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Classic Who: The War Machines

I’ve been slack on the Classic Who front for a fair old time – I blame the BBC for making too many new shows that I’ve wanted to write about instead! But a weekend at home has given me the chance to fill in another slot in my viewing of the Hartnell era.

The setting for this story makes it very clear that change is in the air. We’ve seen almost nothing of 1960s London since An Unearthly Child: only Barbara and Ian’s return there at the end of The Chase, and a passing visit during The Dalek’s Master Plan. But now here we have it in all its glory – the programme’s first full contemporary-Earth story since 1963.

In fact, The War Machines falls into a particular sub-category of contemporary Earth stories, in that there is no alien menace in it – only human beings Going Too Far. Or at least, there’s none so far as we can tell. The Doctor does actually say at the beginning of the story that he can sense something alien about the Post Office tower, and when Dodo asks WOTAN what 'TARDIS' means, it knows the answer. So it could be that some remote alien influence is at work - but this is never made explicit within the story. Rather, it's a bit like the contemporary-Earth equivalent of the 'pure historical' story, in that the adventure is driven by the actions of humans, rather than alien invaders.

I’ve just been trying to think, in fact, how many other contemporary-Earth stories in Doctor Who are like this. The First Doctor's era does have another one, actually, even if the TARDIS crew never realise it: Planet of Giants, where overenthusiastic scientists have invented a deadly insecticide. There are also quite a few from the Third Doctor era: The Green Death (BOSS causes mutations via pollution, but isn’t alien in origin), The Inferno (subterranean green slime causes mutations, but isn’t alien in origin) and The Invasion of the Dinosaurs (overenthusiastic environmentalists invent a Timescoop). Four’s first story, Robot is also along similar lines: overenthusiastic scientists invent a giant robot. Those are all the stories I can think of, though of course there still are plenty of stories I haven’t seen. Anyone else have any? Anyway, from the sample I've got it looks like in the absence of an alien menace, contemporary-Earth stories tend to default to dramas arising out of fears about science and technology instead.

There's quite a lot else going on which I recognise from later Third Doctor stories in particular, besides the absence of aliens. The Doctor's wrangling with Sir Charles Summer very much paves the way for his later dealings with obstructive authority figures. Lines like "The official mind can only take in so much at a time" and "Your strong-arm methods have already got us into enough trouble!" are classic Pertwee fodder. The way the army functions once it is called in to deal with the war machines feels very much like a prototype for the later UNIT stories, too - over-confidence in their ability to deal with advanced military technology, frustration from the Doctor as they fail to listen to him, and then finally a resolution as they agree to follow his advice and succeed in dealing with the machines. It's exactly so that I can notice stuff like this, of course, that I'm taking the trouble to watch all of Classic Who. Who knew that the template for all this was laid down, nearly-complete, as early as 1966?

After all that waiting, the production team go pretty mad with the possibilities of contemporary London once they get there. At the centre of the story is the brand-new Post Office tower, and a DVD extras feature really shows how exciting this was at the time as an advance in telecommunication technology, and how neatly the story has tapped into that by housing a super-computer in its base. Indeed, according to this story, WOTAN is situated in the tower so that it can become the centre of some kind of 'world-wide computer network'. How's that for a vision of a white-hot future! I don't know how they think them up...

The direction is noticeably stylish, perhaps because the use of real-life locations instead of sets just provides more space and more interesting things to point a camera at. There are lots of interesting low- and high-angled viewpoints, close-ups of tense faces, and nicely-composed shots of the main action seen through framing objects (e.g. between the railings of a fence). I particularly liked the use of a melange of chaotic, half-seen images while the army unit were attacking the workshop where a war machine was being built. It really captured the action and danger of the scene much better than you would normally expect from a few actors and limited special effects.

There's also, of course, the depiction of swinging Sixties night-life - a screen genre all of its own which I've said before that I'm an absolute sucker for. The Inferno Club boasts a with-it bar-maid called Kitty who 'digs' the Doctor's 'fab' gear, a modern girl who won't let herself be pushed around (Polly), a disaffected youth (Ben), and a 'scene' crowd happily gyrating on the dance-floor. It doesn't quite capture the zeitgeist as rawly and gloriously as Michael Reeves' The Sorcerers, but it's a pretty good effort, at least by BBC standards.

