The War Machines

Cover of Doctor Who: The War Machines DVD release


  • 25 August 2008 (UK)
  • 6 January 2009 (US)




Wow. The War Machines feels like a completely different show than previous Doctor Who. Set on Earth (the first show to take place there since the pilot) in 1960s London, the serial sees the Doctor play a minor role in early episodes. Instead, the audience follows the lives of young people as they go to nightclubs (!) and of scientists and politicians as they prepare for the debut of a new technology. The Doctor watches all this business carefully from the background, but as his associates fall one by one under the influence of an enemy, he must lead the British army in destroying a major threat to the people of London. Who could have seen this story coming so soon after The Web Planet?

The War Machines - 4 episodes

The War Machines is ridiculously different than previous Doctor Who (it even has different opening credits!). Previous episodes have followed a strict formula. They take place on an alien world in the future or on Earth in the past. In either case, the Doctor and his companions are split up and captured or the TARDIS is rendered inoperable, so the group must get involved in some local conflict, which they manage to resolve, before moving on. The War Machines does not follow this formula.

The first and most obvious change is that it takes place in then-contemporary London. Some excellent location shooting, the serial's emphasis on the rapid pace of technological advancement, and the inclusion of realistic characters from various backgrounds, from stuffy government officials to nerdy scientists to fashion-conscious young people, are all factors that make the serial feel so modern. Modernity is something that was previously completely absent from Doctor Who. By setting this story in the present, with locations such as pubs, factories, offices, aristocratic homes, and nightclubs, the story is given an extra sense of realism. Two things lacking in previous Doctor Who stories were distinct and memorable characters and settings. Here, each character has something singular to offer. Each character has a different accent (ranging from Ben's cockney to Sir Charles' Eton), a different style of dress, a different set of motivations, and a different approach to getting a point across. Of course, the Saxons and Vikings in The Time Meddler, the Menoptra in The Web Planet, or the resistance fighters in The Dalek Invasion of Earth could have been made so rich and distinct; a story doesn't have to take place in a familiar setting to produce memorable characters. But it's certainly easier to convey the range of human experiences and emotions with actual humans in contemporary settings, and The War Machines takes full advantage of this milieu to provide a range of engaging characters.

Another major difference is the Doctor's role in the story. He's typically reluctantly drawn into a conflict by force, after which he spars with and eventually defeats the antagonistic side. Here, the Doctor is never under any obligation to get involved in any affairs. The TARDIS is always accessible and he can leave if he wants to. He voluntarily decides to investigate happenings and is never forced to act due to a threat to one of his companions. By removing obligation from the picture, the character is given a great deal of breathing room, which is taken advantage of. In early episodes, the audience hardly sees the Doctor, instead getting drawn into the hubbub of 60s London and follwing the interrelated lives of several interesting characters. The Doctor watches, as does the audience, from the background as the story starts to shape up and a conflict emerges. Once things start to heat up, the Doctor's role changes completely. He leads the Britsh army (!) in resisting an evil threatening force and plays the role of a hero whose knowledge is the only thing that will save ordinary people from a grave danger. But he's not forced into any of this; he acts instead out of benevolence, and this motive allows a much better exploration of his character.

With the setting and development and the style and the characters and the Doctor so different in this story, what about the plot and the execution? The plot isn't terribly original. It becomes clear from the outset that the efforts of scientists led by one Professor Brett to network the world's computers under a central intelligence called WOTAN are ill-fated. Anyone who's seen a few episodes of Star Trek or any other science fiction series knows that. But the contemporary, familiar setting makes things a bit more interesting. With so many scenes at nightclubs and press conferences, and with the Doctor fading into the background, the audience doesn't focus so much on the predictable nature of the plot, getting caught up instead at how alien (at least to Doctor Who!) the familiar settings are. Given the simple nature of the conflict, the decision (as in similarly straightforward The Aztecs) to dive right into the action in the first episode was a good one. It would have been intolerable to have to wait until the third episode before people started realizing that the computer, WOTAN, might present a problem. Instead, WOTAN gets to work immediately. Moreover, WOTAN's method of gaining control, by brainwashing people over phone lines, makes for some pretty good drama, as it quickly becomes apparent that the people most qualified to deal with WOTAN are being brainwashed one-by-one, that anyone can be reached with a simple phone call, and that resistance is futile. This adds some suspense and paranoia to the serial and suits it well.

