Friday, 21 July 2017

Audio Review 26: The War Doctor: Volume 1 - Only The Monstrous, written by Nicholas Briggs (2015)


Released: December 2015

Cast: 
The War Doctor – Sir John Hurt
Cardinal Ollistra – Jacqueline Pearce
Rejoice – Lucy Briggs-Owen
Keskan Slave – Carolyn Seymour
Seratrix – Alex Wyndham
Veklin – Beth Chalmers
Bennus – Kieran Hodgson
Arverton – Barnaby Edwards
Trannus – Mark McDonnell
Garv – John Banks
Dalek Voices – Nicholas Briggs 

Main Production Credits 
Producer – David Richardson
Writer – Nicholas Briggs
Director – Nicholas Briggs
Script Editor – Matt Fitton
Original Music and Sound Design – Howard Carter
Recording – Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
Title Music – Howard Carter
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery 

Story Placement 
Between unknown previous adventure (after The Night of the Doctor) and The War Doctor: Infernal Devices (Big Finish Audio). 

Favourite Lines:

Cardinal Ollistra: “What is War, if not the embodiment of hypocrisy”. 

Prime Dalek: “Peace in Our Time!” 

Cardinal Ollistra: “Where can I find you Doctor? When I need you again.” 
The War Doctor: “At the Heart of the Battle, where the blood of the innocents flows, and only the monstrous survive”. 

Foreword: 

The recent sad loss of Sir John Hurt came as a surprise to many, including me, who hoped his diagnosed cancer was in remission, and had several years left to enjoy. In truth, John Hurt is one of Britain’s greatest character actors, and many, including me, had become fond of his reassuring gravelly voice and sweet demeanour. I confess, while I only know of about a third of his rich and extensive work over the years, the conviction, gravitas and honesty of his performances always impressed me no end. As time goes by, it becomes increasingly clear that John Hurt was an absolute workaholic, whose contribution to the Arts of Cinema, Theatre and Television in recent decades, is matched only by a small number. On a lesser note, it was also sad that Sir John was taken away from us, not long after welcoming him into the great big happy Doctor Who family. I think it’s a huge shame that John, never got the time to experience and realise the affection present and future fans had, and would have for him. Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ll all cherish the magnificent material he's gifted us with, of which Big Finish’s War Doctor series is part. Steven Moffat and all of us were very lucky that John Hurt was cast in the fascinating character of the War Doctor, and after his short appearance in the Doctor Who TV series itself, it was only natural for fans to become desperate for more opportunities to experience and enjoy this mysterious incarnation of our hero. Nicholas Briggs and Big Finish audios clearly agreed, hence their hard work to bring the War Doctor to audio so quickly, and I’m very glad they did, but unfortunately especially now that John Hurt is sadly no longer with us. I confess, although I purchased the boxsets straight away at the time, its only now, after the great loss of this enormous talent, that I was compelled to seek out some of his work to enjoy, so I could remember him at his best. Not to mention, hear some more of John Hurt’s short, but unforgettable and momentous contribution to the World of Doctor Who.


Please note: Spoilers Follow!

Part 1: The Innocent


Review: 

The Innocent is an unusual and unique piece of Doctor Who; a fascinating paradoxical mix of being new and fairly radical, featuring striking action set pieces, while also having a low-key, broadly-written narrative. Then there’s the wonderful contrast between the Universe-encompassing Time War, and the often tranquil, rustic paradise of planet Keska. For the first story to introduce us to the War Doctor properly, it feels strange to have a slightly uneventful plotline, and yet that’s what makes it all the more interesting, because it allows for an introspective character study of this brand-new Doctor.

While we know Only The Monstrous isn’t the War Doctor’s opening adventure, the story knows it’s serving as the character’s main entrance, and throughout The Innocent, economically works in a series of clever flashbacks, which serve as a neat potted history and summary, of some of the actions this “cursed” of incarnations has performed during the hell of the Time War. So as the entrance for The War Doctor, this introspective, and quite laidback opener, is quite unlike any introduction we’ve had for any Doctor before. Yet it feels so right. The War Doctor creates and carries the most emotional baggage of any Doctor, so we, the listener, are still trying to make sense of how that shapes and defines his persona. In that sense, the War Doctor is almost a completely new character we’re experiencing for the first time. However, its more than that. The War Doctor’s insistence that he is no-one, nobody, and his tight-lipped secrecy about his recent past, also turns him into a fascinating enigma. The Doctor hasn’t been this much of a mystery since the Sylvester McCoy incarnation, but there’s deeper echoes that hark back to William Hartnell’s Doctor too, because for the first time since Doctor Who’s first TV episodes in 1963, The Doctor is completely unpredictable, a virtually unknowable force of nature, truly capable of anything, especially given the more amoral outlook forced upon him by the Time War.

