The War Machines ushers in not only the end of Doctor Who’s third season, but also the hasty, and unceremonious, exit of perhaps the most derided of all the Doctor’s companions, Dodo. Having lost Steven only the previous week, when he decamped at the Doctor’s bidding to mediate a new world for the Savages and the Elders in The Savages, it looked for all of a minute that the Doctor might again be companion less. Although the Doctor’s ignorance seemingly lasted seven days until the next serial, The Smugglers, the audience well knew that Ben and Polly were new members of the Tardis Crew. The cycle of companions continued, but more of that later.
The last of the First Doctor’s serials which is 100 percent complete, The War Machines, plays upon the increasing fear of the mid 1960s that computers would usurp humans. This was an era almost ten years before the introduction of the first personal computers and 15 years before the release of IBM’s first PC and Microsoft’s MS-DOS computer operating system in 1981. Although personal computers had made inroads into the business markets by the late 1980s (Microsoft Windows was released in 1985) it was not until the mid 1990s that home PCs became more affordable and popular. After borrowing friends’ unwieldy home-made computers to write my BA (Hons) thesis in mid 1980s, it was not until 1990 that I bought my first PC. A clone of the IBM XT, it had a mammoth 128 KB of RAM and a 5¼ inch floppy drive! An early adaptor of computer technology, the wonders of this piece of computer history came at an outrageous price of around $3,000.00.
At the time of The War Machines’ transmission, it was unlikely that more than a handful of viewers would have ever personally seen a computer. Computers were massive objects that frequently were the size of a room. Perhaps seen in educational documentaries or on science fiction shows, computers were a great unknown. The playthings of mad scientists and eccentric geniuses, the distance between computers and the general public was such that they were greatly shrouded with mystique. I went through the whole of my schooling in the 1970s without ever seeing a computer, and entered the “real world” under a misapprehension, that was most probably quite commonly shared, that computers were only the domain of mathematical geniuses.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that the ordinary Joe or Joy Bloggs might find a Doctor Who story set in present day London in 1966, about a computer intent on human domination, an altogether feasible possibility. Although plainly science fiction, there was a kernel of fear and mistrust among many that this may one day become science fact. Watching Classic Series Doctor Who with an eye to history exhibits time and again that science fiction sometimes does become reality. In Who’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, Susan predicts the UK’s conversion to decimal currency eight years prior to its eventual introduction in February 1971. “Spooky”, you might think, however The Time Machines did it again in mid 1966 when it foreshadowed the internet.
WOTAN, an acronym for Will Operated Thought ANalogue, is the most advanced computer in the world, although not necessarily the largest. It’s advanced technological capacities were a perfect companion for the building in which it was housed, the new Post Office Tower. Officially opened on the 15th July 1966 by the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, the Post Office Tower was the tallest building in London. Towering 177 metres from the ground (581 feet), it held that title until 1980. “C Day”, or Computer Day was set for 16th July 1966, the day after the Post Office Tower’s official opening. On that date all computers throughout the world were to be linked together under WOTAN’s (pronounced Votan) central control. The various sites to which WOTAN would be connected included the White House, Cape Kennedy, ELDO, TESTAR, RN, Woomera and EFTA.
TELSTAR was the name of various telecommunications satellites which were launched in the early 1960s. They provided the first transatlantic satellite television and telephone communications. So heralded was the launch of the first TELSTAR in 1962 that an instrumental tune by the British band The Tornados became the first number one hit in the United States for a UK band. Below, for your listening pleasure, is the Tornados with Telstar. ELDO was an acronym for the European Launcher Development Organisation (now the European Space Agency). RN is presumably the British Royal Navy, EFTA is the European Free Trade Association (formed in 1960), and Woomera is a weapons testing range in South Australia. Between 1946 and 1980 it was location for joint British and Australian weapons testing. The White House and Cape Kennedy require no explanation.
The Tornados – Telstar
The “C Day” linking of the world’s major computers foreshadowed the ARPANET, the first packet switching, in 1969. The Advanced Research Agencies Network (ARPANET) linked four university research centres together in the United States. The World Wide Web as we know it now, did not reach fruition until the early 1990s. It could perhaps be rightly claimed that this serial of Doctor Who was the first television show to predict the emergence of the web. Until I amended Wikipedia, a 1985 episode of Benson claimed to be the first such reference🙂
Although the staff designated with WOTAN’s installation and roll-out were quick to dispel fears that the super-computer may eventually become destructive, it does not take long for the malignant nature of WOTAN to become evident. WOTAN can speak and is receptive to voice commands, although ordinarily its answers are printed on a dot matrix type printer. Computer monitors had clearly not been envisaged. More intelligent than humans, WOTAN knows the answer to all questions, including inexplicably, what TARDIS is an acronym for. WOTAN, however, has a hidden agenda. it believes that the world cannot possibly progress with humans at its helm and seeks to usurp them by mobile computer killing machines – the War Machines.
