The War Machines

Written by:
Ian Stuart Black
Directed by: Michael Ferguson
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1966
Video Availability: Try

"It's at least ten years ahead of its time."
The War Machines ushers in a whole new era of Who companions: The Companions Who You Would. With the Aryan Ben and Polly filling the screen with youth and prettiness, they mark the start of a run of companions of whom I'd do around 80%. And that's if I don't include a bit of experimenting with Jamie. Och no! Before this stage, while I liked the companions deeply, there aren't really any I found sexually attractive. Okay, maybe Susan at a push, but while I really respect Barbara, the thought of getting it on with someone with hair like a crash helmet didn't thrill me. Vicki, Dodo, Katarina, Sara? Thanks, but no thanks. But now here's Polly, all vitality and sparkling eyes, complete with what appears to be ad-libbed gurning in only her first scene. Whether this is a good or bad thing is open to question, but from now on the flood gates are open and the legs and mini skirts are unstoppable. (For the record, my top three sexy companions have to be: Leela, Peri and Zoe, with the first Romana narrowly missing out because, while gorgeous, she has all the sex appeal and charisma of a bag of spanners).

Okay, the story itself. Alistair McGown gave this one fairly short shrift in DWM's lacklustre First Doctor Special Edition, but personally I think it's a major peak of the era. With the computerised titles (dated now, but an innovation at the time) this is Who being modern, and relevant. Okay, setting it in the (then) present day takes away the need for metaphor, but not only does this one predict the Internet, it also dictates much of the Pertwee era, just as Hartnell's last story would inform a huge portion of Troughton's. Read the episode quote again, and think of how many UNIT stories had this as a distant relative. What I really love about this one though is not so much the reactionary technophobe message with no motivation, but the dirty-looking location filming and contemporary pop culture it embraces. It's a crazy scene! Okay, Doctor Who can do pop culture about as well as Eastenders does credible fight sequences, but it's such a refreshing departure from the Who norm that it forces you to take notice. It's pacier and tighter, too, and Michael Ferguson's direction raises the standard. Look at how he allows his mise-en-scene to give forward focus not to the actors but to coke bottles, straws and the spokes of a wheel - tremendous stuff. Doing these reviews in a largely random order I'm coming to this one straight off the back of The Massacre, so there's a drop in script quality, but this only mean it's just very good rather than outstanding.

Fun highlights of this episode include looking at the expression on Jackie Lane's face to see just how much she resents Anneke Wills and Michael Craze, and laughing at Ric Felgate's "American" accent. Okay, Billy Fluffs. There's one in only his first scene, perhaps, with "You know, there's something alien about that tower. I can scent it." But in fairness, Dodo's next line is about the smell of London, so maybe 'scenting' things is a 60s phrase we've forgotten? Episode two gives us "I think er… I don't think you will arouse so much suspicion as the police might" and four has "Dear boy, if we worry about per-one person, we shall never solve anything, shall we?"
* * * *

It's a question, okay? Wotan (charmingly given his own credit in the end titles) doesn't know the Doctor's surname and his emphasis on the "Who" means he's asking a question. Right? This is another strong one, the studio sets used to make up London being boosted slightly by having an actual London cab rolling over them. It does flounder slightly by giving us the politest tramp in world history though - why doesn't he spit on the floor and piss in his own pants? It's this kind of attempted realism that always held Who back, such as when it had an 80s working class teenager using "street" language in the dying days of the original show. Ace it wasn't.

Incidentally, it's easy to credit the functional but not exceptional Black with too much here, and forget that the whole inspired idea behind the story came from Kit Pedler. And isn't "Kit Pedler" a strange name for a Doctor? Be like a dentist called "Tooth Smuggler" or summat. But let's look on the bright side, and that bright side is the back of Jackie Lane as Dodo. No, not her arse - bloody Hell, credit me with some taste, please - but this is her final episode, the production caring so little they didn't even renew her contract for two more episodes. She's given the ultimate ignominy of being written out off-screen in episode four, of which more later.

Some say that Billy's skirting around the point with his "I don't suppose…" banter is a fluff, but it's never really struck me as suchl, and seems natural enough. Maybe by this stage in the show he's just got so good at disguising it. Less good is that Hartnell - who always plays within a relatively small range as the Doctor - is called on to really ACT in this instalment. Billy hams it to the max, and I love the silly old bugger for it. "It was if something ENORMOUS…"
* * * *

Now that Ben and Polly are fully integrated into the narrative (displaying instant screen presence and being probably the most underrated companions of all time) the story begins to dip because it's less reliant on new faces and more reliant on plot, which isn't… all that good, really. The idea of a terrorist threat to London is obviously relevant today, but here the threat is presented by some flimsy tin robots that change their number (9 to 3) when they attack Ben. Craze is such a novice that he even tries to help out by picking up a loose arm and putting it back on when it falls off. One thing that I hadn't really noticed before is that while Bill gives a lot of authority to the role here, he's left sitting around with stuffy Sir Charles while Ben and Polly get all the fun things to do. But ultimately, while the story has shifted from contemporary science warning to army actioner, a story like this has to stand or fall on the credibility of its antagonists. On that level a bunch of actors stiltedly pretending to be hypnotised and some cheap BBC knock-ups means its something of a failure.
* * * ˝

The final episode of season three, Who's longest-ever season. With myths of exaggerated poor ratings and performances passed down through the years, as well as twenty-eight episodes still missing from the archives (meaning only three of its ten stories exist in their entirety) it's a season with an undeserved lowly reputation. One thing I really love about it is that it's the season that finally realised - Dalek contributions aside - that four episodes was the ideal average length for Doctor Who stories, a fact then completely forgotten again for the best part of ten years. Galaxy 4 is admittedly weak, but that really belongs to season two in spirit and production anyway. From then on we've laughed with Donald Cotton, had harmless fun with the Daleks, had a retro historical style from Lucarotti, saw two noble failures that show the series was still trying (The Ark/The Celestial Toymaker) and had a fine, if unexemplary, SF parable from Ian Stuart Black. Black continues here, rounding off a credible year of Doctor Who with what is a reasonably strong story with a disappointing end.

That ends see one of the War Machines attack the Post Office Tower (how does it get up there?) and destroy Wotan… and that's it. Quite why Wotan wanted to take over the Earth in the first place anyway is beyond me (and the writer, it seems) and the pat (or should that be Jon?) resolution underachieves. After a great start we've gone back to a "smash it up" climax, the same sort of thing that blighted all of Black's scripts. However, I'll uphold praise, if only for that shot of the bicycle in the puddle.

The other disappointing end comes with Dodo's departure. Okay, I don't like the character and it's good to see her go, but this quick sweep of companion exits would continue on into the next season with The Evil of the Daleks's "Okay, Ben and Polly, piss off then, see you" whitewash. In the worst companion departure ever, Polly relates "She says 'She's feeling much better, she'd like to stay here in London and she sends you her love.'" This is made up for by the Tardis dematerialisation, which seems to warp and fade the air around it. Was it just a mistake on the special effects part? Maybe, but it looks great. Weirdest moment of all though comes when an extra looks right into shot at the end.
* * * ˝

With a moral core that's so reactionary it could have been written by Jim Davidson and directed by Michael Winner, in many ways this is the antithesis of what Doctor Who should be all about. However, it still feels fresh, Wills and Craze instantly fit into their new roles and the muddy location work looks fabulous. Seen again, it's nearly average, but it still contains enough charm to justify its final score…
* * * *