Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The War Machines written by Ian Stuart Black and directed by Michael Ferguson


Gruff Granddad: Hartnell is still clinging onto his dignity and the script affords him some opportunities to prove he is still charge but his hand shaking apoplexy in the first scene does show an actor who is struggling with the demands of the show. A shame to see him diminished in the role that made provided such a nourishing close to his career. He can scent aliens. I bet that’s nasty. He manages to keep his ego under control and says that he dabbles in computers but isn’t a specialist. I love how he manages to insult people so thoughtlessly - ‘Who was that little man Krimpton?’ Kitty digs his fab gear and thinks he looks like Jimmy Saville! I'll forgo all the obvious puns after the recent scandal. For a moment I thought Polly was a master prankster and had covered the telephone receiver with glue as the Doctor attempts to wrestle with to get the device unstuck as WOTAN attempts to hypnotise him! What on Earth is going on during that ‘It was trying absorb me!’ mania? Hartnell actually looks like he has completely lost his marbles for a moment. I like how he tries to restrain Ben’s furious anger; they have quite a nice dynamic even if things weren't quite as easy behind the scenes. How commanding does he look clutching his lapels and stepping into the light to confront the War Machine?  This is the first time that the Doctor advises the military but far from the last. His reaction to losing Dodo is hurt; Hartnell always plays these scenes well because you know the actor is genuinely appalled to lose another ally.

Long Lashes: Gorgeous Polly has a great opening couple of episodes but loses it a bit in the second half as she is forced into the role of hypnotised drone (actors automatically forget their craft when they are asked to act out of character). Still it is easy to see the potential in a proper swinging sixties gal stepping into the TARDIS, one with a great pair of legs and an equally effective pair of lungs. If I sound abominably sexist than rest assured that Polly doesn't really come across as being one of the Doctor's weaker companions. On the contrary she is always trying to gee everybody up to fight whatever nasties come their way, often has a scheme up her sleeve and manages to empathise with the people they meet on their adventures. One of the first things we see her do is turn to the camera and gurn which has an oddly appealing effect. Every time you want some brightness in your life, come to Pol. In an attempt to give the girl some street cred Polly takes Dodo to the Inferno nightclub and is happy to show her her moves when she flirts outrageously with Ben at the bar. You can see how she would like going out clubbing, she’s gorgeous and I bet she has no trouble getting some attention. She’s good in a crisis too, ready to phone around the hospitals when Dodo has been missing for a while. She agrees to stand Ben lunch so she clearly wants to get to know him better. I like how she breaks her programming enough to let Ben escape revealing that she already has some strength of feeling for him. With Dodo promptly dealt with in a couple of lines the show looks to be heading in a younger, sexier path as two of the hottest companions jump into the Ship and depart with the Doctor.

Cockney Sailor: Bestill my beating heart. Does it give Ben an unfair advantage that I happen to fancy the arse off of Michael Craze? He is stuck in barracks and longs to be out at sea (perfect companion material then) and whilst getting back to his ship is alluded to in later stories it is never laboured on like Ian and Barbara's desire to return home was. This pair get so wrapped up in their adventures with the Doctor (and visiting everywhere from the past to the future to Vulcan to Atlantis who can blame them?) that their home life quickly becomes a thing of the past, at least until they next materialize in their proper time and place. Ben is something of an aggressive babe (and I thought Steven was always looking for a fight but he has nothing on Ben) and picks a fight with some nightclub sleaze to protect Polly’s honour. He doesn’t even get out of his sailors uniform to go clubbing, despite his objections to the contrary he is clearly on the pull. Anybody who accuses of Craze of not being able to perform should check out his reaction to a War Machine which is one of total hysteria, a far cry from Ian and Steven who barely would have broken a sweat. Michael Craze plays these scenes for real and they are all the more powerful for it. I loved the scene where he told the Doctor he was past it and he should handle the action, there is something quite playful developing between them and it is a shame that thanks to Hartnell's decreasing health we couldn't have seen that go further. Ben really seems to enjoy beating Polly up, he dives at her twice and wrestles about with her in a crazy dance. Perhaps he likes it rough.