Poor old Dodo, though. This is her last story, and she isn't half dumped unceremoniously. Hypnotised by a giant super-computer, and then shipped off to some unseen house in the country in episode 3, never to be seen again. It's about as thinly-handled as Leela and Romana II's departures, and the first really blatant example of companion-dumping in the programme's history. To be honest, though, I'm not that sorry to see her go. She started off quite nicely, and has had her moments - she certainly saw what was afoot earlier than Steven in The Savages, for instance. But she is fundamentally trapped in the role (previously occupied by Susan and Vicki) of an inexperienced young girl who needs the Doctor's protection - and she doesn't even have the advanced future-technological knowledge of her predecessors to help her. So there was never much chance for her to shine.

Meanwhile, because I've been watching some of the stories from this period out of sequence, I'm very well aware of how much more fun Polly is going to be instead. Already in this story she's explicitly presented from the start as independent, gutsy and dynamic - indeed, it's mainly her curiosity that brings her and Ben aboard the TARDIS in the first place, while Ben is much more inclined to just leave the strange old man with a blue box alone, and get on back to his barracks.

Polly wouldn't be as interesting without Ben to bounce off, though. I like the way they are both a bit prickly with one another at first, and the gentle teasing relationship which the two of them develop as they get to know and trust each other better. By the end of the story, in fact, their relationship has been well and truly consolidated by the fact they both owe each other their lives. Polly, hypnotised by WOTAN, is still sufficiently subconsciously aware that Ben is somehow a 'friend' to allow him to escape from the warehouse where the war machine was being built; and Ben later rescues her from the Post Office tower just before the Doctor's re-programmed war machine arrives to destroy everything there.

The frisson of class tensions in their relationship (e.g. Ben calling Polly 'Duchess') is another sign of change - it comes as part of the 'contemporary London' package, and would have been unthinkable in season 1, when everyone was from nice, well-educated, home counties middle-class stock. It's also referenced in Ben's dealings with Sir Charles Summer, who refuses to accept Ben's story about war machines being built in a warehouse in London, fairly obviously because he is an ordinary sailor with a cockney accent. By contrast, Sir Charles will listen to the Doctor with his RP tones and distinguished air of authority - but it's made quite clear that he is underestimating Ben as he does so, and the more enlightened Doctor has to intervene between them in order to push the plot forward.

As for the Doctor himself, WOTAN recognises his superior mind, despite thinking that he is human - another step in the gradual in-story heroisation of the central character. It also thinks that his name is 'Doctor Who', but I'm quite ready to overlook that for the sake of the excellent job which it does of bellowing out the word 'DOK-TORRRR!' in a menacing fashion as he starts to get in the way of his plans. This is a long and honourable tradition amongst Who villains, and I think the first time it's really been given full reign. Finally, I notice that the Doctor is also immune to WOTAN's attempts to hypnotise him, building further on the growing idea in this period that he is fundamentally physically different from human beings. And this latter is, of course something which will become particularly important in another couple of stories' time...

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( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 15th, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
Who knew that the template for all this was laid down, nearly-complete, as early as 1966?

I did, and have been talking to people about this ever since I first saw The War Machines.

In actuality, of course, the template was laid down in 1953 in The Quatermass Experiment, but it is a template that Who had been deliberately avoiding for its first three years.
Aug. 15th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
I did too, but then Doctor Who Weekly pointed it out in their History of UNIT in the late teens or early twenties of their run, in early 1980, so the idea was ingrained in me at an impressionable age.
Aug. 15th, 2010 10:50 pm (UTC)
I was just lamenting the other day that New Who barely ever sets foot on alien worlds. The 9th Doctor touched down on zero alien planets; Donna had about 4 which I think trumps both Rose and Martha put together; and then 11 and Amy only managed one in their first season together. And it's all the fault of The War Machines, for showing that earthbound hijinks are both cheaper and less liable to result in eternal embarrassment than the likes of The Web Planet. Curse you, War Machines!
Aug. 16th, 2010 09:37 am (UTC)
It's strange as well how rarely Doctor Who has managed to strike a reasonable balance in this matter. The Hartnell era avoided contemporary Earth like the plague (for the reasons swisstone mentions above), and The War Machines makes that seem like a shame, because it's actually rather good. On the other hand, the Pertwee era badly overdid it - and I think you're right that New Who has rather gone that way as well.

Your comment also makes me wonder how much weight we should give to the difference between actually landing on an alien planet, and landing on a space-ship or space-station of some kind. For example, you're right that the Ninth Doctor era was heavily Earth-bound, but how significant is it that four episodes are actually set on space stations orbiting future versions of the Earth (Platform One in The End of the World and Satellite 5 in The Long Game and the final two-parter)?

