Doctor Who: The War Machines Review

As befitting a show which ranges far in time and space, Doctor Who has spent relatively little time on contemporary Earth. It certainly began there, with the opening episode An Unearthly Child partly set in a modern comprehensive school, and John Smith and the Common Men (and where are they now?) going up the pop charts. Later on, the Doctor spent a lot of time on Planet Earth, but the intention was that the Third Doctor's UNIT stories were taking place sometime in the near future. (It doesn't help that continuity has been shot to pieces over the years – for anyone interested in trying to put it back together again, I refer you to Wikipedia's entry on the UNIT dating controversy.) Planet of Giants had a contemporary setting, but as the Doctor and his companions were shrunk, it hardly made much of it, and the same could be said of the brief present-day sequences in The Chase and the now-lost 1965 Christmas special “The Feast of Steven”, episode seven of The Daleks' Master Plan.

But what's this? The TARDIS lands right in the middle of London in 1966 and the Doctor and Dodo (Jackie Lane) step out of it. (Well, it's meant to be 1966, though the script gets days and dates wrong.) And this is Swinging London – a sizeable part of the first episode takes place in the hip and happening Inferno Club. (Though you suspect if you turned up in a sailor suit, as Michael Craze's Ben does, the doorman might redirect you to Old Compton Street.) Given that Doctor Who is nominally a children's show, London a year before the Summer of Love might sound an odd fit. Mark Chadbourn, in his novella Wonderland, had the Doctor visit Haight-Ashbury, but was only allowed to do this as long as the Doctor did not himself take any illicit substances. So this is very much a PG version of a Swinging city. Meanwhile, over in the newly-built Post Office Tower (as it was then called), a super-computer called WOTAN is planning to join all the world's computers together to gain control. If only they'd used the word Internet... To add to the verisimilitude, real BBC faces and voices such as Kenneth Kendall and Dwight Whylie appear as themselves. Mike Reid – long before Runaround and Eastenders - appears as an extra.

Written by Ian Stuart Black (“from an idea by Kit Pedlar [sic]” it says in the end credits), The War Machines is an odd serial, more than a little out of keeping with stories before and since. If the First Doctor had seemed at the beginning as an eccentric old man – and the Third would be a maverick within the establishment – all of a sudden he's at ease with the powerful and hobnobbing with characters with names like Sir Charles. He's even referred to as “Doctor Who” for the first and only time (apart from jokey references in other serials). All very strange.

This was the final story of Who's third season. We're in a period where great chunks of the show are missing. Although we have scripts, stills, fragments and audio recordings, we don't have the visuals of many key serials of the time, and it becomes hard to make judgements on companions, for example. Dodo was thought not the most successful companion. She was usually paired with Peter Purves's Steven, who had left at the end of the previous story, the now-lost (and also Black-scripted) The Savages), and her earlier appearances were marred by Lane's wandering Cockney accent. But as we have little of her (apart from the present serial, we have one episode of The Celestial Toymaker which is included on Lost in Time and the not-yet on DVD The Ark and The Gunfighters), it's not easy to judge. Lane's contract ran out mid-serial and, after some business in the early stages where she's hypnotised by WOTAN, she's packed off into the countryside to recover in the middle of the second episode and never seen again. Not the best companion exit by any means.

Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze) make a much better impression, though this is the only complete serial featuring them. (Apart from the three-quarters-complete Tenth Planet, I refer you to Lost in Time for what remains of The Underwater Menace, The Moonbase and their farewell, The Faceless Ones.) Polly would turn into a screamer, as evidenced in the surviving episodes that feature her, but Wills – who also gets to be hypnotised – has a much better start than that. The same goes for Craze, who fills the action requirements of male companions with older Doctors quite ably.

Michael Ferguson, making his Who directing debut, does an able job, and the story – despite some logical potholes and a very dated supercomputer – builds a fine head of steam as it goes on, and mobile War Machines go on the rampage on London streets. The War Machines is an enjoyable serial, once you get past its idiosyncrasies, and it made a good finale to a somewhat uneven season. All was in place for the next season, but change – in the form of a new Doctor – was not far away.


The War Machines is released on a dual-layered DVD encoded, as is usual for 2 Entertain discs, for Regions 2 and 4.

The serial was made for the BBC in black and white, and as you would expect, is transferred to DVD in its original ratio of 1.33:1. This was a particularly complex restoration job from the usual team. The original videotapes were not wiped until as late as 1974, but as with every 60s Who episode, wiped they were. The 16mm film recordings survived another four years. For a while, this serial was missing completely, but an Australian collector had a copy of Episode Two. Then, in 1984, prints of all four episodes were returned to the BBC from Nigeria. Unfortunately only Episode One was complete, the other three having suffered censor cuts for violent content. Happily, most of these gaps have been filled, partly from censored material found in Australia, and partly from footage that had appeared in still-surviving editions of Blue Peter. Small holes still exist, but the Team have found ingenious ways to filling them, as the “WOTAN Assembly” extra indicates. Complete soundtracks existed, as they do for all the 108 missing episodes, courtesy of off-air recordings. More details can be found at the Restoration Team's site here, but to say this looks as good as it's ever likely to be is an understatement. Given the circumstances that's actually saying a lot.

The soundtrack is mono, as it always has been, and has been cleaned up and restored. Absolutely no complaints here either. Subtitles are available for the serial itself and all the extras except the commentary. Also on the disc are the invaluable information subtitles, this time provided by Richard Bignell, who does an excellent job.

The commentary this time is a two-hander featuring Anneke Wills and Michael Ferguson. That's fewer participants than many Who DVD commentaries but Wills and Ferguson manage to sustain the hour and a half. Wills has some poignant moments talking about her fellow companion and lifelong friend, the late Michael Craze.

Given that The War Machines is an inevitable time capsule of London forty-two years ago, the latest in the occasional “Now and Then” featurettes (6:41) is fascinating, particularly as it shows that some of the locations have hardly changed in the meantime.

Blue Peter is a programme that has often featured Doctor Who, and as such has often turned up on the DVDs. It just takes a few bars of the sailor's-hornpipe theme to inspire nostalgia in those of a certain age, but these extracts from 1966 (totalling 16:16) are from before my time, those black and white days when the presenters were Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton plus, in the final extract, John Noakes. Trace visits the Post Office Tower just before its opening and, later on, previews the serial and views some hand-made Daleks. These extracts are the source of the scene in Episode Four when some poor sod just tries to make a call from a phonebox and gets blasted by a War Machine.

“One Foot in the Past” (7:32) is a small item where former MP and Postmaster General Tony Benn revisits the Telecom Tower, as it is now known, and very proud of the achievement he is too. The revolving restaurant may have been closed for years, but the mechanism still works.

“WOTAN Assembly” (9:15) I have referred to above. Anneke Wills narrates a featurette detailing the history of the destruction and restoration of this serial.

Also on the disc are a trailer for a forthcoming DVD release (Battlefield), a self-navigating stills gallery (4:13, this time with optional information subtitles), and in PDF format Radio Times listings and a War Machines design plan. The Easter Egg can be found by going to the Episode Selection menu and clicking right from Episode Two. It comprises of the unedited and silent 35mm film inserts of the battle between soldiers and War Machines from Episode Three (1:05). Look closely and you can see War Machine operator Gerald Taylor making a hasty exit out of the back.

Probably not a definitive Who, but enjoyable for fans nonetheless, The War Machines comes on another impressive 2 Entertain DVD.

7 out of 10
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