Doctor Who episode 123: The War Machines – Episode 1 (25/6/1966)
The new production team of Producer Innes Lloyd and Script Editor Gerry Davis has been in place now for three months. Like most incoming teams, they’ve initially been saddled with seeing through the decisions of the previous incumbents, but with The War Machines, they’re finally putting their own mark on the show, with the closest thing to a relaunch until Spearhead from Space.
In context, this episode is shockingly different from what’s gone before. The unique title cards announce this as something quite different, and the first shot, a pan across the skyline of contemporary London going right into a birds-eye view of the TARDIS materialising, is showy in a less tiresome way than The Leisure Hive.
The focus on making this look and feel contemporary is tangible, and present in every scene. The key settings are the newly-completed Post Office Tower, and the Inferno, ‘the hottest night spot in town’. The new characters are the vivacious and no-nonsense Polly, who’s established as one of the ‘in crowd’, and the surly, hot-headed Ben who’s at once both tougher than Steven and more vulnerable. Unlike Dodo, they are clearly established as belonging in Swinging London. The Doctor has wandered into their world (literally, as he takes a trip to the Inferno: ‘Well, it is our night for surprises. What does he want in here?… It isn’t every day we get the over twenties in this place.’), whereas previous companions have stumbled into his.
Interestingly, Hartnell doesn’t look entirely out of place in this contemporary setting – two days earlier the BBC had aired the first episode of Adam Adamant Lives! bringing an Edwardian from 1902 to 1966, so this episode must have felt very on trend. The pairing of Hartnell in his cape and cravat with blonde dolly-bird Polly is virtually cosplaying Adam and Georgina Jones. While Innes Lloyd was already contemplating casting the new Dr Who, perhaps this proved there was no need to move too far from the retro-Victoriana template.
Compared to everyone else, Dodo looks positively square. She’s quickly removed from the drama as she falls under WOTAN’s control. The episode directs us to focus less on her, and more on Polly – whom even the Doctor gives an appraising once over with his monocle, as if sizing her up. However, she is gifted with a superb final cliffhanger – her blank faced turn to camera is truly creepy.
Even the plot feels ‘contemporary’ in a way that the generic sci-fi life-force machine of The Savages didn’t. The risks of artificial intelligence and automation still vex us today. Alongside the cast changes and choice of setting, bringing on board Kit Pedler as a scientific advisor, and Michael Ferguson’s ‘realistic’ direction results in an episode that reinvents the series around its star in a way that only JNT and Bidmead have really done since. This is an astonishing episode, which adds a whole new strand of storytelling to the programme.
Next episode: The War Machines – Episode 2