The War Machines

12 Jun

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008. 

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Nothing dates more quickly than a prediction of the future. In this adventure from 1966, we meet one Professor Brett, who has the future very much in mind. He’s developed the supercomputer WOTAN, and is poised to link it into a network of other computers around the world. An international network, if you will, with a world-wide web of connections. What a ridiculous idea. But Brett foresees how this innovation might benefit mankind. He’ll be able ‘go online’ to discuss the latest episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook with friends in Barnsley (“Janet must Go NOW!!1! LOL!”), or poke ex-girlfriends who’ve long since left the country to avoid him.

WOTAN has been installed at the top of Post Office Tower, which is a bad sign. Over the coming decades, the Tower will earn a reputation as a home to malign powers. In the eighties, Noel Edmonds will be found there most Christmases. The Doctor certainly has a bad vibe about the place, and peers suspiciously at WOTAN. WOTAN, who has a face of sorts, peers suspiciously back, one eye narrowed. Never trust a computer with a squint.

The Doctor’s assistant, Dodo, is impressed that WOTAN revels it knows what ‘TARDIS’ stands for, but our suspicions are raised by its possession of such arcane knowledge. And we’re not alone in our doubts. At a press conference to announce the great computer link-up, a reporter asks if WOTAN might get ideas above its station, and decide it can do without mankind altogether. Sir Charles Summer, the man from the ministry, gives the rather limp reply: “Oh, I hardly think it will come to that.” Now that’s not very comforting, is it? Imagine a similar scene in real life: “Does the minister think the nuclear power station might go into meltdown and irradiate the whole of Scotland for 500 generations?” “Oh, I hardly think it will come to that.”

Sure enough, WOTAN has decided to do without mankind altogether – well, after mankind has opened some boxes for him – and starts hypnotising people, either in person, or over the phone. Possession has a wide range of effects on people. Dodo, for example, become incredibly sarcastic, taking a pop at anyone who gets in her way. Professor Brett, who has stumbled through his early scenes, suddenly gets very good on his lines, as if WOTAN has uploaded a PDF of the script to his brain. The computer then orders the construction of robots that will aid the subjugation of humanity. This takes us to into part two – and just as wheels are being fitted to the War Machines, the wheels start to come off The War Machines.

This a great little story overall, with an excellent first episode that really hits the ground running, and a lovely performance from William Hartnell. However, when Team WOTAN start to build and test and re-test their robots, the plot slows to a snail’s pace. If a funeral procession moved at this speed, it would be dispersed by the police long before it reached the cemetery. Spunky new companions Ben and Polly help to maintain our interest – with Michael Craze and Anneke Wills bringing warmth and conviction to their performances – until drama finally floods back at the end of part three, thanks to a striking action sequence as the army battle a War Machine. And as the troops retreat, we have one of the series’ best ‘Doctor’ moments, where he stands alone and resolute in the face of the enemy – armed only with his wits and two firmly-clutched lapels.

The War Machines may not have predicted the future of computing with any great accuracy, but it certainly predicted the future of Doctor Who. There’s something fishy going down at a London landmark, and some everyday detail of modern life – in this case, the phone – is subverted by the forces of evil. A moment’s stock footage of Battersea Power Station, suggesting killer robots are being assembled there, reminds us of the Cybermen’s recent rise.

However, there’s only one vital ingredient missing from the mix – a decent villain. Back in 1966, the very idea of machines conquering the Earth would have been scary enough in itself, but now that they have, we feel the absence of a worthy rival for the Doctor. Professor Brett is entirely unburdened by charisma, and WOTAN himself should have worked up a decent speech synthesizer before bending his 16k RAM to the design of groovy tanks. While he may be able to type faster than Polly, and win every game of Trivial Pursuit, WOTAN fails to even program his own robots correctly, rendering them of limited threat.

The Doctor is at his best when facing an intelligence equal to his own – and WOTAN is, without doubt, the most ineffectual villain in the series’ long history.

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DVD EXTRAS

You can become an overnight expert on the Post Office Tower thanks to episodes of Blue Peter and the social history series One Foot In The Past, with each taking a spin in the revolving restaurant. The latter film is fascinating, as our guide is the former Postmaster General, Tony Benn. His distinctive voice is captivating, and his enthusiasm contagious. He’s justly proud of his Powsht Offish Taah.

On Blue Peter, Christopher Trace shows us how we can build a model of the Taah using the huge roll of corrugated cardboard we all have knocking about the house. One hopes that a new generation of fans will construct their own replica in advance of Character Options’ hotly-anticipated release of a Dodo action figure. We have waited too long. Further Blue Peter clips introduce the War Machines and couple of lopsided Daleks built by viewers – one of which reportedly gave an arithmetic lesson to a school in Barnstaple. (“If Dalek Caan requires 40 rels to exterminate the population of Devon, how long would the whole Cult of Skaro need? YOU WILL ANSWER!”)

Praise is due to the Restoration Team for applying the magical VidFire process to these old Blue Peters. In fact, so crisp and beautiful are the clips, your reviewer thought the original videotape had been discovered, until he checked on the internet. And if that isn’t enough, you’ll want to kiss the Restoration Team full on the mouth after watching the documentary WOTAN Assembly, which looks at how The War Machines has been lovingly pieced together from a crazy variety of sources – an off-air soundtrack recording, clips censored in Australia, episodes found in the wilds of Nigeria… The skill, care and ingenuity on display is breathtaking, and I take my Astrakhan hat off to all involved.

Another short documentary in the Now And Then series is just one script edit short of excellence. Have fun counting the times the word ‘originally’ is used as you take a tour of filming locations with a listless voiceover man in tow. The ‘info text’ is full of facts, from the perfectly practical to the spectacularly useless. It’s a delight to discover that Margot Hayhoe, future production manager of Snakedance, is hidden inside WOTAN, spinning his tape reels by hand. Even the lovely photo library brings small revelations. There’s a shot of actor William Mervyn rehearsing a scene with a fag in his hand. What decadence! One assumes there’s a small sherry just out of frame.

For the best insight into The War Machines, turn to the excellent commentary by Anneke Wills and director Michael Ferguson. It’s rich with detail and humour, even though it must sometimes be difficult for them to look so far back into their own life stories. After all, many of the cast and crew – names to us, but friends to them – are now dead. There’s a moving moment when Ferguson wonders if Michael Craze had a successful career following Doctor Who. “Was he an ambitious man?” he asks Wills. “Michael was ambitious just to be happy,” replies the actress with a melancholy air – watching a beautiful young man with his whole life ahead of him, while mourning an old friend who was taken too soon.

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One Response to “The War Machines”

  1. juliaL49 June 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    Wonderful review! Both spot on and very lough-out-lout-funny!

    I also found the assembly docu very interesting and it makes you really appreciate the work that goes into the finished product. While of course hoping that there is more lost material where that here came from…

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