It seems that that was as alien as RTD dared to go at the time, but there were plenty of voices complaining that it wasn't alien enough. And it's also a debate which is now being voiced within the script, e.g. in Amy's complaint of "You promised me a planet!" after one trip to a space-station and one to the past. I guess there are just variable levels of alien-ness, is all - another one being unrecognisably-futuristic versions of the Earth, as in New Earth and Gridlock.

Anyway, it looks like RTD got bolder about 'properly' alien settings as he went along, hence Donna's experiences. So hopefully the same will be true as Moffat as he gets his feet under the table.
Aug. 16th, 2010 09:28 am (UTC)
Inferno is surely cheating -- it's (at least partly) in a parallel universe. If we're allowed that then you have to count "Rise of the Cybermen" since (IIRC) the Cybermen were human created. :-)
Aug. 16th, 2010 09:50 am (UTC)
Hmm, true, yes. Does it make any difference that in The Inferno only the Doctor travels to the parallel universe as part of a sub-plot, whereas in Rise of the Cybermen the whole story is set in the parallel universe? If we count parallel universes as alien, then what happens in The Inferno doesn't actually bring any kind of alien influence (other than the Doctor) into our world, but Rise of the Cybermen is entirely set in an alien world. It's a difficult case, though...
Aug. 16th, 2010 09:54 am (UTC)
*Grin* Well even if you don't count them as alien do you count them as "contemporary" settings? There should be some new word for that "partemporary" or something -- Happening at the same time in a different time stream.
Aug. 16th, 2010 10:32 am (UTC)
Hehe - good word! I think strictly speaking it needs an extra 'a', as in 'paranormal', 'paradox' and 'parallel'. But yeah - we definitely need a word like that to describe what's happening in these stories. 'Contemporary' doesn't cut it.
Aug. 16th, 2010 11:00 am (UTC)
Ah... I was going for the latin par for equal rather than para from the greek. I *think* that's right isn't it? Or am I mistaken and it needs the a... I bow to your superior knowledge here. Then is temporal latin or greek? We don't want some awful half-latin half-greek monster like television.
Aug. 16th, 2010 11:15 am (UTC)
It's a bit ambiguous, actually. Yes, there is a Latin word 'par' which means 'equal', but there's also a Latin prefix 'para' which means 'beyond' or 'against'. Meanwhile, there's the Greek 'para' meaning 'alongside of', 'beside' or 'beyond'. So basically the Latin 'para' is borrowed from the Greek 'para'. The meaning does alter slightly in the process, but it's very much related, and it's anyone's guess which we're dealing with in any given modern English word.

I suppose it's safest to say we're using the Latin root in a word otherwise composed of Latin elements, like 'paranormal', and the Greek one in a word otherwise composed of Greek elements, like 'paradox'. In which case, we can happily say 'paratemporal', and pass it off as a wholly Latin-derived word. :-)
Aug. 16th, 2010 11:47 am (UTC)
Aha... I consider myself enlightened (or marginally more so on this subject). So are you the world's first expert in the paratemporal now?
Aug. 16th, 2010 11:57 am (UTC)
Aug. 16th, 2010 11:58 am (UTC)
Oooh... what a cheat... they're not going into alternate universes at all!
Aug. 16th, 2010 12:00 pm (UTC)
No, it's distinctly disappointing on that front.
Aug. 16th, 2010 12:34 pm (UTC)
Black Orchid, which is a Peter Davidson story (and which was my single most vivid recollection of Dr Who), is alien-free, iirc...
Aug. 16th, 2010 01:20 pm (UTC)
It is indeed, but it's also a historical. The War Machines, and the other stories I've listed as being like it, are set in the contemporary present for the time when the story was broadcast. (Well, more or less, anyway - the stories featuring UNIT are a bit complicated).
Aug. 16th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
Black Orchid's a historical in a sense which none of the 1960s ones are, really - it's a pastiche of the 1920s mystery genre (one which might be more effective now than it was in 1982 - oh look, The Unicorn and the Wasp) and the legends which cling to aristocratic families and entertain visitors to country houses, such as that of the Beast of Glamis. It's heritage-historical, appropriate for the 1980s with its period family dramas on television, and for Doctor Who as it prepares to dive headlong into the trough of its past.
Aug. 16th, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
Good point about where it stands in relation to the programme's increasing interest in its own heritage. I saw it about 18 months ago, and was mainly interested in its use of costume and disguise at the time. That does link in with your point about it being a 'heritage-historical', though - more about dressing up and playing at being in the past than really being there. Mind you, I still stand by the point made in my review at the time that it is a lot more genuinely engaged with the past than near-contemporary alien invasion stories like The Visitation!
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:20 pm (UTC)
My mentioning The Unicorn and the Wasp was pretty gratuitous!

