This is a perfect example of a story that makes it so worthwhile to watch all of Doctor Who in order, as it is totally different to anything that has gone before. If you dip in and out of various different Doctor Who eras, taking the VHS or DVD release schedule approach, then this probably seems quite familiar: contemporary London, a computer trying to take over the world, the Doctor swanning in and taking charge, working with the military. But at the time this was all brand new.
So far Doctor Who has been set almost exclusively in the past or the future rather than the present day, and on the very rare occasions that the TARDIS has popped up in the 1960s the series has never made any real attempt to interact with the culture of the time. The Doctor wandering into the Inferno club is strikingly new, and William Hartnell is magnificent here, and throughout the story. The script calls upon him to play the Doctor in a different way than he has ever done before, basically what will become the Jon Pertwee approach, and despite struggling a bit with the exposition he delivers. The moment at the end of Episode 3 where the army run for cover but the Doctor stands his ground as a war machine approaches shows how well he is coping with the demands of a completely unfamiliar approach to Doctor Who. And he does that in the twilight of his era of Doctor Who, at loggerheads with just about everyone he was working with, and in failing health. What a pro. This is the post-Hartnell vision of Doctor Who arriving early, and Hartnell shows how he was not just capable of fitting into that, but could do so magnificently.
So none of the problems with this story are anything to do with Hartnell, but there are problems. WOTAN is a fudged attempt at a Nazi parallel, trying to do the Daleks again with a machine that wants to wipe out humanity, just because it does. The pronunciation of “Votan” gives us a clue to what is being attempted here. But it is just one of a variety of under-developed ideas that are thrown into the mix and then don’t really go anywhere: Norse mythology gets a namecheck and little else; the crediting of WOTAN is a tantalising hint of what might have been, attempting to push the threat through the fourth wall into the homes of the viewers as Ghostwatch would later do. The Doctor’s ring is once again the sonic screwdriver arriving early, this time used to de-hypnotise Dodo.
…which brings us to the most unsatisfactory companion departure of them all. Dodo has been sadly under-utilised and has proven herself to be a very entertaining and effective companion on the all-too-rare occasions a writer ever bothered to give her something to do. And Jackie Lane has done the best she possibly could with virtually nothing to work with. It’s no wonder returning to Doctor Who has never appealed to her.
The Doctor’s sixth-sense, “I can scent it”, is generally assumed to be a fluff. I looked at a transcript of the episode recently, which even corrected it to the assumed “sense it”. But Jackie Lane responds with ‘smells OK to me’, so if Hartnell did fluff the line then Jackie Lane must be credited with a lightening-fast wit. Either way, she deserved better. She was introduced as a contemporary 60s companion, originally rehearsed her first story in a completely different accent and then had to water it down with R.P. English at the last minute, and from that point onwards was never actually written as the character she was supposed to be. She never got to be anything other than generic female companion. The contrast with Polly here is striking. On paper they should be fairly similar, but Dodo looks more out of place in the Inferno Club than the Doctor. Maybe this has something to do with her travels with the Doctor as well: she doesn’t fit into 60s London but now belongs among the stars. Her send off should have been something like Steven’s, not being forgotten and going home to somewhere she doesn’t seem to belong any more.
And when you look at what she is swapped out for when she is unceremoniously dropped, well… Anneke Wills is brilliant, but Polly is immediately an excuse for sexism. She is the victim of a predatory man in a club, gets saved by Ben, and then gets told to “be careful who you encourage”, having encouraged the revolting creature not one bit. From the outset, she is “the bird”:
This bird saved my life, see.
Dodo was the last unearthly child, in the same tradition as Susan and Vicki. She was the girl who never quite fitted in, wherever she went. Her removal, to be replaced by a 60s dolly bird, is a horrible rejection of difference and embracing of conformity. And our space pilot who could be the leading man in any story has gone too, replaced by a chauvinist cockerney. I will let Dodo’s final words end the article, as I think they unintentionally sum things up pretty well. She deserved better.
I resist all attempts to change me into somebody else.
Quite right too. RP
The view from across the pond:
People may dislike The Gunfighters but I think The War Machines is closer to the top of that worst list. See, The Gunfighters doesn’t take itself seriously and that makes a big difference. You can accept a story that is a little silly when those involved know it and play it for a laugh. The problem with The War Machines is that it takes itself seriously. Serious Doctor Who is fine, but then the stakes have to be higher. But when the villain is as lame as WOTAN, the audience can’t be expected to buy into it. And the War Machines themselves are like wannabe Daleks made by 6th graders. I am totally willing to suspend disbelief but their main show of strength is smashing cardboard boxes. (Even on Blue Peter, that’s their gimmick. They should have been called The Great Recyclers!) And as stakes go, they take over the Post Office Tower? Not Parliament, the White House, not even the television center? The Post Office… Does that mean I won’t be getting my bills? No more solicitation? No more of those accursed coupon books of which we throw away 99% of them?
However there is the introduction of pretty Polly and boisterous Ben. And I was a fan of Polly from the word go. Having met Anneke Wills several years ago, and seeing just how amazingly bubbly she was, it just proved that she was in real life as magnificent as her onscreen counterpart. But this episode is not much of an intro. Ben and Polly are just there for this story and only become companion-grade when they go to tell the Doctor that Dodo is staying behind. Then the Doctor does what the Doctor is good at: high tails it with his newly abducted companions. Much the same way he did with Dodo, in fact! Meanwhile, Dodo’s departure is akin to “be right back… oops, sorry, no I won’t be!” She actually never has a farewell moment, which probably helped propel her to the top of my forgotten companions list – most of her stories are lost and then she gets lost halfway through this story. Talk about ignominious! It was like Ben and Polly were the sleight of hand replacements. (Think of how Indiana Jones has to swap out that bag of sand for a gold idol… here’s hoping no one will notice the change.)
There is one scene of the Doctor wearing his cloak and his astrakhan hat, hands held high on the cloak, as the War Machines approach. He is unwavering. His curiosity shines through. That image is the best thing to come out of the episode (after the introduction of Polly and Ben). After that, it’s pretty much downhill.
Oh wait… then there’s that awful, awful, (did I mention awful?) use of the name, spoken like a Zygon in the midst of a cyber-conversion; that mechanical half-whisper, “doc…tor…who…is…required…” I like bridging gaps in stories, trying to make sense out of these oversights on the part of the writers. In my mind I see a line of programming with the question after the Doctor’s title and WOTAN is just reading it verbatim. Sort of like writing: “who is this guy? Doctor who? He is required!” and WOTAN, being a computer, just reads that as his name. Alas, we are never lucky enough to see that and so we get the first horrible use of the title in dialogue – not the first use; the first horrible use. At least it wasn’t as bad as the Peter Cushing Doctor where his last name is actually Who. Yes, we will have to talk about them one of these days too!
Hartnell bumps his head at one point while examining one of the War Machines. I think it was a clue on how to watch this episode. I’ll try to hit my head on something to dull the pain the next time I watch it. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Until then, ty…len…ol… is… required. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Smugglers