Dead as a…: ‘Scotland Yard whisked off into Time and Space!’ - prim and proper Dodo hardly ever felt like a believable character and in her last half a story she is more cardboard than ever. Interesting to see that Dodo reaches out to Polly to get her back in touch with reality (you can see how she liked to hang out with the cool kids at school) and it is perhaps surprising that she is something of a party animal. She makes for an extremely unconvincing baddie I must say; Jackie Lane was pretty stiff as it was so when she’s required to be so deliberately its beyond a joke. It’s a forgettable end of a forgettable character; she’s whisked off to the country and decides to hang about in Sir Charles’ lap of luxury rather than spending her time switching accents and spraining her ankle. If you believe the Virgin Missing Adventures she went on to catch an STD and was gunned down in a hail of bullets. This series of books always was a little graphic and perverse but this time I really didn't mind too much. At least it was a memorable way to go, not a description you could toss Dodo's way too often.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Standby Dodo this looks like a rescue mission, the Navy’s in trouble!’
‘Machines cannot govern man!’

The Good Stuff: the story gets off to a fantastic start visually, an Ariel shot that zooms in on the TARDIS landing on location in contemporary London with a flock of birds scattering as a result. Location work is starting to become more common on the show (this is the second of three stories on the trot to boast superb location work) and with directors like Michael Ferguson on hand they are going to wring every penny out of the budget to ensure the show looks as impressive as possible. It's unusual for the show to present these kinds of production values in an end of season show, usually the kitty has run dry and we are left with the dregs, production wise, but The War Machines feels as though it has limitless resources. Expensive location filming, spanking new robots for the Doctor to face, detailed sets and a full on national emergency is convincingly staged with the armed forces deploying impressive artillery and a multitude of troops. Just take a look at the gorgeous panoramic backdrop from the Post Office Tower to see the attention to detail. WOTAN is said to be (at least) 10 years ahead of its time. More like 20! They’ve only gone and invented the Internet, a problem solving computer system that linked to all the computers around the world. The only difference is WOTAN itself, a central intelligence that has decided that man is a barrier to the evolution of machinekind and must be put out of the way. Has there ever been a more prescient idea in Doctor Who? Ian Stuart Black isn't just concerned with technology, he also wants to give his tale a contemporary edge and soon moves the action to the Inferno - the hottest nightspot in town! The nightclub scenes are unique in Doctor Who (we never saw Sarah Jane or Ace letting their hair down like this, more's the pity) and the drink-fueled bar room brawl over Polly that ensues is more akin to Eastenders than Doctor Who. I love the very simple judgement that WOTAN passes on humanity: ‘We have failed.’ Such a simple statement with plenty of meanings depending on your own personal beliefs. I think WOTAN might just have the scariest computer voice that Doctor Who has to offer, a sibilant rasp, like a literal ghost caught in the machine. It is made all the creepier at the end of episode one where it first talks and sounds as though it is struggling to find its voice. The direction is initially very sympathetic to the War Machines, showing their assembly in some detail and the camera pulling back dramatically on their first reveal (with a super dramatic musical sting to commemorate the moment). The designers have managed to create quite a bold looking robot, built like a tank with deadly poisonous jets that incapacitate and kill. I adore the Batman-esque tilted crash zooms on the Post Office Tower. It's all very well having WOTAN declare us a failed species but actually seeing his foot soldiers mowing people down and rolling them off the street as nothing more than litter to be disposed of is real evidence of his indifference. It is probably the scariest thing we get to see them do. It is interesting that people associate the use of newsreaders broadcasting a state of emergency to the nation as something that is unique to the New Series (it is such a repeated motif it is easy to see why) when it first appeared in the series in 1966 (and was used a couple of times in the Pertwee era too). The War Machines bothers to look in peoples homes, the local pub and to show us people running for their lives on the street. If it isn't quite as dramatic as the script is trying to make they are at least having a fair stab at making this look like a genuine national emergency. Fantastic to think that a formula developed in 1966 is still successful and in practice nearly half a century later. Perhaps Hartnell overstated his case when he declared that evil was creeping into the show but the last five minutes of episode three are nothing but glorified violence. People are murdered and the warehouse is littered with corpses, there’s hand-to-hand combat, fierce weaponry and the violent image of the War Machine framed by burning crates. Perhaps what Hartnell meant was the show was losing its innocence. But then I would hardly say that stories such as The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks' Masterplan and The Massacre were exactly light and fluffy SF. I have this chucklesome image of all the naff robots that desperately want to reach the iconic status of the Daleks – the War Machines, Mechanoids, Chumblies, Quarks, Styre's robot and even that crazy looking dude from Terminus – all joining forces to take on Skaro’s finest! What a story that would make. I always complain bitterly in season eighteen where we trade in the dream team of the fourth Doctor, Romana and K.9 for Adric, Tegan and Nyssa. The War machines reverses that trend, with Steven already gone all we are left with is Dodo so it's out with the trash and in with the sexy and the sassy.

