Directed by Gerry Miller
Written by David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke
As we approach the end of season four of Doctor Who, let’s take a quick look back to the final serial of season three, “The War Machines”. After a rough, uneven season that saw both the highs of the series and some of the lows while burning through six companions, The War Machines introduced two more companions, Ben (played by Michael Craze) and Polly (played by Anneke Willis). The two of them outlived the First Doctor’s era and provided some stability in the transition. They were also really good companions whose chemistry only grew with each other and the Doctor as time passed and were a shining light after a series of quite lackluster companions. But now in their ninth serial we have to say goodbye to them and they will be missed.
Thankfully though we will still have Jamie (Frazer Hines) though this would be the end of the three-companion set up aside from the occasional special episode. I can’t say it will be missed however as it really was relic of an earlier era and wasn’t even all that successful there. The original three of Susan (later replaced by Vicki), Barbara, and Ian was needed to cover for the ill health and inability of William Hartnell to be on screen as much as was needed. Even then though, Ian would often get shunted to a mostly unrelated, time killing subplot while Susan acted as the load. The replacement with Vicki at least set up more of a two team (Doctor-Vicki, Ian-Barbara) setup, but frankly there just wasn’t enough material to go around. After Ian and Barbara left, it wasn’t until the arrival of Jamie that we returned to the three companions and in combination with a more active, involved Doctor, it left Polly regressing back into a Susan type role (after proving herself to be pretty intelligent and with almost a Doctor-like creativity) and Ben losing things to do.
We also return to the six episode format that hasn’t been seen since Patrick Troughton’s debut in “The Power of the Daleks” however this is going to be the norm rather than the exception going forth and through the Third Doctor’s era. More episodes means more to write about for each serial (yay), but more work for me to watch and write about (boo). It has also been a format of mixed success as the format allows more room to work but can make bad stories feel endless (especially when you have examples like today’s serial where only two of the six survive) and it’s not often I’m left thinking that there is too much material in a serial for it to fit into four episodes. There’s something to be said for a tight, well-told story.
Continuing the parallels to the original three, the time of the two (who probably not coincidentally are almost couple like in show and officially so in expanded material) and comes to an end with a return to their present day. By present day, I mean literally the day they left Earth in The War Machines which means that Britain was clearly having a bad day and that it sure is going to throw off the difference between their real and perceived ages (even if it is less than a year presumably). The Doctor and his companions lands in the middle of the airport where they are immediately nearly hit by a plane and chased off by some police.
Polly witnesses a murder via futuristic weapon (using the same special effect as the Daleks’ laser) with the murderer lifting a package (of postcards) and identifying something about “chameleon”, a reference to this week’s villain the alien race the Chameleons and to Chameleon tours because the aliens know absolutely nothing about subtlety (ironic considering their very nature). She’s later kidnapped and reappears not recognizing the Doctor or his companions or her name. Ben disappears later and in fact Ben and Polly only appear in episodes one, two, and six. Even their roles in the first two episodes seem to exist largely to write them out of the main plot.
The second companion slot gets filled sort of by the sister of another man who has disappeared, Samantha Briggs, who manages to have some pretty good chemistry with and adorable crush on Jamie (they even get in a couple kisses). It’s clear she was intended to be the replacement companion even without having to confirm it (I did anyway because I fancy myself professional) thanks to her presence, words of support from Jamie, and a couple moments of ingenuity (including one with a personal mirror reflecting a laser). She likely would have made a fine companion but it wasn’t meant to be and more than anything it would have been interesting to see if the show developed the relationship with Jamie which would have been a first for the show (where all the companions have had strictly platonic friendships).
The people in charge and the police at the airport seem rather unaccepting of lasers when they should probably be on high alert after a sci-fi type attack in the very country occurring at the same time. A shame we couldn’t have had the Second Doctor go over and meet his first incarnation while he was in the neighborhood. There are lots of scenes of the Doctor trying to convince people to investigate with them being hung up on him not having a passport early on and I get that the UK is a much smaller country (meaning that national flights would be less likely) and this was before the days of the EU, but it’s such an obnoxious thing to get hung up on especially since they were presumed to be pranksters and therefore very likely locals. Heck, even after everything has been pretty well proven including a futuristic freezing device, the man in charge still doesn’t even believe almost out of pure stubbornness. I’m still unsure of whether this is all just typical Doctor Who padding or if this character trait which seems to exist in at least one person a serial is just a side effect of them being extremely British. I mean why would anyone want to make such a fuss?
The monster design for the Chameleons is all over the place in quality. There are lots of early shots of just the hands (which look like terrible gloves) and the back of someone’s skinless head (which looks like an awesome outtake from Hellraiser), but the full reveal of the face is this close to being creepy but falls short and right into hilarious. At least their name is apt as they are able to use a machine to change their appearance as their Chameleon tours take in 18-25 year olds, disappear them, and resume their place in society unnoticed.
The serial could be a Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff if it wanted to, since the basic premise of people being secretly replaced remains the same, but the story forgets the suspense and the Doctor is too smart/the humans too disbelieving for the paranoia to ever set in. Plus, they are way too easy to identify as one of the Chameleons if someone knows where to look (their arm). The reveal that the plan is to abduct 50,000 people (for now) and steal their appearances just renders the whole thing a giant vanity project. Sure, they looked stupid before, but kidnapping that many people just to look better seems both pettily evil and an expense and risk that seems hard to justify.
The serials starts strong but losing Polly and Ben doesn’t help and it all goes off the rails after episode three. The disbelief of the commandant may have gotten increasingly hard to believe, but it was really the only thing that keeping it going. The last three episode kind of putter about before everything gets resolved, we get a quick kiss goodbye from Jamie to Samantha, and Ben and Polly show up at the end to find out they have returned to their time and leave. It’s a shame the scene only exists in stills because you can hear the heartbreak in the Doctor’s voice that they are willingly abandoning him but the lack of video combined with their lack of presence in much of the serial makes the ending loose something. Still, it’s a decent serial all around albeit one of the weakest of the season thus far.
– Only episodes one and three survive.
– We get a slightly different take on the opening theme music starting with episode two.
– Ben and Polly had far better and more believable chemistry than Barbara and Ian in both a friendly and possibly something more sense.
– I love the Doctor’s “scatter!” upon being identified by the copper.
– There is also quite the clever shot in transition as the camera moves in on a monitor hanging out in the background of one scene to reveal Polly snooping about. Granted they later reuse that basic shot so -1 to originality.
– I fully approve of calling airplanes “beasties”.
-Jamie gets to use some of his CSI abilities and proves rather adept at investigating in one brief scene
– Nothing with a character named Captain Blade can be all bad.
– The Doctor is apparently cool with torture, a technique that is very effective in this universe.
-At one point Jamie pinches Samantha’s ticket and tries to take off to Rome to investigate. This is of course prevented by the minor fact of the plane turning into a rocket and flying into a satellite which is subtly one of the craziest things the show has done yet and is not helped by the incredibly rudminetary 3D model the reconstruction uses to depict this.
– An awful lot of people being held at ray gun point this week to the point where it almost becomes a parody.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Their decision to leave now is rendered even harsher since the final scene reveals the Doctor and Jamie aren’t going anywhere. The TARDIS, after being carted off the runway earlier, has disappeared and without it they are trapped in 1966. Now this is a proper cliffhanger and the best in a while.
Next Up: Star Trek: TOS reviews return on Friday with “Balance of Terror” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” with more Doctor Who coming on Monday as we close out season four and meet our newest companion with “The Evil of the Daleks”.