Furthermore, it reinforces how new and fresh everything is. The idea of the fallen survivor from an alien war, is actually, a very old Sci-fi premise, but it’s the first time it’s ever been applied to The Doctor. In fact, the setup feels like an echo of the Ninth Doctor’s entrance in 2005, which plays on very similar lines, except minus featuring the Time War itself, and that the Ninth Doctor was clearly in recovery from the aftermath of the War, rather than in shock from coping with being in it. The Time War has been mentioned and represented countless times in Doctor Who since 2005, but it’s never been portrayed with any real dimension thus far, mostly because the TV series, even when it first raised the idea in 2005, didn’t and largely still doesn’t have the funds to do it justice on screen. So, to all intents and purposes, this is a separate and brand new version of Doctor Who, complete with its own backstory and supporting characters, a whole world away from any of Doctor Who’s televised series. The War Doctor series, brings with it an excitement and frisson, as to the new avenues and possibilities it can explore, just as the 2005 TV Revival did.

More like a film, than an opening to a series, The Innocent begins with an impressive set piece, as the Time Lords hoist a Dalek fleet upon its own Time Destructor. The sudden tonal shift, from that to the relaxed and domestic setting of Keska, and the gentle personal two-handed character drama between The Doctor and Rejoice, is both a welcome surprise, and a wonderful breath of fresh air from the usual melodramas of space battles we might have been expecting. While the stakes may not be very high at this stage of the story arc (the Taalyens feel like a mere distraction at the moment), this thoughtful study into the Doctor’s emotional turmoil, prove to create a charming little tale, which gives us a good early insight into the effect of the Time War, and acts as the “Calm before the Storm”, the prelude before the “Hell” of the Time War truly takes shape.

Rejoice and the War Doctor, make a great natural duo, and one wishes that perhaps Rejoice might have been a companion, given their obvious rapport. The Doctor’s head, caught between the horrors of the Time War and the personal trauma of coming to terms with his own actions during it, is soothed and healed significantly by Rejoice, who has an angelic level of patience and faith in the good, which she thinks The Doctor still has in his hearts. Despite his protestations and sudden violent outbursts, Rejoice proves to the audience, that under the surface, the old spirit and good nature of the Doctor still lies within him, and that he punishes himself too harshly. It’s a big shame then, that before this relationship develops into something greater, its snatched away by the Time Lords, who are desperate to drag The Doctor back into The Time War. I feel this is a clever signposting by writer Nicholas Briggs to show that this is unfortunately not business as usual, mirroring the all-pervasive and threatening Time War, by disrupting Doctor Who’s very own formula, so even The Doctor himself cannot escape the horrors that await him. Despite the clever script device, part of me hankers for a longer running time of this interlude, just so we, the listener, could peel back the layers of The Doctor and Rejoice’s characters, just that bit deeper. Briggs, like The Doctor though, is playing his cards very closely to his chest, and leaving us wanting more, and after this delightful and impressive opening, I for one, cannot wait for the next instalment.. 

Score: 7/10


Part 2: The Thousand Worlds


Review:
 
The sudden intervention of the Time Lords in the relative peace of The Innocent, strips the Doctor of the opportunity to truly heal and come to terms with his true self. For the Time Lords, the Doctor is considered, and treated like their ultimate weapon, a resource to be unleashed in dire circumstances; and so, will never give him up easily. The War Doctor being dragged back to Gallifrey, and employment in the Time War, has echoes of when the Third Doctor was occasionally dragged back to work for UNIT. He clearly doesn’t want to be there, openly mocking his rank superiors, but for far better, deeper and different reasons than before. He feels bombarded and straitjacketed by orders from Time Lords, who seem to act more like Daleks, one-track narrow minds, obsessed with victory to the point they have contempt for those not unlike themselves. For Veklin, this is certainly true, but I feel she’s far too unsympathetic and earnest to be taken seriously, and makes an easy target for the Doctor’s jibes.

Cardinal Ollistra is far more well-rounded and developed, performing the hard, stern, austere Commander of Time Lord military operations to her underlings; while being a ruthless, cynical, but smooth-talking politician in reality. Ollistra also holds a fascinating measure of respect for The Doctor, despite his contempt for all things military. She finds him amusing, but refreshingly sharp-witted and imaginative, especially compared to the more literal-minded Time Lords like Veklin, or the waffle of young innocents, drafted into the cause.
 
Speaking of the The Innocent, I had suspected Nicholas Briggs was going to reintroduce Keska and Rejoice, later into the story arc; but I didn’t expect the momentous and confident twist unleashed upon the listener, when the Doctor tragically finds himself in a Dalek-occupied Keska, devastated by Invasion and industrialisation, just years after he left it. The turn of events is another great piece of symbolism on the effect of The Time War. In better times, Rejoice would have been The Doctor’s companion, and Keska, another saved planet living in peace. The Time War though, continues to unravel all before it, including The Doctor, and everything about him. So, past victories become overturned by greater defeats, and The Doctor sees his would-be friends at their knees, his good deeds made null and void. There’s no certainties, or rules in the Doctor Who Universe any more…and sometimes that makes the possibilities all the more exciting.