You are right about The Visitation's lack of period sensibility; any sense of social organisation disappears as soon as the squire and his family are killed. There was the potential for more to be done with the death imagery, but its psychological effect on the villagers isn't developed enough to be really effective, and given that the android has a different stylised appearance underneath the mask, the figure seems overdesigned and its image blurred (though fitting in with your observations about masks and disguise at this point in the programme's history).
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
masks and disguise

Gosh, yes, actually, now that I look back over all three of the stories I reviewed in that post, it obviously is a pretty major running theme in that season. Besides the android in The Visitation, one of the other main characters is an actor; while Four to Doomsday also revolves around the idea that what appear to be human beings are actually androids.

Mind you, Doctor Who has always been very interested in, and self-referential about, things like disguise and identity - so one could probably say much the same for almost any season in the show's history.
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:56 pm (UTC)
I think there's a case for the 1980s, pre-Cartmel, making particular heavy use of disguise compared with what came before or after, regarding it as particularly sinister; while Delta and the Bannermen takes it for granted that the Navarinos would adopt an appropriate appearance for a holiday in 1959 Disneyland, without having any malevolent overtones. A postmodern shift perhaps, acknowledging that what you see is never necessarily what you get, and that there is nothing automatically wrong about that.
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)
I watched The War Machines last week, for the first time in years. The opening shot, looking down from Centre Point across Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia down to the TARDIS's materialisation point, is a remarkable statement of newness, in that the established rules of Doctor Who are being turned on its head and contemporary London is displacing the exotic cultures which have provided the setting until this point. Dodo's departure is badly handled, as will that of Ben and Polly be a year later; it's as if the shifting characterization of Dodo and Steven, at the whims of changes of production staff and memos fired at the Doctor Who office from a dismissive but interfering head of serials, had convinced Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis that there was no point in the companions having any ongoing development, though I agree with you that Polly and Ben are both set up very well here.
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
...no point in the companions having any ongoing development...

A real pity, because there are all too many later ones, too, who suffer from this.

And I absolutely agree about the opening shot. After so many stories have opened with the TARDIS materialising in weird and alien places, it's very exciting to see it suddenly manifesting in such a recognisably contemporary setting. In particular it must have given audiences at the time pretty much their first ever opportunity to gasp and think "Oh, we are part of all this! These aliens worlds and past cultures amongst which the Doctor walks - our world, too, links in with them and, is just another stop on his travels!" That illusion is very much part of the enduring appeal of the show, I think.
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
My reaction to the nightclub exteriors (shot in studio) was that they reminded me very much of the recreation of 1960s Soho in Our Friends in the North, and so to me demonstrated a sort of reflexive authenticity.

For all my admiration of the John Wiles/Donald Tosh era of Doctor Who, the brief stopover to collect Dodo conceded that there was a need to occasionally drop anchor in the present day despite their assumption that the programme couldn't do so without undermining its entire appeal. I suspect Lloyd and Davis intended this would happen once a year, to change companions, though this didn't go as planned the next year.

Returning to the point about the companions, I'm reminded that Wiles and Tosh, after devising the character of Katarina, decided to make her short-term because of the problems of dramatising a non-contemporary companion's reaction to TARDIS travel over a long period as the production baton is passed from writer and director to writer and director. Subsequent producers and script editors were less bothered by this when it came to Jamie and Victoria; though by this time I'd argue that the second Doctor can act as an identification figure for the 1960s audience in the way that the Hartnell Doctor can't.

I'm going to have to assemble these thoughts and write them up on my own LJ, I think...
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
Oh, do! But only after you have finished your Proper Work article.... ;-p
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
That's held up at the moment, because I need to check some things in Oxford, and every attempt to get there earlier today resulted in my collapsing...
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC)
Oh dear! :-( OK, well then I guess if you are well enough to divert yourself by blogging about the treatment of companions in '60s Who from the comfort of your living-room, then you should go right ahead! But please do take it easy.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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