WOTAN uses mind control through the emission of sonic sounds and the humble telephone, to hypnotise humans into its sinister plan. Dodo is amongst its first victims and is instructed to co-opt the Doctor. As luck would have it, his non-human form affords him protection from hypnosis, but not without him suffering physically nonetheless. The Doctor’s magic ring again comes to the rescue as he is able to put Dodo to sleep, and snap her out of her hypnotic trance, merely by waving his hand before her face five times. Upon waking Dodo is dispatched to the country to recuperate and never again seen. Her subsequent decision to remain in London is communicated to the Doctor via a message from the companions-in-waiting, Ben and Polly. A more pathetic companion departure had never been seen.
WOTAN has its staff of hypnotised human slaves building a dozen War Machines in a disused warehouse in Covent Garden. Professor Brett, the computer scientist who invented WOTAN, is quickly a victim of WOTAN’s hypnosis, and dispatched to the warehouse to oversee construction. Polly, Brett’s secretary, also comes under WOTAN’s spell and is rescued by the Cockney sailor, Ben, who was sent on a mission by the Doctor to investigate. These War Machines were mobile computers but not in a form that we have today. Extraordinarily large, they were more like wartime tanks than the laptops, net books and tablets that we know today. Programmed by WOTAN, the War Machines are able to disable the firing mechanisms of Army guns and ammunition, and as such are seemingly unstoppable. In an Army raid of the warehouse, the single operational War Machine is able to effect the deaths of many personnel. On a rampage through the streets of Covent Garden, the War Machine is eventually outwitted by the Doctor’s cunning. After the stupendous cliff hanger of episode three where the Doctor comes face to face with the War Machine and stares it down, he eventually stops the machine in its tracks by setting up an electromagnetic field around it. An adept computer programmer, as he is of all manner of things scientific, the Doctor is able to reprogramme the War Machine. The machine is then sent on a mission to the Post Office Tower where it is able to reach the top floor, where WOTAN is housed, and destroy it. Commentators frequently joke about how the War Machine was able to fit in the lift, let alone press the floor buttons!
Save for the first episode of An Unearthly Child, in which you only see Coal Hill School and 76, Totter’s Lane, and Planet of Giants, where the Tardis Crew are miniaturized in a suburban back yard and house, this is the first time Doctor Who has been set in modern day London. It affords the opportunity for many shots of 1966 London and naturally, the most innovative building of the day, the Post Office Tower. There are a number of very interesting special features on the DVD including Now and Then, a look at the locations used in the making of the story in which those used in 1966 are compared with the present day; Blue Peter, which includes a compilation of segments on the War Machines, and One Foot in the Past, in which the Politician and ex-Postmaster General Tony Benn investigates the history of the Post Office Tower. It’s all fascinating stuff.
Perhaps the most visually memorable part of The War Machines is when the Doctor enters the Inferno nightclub via a flight of stairs. Resplendent in his cape, he enters the “hottest” night club in London, only to be told by one of the hipsters that his gear looked “fab”. It was not many episodes earlier that the Doctor had severely reprimanded Dodo for the use of the word “fab” and questioned if she could speak English properly. Times were a-changing for Doctor Who and this was even more evident by the new companions. Polly is a young London secretary who dresses in trendy clothes and is phenomenally forthright. Ben is a Cockney merchant sailor who breaks the hitherto unwritten rule that all major cast members of Doctor Who must speak in “BBC English” or Received Pronunciation. It was but a mere three months earlier that Dodo’s Manchurian accent lasted but 10 minutes. For the rest of Dodo’s tenure as a companion her accent changed from episode to episode and became increasingly more posh. As groundbreaking as it was to have a companion without an RP accent, it took until the Seventh Doctor’s incarnation in 1987 for the Doctor to have his first regional accent.
Join me for my next review where you’ll encounter the predecessor to 2011’s The Curse of the Black Spot, The Smugglers, in which every conceivable pirate cliché is presented before us. It’s sure to be fun!
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.
Lance Parkin & Lars Pearson, AHistory: An Unauthorised History of the Doctor Who Universe 3rd Edition. Des Monies, Mad Norwegian Press, 2012.