Except, the calm eye of the Storm, The Doctor, remains a reassuring presence in these unpredictable events. For all his laments and shame, about not being the person he used to be, his kinder and warmer old self, still threatens to reappear from time to time. He’s clearly still very goodhearted, caring for the Keskan people, and keen to do the right thing. The reunion with, a now older Rejoice, is even just 60 odd minutes since her introduction, sweet and poignant. The Daleks may have brought weariness, hopelessness and the death of innocence to Keska, but Rejoice is still a warm and kind soul, who believes in the good heart of the Doctor. The Doctor is notably happier in her presence, and I love how the two playfully tease each other, like the best of friends.
The Daleks in contrast, are a fascinating contradiction. Their reliance and use of the Taalyens as less intelligent, militaristic allies is a very familiar gambit, and after being clearly diminished in their most recent conflict with the Time Lords, the Daleks are carrying out their intentions very coolly and cautiously. It makes a big change not seeing the Daleks as brazen and arrogant as on earlier occasions. The Thousand Worlds also gives us a rare opportunity to experience a successfully Dalek-occupied World close-up. I know Nicholas Briggs’ spinoff audio series Dalek Empire covered this in extensive detail, but it’s rare for us to come across it in official Doctor Who itself, and experience The Doctor operating within it. The atmosphere is predictably oppressive, bleak and intimidating; never-ending industrialisation and military installations, worked by a permanently enslaved civilisation. I would love the TV version of Doctor Who to attempt imagery of this type again, it really sells the horrific threat of the Daleks in a way reams of exposition and special effects just simply can’t. Nicholas Briggs has years of experience writing about the deeper nature of the Daleks, so he has their character, meaning, ideology and effect down to a Tee by this point.

Like The Doctor, we too think the worst of the Daleks, which makes the cliff-hanger of The Thousand Worlds so intriguing... 

Score: 8/10

Part 3: The Heart of the Battle 

Review:

The idea of the Time Lords making peace with the Daleks, is another great new fascinating concept to explore, especially under the backdrop of the Time War. Like the idea of Nazi appeasement in hindsight, sacrificing hundreds of planets and civilisations to unopposed death and tyranny under the Daleks is horrifying; and the hope of Seratrix that this callous selling out of a galaxy or two to satiate the Daleks’ bloodlust and terror, in order to enable the Time Lords to resume their naval-gazing unfeeling protectionism, is sheer naivety of the highest order. The Doctor thinks so too, and like us is highly sceptical that the Daleks will remotely honour their promises to Seratrix.

So, it’s no real surprise when the Doctor uncovers, without too much difficulty, that the Daleks have outwitted Seratrix, and intend another, more devious means to wage and win the Time War against the Time Lords. Turning just over a “thousand Worlds” into giant space projectiles to impact into Gallifrey, has to be one of the most audacious and ambitious Dalek schemes to date. The simplicity and gall of it is mindboggling, and Seratrix’s peace negotiations are enough to distract the Time Lords until it would be too late, or so the Daleks think anyway.

The Doctor makes short work of the Daleks, only to realise he can’t truly win and stop the Dalek plan without sacrificing Keskan lives. He resigns himself to the fact that he may continue to always be the “monster” he’s been fighting within himself all this time, if he’s to win against the Daleks. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, trapped in an endless purgatory, with no good decisions in sight; mired in loss and destruction; and without peace, eternally ashamed and self-loathing, for what he’s had to do.

The use of the Taalyens, and a deeper exploration into their nature, accentuates the Doctor’s inner turmoil; between his despair and weariness of the Time War, and his hatred of the Daleks, and their allies’ utter contempt for all life, and the innocents they lay waste to. However, they also highlight The Doctor’s true good nature, despite his shame. The Doctor takes it upon himself to take the worst decisions, so no one else has to suffer them on their conscience. The Taalyens are, like the Daleks, the real monsters, and their obsession with might and victory, is such that conscience and innocence are weaknesses to be reviled, not strengths. They’re more dangerous and intelligent blunt instruments than the Ogrons, so perhaps the Daleks are choosing their allies more carefully. However, in story terms, the Taalyens end up being instruments to frustrate the Doctor. I really didn’t like how Rejoice was seemingly despatched, as just another innocent victim to highlight the Taalyens’ obvious cruelty. I thought Rejoice was a fascinating idea for a character – the lost companion, which the Doctor never had; and a great concept to revisit in future storylines. To just throw the character away in order to tie up as many loose ends as possible, felt like a waste of her success as a concept so far, as well as the future potential Rejoice could have.

The real twist of the story though, is that the whole course of events we have witnessed, were set into motion by Cardinal Ollistra the entire time. Ollistra secretly sanctioned Seratrix’s Peace group, and their attempt to negotiate a settlement with the Daleks, just so she could infiltrate and thwart their followers in the long term. The Daleks’ Null-Zone Machine was donated by Ollistra to Seratrix, as a temporary sweetener to the Daleks, until she was sure Seratrix’s group were all revealed, and defeated, after which it was deactivated so the Time Lords could regain supremacy before the Daleks brought their plans to fruition. The Doctor is understandably horrified. The Daleks’ “Thousand Worlds” invasion, and their alliance with the Taalyens, the devastation of Keska; was all just to prevent appeasement in the Time Lord ranks, and it could all have been avoided. Ollistra, is the real Time Lord monster of the Time War, and worse, she feels it is her duty to be so, in order to achieve victory, her ruthlessness knowing little bounds. Veklin it seems, is another story device; both to give some scale, to the effect of the Time War on the Time Lords; and to be Ollistra’s very own blunt instrument, cleverly shadowing Ollistra’s influence until the final reveal. While Ollistra is far from the worst of the Time Lord villains encountered by the Doctor, there’s a strong argument to say that Ollistra is perhaps the cleverest and most calculating. 

