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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