Sunday, 26 July 2009

The War Machines

Previous viewings - few

The War Machines doesn't feel like a Season 3 story. The reason it doesn't feel like a Season 3 story is that as the first contemporary story one would expect it to be something the show attempted back in its first season. It's an obvious idea, along with the premise of the enemy being an artificial intelligence gone evil - another idea I would expect to have been done long before now. It's new, it's fresh and it's exciting.

London, 1966. The Doctor and Dodo marvel at the new Post Office Tower and go off to investigate. The Doctor and Dodo seem to have a closer relationship than the last time we saw them, which is nice to see. I'm instantly struck by how odd it is to see the First Doctor in the present day. He just doesn't seem to belong there, and I admit this isn't due to anything other than it being so unusual. While he becomes interested in the Tower's supercomputer, WOTAN, Dodo goes off clubbing with secretary Polly Wright (during the day, it seems). This is all new, and more than usual - it's not merely a twist on a familiar format, it is a new format, in a 'who changed the channel?' kind of way.

Poor Dodo. The Inferno club scenes are blatantly there to introduce us to her replacements as companions, and not only that, but to show us how much better than her they are. Dodo is the most generic of Doctor Who companions - given very little distinctiveness to increase the diversity of stories that could be told with her, but it ends up making her less interesting and so bland that she'll react to situations in the same way whether she was from the past, present, future or an alien planet. This is supposedly her native era but she sticks out like a sore thumb, and yet we're led to believe that clubbing is a hobby of hers. Compare with 'hip' Polly, who right away makes more of an impression than Dodo has in her entire tenure. Having been asked to 'look after' Dodo, she's placed in a position of superiority. We know a lot about her - she's a bit posh, she's a secretary, and she has a social life. Anneke Wills plays Polly with plenty of charisma so that I want to see more of her, and she's written so that although she's clearly companion material, it doesn't feel contrived that the Doctor should suddenly meet her just after a companion has left. All the boxes are ticked.

But that's not all. Perhaps because of the success of Ian and Barbara being introduced at the same time, we get a second new companion, sailor Ben Jackson. Obviously his Cockney accent is startling at first in a show that has been uniformly RP so far (except for Dodo's wandering accent). Meeting Polly and Dodo in the Inferno, he's upset about his shore assignment, but proves he's no soft touch when he sees off a sleazy guy who accosts Polly. I'm struck by Ben's salt-of-the-earthness. It's an instant assurance that he's a good guy. I do hope we learn more about him, but except for Ian and Barbara, whose introduction was unbeatable, first impressions don't come any better than the ones we got for Ben and Polly.

Meanwhile, it's all happening at the Post Office Tower. The Doctor doesn't have that much to do as he attends a press conference announcing the 'thought computer' WOTAN, which is currently in the process of brainwashing key personnel, including Dodo over the phone. Obviously the Doctor is next on its hit list, but it also orders the construction of deadly gas-spraying machines (if you're afraid of gas, beware). The Doctor teams up with Sir Charles Summer, who WOTAN luckily isn't interested in. The story is quite Pertwee-era from here on in. The Doctor discovers Dodo has been hypnotised and sends her off to the country to recover - I'm more forgiving of this than most as Dodo has been by far the weakest companion so far and at this stage seems like part of an old regime or old style that is being phased out. We really don't need the 'granddaughter' companion figure in the show anymore. It's still a rubbish exit of course, given this is the last we see of her and she's not herself, but I wonder if the writers knew that it would be a mistake to draw attention to the fact that she was leaving for no reason whatsoever - Dodo has always seemed happy in the TARDIS and wasn't upset about being cut off from her home.

WOTAN's machines seem to get assembled in record time, because by the end of episode 2 there's already one up and running. The Doctor is happy to give the action part of the plot to Ben, despite only meeting him fleetingly earlier, while he waits behind for an update (lazy Doctor!). The war machines are very well designed, and it's obvious a lot more time was spent on making them in reality than in the show. I don't know if they're meant to be a cross between a Dalek and a tank, but they come across that way, but less threatening than either, as although they look good on screen we mostly see them just pushing boxes over.

Ben gets a bigger slice of the action than Polly, who has also been hypnotised by WOTAN but is stong enough to will herself to let Ben escape from the factory when he has been captured. The rest of the story is almost entirely action, which of course means little of the Doctor except him standing around observing, with the occasional line. It's unavoidable that this is the case, and I'm glad that the producer ended the season with an action-driven story. William Hartnell gives an appropriate performance for the story - for once his peripheral involvement makes sense. Once the army gets involved, it's their game, although for the first and certainly not the last time they don't show much intelligence and are easily wiped out. The thrilling conclusion sees the Doctor figuring out how to capture one of the war machines and reprogramming it to destroy WOTAN, which of course can't defend itself as it's still only a computer.

As will become familiar with present day stories, the Doctor doesn't hang around for the authorities to show up and ask questions. As soon as everybody turns their backs, he's gone.

The final scene sees Ben and Polly show up outside the TARDIS to let the Doctor know that Dodo has chosen not to bother telling him about her decision to stay in person. It's interesting that after the adventure they still only see him as a doddering old scientist, unaware of his alien background, something soon to be remedied as they follow the Doctor into the TARDIS using Dodo's key. I want to see more! The two companion removed from their own time, and who want to get back, worked with Ian and Barbara, and it might seem unwise to go there again. There isn't an existing companion to bridge the gap betwee the elderly Doctor and the new youthful team, and they share a much different relationship with the Doctor than Ian and Barbara did, and although it might only end up in the Doctor seeming more like the isolated figure he has been in other Season 3 stories, if it does there are only two stories of his tenure left anyway. I'm quite excited.

It's good to know that The War Machines was deemed enough of a success to have more present day stories. Unlike many fans, I love the pop culture aspects of the stories and seeing familiar things. The TV news report is something we get even now in the new series, and an attempt to show the reaction of the public to the threats the Doctor is quashing. It's not perfect - the evil computer is new, but will be done better later, and the guest characters are all fairly generic. I see The War Machines as a template for present day stories, leaving them to go off on their own tangents and find ways to improve upon it. However calling a story a template is very high praise I think.

Horror quotient - Fear the War Machines! Maybe not. More should have been made of the horror of people being controlled by a computer, especially since a companion is one of the victims.
Comedy quotient - Ben and Polly are shown to be fairly grounded companions and have a lot of humour in them, although I suspect there's more to come as once introduced they got involved in the serious plot quite quickly.
Drama quotient - Action, not drama. Most drama came from the Doctor, although rather disappointingly he didn't get to confront WOTAN. How much drama can you get from having a computer as a villain though?

Subsequent present day stories have rendered this fairly generic, but The War Machines did it first and gave us two excellent companions to boot. A fantastic way to end the season.


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