Score: 8/10 

I’ve already mentioned the stellar acting of Sir John Hurt, and as I and many others suspected, he does an equally fine job revisiting the War Doctor. Hurt takes the weariness, dry wit, contrition and thoughtfulness introduced in The Day of the Doctor, and adds depth and in some cases, blistering anger, giving much more layers and colour to his portrayal of the War Doctor. Furthermore, he feels totally settled in the role, and clearly enjoys his time as part of the Doctor Who universe, as if he had been a part of it for several years before. Hurt leads this version of Doctor Who with great confidence and reverence, emanating gravitas, and portraying a calm and steely tenacity in the War Doctor, subtly demonstrating his determination to bring this Time War to rights, whatever side he finds himself on.

Jacqueline Pearce does a stunning and convincing turn as new Time Lord villain, Cardinal Ollistra. After her iconic Blake’s 7 performance as Servalan, Ollistra may seem like typecasting, but Pearce perseveres in creating a fresh new Doctor Who villain, substituting the theatricality and camp of similar villains, with the weariness and authoritarian calm of a wiser and senior official. There’s also an inner peace, and quiet self-assuredness that Pearce holds back until Ollistra is alone with the Doctor, reinforcing the private respect the Cardinal has for him. More importantly though, it subtly reveals the hubris and arrogance of her own convictions in a way that feels natural. It’s that inner calm and cool determination that helps add dramatic weight to the reveal of the true extent and scope of Ollistra’s ruthless and devious scheme.


Rejoice is played wonderfully by two actors, reflecting two points in the character’s timeline. Lucy Briggs-Owen brings a sincerity throughout, that really brings Rejoice to life. Her subtle and gentle performance of Rejoice’s generous spirit, and her quiet resolve and bravery, really sells her as a future companion we’d want to know. Carolyn Seymour’s interpretation is very warm, but very convincingly portrays the future Rejoice’s hardened and sceptical outlook, hiding a lifetime of loss and oppression. It’s just a shame that despite defeating the Daleks, we didn’t get to see Seymour and Hurt enact a happier parting between the two characters.


For perhaps the first time, I feel compelled to applaud the excellent Sound work of Howard Carter. Most of my reviews have been of Big Finish’s early years, and I’m far behind on listening to current releases, so skipping forward to this set has been something of a revelation to me. The Time War, offers a vast playground for any composer and sound designer, and Howard Carter has superbly rose to the challenge. From the very beginning, Only The Monstrous has better sound design than a multi-million pound movie, with an explosive opening that immediately brings the scale of the Dalek time fleet, and their demise into perspective. It also highlights the contrast with the beautiful and tranquil planet Keska, and its rural utopia with gently rippling lakes and birdsong. Then in future episodes, the war-torn Keska stands out again, with the rumble of loud and distant mining explosions, Dalek hover jets, and the groans of beaten and ill people enslaved by the stormtrooper-like Taalyens. In addition, the Taalyens’ tone deaf war music is an hilarious invention. Pure genius. Regular listeners to Big Finish’s current output may take this attention to detail for granted, but after years of re-listening to their early works, it’s clear that audio production at Big Finish has made huge advances in recent years. Howard Carter’s original music is pretty fine too. Very in-keeping with the tone of Murray Gold’s early incidentals for the TV series, with hints of John Debney’s 1990s style, and a very percussive sound in the mix suiting the War Doctor’s harder character. I’m a bit less sure of the new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme – it’s very bombastic and on the nose, but its growing on me. 

Only the Monstrous serves as a great re-introduction to the three major parties in The Time War: The Time Lords, the Daleks, and the Doctor himself. It’s a fresh beginning that features some good untested new ideas in Doctor Who – a low-key entrance, a new twist on “The Doctor as survivor” tale, the Companion that almost was, and Time Lords trying to make peace with Daleks. On top of all that, the Daleks (and the Time Lords for that matter) feature at their scheming, ambitious best, in an extended tale that goes some way to demonstrating how devastating the Time War is to other planets, and how even the most innocent of civilisations can never truly be safe while it rages.

Nicholas Briggs deftly directs this production, clearly creating fantastic chemistry between the cast, and encouraging great atmosphere and convincing performances throughout. From the first minute, I was immediately immersed in this new vision of Doctor Who, and I think it’s a wondrous thing Briggs has created.

Being an introduction, however good though, is as much its flaw, as its strength. Only The Monstrous is often clearly a warm-up, laying the groundwork for later and bigger storylines to come. Nicholas Briggs chooses to sacrifice some of his good invention to the overall narrative, and to emphasise the War Doctor’s inner conflict with his conscience; in many ways going over similar ground to that explored in The Day of the Doctor, albeit more expanded upon. Oddly, we finish this opening boxset, with very little having changed. We may have met Ollistra, and realised her lethal determination to win against the Daleks, at any cost; but overall the Time Lords seem to be winning the Time War rather well, perhaps preparing the stage for greater falls to come; and the War Doctor continues, still as conflicted as before. I also think it a shame, that this extended story (and I suspect subsequent boxsets too), weren’t as long as perhaps it could have been, to allow for more extensive supporting character development, particularly of the Keskans and Taalyens. While the concise plot didn’t curtail the ambition of the story, I think that more subtle and natural development, would have made them a lot more interesting, and more multi-dimensional.

