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Case Number 15235

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Doctor Who: The War Machines

BBC Video // 1966 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // December 15th, 2008

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart builds skyscrapers from cardboard scraps. Building inspectors hate that.

The Charge

"There's a new and deadly danger facing us. Yes. And it's coming from Professor Brett's office."

Opening Statement

It's hard to tell exactly how old the Doctor is, but Doctor Who recently celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary, having first aired in 1963 and lasting 26 seasons in its first incarnation.

The first Doctor, William Hartnell (Carry on Sergeant), didn't have a cell phone with no dead zones in time or space, psychic paper, or even a sonic screwdriver (although his ring, as is noted in the commentary, had some nifty powers; it's used here to break trances). His adventures weren't filled with CGI effects and big-budget monsters. Thus, both the Doctor and his production team had to use their noggins in his battles with aliens and monsters.

Too bad the BBC didn't use its collective noggins in the Seventies, when someone got it in their head to destroy years of black-and-white footage in the broadcaster's archives. Many of the adventures of the first two Doctors were lost. Of late, the BBC has been tracking down film to restore these lost adventures. Among its successes is Doctor Who: The War Machines, which aired in four parts starting on June 25, 1966. The first two episodes are as first aired, with the latter two salvaged with a touch of creative editing, according to "WOTAN Assembly," a featurette on the restoration effort. The pieces came from Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, and England. On the DVD, it's noted that most of the restored footage has been seen in an earlier VHS release, but there's still a minute or so of new material.

Facts of the Case

"London. Home. Marvelous to be back," Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) says when she sees where the TARDIS has landed this time. Since the Doctor was still a wanderer, unable to steer the time-and-space vessel where he wanted to go, this was especially fortuitous for her.

Not so much for the Doctor, who has to put an "Out of Order" sign on his ship, since the busted chameleon circuit means that it permanently resembles a police box, and some bobby might wander in by accident. Worse yet, he sees the new Post Office Tower and has a bad feeling: "You know, there's something alien about that tower. I can scent it." The Doctor recalls having the same feeling before his first encounter with the Daleks, thus reminding viewers of his most popular adversaries.

The Doctor and Dodo go into the tower to investigate and are ushered into the home of WOTAN, an intelligent computer. The Doctor tests its smarts with a math problem, which it quickly solves. Dodo tests it by asking it if it knows what a TARDIS is; surprisingly, it does!

WOTAN has decided that humans have "broken down." The computer plans to take over the Earth, getting rid of humanity. Toward that end, it takes over the minds of the scientists working with it, programming them to build war machines for a rampage through London.

The computer has found one more thing it wants: "Doctor Who is required. Bring him here." Toward that end, WOTAN reaches into the mind of Dodo, the Doctor's companion…

The Evidence

Doctor Who was a cheap show back in 1966. While the story depicts a massive invasion of London by the war machines, it's evident that there's only one war machine, a point that director Michael Ferguson concedes in his commentary. Its big attack on a phone box is silly (but New Zealand censors excised it as too scary for kids years ago, as is proudly proclaimed in various bonus features), and there's one process shot as the war machine goes forth on its mission that'll have you laughing out loud. The invasion's progress is tracked through TV and radio news reports and discussions between characters; thus, WOTAN's scientists, supposedly now all of one mind, have to tell each other every step of their invasion. A psychedelic swirl on the screen and a humming noise represent WOTAN's hostile takeovers of characters' minds. The production mostly keeps to a few sets, using stock footage and location shots sparingly to flesh things out. The computer and robots do look like they might be cardboard or, more likely, plywood.

Doctor Who (WOTAN, at least, calls him that) is an elderly man here, given to flowery language and bold speeches. Hartnell stumbles over a line once in a while, but his delivery makes it seem like part of the character. Although he appears eccentric in his anachronistic cloak and cap, Hartnell plays the Doctor boldly enough that makes it seem plausible that he talked his way into a top-security computer lab (although he could have had that psychic paper and used it off-camera).

The four-part adventure very much resembles an old movie matinee serial with its alien hero, war machines, and cliffhangers. There's a spark of something more at the start, though, as the characters speculate on the risks of an intelligent computer before those risks are realized. The show also tries to show that it's from the Sixties, not the Forties, by sending Dodo and Polly to a swingin' nightclub called "The Inferno."

The episode marks a transition for the series, with Jackie Lane's Dodo staying on in London and two new companions, Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills), wandering into the police box just as it disappears into time and space. Ben, a sailor on leave, isn't much for talk but is a man of action, ready to come to a lady's aid whether she's dealing with a jerk in a nightclub or mind-controlled scientists. Polly is seen nurturing others here, whether it's Dodo on her first trip to London or the moody sailor Ben; otherwise she's struggling under WOTAN's control.

The digitally remastered black-and-white picture is in relatively good shape, with crisp, clear images. There's still some grain, though. That electronic sound effect might be cheesy, but it comes through clearly here.

In addition to "WOTAN Assembly," which details the restoration process, The War Machines has a good selection of special features, helping viewers time travel back to 1966, at least vicariously. A commentary with director Michael Ferguson and actress Anneke Wills looks back nostalgically at the production and discusses the illness that would soon prompt William Hartnell to quit the series. Ferguson did notice the similarities between The War Machines and 1984's The Terminator. A production-notes option provides script and other notes plus trivia about the classic series. "One Foot in the Past" provides the background on the Post Office Tower featured in the show, while "Now and Then" shows the locations as they appear today. Clips from Blue Peter, a BBC children's show, show how to build your own Post Office Tower out of everyday household items, kids who built their own life-sized Daleks, and a preview of the episode. A photo gallery rounds out the package with stills set to the music from the nightclub scene.

I didn't get to check out the DVD-ROM features; my computer's just not compatible. However, the episode listings from Radio Times are also included in the production notes. I also couldn't find the Easter Egg, despite extensive playing around on the DVD menus.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

What won't you find in a Doctor Who story circa 1966? Deep characterizations, for one. The story is focused on war machines, not on the relationship between Dodo and the Doctor. Since this was before one-time story editor Douglas Adams deconstructed the series in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there's not that much intentional humor here, other than the bits with the TARDIS at the beginning and end. That war machine may not be scary, but it's intended to be.

There are also a few plot holes: Why, if WOTAN realizes there's something different about the Doctor's mind, doesn't it realize that the Doctor is an alien? How come the war machine takes so long to find Ben in its lair when a tramp who walked in was discovered quickly?

Closing Statement

Doctor Who has changed a lot since 1966, but it's still recognizable as the same show. For fans, the relative rarity of the episode, combined with a good story and the introduction of two new characters, will make Doctor Who: The War Machines one of the series' better releases.

If you're not a Whovian but like classic cliffhangers and '50s sci-fi, the intriguing story will make it worth a look for you, too. The effects are cheap, to be sure, but when you start with a good yarn, those signs of intelligent life come through.

The Verdict

Not guilty. I'll have to go now, so I can build my own Post Office Tower out of household objects.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 85
Extras: 95
Acting: 88
Story: 88
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: BBC Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Classic
• Foreign
• Science Fiction
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Production Notes Option
• Blue Peter Clips
• One Foot in the Past
• Now and Then
• WOTAN Assembly
• Photo Gallery
• Easter Egg
• Radio Times Listings (DVD-ROM)
• War Machine Design Plan (DVD-ROM)

Accomplices

• IMDb
• Doctor Who: The Classic Series








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