Doctor Who: The War Machines

Yes, Artificial Intelligence will continually try and destroy us, but it still makes for some grand sci-fi viewing.

Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: William Hartnell, Jackie Lane, Anneke Wills, Michael Craze, John Harvey
Network: BBC
US Release Date: 2009-01-06

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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.