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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Doctor Who: The War Machines

Serial Title: The War Machines

Series: 3

Episodes: 4

Doctor: William Hartnell

Companions: Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane), Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills)

Landing in modern-day (1966) London, the Doctor and Dodo set out to explore, marveling at the newly-completed futuristic Post Office Tower… from which the Doctor immediately senses a sinister presence. Traveling to it, he discovers the newly-activated WOTAN (Will Operating Thought ANalogue (Note From Sarah: I always think it's cheating when people just decide that TWO letters are going to be in the little 'acronym' thing or that one letter isn't going to stand at all because then the 'acronym' thing wouldn't SAY anything intelligible. ), a supercomputer with unprecedented intelligence, able to answer any question- including, disconcertingly, the meaning of the acronym ‘TARDIS’ without any external information. It is the brainchild of professor Brett, a brilliant young scientist. 

Hypnosis Collect- will you accept the mind-control?
As Brett’s secretary, Polly, takes Dodo out for a night on the town at the Inferno Nightclub (where they meet a handsome but somewhat depressed young navy sailor named Ben Jackson), the Doctor attends a press conference on WOTAN’s unveiling, attempting to determine more about the machine. However, Brett soon arrives in a strange, robotic state- disrupting the meeting and spiriting away his employer to go and see WOTAN. There, he is hypnotized by the powerful computer, just as Brett has been. Soon, due to a phone call to the Inferno Club (WOTAN can hypnotize via phone lines), Dodo is too- her line of questioning, and the Doctor’s, having intrigued the machine.
Ben and Polly, with Dodo in the background where she belongs

Ben chivalrously (but hot-headedly and violently) comes to Polly’s aid against an aggressive suitor, and the two begin to spend time together- soon looking for Dodo, who has disappeared. Meanwhile, WOTAN makes plans- Dodo is recruited to get the Doctor under WOTAN’s control, while the rapidly growing force of hypnotized humans is divided into labor forces, compelled to construct War Machines with which WOTAN can begin to conquer the Earth. A homeless man is killed by the War Machine workforce when he stumbles into their warehouse.

WOTAN: Supercomputer

Dodo attempts to lure the Doctor into hypnotism-by-phone, but his mysterious Blue Signet Ring (NFS: do you know it's Blue when it's in black and white?) once again saves him from the full effects of a hypnotic attack, and he recognizes the effects of hypnosis in Dodo (NFS: I don't claim to be a hypnotist authority...but I feel that it shouldn't work over the phone anyways.). Sitting her down in the chair, he uses his signet ring and his vocal command to reverse the hypnosis, putting Dodo in a deep healing sleep and leaving her in the care of one of his Earth allies to recover. (Remember this moment for later…)

Polly is taken, and the War Machines march on to completion… Ben, searching for Polly, stumbles into the warehouse, and is spared from death only to be co-opted by Polly into the labor force- a slave instead of a hypnotic ‘volunteer’ as she is. The War Machine’s weapons are tested on another hypnotized worker, and the machine nears completion- a deadly gas spray and a crushing metal battering-arm only a few of the myriad implements of death adorning it’s armored exterior. Propelled by tank-like treads, the War Machine prepares to go out and sow destruction upon unsuspecting London.

Polly is at least in control enough to fail to sound the alarm as she spots Ben escaping- nevertheless, he is spotted, and barely manages to escape… reaching the Doctor and revealing the War Machine’s location. The Doctor, aware that this is only one of many, readies the police, who raid the facility- and are slaughtered by the relentless War Machine as it activates. The Doctor alone holds his ground, standing in the middle of the road to confront it… the War Machine breaks down from a programming failure, having been activated before it was fully ready. Based on an examination of the Machine, the Doctor begins to work on a way to immobilize them.

War Machines are launched all throughout the area, and the Doctor prepares an electromagnetic trap of cable to paralyze the device- a trap that must be manually closed, a task Ben bravely volunteers for. The first active Machine is caged in by magnetized cables; it can’t escape, and the Doctor shuts it down- reprogramming the machine quickly, and then releasing it.

Ben charges to the Post Office Tower, WOTAN’s headquarters, and finds Polly- dragging her forcibly out just moments before the Doctor’s reprogrammed War Machine barrels in and attacks WOTAN, obliterating it, and freeing the victims of hypnosis from WOTAN’s control.

