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3x10. The War Machines
Writer: Ian Stuart Black
Director: Michael Ferguson
Script Editor: Gerry Davis
Producer: Innes Lloyd

Synopsis: The Doctor and Dodo arrive in 1960s London as a team of scientists led by Professor Brett unveil WOTAN, a highly advanced computer designed to control the operations of other computers all over the world. Shortly before this plan is to be implemented, WOTAN decides that human civilization has reached its limits of progress, using hypnosis to direct an army of humans to attempt a global takeover on its behalf. Along with new companions Ben and Polly, the Doctor must work with the British authorities to foil WOTAN's plans.

Review: For those of us Doctor Who fans who came to the series in the middle of its run, "The War Machines" offers a certain comfortable familiarity: it's a story with a contemporary setting in which some sort of inhuman threat is on the loose and the Doctor teams up with the British authorities to stop it. The original audience, of course, must have had exactly the opposite reaction. All of the serials up until this point, with the exception of the fantasy-based "Planet of Giants," had been either historicals or outer-space adventures, and "The War Machines" was the first to take place in a world that viewers would have recognized as their own.

"The War Machines" is at its best in the first two episodes. While it's easy to guess from the very beginning that WOTAN is going to pose a danger, the script reveals the details of its plan relatively slowly and with an effective sense of menace. At first, all we know is that it seems to be hypnotizing people and controlling their minds. Later we discover that it's decided it must take charge of civilization's future development and that it needs the Doctor, and then finally we see the war machines being prepared for the task of subduing the British population. Along the way we meet two engaging new characters -- Brett's secretary Polly Wright and the sailor Ben Jackson, both of them colorful products of mid-1960s culture (easily the funniest moment is the Doctor's reaction to a nightclub owner's comment on his "fab gear"). They are both instantly likeable, and there is some real suspense at the end of the second episode when they each come face-to-face with WOTAN's calmly ruthless minions.

The third and fourth episodes are a little disappointing by comparison. Once WOTAN's plan has been fully revealed to the audience, the narrative doesn't really go anywhere, instead opting to settle the conflict with a series of action scenes and some plot devices that seem rather arbitrary. Polly, for example, seems capable of some slight resistance to WOTAN's hypnotism and thus allows Ben to escape from the other brainwashed workers, but it's never explained why. Similarly, the Doctor somehow guesses that the first war machine they confront hasn't been fully programmed. This makes for a riveting third-episode cliffhanger, in which he stands calmly in its way when everyone else has fled, and I suppose it conveys a point about the limitation of machines, but how did he know this in the first place? Granted, the script isn't a model of airtight writing even in the first two episodes -- the Doctor is curiously able to waltz into Brett's laboratory without any credentials, and there's the now-infamous gaffe of WOTAN and Brett actually referring to the Doctor as "Doctor Who" -- but I think the story particularly suffers when the nature of the threat itself becomes fuzzy.

The conflict between humankind and machines is one that would recur throughout Doctor Who, but "The War Machines" was the first to place it front-and-center, and it acquires some added pertinence from its modern-day Earth setting. The script serves both as a cautionary tale about the human cost of what we might typically see as "progress" and as a reflection of a certain anxiety about computers (which were still a relatively recent invention) and their increasing capabilities. And while the narrative is curiously divorced from 1960s Cold War realities in its supposition that all countries would eventually agree to place their systems under WOTAN's control, it actually feels somewhat prescient in the age of Y2K scares and globally-distributed computer viruses. Today's cyber-threats are perhaps more likely to lead to confusion and chaos than to this kind of mechanized totalitarianism, but in a way the point's the same: as we invent more sophisticated technology and become more dependent on it, we may actually increase the likelihood that small mistakes and errors could have catastrophic consequences.

It is perhaps slightly ironic, then, that inventiveness is what redeems "The War Machines" for its problems in execution. Fortunately, its effect on the series was far from catastrophic: as has been pointed out many times, it turned out to be the template for the UNIT formula popularized during the Pertwee years and demonstrated that Doctor Who could work in a contemporary setting. Flawed it may be, but the lasting influence of its example can hardly be disputed.

Other notes:

- Another possible plot problem is that, although WOTAN seemingly needs the Doctor for its plan to succeed, it goes ahead and attempts the takeover of London even while he's still on the loose. (Though one can make the case that its hand was forced after the confrontation with the army at the warehouse and the capture of one of the war machines.)

- If I'm not mistaken, there is at some point a television or radio broadcast announcing that there will be periodic interruptions with more news about the war machines. Personally I'd like to know what the regular programming was under these circumstances. ("Coming up in just a few minutes we have the latest from the Beatles, but first, an update on the takeover of London by killer robots.")

- Dodo is only present in three surviving serials, and I never found her a particularly interesting companion, but it's somewhat disappointing that she leaves the series by sending the Doctor a message from off-screen. If nothing else, I'd have liked to see a little more of how the Doctor feels about continuing his travels alone, since he doesn't know that Ben and Polly are about to join him in the TARDIS.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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