IAN STUART BLACK
(with PAT DUNLOP, UNCREDITED)
BASED ON AN IDEA BY
'THE WAR MACHINES' DVD (BBCDVD2441) RELEASED IN AUGUST 2008.
The TARDIS arrives in London, 1966, where the Doctor and Dodo visit the recently opened Post Office Tower. At its top they discover a brilliant new problem solving computer - the Will Operating Thought Analogue system.
But when WOTAN decides that it should rule the world, the Doctor is the only person who can stop its rampaging War Machines from destroying London. Luckily, he has the help of a young secretary called Polly and a sailor called Ben....
The War Machines
25TH JUNE 1966 - 16TH JULY 1966
Ian Stuart Black’s War Machines was Doctor Who’s first real ‘contemporary invasion’ story. New producer Innes Lloyd had stated that he wanted to strive for greater realism within the series, and as a result scientist Dr Kit Pedler (who would go on to co-create the Cybermen) pitched the idea for The War Machines, which would put the Doctor in the now-familiar position of liaising with the proper authorities to save the world.
Pedler’s input into the storyline is evident throughout, the notion of ‘techno fear’ that runs through much of his work being right at the heart of this story. Whereas Pedler’s Cybermen would seek to replace their organs, and ultimately their very souls, with technology, WOTAN (pronounced VOTAN, apparently. Very Norse) simply decides that mankind cannot progress any further and as such should be wiped out.
The former Post Office Tower serves as a wonderful backdrop for this serial, illustrating magnificently just how much more disturbing a story can be when it is set somewhere familiar. In the previous season, having the Daleks seen in the centre of a post-apocalyptic London really helped to raise the fear factor, but here matters are taken a step further as the War Machines are not only loose in London, but loose in the congested London of the present day – a model that would still be the backbone of the series more than forty years later.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the DVD release’s special features focus heavily on the serial’s location. The seven minute Now and Then featurette is quite interesting as it focuses on the areas around the BT Tower where the location filming took place forty-two years ago, however the extract from the programme One Foot in the Past, featuring MP Tony Benn exploring the BT Tower, does feel somewhat surplus to requirements.
The eponymous War Machines themselves look like the sort of little ultra-modern robots that you might come across in Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. They may look quite imposing when featured in the DVD’s sixteen minutes’ worth of Blue Peter clips, but unfortunately in the programme itself they come across as utterly feeble - defeated by everyday things like rope.
More positively though, the second episode of the serial sees Jackie Lane makes her final appearance as the dreadful Dodo. Amusingly appropriately, she isn’t given even a half-decent send-off - in fact, she isn’t given a send-off at all. After being brainwashed by WOTAN, she takes off somewhere to recuperate and then at the end of the story, by which time she’s no more than a bad memory in the minds of viewers, the Doctor receives a message that Dodo has decided to stay behind.
Better still, The War Machines introduces two dazzling new companions who are very much in tune with the story’s swinging 60s vibe – seaman Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) and fun-loving secretary Polly Wright (Anneke Wills). I’m a huge fan of both Ben and Polly – two very underrated companions. Polly is introduced very early on and is cheeky, sexy and forward – a totally different breed of companion to the likes of Susan, Vicki, and Dodo. In the Inferno Club that she takes Dodo to, we also meet Ben who at first seems to be the antithesis of Polly – sullen and withdrawn. Polly tries to cheer him up, and in the end he ends up rescuing her from a dodgy guy who won’t take no for an answer and hey presto, a rocky friendship is born. He thinks she’s stuck up and christens her “Duchess,” and she thinks that he has no sense of humour. How these two never got together on screen I’ve no idea; they really are the perfect love match.
I really enjoyed listening to Wills recount her memories of making this serial in the DVD’s intimate commentary. I don’t recall Wills ever doing a DVD commentary before – in fact, I don’t think any Polly stories have been released on DVD to date, unless you count a few rogue episodes included within the Lost in Time release – and I certainly hope that this one is not her last. The director of The War Machines, Michael Ferguson, is also something of a revelation on the commentary. Not only is he able to recall many fascinating titbits about the production, but also he’s also able to spot a young Frank Butcher amidst a gang of extras despite him only being on screen for about three seconds. The production subtitles also taught me a thing or two here – for example, I had no idea that Wills was married to Michael Gough, the infamous Celestial Toymaker, during her time on the series. Perhaps her forthcoming second autobiography might well be worth a peek; the front cover alone (above) certainly makes the prospect rousing.
The DVD’s flagship bonus feature, WOTAN Assembly, is sadly just ten minutes long, but they are certainly ten extraordinary minutes. I’ve a real fondness for featurettes that focus on the restoration of episodes for DVD, and it has to be said that bringing The War Machines back to life is one of the most incredible and challenging projects that the Restoration Team has ever tackled. When I first saw this story when it was released on VHS, I was amazed at how seamlessly the Restoration Team had woven together so many disparate elements to restore the original four episodes, and that was still with a few minutes of footage missing. From what I understand, the four episodes that are included on this DVD are back up to their full 1966 length. Truly astonishing work.
I’ve really enjoyed watching The War Machines again. Plagued as it is by terribly-dated WOTAN ‘tests’ (which a modern calculator could pass) and cringeworthy references to “Doctor Who” the character, the serial is still full of charm and, after a very varied third season, represented a definite step in the right direction for Doctor Who the television programme.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
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