Later on, the Doctor stands outside the TARDIS, waiting for Dodo’s return… he is instead approached by Ben and Polly, who convey a farewell from the convalescing Dodo, who wishes to remain behind. The Doctor, outraged, incensed, and hurt, huffs angrily into the TARDIS as Ben and Polly leave. At the last moment, however, Ben remembers a dropped TARDIS key, fallen from the Doctor’s pocket as he confronted the first War Machine, which Ben had forgotten to return to him. He opens the TARDIS door with it, and he and Polly step inside to return the key… seconds later, the TARDIS dematerializes with them inside.

This one felt very different. An odd Season Finale (not necessarily intended to be, apparently)- it feels both epic (in it's high-quality, massive props and on-location shooting, which is so real as to make things seem almost unreal, in some ways) and small (in it's limited scope of storytelling up until the very end)- but I think the former feel dominates the latter. It's traditional sci-fi backed with a high budget. Does that equal a winning combination?

Well... besides appearing that they broke the bank on the War Machine props, with their gas-guns and weighted-stop-signs-of-doom, they also had an interesting concept- a computer whose spooky near-omniscience (How DID it know what TARDIS meant? They never explained that...) apparently doesn't extend to getting the Doctor's name right. Oh, and it uses phone-hypnosis to recruit an army to build war-machines to take over the world. It seemed like- barring the question of where it got hypnosis powers- a pretty plausible method for a non-mobile computer intelligence to gain control in the physical world... something sci-fi doesn't always pull off (I'm looking at you, Eagle Eye...). The real-world location of the Post Office Tower in London is so unique and well-designed, (NFS: It's the same building that they turned into a lightsaber for the Star Wars Blu Ray releases and now I can't look at it without thinking it looks like one) it looks like a sci-fi building cleverly inserted into the skyline seamlessly- an excellent location. And the credits people even got cute and added WOTAN to the end credits as himself.

On the other hand, certain bits felt a bit abrupt- most notably Dodo's departure, which I'll get into... the Doctor was underutilized- save for his excellent counter-hypnosis, brave stand against the advancing War Machine, and his supervising of a War Machine capture, it felt as if he didn't have much to do here- the emphasis being on Ben and Polly instead (a common theme for the rest of his episodes, due to Hartnell's declining health.) And a personal fascination of mine, the Doctor's blue signet ring, shown to be hypnosis-resistant and even counter-hypnosis capable, and presumably the cause of Hartnell's  resistance to WOTAN's mind control, barely gets a nod here.

Plus, as minor quibbles, half the folks seem to pronounce the villain's name, inexplicably, as "Votan"- not a little slur, but a very clear, conscious "V" sound... and WOTAN itself repeatedly refers to the Doctor as "Doctor Who" in dialogue, a careless and sloppy bit of writing. (Unless, like WOTAN's knowledge of the TARDIS acronym's meaning, it's supposed to be a fourth-wall-breaking indicator of WOTAN's mechanical omniscience- it knows better than any of the characters who he is- it knows what WE know about who he is! ...Or, "Who" he is, as the case may be.)

So, weighing the positives against the negatives? Yes, it seems that this does equal a winning combination. While I can honestly say I barely remember what goes on in the first half, before Ben's escape and the War Machine assault, the second half is a taught thriller with a ticking clock (though the events leading up to 'noon' seem, from the montages, to take place over the course of a few days, not a few hours- better editing could have helped this), aided in it's tension by the location filming, giving the impression that this impending War Machine invasion truly threatens "The Real World."

And what of characters? Newcomers Ben and Polly, who become companions at the episode's end, are both introduced- Polly as a flirty "Party girl" (a standard that soon falls away, in my opinion, to be replaced by a more traditional screaming-and-running, conscience-providing empathetic female companion archetype; while Polly does still show signs of strength and characterization bits unique to her, it still feels in many ways as if most of the scripts for Susan/Barbara, Vicki, Dodo, and Polly were written as the same character with a notation "Insert current female companion's name here."). And Ben as a more headstrong, take-charge type- young, strong, military-trained, and ready for action- very proactive but sometimes leaping without looking; a strong protagonist to take over center stage in coming serials when Hartnell was ill and could do less and less. (NFS: I think unfortunately a lot of the girl characters got a bad deal when it came to Doctor Who in the early days...I mean really you could transpose a lot of the early girl characters and it wouldn't even change much. Which is a reason why I liked the Third Doctor's first companion, Liz, because she actually broke a lot of the DW stereotypes for girl characters.)

