The War Machines

“It has no reason to suppress the truth, it has no emotions. It is our soul.” – Sir Charles Summer on WOTAN

If the previous story was the archetype for all Doctor Who stories of planetary dictators and revolutions, then this is archetype of modern day earth-based invasion/take-over stories. (Both were written by the same author which says a lot about his contribution to the show, though this one does not have quite as good of dialogue or pacing.) The Doctor and Dodo arrive in sixties swinging London where the newly developed supercomputer WOTAN (pronounced Votan, which I always forget after not seeing the story for a while) has begun a take-over of the Earth after it “has decided that the world cannot progress further with mankind running it.” There are all the familiar elements of a this kind of story: a newly developed supposed boon to man, the (in this case unintentional) treachery of its inventor, its secret rise and sudden unleashing on the streets of London (with obligatory frightened pedestrians), the Doctor and companions working to learn about it, the fussy bureaucrat in the way, and the Doctor figuring out a clever means to stop the threat just in time. This the first Doctor Who story to use this model, but it would of course go on to be a mainstay for many years of the show. Unfortunately, the pace of this particular story slacks off by the third episode with some lackluster battle scenes and comes to a rather sudden and not very exciting ending when the Doctor simply captures a machine and reprograms it to turn against its master. (Then again, I have to remember this is the first of this episode type, so it actually may have originally been an exciting idea at the time.)

There are several very good bits to the story. There is nice foreshadowing in the first episode – the Doctor feeling eerie, jokes from journalists about the computer taking over the world, Dr. Brett feeling like somebody is watching him; we all know from these hints what’s coming, but it’s still cool to see it go into action. As WOTAN starts to exert its influence [it must somehow be able to use transmission of electromagnetic waves to take over the central nervous system and even jam guns?], it is given a nice touch by not having people suddenly change into automatons like a switch but instead, with a bit of miming from the actors, shows them resisting against their own bodies; the best shot of this is a focus on the security leader’s feet which drag behind and almost seem to be trying to turn away from the direction his mind is forcing him to go. There’s also great cliffhanger on the third story where we watch the Doctor stand his ground in the face of the approaching war machine as all others run away.

Whereas we usually have met other companions in the midst of crisis and dangers, we’re introduced to Polly and Ben in a ultra-mod nightclub, seeing them meet and exchange pleasant banter. There is extended scene of youthful fun as Polly cheers up Ben, and we see a more vibrant and engaging personality than from any young companion we’ve had before. (“So spill the beans sailor, give us the facts, what’s your problems?”) She comes across as much more of a real person. Ben comes across well in this story as well. He always seemed a side-kick of sorts but I realized on this watch that with Polly sidelined for much of the story, we get a good introduction to his personality as well as his dogged loyalty shows itself quickly and his earnest bravery to jump into danger (“Well I reckon that’s a job for me sir.”) On the other hand, it’s too bad that Dodo gets sidelined and disappears in this story. Her departure is just as sudden and illogical as her arrival.

For some reason, the first Doctor hobnobbing with the leader of the Royal Scientific Club just works really well. That he suddenly is directing ministers and troops with authority is a clear precursor to his future relationship with UNIT. That he works with them while disdaining their obtuseness at the same time (“You see, the official mind can only take in so much at a time.”) is class Who. I also really like one line from the Doctor to Dodo. When she mentions not having seen London for ages, he replies “Ah, when you’ve seen the ages that I have you won’t use that term quite so freely!”

While WOTAN is not particularly impressive in other aspects of the story, they do take the interesting step of it being able to explain what TARDIS stands for. I am glad that they don’t try to answer how an Earth-based machine could possible know this and leave it as a mystery. Knowing the range of the Doctor’s activity on earth as we know it now, it makes perfect sense that a machine supposedly linked up with all knowledge on earth should have encountered records of his previous visits which might include that information. [There are also a few short sequences that make fans cringe when the machine refers to “Doctor Who” as if that is his name. There are a few ways to explain away this supposed gaffe. One that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but not so far fetched, is to imagine that the Doctor first introduced himself at the tower under a pseudonym like Dr. William Hu. (That’s a real life name by the way.) The other is to imagine that the computer WOTAN, with its immense bank of knowledge, was able to realize the Doctor was not the name he introduced himself as and, having no suitable identity to give him, assigned the variable ‘Who’ as a name marker. The only human to use this name is Dr. Brett and he’s under WOTAN’s control at that point.]

Best unsettling moment:

Though the scariest moments should be the attack of the war machines, their clunky design and slow progress make the scenes less tense and more comical—even with attempts to make it realistically frightening through radio and TV alerts. One scene that is quite unsettling is seeing rough and rugged Ben pleading desperately for help from Polly (under control of WOTAN) as he is dragged away by the gang.


  • First story wholly set in modern London
  • The Doctor is seen interacting with a Royal Society
  • First (of many) super computers taking over the world
  • The Doctor hypnotizes a companion


The impact of the program is now undercut by what is obviously a very out-of-date computer and printer as well as the clunky and slow-moving war machines. This is especially evident in the ‘test’ that the Doctor gives to this supposedly amazing advanced computer—asking it figure out a square root that could today be done on a pocket calculator or even talking to Siri.

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