The Bad Stuff: Spinning tape is an odd staple of computers of the 60s and 70s. As soon as that clunking spinning tape sound effect kicks in you can usually date a programme within a decade. Did nobody stop to think that by creating a computer with its own brain that has military strategy built into its software that they were asking for trouble? Hypnotism rarely comes off in Doctor Who unless it is played for laughs and in this case it seizes control of perfectly fine actors and forces them to perform in as stiff a fashion as possible. As impressive as the scenes of the War Machines being built are, I don't think they quite needed to go on for as long as they do. We needed to see these robots in action far sooner than they are. The tramp being chased around the pit is like a ridiculous Benny Hill sketch (hum the music, it really works). The War Machines look far more menacing when they are stationary, one wobbles away down a London high street as though he is popping out for a bit of shopping. It would be churlish to mention the Doctor’s reprogrammed War Machine dashing towards the Tower with its alarmingly shaky fake backdrop. But that wont stop me.

The Shallow Bit: Is it wrong to fancy the Doctor's companions? Doctor Who is not really a show I watch for sex appeal but when it comes to Polly and Ben I am at something of a lost at my interest. She’s a gorgeous leggy blonde and he’s a hunky cockney squeezed into a sailor uniform. Polly outrageously goes to work on consecutive days in what looks like a nighty and a tea cosy and Ben sports an overcoat and a tight black cotton vest. Let's be honest, they were trying to sex the show up a bit. It makes poor Hartnell look like a bit of an old fossil.

Result: Entirely unrepresentative of its era but much favoured by the show for the rest of its (continuing) tenure, the contemporary alien takeover plot gets its virgin outing here and as usual the Hartnell years tip their hat to a new genre with consummate style. With its polished direction, expensive location work, urban settings I am reminded of the black and white Diana Rigg season of The Avengers as I watch The War Machines. The tone of the two shows might be entirely different but for these four, expensive looking, episodes there is a similarity. You can see instant potential in Polly and Ben as companions (and not just because they are both gorgeous); she's a resourceful middle class working girl and he's a cheeky cockney whose handy with his fists. They both have a taste for adventure and I have nothing but hope for the future as they skip into the TARDIS, Dodo instantly forgotten. With the conception of WOTAN and the idea of a series of linked computers you have one of the most prescient Doctor Who stories, pre-dating the internet and jumping on the bandwagon of artificial intellience. It's a cold opponent so there isn't the entertainment that you would usually have with a swaggering villain at the top (there's simply nobody to react to beyond WOTAN's hypnotised lackeys) but the fight against the War Machines is so impressively staged that you almost forget this is a story with only a faint whisper of a climax. Hartnell is holding onto to his dignity in an advisory role but it is clear that he is struggling. A confident tale, well-produced and very entertaining to watch. The Daleks don't have anything to worry about though: 8/10
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