While Only The Monstrous seemed only a tactical skirmish for the Time Lords though, the story holds great promise for the surely bigger and more complex tales to come…and I can’t wait to hear them! 

Overall Score: 8/10

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Welcome Along

After a long period of limbo, I'm glad to say that this Doctor Who review page is back up and running. My full time work in Production at Hospital Radio Chelmsford (www.hrc.org.uk) keeps me very busy and on my toes, but I'm determined to keep this page going for a long time to come.

I hope you enjoyed The War Machines review. I'm currently aiming to produce one review every six to eight weeks. At the moment I can reveal I'm in the middle of reviewing Big Finish's Only The Monstrous, starring the late John Hurt. Below though, is a list of what I'm looking to review across the rest of the year:

July: Only The Monstrous
Summer 2017: The Aztecs
Autumn 2017: The Power Of The Daleks
Autumn 2017: The Tenth Doctor Adventures, Vol. 1
Winter 2017: The Sensorites
Early 2018: The Enemy of the World
2018: The Nightmare Fair

I still intend to review the TV and Audio stories I originally promised for the 50th Anniversary, but now the 50th has long since past, I'm doing them at a lot more loose and slower pace. I'm also still open to any reader review suggestions. Any constructive input is welcome. I hope you enjoy all my future posts.


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

TV Review 27: The War Machines, written by Ian Stuart Black and Kit Pedler (1966)


Broadcast: 25th June – 16th July 1966

Cast:
The Doctor – William Hartnell
Dodo Chaplet – Jackie Lane
Polly Wright – Anneke Wills
Ben Jackson – Michael Craze
Professor Brett – John Harvey
Sir Charles Summer – William Mervyn
Professor Krimpton – John Cater
Major Green – Alan Curtis
Voice of WOTAN/War Machine Operator – Gerald Taylor
Kitty – Sandra Bryant
The Minister – George Cross


Main Production Credits

Producer – Innes Lloyd
Script Editor – Gerry Davis
Writer – Ian Stuart Black, from an idea by Kit Pedler
Director – Michael Ferguson
Designer – Raymond London
Costumes – Daphne Dare and Barbara Lane
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Make Up – Sonia Markham
Production Assistant – Snowy White
Studio Sound – David Hughes
Studio Lighting – George Summers
Film Editor – Eric Mival


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

Arriving back in contemporary 1960s London, the Doctor and Dodo visit the newly completed Post Office Tower, where a new revolutionary computer system called WOTAN is being developed. WOTAN, unbeknownst to its creators, has a will of its own, and soon decides that civilisation cannot advance further with man running it. To this end, it decides to take control of human society, and hypnotises people around it, to enlist them in its new cause. It creates new soldiers, “War Machines”, to help takeover London.

When the Doctor finds out, he sets out to capture one, helped by new friend Ben, the local authorities and the army. Successful, the Doctor reprogrammed the War Machine, sending it to attack and neutralise WOTAN. Dodo decides to stay in England, but the Doctor is unexpectedly joined by his two new friends, Ben and Polly, who sneak aboard the TARDIS after him.

Story Placement:

Between The Man in the Velvet Mask (Virgin Missing Adventure Book) and The Smugglers (TV serial)


Favourite Lines:
Charles Summer: This, er, might be a little more dangerous than we think.

The Doctor: Ah, Temper, Temper.


Review:

The War Machines is one of those fun and accessible Doctor Who stories, which you can enjoy watching, whatever day you’re having. In fact its’ perfect for those grey miserable days, where you’re unwell or stuck indoors, and just want some delightful diversion to pass the time. Fortunately though, The War Machines has more on offer than merely a good televisual romp.

Firstly there’s the freshness of it, compared to most 1960s Doctor Who, which personally I put down to the story’s deliberate contemporary setting. Surprisingly, the first two episodes of The War Machines are the only time in the TV series that we get to see it attempt a fleshed-out portrayal of London, at the height of its “Swinging Sixties” pop culture and glamour. Sure, on a 1960s BBC budget and mindset, it was never going to look as spectacular as a James Bond movie, or as manic as the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, or as realistic as the adult drama of The Wednesday Play, but it’s certainly more convincing than I would have expected, giving off a vibe of The Avengers, with a packed-out, but not artificially hip nightclub, and the cool, irreverent manner, shining from Polly’s character.

Adding to the believability of the London setting, is the drab reality, laid out bare on screen, even as soon as the characters leave the nightclub, as a homeless man searches around for a place to sleep; the area strewn with large gigantic empty warehouses, unspoken relics, of for the time, recent and continuing mass closure of docks and shipping yards, as trade dried up, and workers were made redundant in their thousands. Then of course, that’s subtly juxtaposed with the traditional high society of London’s rich west end, as represented by Sir Charles Summer. In fact, I feel that this is the most real portrayal of London in Doctor Who till at least The Web of Fear, 2 years later, but not properly until Remembrance of the Daleks’ venture through suburban London, filmed in 1988.

