Doctor Who (Classic): S03E10 “The War Machines”

Season 3
Directed by Michael Ferguson
Written by Ian Stuart Black

As we come to the end of another season of Doctor Who, it’s important to look back at the season as a whole and frankly there has been a ton of changes. The show lost is original producer (and her replacement) in Verity Lambert, and yet another script editor. After starting the season with Vicki and Steven, both are gone with ill-fated replacements Katarina and Sara Kingdom joining them, and after this serial, we lose yet another in Dodo. Combined with the increasing number of lost episodes, Season 3 has been a far shaggier with some high highs (“The Daleks’ Master Plan”, “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, “The Ark”) and low lows (“The Celestial Toymaker”, “The Gunfighters”) driving down the average grade (though to be fair, one of the best serials was three times the length of a regular serial which should count for something). After really coming into its own in Season 2, the show has for better or worse found its groove. It’s left many of them feeling repetitive and less experimental.

Thankfully, after three straight poor serials (following up the best three serial stretch to date), the show has finally regressed to the mean and with a completely intact one no less (okay there is a tiny bit missing from the last two episodes). “The War Machines” is set in a then present day London and featuring WOTAN, a super computer with the ability to think for itself. We are quickly introduced to the new companions Polly, a secretary for the professor responsible for WOTAN, and Ben Jackson, a depressed sailor on a shore posting, a technique I’ve longed preferred over the show up only in the last episode or so method (Katarina, Steven, and Dodo). It gives us the time to actually get to know them as characters without it feeling too rushed. Not that we find out much about Polly, but Ben is allowed to be far more animated than the typical companion at this point and we get the sense that he is an actual human being and not a prop or plot device.

Having a super computer in a sci-fi story means that inevitably it will declare war on humanity and thankfully the story doesn’t take long to get to that point. The machine speaks as if someone applied the Friday the 13th filter to it and able to take control of people with Bizarro Vision starting with the professor. WOTAN seeks to integrate with all the computers of the world which I can’t say if this is the first use of that device, but it is far from the last. Dodo is also taken under WOTAN’s influence which she hilariously reveals when she tries and fails to induct the Doctor to the plan despite him having not been completely hypnotized. This leads to the discovery that the Doctor can apparently hypnotize people as part of his many powers (or maybe just dehypnotize) and knock people out for two days. This is the kind of useful skill he seemingly forgets going forward, an inevitable problem in long term serialized stories.

WOTAN also builds a series of War Machines as its personal Dalek type killing machines but these aren’t exactly the most intimidating. Watch as the war machine viciously knock over some wooden crates. Watch it slowly trundle down a street. Watch as it easily cornered into rope or whatever trap. It does allow for an awesome shot of The Doctor staring down a war machine with its fax noises as the soldiers flee on either side and another of the Doctor emasculating the machine with a chuckle of “temper, temper” as it has its arm raised and ready to crash down on him. His way of defeating it is highly reminiscent of The Hunt for Red October with the whole stopping it before it had time to arm (or at least be armed properly) and the “they won’t make that mistake again” reasoning as to why it will only work once.

Dodo doesn’t even get a proper goodbye, just has Ben and Polly tell him she isn’t coming back with him and the displeasure of The Doctor at the lack of a proper goodbye sounds an awful lot like some real-world subtext slipping in. She disappears for her 48-hour nap and never returns. She was probably the weakest significant companion to date (Katarina was one for only 5 episodes) and we never really got much information of her. With the cleaning of the slate and the arrival of two new companions, the show really seeming to start over as it were headed into next season with one more change remaining to seal that up.

Grade: B-
Season Grade: C+

Stray Observations
– This is the first time that back to back serials share the same writer.
– This is the last completely intact serial until Season 5 (which only has 2 such examples) so enjoy it while it lasts.
– That also makes it the last completely intact serial with the First Doctor and the only one featuring Ben and Polly.
– WOTAN gets credited as itself
– WOTAN (and various characters under its influence) refers to the Doctor as “Doctor Who” which is another reminder of the series not being able to make up its mind early on about the name (see also the credits) but the only time he is actively called as such in the series. Still, it’s very easy to excuse since even though WOTAN known what TARDIS stands for, it could be very well misinformed as such. It also refers to the Doctor as human which was a far more common “mistake” (in truth it is only half a mistake) early in the series’ run before they had fleshed out all the details about the Doctor, even behind the scenes.
– The shot of an empty London is merely a side street and hilariously seems to be a picture not even video
– Sir Charles thinks he can reason with the machine and can’t accept WOTAN has gone rogue
– It is really hard to take the name Polly as said in a English accent seriously thanks to Monty Python
– We are back to the accidentally kidnapping people to be new companions and it is a shame. It’s always more interesting character wise when they choose to travel with the Doctor not to mention all the dodgy ethics of it (since the Doctor claims he can steer the ship yet refuses to actually return them).
– Sorry this is a day late but I spent much of yesterday in the fetal position when I wasn’t puking which didn’t leave me in a very writer friendly movie.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Ben and Polly head into the TARDIS to return Dodo’s key entering right before the Doctor takes off. He should really remember to check for stowaways.

Next Up: We start season four with William Hartnell’s penultimate serial, “The Smugglers”, the last of the serials made in season three’s production block and the last of his historicals.
“The Smugglers” – December 5th
“The Tenth Planet” – December 12th
“The Power of the Daleks” – December 24th