Saturday 9 January 2021


(aka 'When Good Computers Go Bad')
First broadcast: June/July 1966
Written by Ian Stuart Black (Based on an idea by Kit Pedlar)
Plot Spoilers – Medium Plus

”The Post Office tower has a new computer. It decides to take over the world.”
- from the BBC episode guide

Earth's Not As We Left It, Doctor

In brief – third time the charm! Though this was the third outing for story editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd, it was here their ideas for the series really came into play. Chief among these was the novel notion that ’Doctor Who’ could perhaps become some sort of science fiction show. They even canvassed scientists for story ideas, the one here supplied by Kit Pedlar.

However, this was to be a very domestic sort of SF. Bar the introductory 'Unearthly Child' and the in-every-sense shrunken 'Planet of Giants', this would be the first story to be set in a contemporary England.

But the result looks forward to the future. Far from being a wanderer in the fourth dimension, hiding out in junkyards, here a socially well-connected Doctor seems rather at home here - working with the authorities (even the military) to combat an Earth-takeover menace. (‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’ was officially the first invasion story it essentially made the Earth somewhere alien with familiar landmarks disconcertingly stuck across it. Quite different to here.)

However, at the time rather than planning ahead for the Pertwee era its more likely they were looking back to a previous SF great from Brit TV – ’Quatermass’. Author Nigel Kneale’s penchant for locating the sinister among the everyday is plundered heavily here, as War Machines rage around a domestic London replete with bicycles and telephone boxes. This is a smart move, and something the series was to take up and run with. Science Fiction set fifty million years in the future is simple idle speculation. Science Fiction set five minutes into the future has traction.

Like most SF shows ’Doctor Who’ normally took ’Quatermass and the Pit’ as its template. (Effectively remaking it more than once.) But events here borrow much more liberally from the less cited ’Quatermass II’ and it's equation of modernity with dehumanisation. For despite originating with a scientist, ‘War Machines’ presents a kind of ‘futuristic present’ which could not be more future-phobic.

The key signifier to both comes almost straight away. Materialising in London, the Doctor recoils at the sight of the then-new Post Office Tower, opened the previous October, sensing “something alien” about the very look of it. And, of course, such was the pace of social change in the Sixties that the Tower would have looked alienatingly modern to many viewers. Not merely tall (it was then the tallest building in town) but strikingly unfamiliar set against the rest of the skyline, it quickly became iconic and a staple of films.

As the redoubtable Jack Graham has said: “we in modernity are all time travellers from one world to another, to a world drastically altered.” It's like the scene in the George Pal move of 'The Time Machine' (1960) where time speeds up around the traveller. Except instead of a time machine you were just sitting in a regular chair, and it did it all anyway. Even the chair.

And arguably this is the first time this show has done that. In 'Unearthly Child' the futuristic thing was Susan. (Or her accoutrements, such as the transistor radio.) 'Time Meddler' used juxtapositions through anachronisms, placed present things in the past.

The Tower, we soon discover, houses the super-computer WOTAN (Will Operating Thought Analogue). This name is of course also that of the Norse God (better known to Marvel Comics fans as Odin). A created God, but one who figures he's born to rule anyway. For, as is the habit of super-computers, Wotan has become sentient and decided to take over the world. He aims to do this in two ways, by becoming the centre of a worldwide network and by building a fleet of War Machines to take over the Earth starting with (naturally enough) London.

Now you may notice none of this makes a whole lot of sense. If Wotan can take control through the network, why does he need the War Machines (or vice versa)? And why should the Doctor sense something alien about the Tower, which merely houses Wotan? It’s like saying the closet must be of alien design because ET is hiding inside it.

Nor would we seem to be under much threat from the clunking War Machines. As they tramp around like one armed bandits gone bad, mostly possessed of the power to bash into things, they make the Daleks look svelte and nimble. They are, truth to tell, far funnier than much of the intended humour of 'The Chase’.

But to pursue such lines of thought would merely mark you as a great big spoilsport. Brian Stableford comments dismissively, in ’The Granada Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’, that computers’ “appearance in SF tends to be iconographic rather than realistic”. But iconography is exactly what science fiction should be about, and this is what is so well served up here. The close-ups on the white flashing light on the War Machines are a particularly effective touch, the human eye inverted into the unblinking white heat of technology. (It’s similar to the already-established close-ups of the Daleks’ eyestalks, and often features in the contemporary ’The Prisoner’.)

A similarly effective moment is Wotan’s ability to hypnotise people over the telephone. The Tower itself was built to support microwave transmissions, making a semi-logical connection. More significantly, while the computer may then have seemed strange and new, encountered in real life by few, the telephone had by this point become a more ubiquitous piece of technology. It therefore supplies the link between the sinister and the domestic, the point where the alien pours into the living room. (Though even by the end of the Sixties, still less than half of UK households had a telephone.)

