The War Machines

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 27, starring William Hartnell)
  • written by Ian Stuart Black, based on an Idea by Kit Pedler
  • directed by Michael Ferguson
  • produced by Innes Lloyd
  • featuring library music
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor and Dodo land in London near the monumental Post Office tower just after its completion in the 1960's. But the Doctor has ominous feelings about the new WOTAN computer that Earth authorities are about to hand control over to - a computer that soon exercises hypnotic control over any human mind that comes too close. Is it already too late for Dodo? What dangerous machines is WOTAN having built in a disused factory? Ben Jackson and Polly make their Doctor Who debuts.

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary with actress Anneke Wills (Polly) and director Michael Ferguson.
  • "Now and Then" Location featurette (7 min.)
  • "WOTAN Assembly" restoration featurette (9 min. )
  • Featurette on the Post Office Tower with Tony Benn. (7 min.)
  • Compilation of related "Blue Peter" segments (16 min.) (some of which also appear on the VHS release).
  • DVD ROM - War Machine design plan .pdf and Radio Times billings
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

Season three turns out another winner, the best of its surviving complete stories. The format of a monster menace confronted by a heroic military in contemporary times is defined here for the first time in Doctor Who, a format that will ultimately culminate in the creation and perpetuation of UNIT and its commanding Brigadier. It's very good to see that this type of story is handled just as excellently by William Hartnell's Doctor as with many of the others - too bad Hartnell didn't get more stories of this type.

The background information about the "new" Post Office Tower in London from a contemporary "Blue Peter" broadcast, detrimentally placed first on the VHS video version, does enhance the Doctor Who story, however "Blue Peter's" introduction of the war machines does more to take away from their sense of menace and mystery. Thus throughout the first two episodes, I dreaded that the machines would be a near total cinematic flop. However, Michael Ferguson does some creative cinematic work in bringing the menace in them to life. The machines work well within the story, and would probably work better on the video for first time viewers if their investigation by Blue Peter was NOT placed first. The menace in the clip of the machine advancing on the phone booth comes from the cries of the man inside, which is missing from it during the Blue Peter version. Instead of building the machines up, Blue Peter actually pulls them down.

Also weighing against the Blue Peter snippet are all the plot spoilers needlessly thrown away. Would you rather experience a fresh Who story by watching it, or by listening to it being blabbed from the mouth of a Blue Peter presenter? The presenter should ask the questions that will occupy the Doctor's mind, not give away all the answers. His final comment that he is most interested in tuning in to the adventure on Saturday is at last back on track of getting us interested. It is question-oriented. Let's hope the Blue Peter bit learns its rightful place amongst the rest of the bonus featurettes on the DVD, and does not try to automatically precede the actual episodes.

The TARDIS is done quite well coming and going, and the dematerialization sound is even reversed for the landing once more, although this is to feature the slowing whine descending over London. The wheeze and groan of the Police Box as it appears is still the wrong way around.

The Doctor is present and heavily involved throughout all four episodes. The sudden easy cooperation of all of the guest characters is unnatural however, especially as they are all strangers. This is because scene two is missing, in which the Doctor presents himself to Green, having forged some papers and dropped the familiar name of science master Sir Ian Chesterton. One has to turn to the novelization for that lovely bit, whereas on TV, one assumes that it simply happened without having the cameras on hand to record it. As story structure goes, episode one is a little too tight, while episodes two and three have more breathing room than they actually require. Finding a way to re-include the missing scene would have made the story that much better.

The contemporary setting works wonders in making the story much more believable than many other science fiction offerings, and provides strong viewer-familiarity with character motivations, official procedures, sets and props, etc. The story can take good advantage of not having to explain all this, and gives us a tighter plot with a faster pace.

Also immediately noticeable is a larger quantity of location filming, and sequences in the studio that are shot and edited on film as well. The studio also appears to be larger than usual. There is a huge lift here in what the show seems to be willing to spend and attempt to put on screen, and the narrative grips in ways that would soon become formula for many tales of the Patrick Troughton era and beyond....

Michael Ferguson's defining drawback seems to be in the editing of sequences of shots, which again relies on the compositions of the shots themselves. Ferguson's sequences always seem to be more transitional than suspenseful, when his work is compared with that of other directors. It's a far cry above Blue Peter, and Richard Martin isn't even in the same league to be able to do transitional, so this is a minor consideration that only seems to be noticeable with repeat viewing - on the whole everything works in "The War Machines", especially on first viewing.