Secondly, there’s the novelty of its concept. The War Machines is also surprisingly the first appearance in Doctor Who of artificial intelligence as an antagonist, a villain; and only the second exploration of artificial intelligence in Doctor Who, since the TARDIS in The Edge of Destruction. The depiction of it represented by WOTAN, feels like a reactionary one – a fear of computers being able to think for themselves. However, in 21st century terms, that feels so mundane, laughable even, since we now understand this to be a basic need so computers can operate under the considerable more complex conditions and tasks they do now. The real concern, written into story’s narrative, is whether computers should have their own consciousness, will or self-control; a wonderful idea to explore, except the script completely avoids exploring it, choosing to favour purely action, and a B-movie style plot. While a computer in charge of the safe development of the Earth, would logically determine Humans as a threat, Ian Stuart Black completely fails to translate this in his script, and turns WOTAN into a stereotypical villain; so it’s cold, literal and machine-like dialogue, mostly falls flat, separated from its original concept.

Another fascinating aspect to WOTAN, is exactly how he controls, or hypnotises his human servants. My personal pet theory is that WOTAN has worked out the form of electrical energy used in the human body to communicate information to the brain. WOTAN would then, using its superior processing power transmit stronger electrical impulses to its victims; impulses that would be bigger, louder and more overwhelming than a human’s own neurotransmitters; hence why it can also work down telephones. In short, WOTAN has invented human Wi-Fi. Sadly, this is all guesswork; it’s a real shame the final script leaves no clues as to the whole idea behind WOTAN, and merely turns it into another “monster of the week”. The complete ambiguity at the heart of WOTAN’s concept, is one of The War Machines’ greatest missed opportunities. Artificial intelligence would go on to be explored in far better and greater detail in later Doctor Who stories, like The Ice Warriors, The Green Death, The Face of Evil and Four to Doomsday; not to mention other Science Fiction of course, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). One particular pertinent example from memory, is the 1996 two-part finale from BBC action series BUGS – The Bureau of Weapons/A Cage for Satan, when the villain Jean Daniel, unleashes an artificial intelligence called Cyberax, which invades and disturbs people’s minds. I digress though.

The War Machines themselves, are also the series’ first robotic monsters, built to replace man. While Sci-fi had dealt with Robots in film and literature decades ago, their first proper use in Doctor Who brings with it, an excitement in their visual direction by incoming director, Michael Ferguson. Furthermore, it feels as a slight precursor to later serial, The Tenth Planet, because The War Machines too, was originally conceived by Kit Pedler.

We take it for granted now, but the use of conveying narrative and scope through fictional TV and Radio news broadcasts, also helps to go some way to selling the sizeable and global threat of WOTAN. At the time of the story’s broadcast, it was still a relatively new technique for TV Drama, memorably used six years earlier in Quatermass and the Pit (1957); although it’s not a new idea per se, as films used images of mocked up newspapers, to tell smaller plot developments simply and clearly, to help the pace of the narrative run at a faster, more accommodating pace. Nevertheless, this was still quite novel for Television, and as a result, helped Doctor Who to come across as modern and more credible.

The third factor that gives The War Machines an edge, is perhaps the most obvious – the new incoming companions, Ben and Polly. Their charismatic, energetic and fun personalities are a huge breath of fresh air, after the gradually staling format of regular characters, which had been going since the show began. In some ways, this was a very good thing, as it seems a while in the series since we had companions this well-defined. Polly is a very brave and down-to-earth young woman, her posh accent disguising an altruistic and giving nature, easily relatable, with a great sense of humour. Ben on the other hand, is an instinctive man of action, decisive and alert, often rather impetuous, but fiercely loyal to the last.

These two companions are particularly striking, because it was the first time in Doctor Who that new companions were unashamedly contemporary. While first companions Ian and Barbara were meant to come from the contemporary time they first joined the series at, they weren’t meant to be in any way representative of the section of society that they fictionally came from, they were recognisable authority figures that the audience could trust. Ben and Polly on the other hand, are clearly crafted to relate to the general masses of their younger audience – two trendy and “hip” youngsters; one a regular at the local club scene, the other a local cockney, on leave from national service. Maybe even more surprising is the fact that, after Ben and Polly, Doctor Who producers avoided having distinctly contemporary companions again, until Ace in 1987, and the most contemporary companion of all, Rose Tyler in 2005.

The arrival of Ben and Polly into the series, also marks the point in the show when companions stopped being the Doctor’s personal friends and equals (albeit alleged in Dodo’s case), and were instead the Doctor’s sidekicks or assistants, more akin to popular ITV 60s action show, The Avengers. While many companions maintained a strong level of friendship with the Doctor, they were never explored as characters in the same level of depth and dimension as Ian, Barbara, Vicki and Steven had been before; and arguably wouldn’t again, until at least Liz Shaw and Jo Grant, during a production renovation of the show in the early 1970s.