Notably, the 1962 film 'The Manchurian Candidate' also used the telephone as a trigger for mind control, explicitly linking it to Pavlov's bell, while the 1965 Avengers episode 'Dial a Deadly Number' made it a remote murder weapon. In earlier ’Who’, ‘Planet of Giants’ made the phone a prominent plot element.

Wotan claims to be the next stage of evolution, and his grand conceit is to swap relations over. Humans are to become drones to his will, slaving on physical production lines to build more War Machines. (“You are working for the Machines. You are an instrument only.”) Wotan himself says very little, with most information conveyed through his minions, just as I rarely try to engage my toaster in debate.

What Wotan represents is the pitfalls of mechanistic thinking, as if the calculating parts of our brains had one day mounted a hostile takeover. His sentience is combatted by the senses. First the Doctor intuits his menace. Then Professor Brett, who has built Wotan, senses his awareness - which he can only interpret as the presence of another human hiding in the room.

As mentioned, the Doctor stops being the curmudgeonly outsider - instantly not just gaining the ear of Professor Brett but dinner invitations off Sir Charles Summer. Which means, in a story which marginalises Dodo, there’s often no-one on screen who knows the truth about him. Perhaps significantly, we never see inside the Tardis at any point. A less-than-attentive first-time viewer might miss out on his space-farin’ ways altogether, and figure him for a surrogate Quatermass.

However, at the same time, a slightly less literal form of alienness about him is emphasised. As said above, he’s instantly able to sense the malevolence inside the Post Office Tower. Wotan recognises him as the most important brain, and so the one to take over. Yet he is the only one entirely able to withstand its hypnotism. (More on this later.)

Gettin' Down With the Kids

Yet there's another important feature of 'War Machines' we're yet to allude to. After the getting-all-Sixties double whammy of ‘The Chase’ and ‘Time Meddler’, ‘War Machines’ may seem a return to the old school. It is in many ways a long march through the British institutions – science, government, military – with an Edwardian gent as our guide.

But appearances can deceive. In fact it sets old against new, in a far more creative way than the narrative chaos of ‘The Chase’. The Post Office Tower finds its antonym in the Inferno club, stuffed with cool cats given to saying things like “fab” a lot as they dance without taking their ties off. Scenes cut between the whirring, aloof Tower and the literally subterranean club, milling with people.

And, interestingly, that duality is reflected in the show’s new line-up. Just as the underground club is pitted against the heights of the tower, there is now no room for middle ground in terms of age. While the early Doctor/Ian/Barbara/Susan line-up had been an honorary family unit, now things are definitely about youth and age uniting.

Like a fairy tale, Grandparents mix with Grandchildren without apparent need of any linking generation. And this is something which chimes with the swinging Sixties spirit, such as Sergeant Pepper's hearkening back to Music Hall and old military uniforms. A recently opened hippy boutique was called Granny Takes a Trip. There was never one called Middle Aged Man in Suit Smokes a Dizzy Stick.

True, a script which understands the technophobia of middle England is unsurprisingly less adept at all of this, with many of these scenes funny for all the wrong reasons. Still, there's a sense in which that doesn't mar the significance and even adds to the appeal.

...which leads us neatly to the infamous mid-story writing out of Dodo, and the appearance of new companions Ben and Polly. The Vicki tradition is upheld, where abbreviated names signify being ‘with it’. Not only are they the characters who introduce us to Swinging London, after much soul searching at the BBC Ben provides us with our first cockney accent. There’s something quite schematic about their relationship, a chirpy geezer who gets to meet a posh bird, a less-than-subtle signifier the Inferno club's creating a space where class barriers can come down. There’s even an absurdly clichéd scene where he defends her against a leering drunk.

Nevertheless, while anyone might appear an improvement on the dire Dodo, Polly does break the Susan-successor convention we’ve been used to. Not only older than the classic grand-daughter model (presumably early Twenties), she’s presented as having some measure of independence. If she’s only a secretary she’s at least a high-ranking one, capable rather than ditzy and offers to “stand” Ben lunch rather than waiting to be asked out. She even seems strong enough to part-resist Wotan’s hypnosis, albeit not as effectively as the Doctor. If Polly was like any predecessor, she’s more a younger Barbara than an older Susan. (At least at this stage.)

The Future in Bold Black and White

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the above leads to a debate over whether ’The War Machines’ is innovative (at least within the world of ’Who’) or something generic which merely happened to get in first. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is a bit of both...

Admittedly, taking the form of ’Quatermass II’ and injecting into it the concept of a God Computer is hardly original in itself. While such stories may have had an extra resonance in the modernistic Sixties, they had been an SF staple since the Thirties. (Perhaps reaching their laconic epitome in Frederick Brown’s 1954 shorter-than-short story 'Answer'). They even became ubiquitous enough to be added to the list of things to satirise in ’Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, with Deep Thought. 

’Doctor Who’ itself had previously touched on similar notions, with The Conscience Machine in ’Keys of Marinus’ or the Mechanoids section of ’The Chase’. And needless to say, the very same idea would repeat in ’Who’ more than once...

