Aired 25 June – 16 July 1966
For the first time since ‘An Unearthly Child’ three years earlier, the Doctor finally returns to present-day Earth, closing out the third season with ‘The War Machines’ which sees yet another companion departure and experiments with a new story style that would become a hallmark of later eras.
Instead of enjoying the familiar backdrop, however, the Doctor and Dodo quickly become entwined in a global threat as they uncover the dark secret behind WOTAN within the Post Office Tower. WOTAN, the Will Operating Thought Analogue, is the most advanced computer of the time, able to think for itself and even verbalize its opinions and judgments. Going beyond its programming, though, WOTAN has somehow gained sentience and hypnotic powers, determining that humans are inferior and must become obedient to machine will. At the original time of broadcast when computers were much less commonplace, this was a tremendously and disturbingly topical and novel storyline that played upon the public fear of increasing human dependence on machines very well as WOTAN created an army of human and machine slaves alike.
‘The War Machines’ does unfortunately highlight the decreasing health and capabilities of William Hartnell in the lead role, and the gradual shift away from historical adventures to more action-laden tales certainly did him no favours. After uneasily declaring a strange presence in the Post Office Tower at the beginning of the story, Hartnell is largely sidelined until the end aside from occasional strategy talks. He does, of course, get a truly heroic moment as he defiantly stares down a war machine at the end of the third episode, and it is his cunning and intelligence that sets the defeat of WOTAN in motion, but it falls upon newcomer Ben Jackson to carry the bulk of the action scenes.
On the other hand, the treatment of the Doctor here is far superior to that of Dodo. The scripts of her time never managed to truly incorporate her successfully, and here she is only in the sidekick role for a few minutes before becoming a third wheel to Polly and Ben at a local club and later a hypnotised servant to WOTAN before being written out of the script and the series completely. The Doctor calling her ungrateful for not wanting to continue to travel with him seems a bit callous, but there is unfortunately a wealth of unexplored material regarding her decision that could have gone a long way in adding depth to this brief companion. Still, the introduction and deepening friendship of the brave duo of Michael Craze’s Ben and Anneke Wills’s Polly is incredibly enjoyable, a successful attempt to bring the liveliness of 1960s youth culture to the programme.
‘The War Machines’ is wholly unrepresentative of the First Doctor’s era, but it showcases for the first time the contemporary planetary takeover plotline that would become so popular as the programme continued. Playing on public fears, the story is gloriously unafraid to show the violence and ruthlessness of its antagonist and its followers. Witnessing WOTAN’s soldiers discarding of humans as if they are nothing more than trivial annoyances is quite alarming, and the final scenes with their increasing corpse count and burning machines are much more graphic than many stories of the time. And while there are still unanswered questions about WOTAN beckoning for ‘Doctor Who’ and his knowledge of what the acronym TARDIS stands for, the overall script and superb direction certainly make for a stellar introductory story for Ben and Polly that ushers in a completely new vibe for the show.