The War Machines was definitely written to be a season finale. There were some groundbreaking plot points, the involvement of a main character in a plot, a (somewhat unexpected) departure, and the introduction of two new characters. So, there’s quite a bit going on.
The plot is pretty familiar to us now: a computer is put in charge of decision making and promptly decides that humans are not really necessary, beginning to systematically destroy them. We start with the arrival of the TARDIS in London sometime in the mid- to late-60s. The Doctor and Dodo land near the Post Office Tower. I had to look the tower up to learn about it. Fittingly for the story (and probably on purpose by the producers/writers), the tower was intended to be (and still is) a major telecommunications hub. They make surprisingly little mention of Steven, given Dodo’s rather emotional sendoff at the end of The Savages.
Now here is the primary weakness of this story: The Doctor and Dodo show up at the tower and are immediately given access not only to the room storing the world’s most advanced computer, Wotan, but also continuous, unquestioned access to its creators and operators. Apparently, off screen, the Doctor convinced them that he was a computer genius. Apparently in 1960s London the general hobbyist was given access to top-secret technology. It’s a good thing the Russians didn’t know that! But, given the Doctor’s access, the rest of the story was fine as far as plotting.
Some of that plot must have been pretty original for its day. Starting with the basic idea that Wotan could communicate and control all of the other major computers in the world. This story aired in the summer of 1966. The ideas for ARPANET, the beginning of the Internet, began in 1962. However, work on the network did not begin until 1968 and I think that it was well after that the public were aware. So, either writer Ian Stuart Black was very clever or had some inside information. The Wikipedia tells me it was the idea of a technical advisor. Nice work. More on this later.
Wotan, days before taking control of the world’s computers, begins turning the people into zombies. Like in the Dalek Invasion of Earth, these are old-school zombies of the laboring type, not the later brain-eating type which I’m not sure had been popularized quite yet. This is the second time we’ve seen humans enslaved via mental manipulation. It’s not really a plot device that survive multiple uses, and I think two is about all it can handle.
Anyway, Dodo is one of those enslaved and is instructed to bring the Doctor into the fold. Now, here’s something interesting: Wotan (who knew what TARDIS meant) referred to the Doctor as Doctor Who. This is the first time that he has been referred to as such. Until now there has been no semblance of a name. Now I know that he is never really given a proper name, but is that because he doesn’t have one? Where could Wotan have gotten the name? Perhaps he watches the show?
Of course, the Doctor cannot be zombified. Instead, he works with Polly and Ben, two friends Dodo met at a nightclub, to solve the mystery of what’s going on. Polly is zombified, but Ben (a sailor) is able find out that Wotan’s slaves are building a war machine that will keep the humans under control while Wotan takes over.
The Doctor is able to reprogram one of these War Machines and have it destroy Wotan instead. The world is saved! Dodo, meanwhile, sent to the country to recover, has decided she wants to stay in London. The Doctor is informed by Polly and Ben. The only goodbye Dodo gets is a “She sends her love.”
The Doctor is rightfully incredulous, mumbling something about taking her through time and space and that’s all the respect he gets. Seriously. There is no goodbye to Dodo whatsoever. She really got the shaft by the show’s producers here. The last we see of her, Dodo has been hypnotized. She does not even appear in the final episode (or maybe two) of the story. Instead, she’s just gone. Such poor treatment. I wonder how Jackie Lane felt about being written off the show in such a way….
While I was shocked at the way Dodo was unceremoniously removed, I had a feeling she was leaving as soon as I saw they were in London. And the attention given to Polly and Ben indicated that they were going to be sticking around. They unwittingly follow the Doctor into the TARDIS just before it leaves. They seem alright. I like Ben…but then again, I liked Steven at first, too.
Now, for more groundbreaking. I’m sure this was one of the first shows to deal with computers in this way. I know that some of themes had come up prior in the Twilight Zone. In one episode, The Old Man in the Cave, a computer is left to make all major decisions for a group of humans after nuclear war. And in another episode (I forget the title), computers are put to work and eventually put the humans out of work. However, the controlling of other computers and the world generally was knew. The War Machines themselves were predecessors of the Terminator series. And the round flashing light was very similar to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). There is little doubt that Stanley Kubrick, who moved to England in 1962 undoubtedly saw this story of Doctor Who. Additionally, the story had a very cinematic feel with moving cameras and obstructed shots. This has since become the goal of science fiction television shows such as Fringe. They all want to look more like movies and less like television.
The apparent impact of this story is impressive. On its own, the story is pretty good, although not the best I’ve seen so far. Season 3 is over and I’ve got some reflections to share in the next couple of days. Also, the First Doctor’s time is soon coming to an end. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.