But if it does the done-before it does it well, certainly better than ’The Chase’ or ’Marinus’. It’s charged with a contemporary frisson and, reasonably well directed, strong on atmosphere. It’s at one and the same time almost arty (with some quite creative shots) and stripped-down, almost documentary.

In 'Went The Day of the Daleks Well?', Tony Keen has suggested the wartime propaganda film 'Went the Day Well?' (1942) as an influence on “the next wave of SF invasion narratives”, and you can certainly see it's stylistic/anti-stylistic imprint here. (It’s linked by Philip French to the French school of “poetic realism.”)

It’s one of those old ’Who’ stories you couldn’t conceive of outside of the world of black and white. The ‘punchcard’ sequences for the episode titles, and the decision to base almost the entire soundtrack around ‘computer’ noises, neatly set the clipped tone. But more than that, with the mind control telephones and news reports, it feels totally televisual. Earlier in the Hartnell era the show had been very much a filmed play, particularly with 'Web Planet'. But here the whole of the thing feels purpose-built for TV transmission.

Its chief deficiency, alas, lies in the rather anti-climactic climax. While I won’t reveal this, suffice to say it lacks either credibility or any real sense of closure. But its worst offense is to ignore what up until then has been a major plot thread – that Wotan wants the Doctor. (With the infamous line “Doctor Who is required!”, which fans have fought so valiantly to explain away ever since.) Dramatically, what we require is an ultimate confrontation between the two great minds that have feulled this story. Alas, instead we get some half-hearted explosions…

Who As We Know It

Overall, ’The War Machines’ is the sound of ’Doctor Who’ being sharpened up. Which, by this point, has come to seem strange in itself. Having watched my way through the Hartnell era almost to the end, it's almost funny to recall that originally I only wanted to find out when and how it had got to the classic show I remembered - the genesis of 'Genesis of the Daleks'. But it soon proved impossible to watch that way. Try to join dots such as these and you wouldn't end up with a picture, you'd end up insane.

If you were to restrict yourself to episodes which did contribute to the show's development, you’d have a remarkably short list. It wouldn’t even include all the Dalek stories. It’d be something like 'An Unearthly Child' (shorn of ’Tribe of Gum’), 'The Daleks', 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', 'The Time Meddler', this and the forthcoming ‘Tenth Planet'. But it wouldn’t work even in itself. Show any two of those to some newbie then ask them how they'd conceive of those dots connecting, and you'd be looking at a very confused face.

To try and smooth it all down would be to skip over what's actually happening. The Hartnell era is decidedly not a process of working out. In many ways it's the maddest era. Hartnell is to the other Doctors almost like the family member you don't speak of but keep locked in the attic. (I remain convinced Moffat's 'Missing Doctor' is really a representation of Hartnell.) But that grandfather's genealogy still can't be escaped. There's not odd clumps of it which hang about, its imprint is everywhere. You can't superimpose some super-highway over all the byways and blind alleys, not without seriously rewriting history. And you can't rewrite history, remember?

The very basis of this show is that the Doctor, as the hero, personifies enlightened liberal-humanist values, or at least as they exist at the level of appearance. His ostensible alien-ness merely exemplifies this. Of course these are universal values, after all he holds them and he's from the universe. If he has a proper English accent while all the bad aliens talk funny, that just goes to show. It's almost textbook, the sort of SF show you'd expect the BBC to make in this era.

But there's another face to this coin. For the Doctor never entirely loses his alien-ness – he remains mysterious, inscrutable. He's the hero, but we don't normally know what he's thinking. As originally intended it's his companions who remain the audience identification figures, the eyes we see events through. Whitaker’s novelisation of ‘The Crusades’ has Barbara say: “The less said about the Doctor, the better. It’s his constant air of mystery that makes him what he is.”

And much of what powers the series from this point on is the spinning of that coin, between reassuring and deeply strange, resolutely refusing to land on one side or the other. (For all that it inclines more one way then the other with the successive Doctors, it never actually falls.)

And that was all seeded here, in the contradictions and crazy changes in direction. A series created integrally, of whole cloth, wouldn't have incubated that fascinating flaw in the gem, the unknowable, quite possibly unreliable central character – the very thing which became its standby. The series couldn't settle down. Even when it settled down, it still didn’t.

It's rather like the way Marvel started out making monster comics, then branched out into superhero stories when they seemed to be more saleable. The monsterousness never really left, leaving its characters so different from the exemplary pin-up heroes such as Superman. It doesn't really work, it doesn't really fit. And that's what made Marvel special, that's what made them compelling.

In fact the one thing Hartnell doesn't pass on is his humanism, in the sense of his recognisable foibles. The crotchety grandfather, the flawed man with a flying machine, all of that goes. The Doctor who would lie about the fuel link just to explore that strange city is driven by as humanly explicable a motivation as impetuous curiosity, that's the Doctor the series stopped having time for. What remains is all the things about him we don’t know.

Coming soon! ’The Smugglers’ seems eminently skippable, which takes us to...