I went into the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who with some trepidation. I grew up with Tom Baker's Doctor and had no idea about the regenerations, so when his incarnation was killed off and Peter Davison's began it was a shock to my child's psyche. Of course, now I regard the regenerations, the recasting of new actors in the role with their own distinct take, as being one of Doctor Who's strongest assets. Still, when I decided to rediscover Who in my teens and give the other Doc's a chance, Hartnell's era was the most dated and he was often described as "grandfatherly," so I thought his Doc would be the weakest of the lot. The age and budget quirks I can get over (that's true of any classic Who fan, I guess) and I was surprised to find that Hartnell's Doc was less grandfather as he was codger. I assumed he would be kind of reserved, sweet, and doting, but instead he was often abrasive, distant, and charmingly smug.
1966's The War Machines comes at the end of the Hartnell run. Behind the scenes, moves were being made, his age and health concerns affecting the production, and he would only have two more stories before his replacement. The Doctor (Hartnell) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) land in London and decide to take a tour of the newly built Post Office Tower. The Doctor has a funny feeling that something is amiss and that is exacerbated when they are shown the tower's mega-computer WOTAN (Will Operating Thought Analog), which is set to unite and aide the running of all computers worldwide.
The Doctor's instincts turn out to be true as WOTAN decides that it needs to overrun humanity and starts hypno-brainwash-telemarketing scientists and lackeys into building it an army of of tank robots. It also knows it needs the Doctor and trances Dodo, but, when it tries to snag him, his alien mind proves to be impenetrable. Meanwhile, new friends Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze) do some digging around of their own and find where the scientists are building WOTAN's army, but as the war machines are unleashed on the streets of London, will the Doctor be able to stop them before its too late? Of course.
The story of The War Machines isn't particularity a standout serial in the Who universe. The premise is good, especially when you consider it predates the Internet age and The Terminator mythology, but the personality free WOTAN isn't exactly the best villain. Not only does WOTAN have no depth, its henchmen don't really have any personality either, the hypnotized humans do the usual spacey stare gag and the war machines themselves are a clunkier version of Daleks- just replace the suction cup with hammers, the laser with gas, and made mute. It is really just a serviceable four parter, nice and breezy pulp, enough action for the kiddies, but it has very few standout or memorable moments, save the Doctor stoically engaged in a cliffhanger face-off with a rampaging war machine.
What makes this Story have some significance are a few small details. One of the minor points is that the Doctor is referred to as "Doctor Who" by WOTAN. While this was used obviously in the title and sometimes in the credits, it was more a playful thing and he was never meant to be called "Doctor Who." After much time traveling and planet hopping, this was also the first serial since the very first story to take place in modern times. War Machines also sees the exit and introduction of companions; always a key change in the series. In one of the stories big stumbles, chipper British schoolgirl Dodo is summarily dropped, just thrown away really, and mod hipster Polly and scrappy merchant seaman Ben were introduced to unwittingly tag along with the Doctor by the episodes conclusion.
The DVD: BBC America.
Picture: Like all 60's Doctor Who episodes, The War Machines is presented in standard fullscreen black and white. Of the Hartnell era releases, this is easily the biggest mixed bag in terms of quality. For those that don't know, many of the first two Doctor serials were destroyed, so we are lucky to have anything at all. The War Machines needed extensive reconstruction and some toying with certain scenes to account for the seconds of footage that is lost.
So, some of the footage was taken from scraps of film recovered from the jungles of Borneo where it was being used as hut lining for a remote tribe. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but it is quite close to that. Can't complain but there are sequences where, despite all the reconstructive efforts, the source material is spotty, noticeably more grainy, and has some defects like motion blurring.
Sound: Episodes are presented in Englsih mono with English subtitles (Close-Captioned). Again, it really all boils down to the era. It is limited in terms of dynamics and a few production quirks, but otherwise the mono track holds up nicely and is relatively free from any problems.
Extras: The round of extras include DVD Rom PDF material, a Photo Gallery, Info Text production notes, an Easter egg, four featurettes- Now & Then (6:40), Blue Peter (16:15), One Foot in the Past (7:35), WOTAN Assembly (9:13)- and, finally, Commentary by director Micheal Ferguson and actress Anneke Wills.
You can be rest assured that a Doctor Who DVD will have at the least a handful of extras, even for the most piss poor Who outing (Timelash, anyone?). The featurettes this time out are a mixed bag and lacks a nice "making of." The classic Blue Peter footage (including fan made Daleks) and WOTAN assembly are nice, especially the latters detailed view of how the episode was restored. But, Now and Then and Foot in the Past just go over some dry, completley superfluous facts regarding where the episode was filmed and a tour of the Post Office Tower. The commentary and info text are where the discs extras really shine, providing the best look and the ins and outs of the serial and Who's construction.
Conclusion: The War Machines is not a Doctor Who adventure that I would use to try and turn people on to the classic/Hartnell era of the show. Its not a bad outing, but it is a notch above mediocre or average. Even in the simpler era of Doctor Who, you really need a better adversary or at least a more rousing scheme than War Machines offers. The presentation is quite good, the extras being a tad weaker than usual for Who discs (they set the bar high), but the restoration efforts are invaluable.