Dodo's role in this story is more interesting than much of what she did during "the dregs" of season three (stories 22-25: "The Massacre", "The Ark", "The Celestial Toymaker", "The Gunfighters"), even though she disappears after the first half. Even with the side-switching angle keeping her performance fresh and interesting, the parts that are still pure Dodo offer a better look into her character than most other stories have managed so far. Her on-screen exit would have been in disgrace had it been focused on; instead she disappears quietly, and makes her good-byes much more agreeably through a message sent via Polly at the end of the story.

Polly's entrance is a tad strange, as we are mostly looking at the back of her head, interrupted by a brief close-up of a sarcastic face-wrenching expression from her, but Anneke Wills soon gives a worthy performance to a wide-ranging role. Ben Jackson is a likeable character, and proves to be an excellent sidekick for the Doctor from episode two onwards. His rescue of Polly in the first episode is perhaps more out of principle than any interest in her, as evidenced by his remarks immediately after, but whatever his motives are, he's a refreshing change from Sir Ian. By episode four, his motives seem to be much more personal. His accent is also entertaining. Michael Craze puts a lot into the performance, and it is very enjoyable. Ben's background as a sailor seems to serve this story and the next one exceptionally well, but afterwards it seems to leave Ben a bit at sea in general science fiction settings.

Episode three contains a frustrating scene. As the Doctor, Ben, and Sir Charles attempt to come up with a plan of action, the Doctor continually leads the others down many various aisles of thought, then obstructively shoots down the natural conclusion of each one. What exactly he has in mind is very unclear, and the first Doctor's skills in working in a group leave much to be desired at this time. Why can't the Doctor just come to the point? At least direction is arrived at eventually.
Library music tracks:
"Asyndeton" is available on:
Audio CD - Space Adventures

More info & buying options

Computer knowledge is accurate enough for its day, even managing a foreshadowing of a type of internet, but it all becomes farfetched in terms of a global desire to give up responsibility for making choices to a machine, or in terms of the programmers' lack of responsibility and ability to control the decision-making process. If IBM or Microsoft were to take control of computers everywhere today, you could be certain there would be people behind it all pulling the strings. The strangest bit in all of this is that Sir Charles feels he needs to explain what programming is to a fellow official. Were they really about to hand over their power in such ignorance? Kit Pedler must have been more of a cyberman than we know to base his ideas on these premises.

Ian Stuart Black, on the other hand, balances this with more esoteric considerations. As in "The Savages" (story no. 26), a sixth sense is at work in the Doctor, drawing him to investigate the tower with more than just simple curiosity. Brett also senses Wotan's presence in the computer room. Is there holographic memory at work, allowing some power-hungry soul to inhabit Wotan and power its intelligence? Are the powerful electro-magnetic fields present as a mere product of electronic circuits, or are they by-product expressions of a more insidious consciousness that has unwittingly been given solid manifestation through electronics? (Say hello to the Yeti in later years.) If Wotan has something comparable to a soul, as Ian Stuart Black begins to hint at, and its electronic brain channels this `soul' in a similar way to our own organic brains, the power-hungry computer idea now becomes much more believable.....

The two philosophies merge further as the Doctor devises a powerful electromagnetic coil. This would indeed scramble electronic circuits and cut the war machine off from its control source. Be careful though! Too much power could also scramble the human brain and cut it off from a person's controlling conscious mind and soul, as it did the crew of the USS Eldridge during the Philadelphia Experiment! More power and you could begin to bend space and time, or even punch a hole in it and dematerialize the war machine altogether..... The Doctor seems to know what he's doing though, as this is his area of expertise, and Kit Pedler's scientific angle lends much credibility to William Hartnell's most fascinating appearance on location for Doctor Who. Fear of the War Machine itself pales in comparison to fear of stepping unprotected into a strong electro-magnetic disruption field. The brave old Doctor may well have inherited an immunity in his brain structure, evolved in his people after millennia of familiarity with time-space experimentation and travel. I enjoy all this because I bring much of this knowledge with me into the viewing experience - unfortunately the script cannot capitalize on it and bring this to all viewers regardless of their background, and explaining what programming is just doesn't hold the same fascination.

Episode Four can at least boast the spectacle of these scenes and a whole lot more, as it is packed tight with action and an exciting resolution.

This story is somewhat lacking in both moral themes and recurring guest characters, but it very healthily satisfies in other ways. Previously adept at teaching some history and fantasizing about science, Doctor Who is now at last capable of demonstrating and exploring science in ways even it does not fully realize.

International Titles:

Deutsch: (Die Kriegsmaschinen)

Magyar: "A háborús gépek"

Français: (Les Machines de Guerre)

Русский: "Военные машины"

Italiano: "Le macchine da guerra"

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video. Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Smugglers"

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