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

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.


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

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