The second half of the serial sees the Doctor taking charge of the British army to stop WOTAN. One of the best things about WOTAN as an enemy is that it doesn't rely solely on people it has brainwashed to defend itself. Instead, WOTAN has its followers build machines capable of using force against opponents. These machines, called "War Machines" like serial's title, are far more difficult to stop since the Doctor can't simply reverse the effects of brainwashing. The government calls in the British army to deal with the war machines, but as expected tradition means are not effective at all. The Doctor must devise a better plan for stopping the war machines. Perhaps surprisingly, the Doctor's method of dealing with WOTAN is a bit more imaginative and realistic than talking the computer to death a la Kirk.

The scenes in the second half the serial involving the army and the machines are like nothing previous seen in Doctor Who. They're tense, action-packed scenes with a real sense of impending doom. They frequently take place outside, on location in London, and escaping the confines of the studio really opens the story up a great deal. The closest thing seen previously are the scenes set in London in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but those scenes just involved running away from the Daleks, not actual fighting. Here, location shooting is used very effectively to convey the destruction that the war machines are capable of. Director Michael Ferguson does a great job here, keeping the action moving and using several creative shots. His directing is superb at conveying the mood, just as his use of parallel stories between the nightclub, the press conference, and Professor Brett's office in the first episode is great at slowly building up tension. Other very effective choices include using no incidental music; instead, a somewhat melodic meldoy of computer and electronic noises signals that a hypnosis is taking place, with a distinct set of noises serves as the leitmotif to the war machines; both are unusual but distinct and wise choices. The only issue in the area of sound that seems unnecessary is giving WOTAN a voice; the background noises and the words of those who have been hypnotized are more effective than the somewhat over-the-top, highly stylized voice that WOTAN takes on.

With stark differences and innovations, a simple but well-executed plot, and excellent directing, what criticisms can be offered about The War Machines? The contributions of the actors is somewhat variable. The Doctor is on form as always, as are his companions. This is really one of William Hartnell's best serials, as he gets to play the Sherlock Holmesian detective and the action hero at intervals. He takes center stage in some really great scenes and delivers nearly as many Hartnell-isms as in The Romans. Considering that The War Machines is the last fully intact serial to feature William Hartnell, it's a fine note to go out on. Regarding companions, some criticism seems to be leveled at Jackie Lane, who plays Dodo Cahplet, but she does a fine job here, especially once the end of episode one swings around. She can be really creepy at times. New characters Ben and Polly do a fine job, with Polly conveying her socialite status quite well (Dodo seems so lost by comparison in these nightclub scenes!) and Ben expressing desperation well in later episodes. Sir Charles is a great addition, the frumpy British aristocrat, and Krimpton, the tragic nerdy scientist, is someone the audience feels for. But Professor Brett never really engages the audience early on and is certainly unable to later, while the Major seems quite wooden in later episodes and is given some lines of contemptable consonance and repetative repetition to deal with: "Danger! There is a stranger!", "He will work for us. You must all work. Go back to your work." Another problem is that most of the hypnotized characters, with a few exceptions, come off so blank and emotionless that they detract from the mood of the story. Better acting when hypnotized would improve the drama a little. A further problem with this story is that it drags a bit in the middle. Later parts of episode two and early parts of episode three feel a bit padded, and some of the otherwise excellent fighting scenes go on a bit too long and seem awfully smoky and repetitive (though this is partly due to lost footage being replaced by copies of surviving footage). There are also a few convenient moments in the third episode that appear to take place just to allow the plot to advance. The War Machines, while generally impressive, especially in episodes three and four, a a bit awkward at times. The story's biggest problem, of course, is like that of any other computers-take-over-the-world story: there seems to be no motivation. Why would a computer built by intelligent human scientists suddenly decide it needs to take control of the world and kill humans. Better yet: why would it even be capable of reaching such a conclusion given that it was build to serve humans? WOTAN's motivations are glossed over in this story, but if one can accept the premise, the serial is very entertaining.


Special features

The special features are generally good, providing some background about the setting at the then-new Post Office Tower (now BT Tower) as well as an excellent feature about the attempts to reconstruct the serial from piecemeal footage. Still, it would have been nice to see a feature including some interviews with the cast and crew. The episode commentaries are pretty good, featuring actor Anneke Wills who plays Polly and director Michael Ferguson. Ferguson provides some interesting information about the difficulties of location shooting and the efforts he used to convey a greater conflict than could be filmed, for example by using repeated clever shots of one lorry to make it seem as if many were transporting soliders. Overall, the commentaries add a bit of depth to the story.