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Doctor Who: The War Machines

(BBC; US DVD: 6 Jan 2009)

In pop culture, you’ll notice the disturbing trend that emerges in regards to Artificial Intelligence: as soon as mankind gives birth to it, its first act is to destroy all of humanity. You see this in modern-day flicks like The Matrix and Eagle Eye, and, yes, you can even trace it all the way back to this excellent 1966 episode of Doctor Who.


In The War Machines, the Doctor brings his companion Dodo back to (then) present-day London, though upon seeing the recently-completed Post Office Tower, he senses something alien about the new building. Upon meeting a military intelligence officer named Brett (John Harvey), the Doctor learns of the creation of WOTAN (pronounced “voh-tan”, after the mythological god), a machine that will be able to process and carry out national intelligence operations without political bias.


Yet upon switching on, WOTAN comes to the conclusion that mankind has progressed as far as it can, and the planet will not survive as long as humans continue to populate it. Therefore, WOTAN comes to only one possible solution: mankind must be eliminated.


It’s interesting how these AI machines all inevitably reach this conclusion, and how we, as humans, have a hard time either seeing this predicament or—worse—caring enough to do anything about it. WOTAN, however, knows what needs to be done. First, it hypnotizes key intelligence officers located in the Post Office Tower, then it sends them to work setting up operations at “strategic points” all over London. These officers in turn use a digital signal that WOTAN plays over the phone to hypnotize others, building up a diabolical workforce in no time flat.


WOTAN’s first order of business is to have its minions build “War Machines”, which wind up looking like Daleks mixed with gigantic copy machines. It’s not long before the Doctor is brought in to try and figure out what is going on, but not before Dodo (Jackie Lane) gets hypnotized by WOTAN, Brett’s fetching assistant Polly (Anneke Wills) gets kidnapped, and a young on-leave Navy officer named Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) breaks into a WOTAN-operated warehouse only to face a near-death experience.


Truth be told, the very first episode of the War Machines saga remains one of the single most thrilling adventures that William Hartnell’s Doctor has encountered. Jumping from diabolical labs to swinging clubs to brute-filled streets in no time flat, there’s a profound sense of drama and tension to this serial, all plot points well-explained along the way.


Though this first episode is briskly paced, things begin winding down with the third episode, in which long, drawn-out battle sequences take place outside a warehouse. Being an early Who episode, these sequences begin to feel very, very repetitious after a short amount of time, effectively killing any proper momentum that the first two War Machines episodes built up.


Yet just when things begin to feel hopeless for both the Doctor and the viewer, things pick up again for the forth episode, as the Doctor works with WOTAN’s creators to try and stop the multiple War Machines that are threatening to emerge throughout London, leading to a very satisfying conclusion that involves the Doctor finishing his time with Dodo, picking up some new companions, and proving that with just the right amount of ingenuity, mankind can learn and adapt well beyond what WOTAN had predicted (the irony being that the strategic leaps and bounds that man makes in this episode are because, in fact, makind is trying to destroy WOTAN).


Yet if destroying an evil race-destroying computer sounds difficult, you should try putting together a complete version of The War Machines, a task that’s painstakingly detailed in the excellent mini-documentary WOTAN Assembly, included on this disc. “The War Machines” was one of the infamous “junked” episodes of the Doctor Who canon, wherein the BBC destroyed old tapes of certain programs during a ‘70s space-saving initiative. Overseas collectors, however, were able to help pitch in and make The War Machines as complete as humanly possible, even with certain sequences edited out in certain international versions due to censorship issues.


Ultimately, WOTAN Assembly shows just how dedicated and diehard some Who fans are, which serves as sharp relief from the rest of the drab featurettes that grace this disc, most of which are focused on the creation/construction of the Post Office Tower that’s so prominently featured in the episode (which, without WOTAN, just isn’t all that interesting)


In the end, however, The War Machines still remains a thrilling, fun, and exciting Who serial with universal themes (and yes, the plot for 2008’s Eagle Eye is essentially a total ripoff of this story). Yes, Artificial Intelligence will continually try and destroy us, but it still makes for some grand sci-fi viewing.

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Evan Sawdey started contributing to PopMatters in late 2005, and has also had his work featured in publications such as SLUG Magazine, The Metro (U.K.), Soundvenue Magazine (Denmark), the Daily Dot, and multiple national newspapers. Evan has been a guest on RevotTV's "Revolt Live!" as well as WNYC's Soundcheck (an NPR affiliate), was the Executive Producer for the Good With Words: A Tribute to Benjamin Durdle album (available for free at GoodWithWordsAlbum.com), and wrote the liner notes for the 2011 re-release of Andre Cymone's hit 1985 album A.C. (Big Break Records), the 2012 re-release of 'Til Tuesday's 1985 debut Voices Carry (Hot Shot Records), and many others. He currently resides in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow him @SawdEye should you be so inclined.


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Doctor Who: The War Machines - Trailer
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