Furthermore, The War Machines also sadly marks when the format and definition of Doctor Who itself, was restricted, and arguably dumbed down by new show Producer Innes Lloyd, and Story Editor Gerry Davis. Although both joined the Production of the series officially at an earlier date – Davis at the end of The Massacre, and Lloyd at the start of The Celestial Toymaker; in many ways their early collaborations on making Doctor Who were old story commissions already in place, holdovers from former story editor Donald Tosh, including The Ark, The Celestial Toymaker and The Gunfighters. The Savages meanwhile, was the first Doctor Who storyline by Ian Stuart Black, commissioned by outgoing producer John Wiles, after experienced TV scriptwriter Black actively sought to work on Doctor Who. So The War Machines was the first serial to be produced under the creative direction, Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis wanted the show to go in.

Before Doctor Who, Innes Lloyd, by all accounts hated science fiction, but came to appreciate the show as an adventure yarn for all the family. Unfortunately, this was also the yardstick, by which he judged the format of Doctor Who. Despite praising the flexibility of the show’s format, Lloyd seemed determined to make Doctor Who pursue purely the space adventure and sci-fi thrillers of alien menace, which had got the show easy popularity in the past. All other genres in Doctor Who were unceremoniously ejected, and deemed unsuccessful, particularly historical-based stories, and the recent comic sendup of Westerns in The Gunfighters. Unfortunately for Lloyd, circumstances led to two further historical serials being made – The Smugglers and The Highlanders, although these were given a unique tonal shift, by story editor Gerry Davis.

Gerry Davis, in contrast, loved science fiction, and upon working on Doctor Who sought inspiration for new story ideas, taken from real life scientific ideas. To that end, Davis found and recruited British medical scientist and parapsychologist, Kit Pedler, as Doctor Who’s unofficial scientific advisor. Pedler would come up with many great concepts, including the idea of the Cybermen, and even the early premise for The War Machines.

I guess the rather longwinded point I’m trying to make is, with Gerry Davis’ passion for creating new science fiction in Doctor Who, combined with Innes Lloyd’s determination to simplify the series’ focus, and throw out it’s less crowd-pleasing, and more experimental genres and elements; Doctor Who became fairly standard sci-fi escapism, with a line in grotesque alien menace. The show was now a distillation of some of the more popular episodes of its former self, and increasingly less remarkable in comparison to the more disposable light Sci-fi thrillers, made under Lew Grade, Gerry Anderson and Brian Clemens; except for a few canny Sci-fi concepts, mostly proposed by Kit Pedler. Out went much of the character drama, ambition, and endless possibilities of its original concept, and in came spectacle, action-filled plots, stock characters, and generally shallower storytelling. However, this didn’t necessarily result in poor Doctor Who. In fact, some of the show’s best, and fondly remembered serials come about during the next two years. Besides, as many people will tell you, Doctor Who can, and often, does sci-fi escapism really well. Despite this though, as the programme hurtles towards what has been affectionately named as “the Monster era” (The Tenth Planet – The Dominators), there’s a definite loss of depth, scope, but most of all, of that magical creative freedom which allows Doctor Who to go anywhere and be almost anything a writer or producer chooses.

Unfortunately, it was a creative freedom that wouldn’t truly return until the explosion of spin-off mediums, when Virgin Publishing and Big Finish Productions took the franchise to many pastures new and experimental places, ironically after the TV series had been first cancelled in 1989. The revived TV series, which began in 2005 has tiptoed awkwardly between the accepted Sci-fi escapism of its former self, and some of the new ideas inspired by spin-off media; but all the while still refusing to be as bold and experimental as its early years. Personally, I have never really bought the argument that Doctor Who as a TV series could never be as varied in genre, and as creatively ambitious as it’s book and audio mediums, given that Verity Lambert, the original producer of Doctor Who attempted the impossible, and often succeeded on a day-to-day basis. Even The Web Planet works to a fair degree, purely due to the sheer effort by most just to get it off the ground. Maybe one day, we’ll be able to witness a 21st Century series that truly lives up to the original concept of the show. I live in hope.

In 1966 though, the original series concept for Doctor Who is all but dead by the time of The War Machines. The ghosts of its former self, namely The Smugglers and The Highlanders, are two anomalies, in many ways made due to Gerry Davis’ affection for romantic period adventure, like those by Robert Louis Stevenson. The only exception at this time was virtually anything written by experienced Doctor Who writer, and former script editor, David Whitaker; but Power of the Daleks in particular. In part this is because Whitaker can’t help himself, but write fascinating character drama, its second nature to him. On the other hand, it’s also because Innes Lloyd, Gerry Davis and Patrick Troughton, worked hard to create a new, complex, and workable character for the new Doctor, beginning in that story. So the importance of that event required special measures. In the end though, most writers did follow Gerry Davis’ template for “strong, simple stories”, with many non-conforming complex scripts being rejected. The new format was here to stay.

