The War Machines
"It's at least ten years ahead of its time."
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?"
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…"
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…
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