Polly Wright, by the way, is of no relation to Barbara (though, wouldn’t that be a fun ret-con?)- simply a coincidental last name; and frankly, in all of time and space, is it so inconceivable that such a duplicating of last names in companions would occur? (NFS: Yes.)

Dodo, on the other hand... what can I say about Dodo? She has the worst exit ever devised- after her hypnosis in episode 2, the Doctor puts her into a deep sleep... and we never see her again! (The actress' contract ran out in the middle of this serial and she was let go.) At the end, we are simply told she's decided to stay and sends her love. That moment in the story I said to remember? Where’s she’s been de-hypnotized, has fallen asleep, and is left behind to recover as the Doctor heads out to search for the War Machines? That’s the last time we ever see her.


An example of how Dodo made us all feel.
Even for a poor companion like Dodo- and I will admit, she's grown on me, mainly due to The Gunfighters- this is a pathetic send-off; even written-out characters deserve a goodbye... Katarina got more of a farewell than this! To add insult to injury, the expanded universe is even harsher on Dodo- novels give her years of psychiatric treatments to recover from her ordeal in this serial, a brief marriage, and then a quick death in the path of a bullet fired by the Doctor's Arch-nemesis, the Master. And even in this serial, she hardly has any time onscreen that isn't as a hypnotized zombie. Yipes! I disliked the girl, but I didn't HATE her as much as the writers of this serial and the ongoing novels apparently did! Also, as opposed to defined companion happy endings (Ian and Barbara marry and have children, which they name after the Thals, Susan has further adventures, granchildren of her own, and visits from her grandfather's eighth incarnation) or unelaborated-but-assumed-to-be good futures (Vicki, Steven), this is the first companion (barring those killed onscreen, of course) shown to have an unhappy ending and a future of nothing but misery after leaving the Doctor. 

Well, uhhh... so long, Dodo. You were aptly named, and I wasn't a fan, but... you showed some growth, you occasionally amused, and you didn't deserve THAT!
(As a side-note, the actress, Jackie Lane, went on to become a theatrical agent, eventually representing one… Tom Baker. Doctor Who fans versed in obscure trivia may recognize the name.)

An interesting side-note, by the way- this story concludes on July 20th, 1966. At the same time that the Doctor is facing down WOTAN and the War Machines in London, his second incarnation is in Gatwick Airport, dealing with the Chameleons (The Faceless Ones, next season), and the Daleks are stealing that TARDIS (the Evil of the Daleks)… meaning that the strange, cold feeling that the Doctor gets from the Post Office Tower, not unlike the feeling that he gets from the Daleks, may in retrospect not have been due to WOTAN after all… and the foiling of this plot an accidental and coincidental discovery based on the concurrent presence of the Daleks. Interesting thought. And also that, just as Ben and Polly are leaving here, they are arriving back at Gatwick, freshly unshrunk and unfrozen, to an uninterrupted timeline. If that sounds like a teaser for one of my favorite serials to date… it is! So stay tuned!

Actual representation of how epic and dramatic Dodo's leaving was.
So, conclusions... mostly concluded in the balance-weighing above. A very 'stock' story- but unlike the Savages, this one's a good one- alien hypnotic force, controlled workers, people who aren't people, secret human labor to build earth-conquering devices, an evil mastermind mainframe... add to that the location shootings, a pair of strong and uniquely characterized companions in Ben and Polly (who don't just feel like they're filling in the script-parts written for other characters, but have strong identities of their own) (NFS: Although you did just say earlier that while Polly started out unique she quickly became more of a write-in) (NFA: True... but not yet, and for that, she should still be lauded; in this serial, at least, she is unique.), and, while there may be a few flaws, I think we have a winner in this not-the-norm but well-done serial.

Great moments:
The Doctor’s stand against the War Machine, and his outrage at Dodo’s non-goodbye.

3.5 out of 5 Time Destructors- it just didn't blow me away, even though by all accounts above, it should be 4 or 5. Plus... poor Dodo. Still, a solid and entertaining story with a weird and spasmodic little set of opening titles.

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