As hinted above, the adjusted format, wasn’t the only major change happening within Doctor Who at the time of The War Machines. By this time, the health of lead actor William Hartnell, was deteriorating badly, while suffering from continued arteriosclerosis. Although Hartnell had taken necessary breaks during the production of The Celestial Toymaker, and The Savages; story editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd tried to minimise The Doctor’s lines and active presence in the overall narratives of the stories to make it easier for Hartnell to take part in them, and remember the scripts. William Hartnell’s illness would only get worse in the episodes to come, so these script edits proved not only to be shrewd, but essential. However, I think they also unwittingly created an interesting quirk in The Doctor’s character. The War Machines does a good job of making it look like The Doctor waits to make a calculated plan of attack, but he also stands back from the main action of the narrative, and persuades others to drive along the plot for him. To me this also sounds like one of defining traits of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor – the sly quiet observer, watching, studying and directing the action of those around him, while silently plotting his next move. So unconsciously, what was once an aid to William Hartnell, seems warped to become an actual element of the Second Doctor’s character, helped along by having more proactive companions like Ben, Polly, and later Jamie, who in many ways, all lead the action of the plot for him.

Furthermore, these aids to William Hartnell seem to have worked, his performance clearly rejuvenated, and full of life during The War Machines. He gleefully marches into the Post Office Tower at the start of the story, and displays great comic timing in his eccentric quirks, which Hartnell has perfected for the character of The Doctor. I just love that moment, when William Hartnell mock scolds the captured War Machine in Episode 4. He's clearly enjoying every moment of it, and is very much back on form. Hartnell also makes a cute double act with William Mervyn. While the character, Sir Charles Summer is very much Mervyn’s stock-in-trade, a slightly pompous upper class authority figure (not unlike his famous character portrayal of Inspector Charles Rose); Hartnell and Mervyn play off each other really well, even if Mervyn occasionally seems a little bemused at Hartnell’s eccentricities. Sometimes it even appears that Sir Charles is competing with The Doctor, for the same place in the narrative, even saying very similar dialogue at times.

The two new companions, Anneke Wills and Michael Craze, are by far, the standout performers of The War Machines though. They bring an exciting and infectious enthusiasm to their parts, that in many ways rubs off onto the surrounding cast, particularly William Hartnell. However, there’s an honesty and conviction too, which genuinely sells both the characters and the drama of the story, and frequently act much of the supporting cast off the screen. Sadly, that includes Jackie Lane, who courageously tries her best to salvage, one of the worst written Doctor Who regular characters ever invented. Alas, poor Dodo, was no more though, as Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis gave up on this failed experiment of a companion, who quite frankly, struggled to work from the time she began, during the final moments of The Massacre. However, with hindsight, Lloyd and Davis did the right thing, as Ben and Polly very quickly prove to be strong future companions, within just a couple of episodes.

New Doctor Who director, Michael Ferguson, also adds an extra edge to the production, giving the stage direction and action sequences, a level of clarity and dynamism rarely seen during the early years of Doctor Who. There’s great use of the on-location footage, both of London, and of the Post Office Tower. The on-location shots of the War Machines in action are especially impressive, with some striking high-angled shots, and some very atmospheric low placed ones. My favourite is when the War Machine is displayed by its reflection in a murky puddle, next to a sorry, overturned bicycle. We would see more of this kind of artistic expression in later years, as more creative directors began to work on Doctor Who, but at this point in time, Douglas Camfield, Christopher Barry, Derek Martinus, and now Michael Ferguson, were fairly peerless amongst a sea of BBC staff directors on Doctor Who, some of whom used the show as training, and others who struggled more with the challenges, limitations and differences between TV and Film production.

After three episodes of realising the threat of WOTAN though, The War Machines seems to fall at the last hurdle, by turning out to be a disposable thriller after all. The long, padded build-up of the construction of the War Machines, is at first, hypnotic and captivating, but gets a bit tedious by episode four, without much change in the plot. The capture of the faulty War Machines is a lovely fun little sequence, but essentially the whole story is wrapped up by a couple of minutes of ‘jiggery pokery’ and wire twiddling by The Doctor, and suddenly a World threat is over in the blink of an eye. It’s a rather deflating conclusion, even if its one that makes sense per the logic of the story.

The War Machines then, stands as both a perfect summary and statement for the new direction and new format Doctor Who will take for the next couple of years. An enigmatic, but ingenious Doctor, with feisty proactive companions, engaging in a fun throwaway adventure, with some thrills and great sci-fi ideas along the way. Many of the new elements to the show, put into play by Producer Innes Lloyd and Story Editor Gerry Davis, will continue to form part of Doctor Who’s storytelling for decades, up to the present day. However, this bold new direction is as much a regression as an evolution, because where character drama and development used to be key to the show’s success, now action and style seem to have taken their place. Even the sci-fi concept of WOTAN is fairly undeveloped, and ends up only ever being a temporary menace. There’s a resolution to this entertaining escapade, but more than ever before, Doctor Who has become more about the thrill of the adventure, than about the deeper definition and meaning of its characters, and their actions. As Season 4 begins, we start to see more and more that The Doctor and his companions have stopped being people who choose to become heroes, and start to become roles fulfilling heroic archetypes. In The War Machines though, everything is new and reinvigorated, including much of the cast; so the effect of this change is quite exhilarating in the short term. It’s neatly packaged and plotted, excitingly directed, and the story of inhuman menace threatening contemporary Britain is a breath of fresh air after what came before, even if, with hindsight, we know that it will be done again far better through the years. There may not be a lot of meaning, complexity or depth to The War Machines, but above everything else, it is good, solid, harmless fun. And some days, that’s all Doctor Who ever needs to be.

Score:    8/10