day or two to adjust to the difference between planets and centuries" and that "passing through so many time zones made it difficult to pinpoint exactly what period of time one was in". Sir Charles enters and shows the Doctor two letters of resignation from scientists [taken over by WOTAN] in his faculty. In the book the Doctor notes that "the letters were written in a similar style but said nothing" - a small addition but one that shows Black has not simply regurgitated the script but has thought to make even small improvements where warranted. This change adds to the reader's impression of the Doctor as having a sharp mind, able to notice small but potentially relevant details.

When trying to free Dodo from WOTAN's influence the Doctor uses his ring to hypnotize her, which other stories have suggested holds a "special power". In the novelisation the Doctor does not use the ring. After dehypnotizing Dodo the Doctor comments that "She has been a brave and loyal friend" a nice touch that suggests an affection towards Dodo perhaps not apparent on screen.

In the book Black indicates that the War Machine is undergoing almost continuous modification and improvement, 'becoming "lighter and more impenetrable". This is a logical development but is not really suggested on screen.

In yet another improvement to the televised version the Doctor manages to disable the War Machine via a transmitter "hanging on a strap around his neck" (blocking transmission from WOTAN) whereas on television the War Machine appears to simply stop functioning because, according to the Doctor, its programming is incomplete. The book version is much more realistic as there doesn't appear to be any way the Doctor could have known this (at the end of episode three we simply see the Doctor standing defiantly in front of the still active War Machine. Following this the Doctor "dismembers" the War Machine "piece by piece analyzing, noting, tabulating, scrutinising it section by section" serving to stress the fact that the Doctor seems to be the only one capable of understanding the technology.

A new War Machine has been constructed. In the novelisation Black has indicated that all War Machines will now have names, e.g. Valk, which seems a little inconsistent with his earlier stressing of the logic driven machine-like nature of WOTAN. I suspect this is just a device used by Black to make references to "the War Machine" less repetitious, and perhaps more personal. After Valk is captured and reprogrammed by the Doctor, Black has indicated that no further War Machines will be able to be tampered with so as to obey orders contrary to WOTAN, suggesting that the Doctor's plan to use Valk to destroy WOTAN has only one possible chance of success.

Black has expanded greatly on the scenes involving the assault on the Post Office Tower, but rather than give away too much of the ending, I will close with a question: How does a War Machine fit into an elevator..?

CMS Adventures in Time and Space: Serial BB - The War Machines
Doctor Who Magazine issue 185
Doctor Who - The War Machines by Ian Stuart Black (Target novelisation)
TARDIS Vol. IV, No 6.

This item appeared in TSV 28 (April 1992).

Index nodes: The War Machines