Friday, May 8, 2015

The War Machines — Blogging Doctor Who

Conquer the earth
with those?
Honestly, I think the best parts of “The War Machines” are the nifty serial-specific titles and that we get rid of Dodo (and in that case, somewhat unceremoniously). The rest of it, well, it’s a bit of a mess. Let’s be blunt: for an evil computer bent on domination, WOTAN is a bit of an idiot. This is going to include Spoilers (though to what degree I can spoil something forty-nine years after its initial broadcast is unclear; by the way, in Hamlet, the prince dies in the end, as do lots of other characters).

Ironically, the idea of linking up the world’s computers sounds a lot less like science fiction than it did in 1966, considering that when I created this document, the application I use, Byword, opened a new document in iCloud, which has servers in North Carolina. I then moved the document (as I titled it) onto my local drive. Three years before ARPANET, Doctor Who is proposing linking up the world’s computers. The computers actually in the initial ARPANET cluster were somewhat more research oriented than the ones proposed by Doctor Who. Not the White House, Cape Kennedy, or the Royal Navy, but UCLA, UCSB, Stanford, and the University of Utah. No British computers (ARPANET was a US-government project), and certainly no WOTAN.

It’s revealed early on that WOTAN has the power to control minds, though why they built that function in, it’s not clear (we’ll assume that the power to control minds was an unanticipated use of an otherwise benign feature). WOTAN is later shown to have speech synthesis capabilities, which makes it odd that early on it communicates by teletype. (From a standpoint of comparison to reality, it’s odd that it handles speech recognition better than speech synthesis; perhaps Ian Stuart Black didn’t realize that artificial speech was much easier than understanding speech). This all leads to the question of how WOTAN could be so utterly stupid.

They’re about to hook WOTAN up to computers in the United States, including the White House. Also, WOTAN shows that it can actually control minds over the telephone. Why does it need the War Machines then? Why not just start phoning people. Professor Brett clearly could have called up Sir Charles Summer and added him to the list of people under WOTAN’s mind control. Then have Sir Charles call the Prime Minister, who would then call the Prime Minister and other world leaders. Instead of War Machines, WOTAN should have been building loudspeakers and telephones. It also should have been building a network of computers across the world. If you’ve got the network, and you control the missile arsenal, you don’t need remote servos, as in Colossus,, a 1966 science fiction novel by D. F. Jones (same year, must have been something in the air).

Why did WOTAN tip its hand (so to speak) so early? Why the rush to get the War Machines into production when things were still so tenuous? For a massively intelligent artificial intelligence, that’s pretty stupid. Early on, WOTAN expresses that “Doctor Who is required,” although the plot seems to do this, which is a shame, because it might have actually increased the tension in the plot.

Then we get to the actual War Machines, which make Daleks look sleek and functional. Are you really gonna conquer the world with those, WOTAN? Clearly they didn’t enter any information about design into WOTAN. Jony Ive hadn’t yet been born, but it’s clear that he would approve. They’re about as ridiculous as can be, including the big smashing hammers that don’t seem to be anything of a threat. (In one episode, a War Machine veers off path to use it to knock over some boxes, then goes back to its path. The boxes looked at it funny. Sure.)

See, the best part of the story is that Dodo vanishes halfway through. According to Wikepedia, Jackie Lane’s contract was up after the second episode. It really does seem that Dodo’s lines were given to Polly, and so there was instead a romance between Polly and Ben.

Speaking of the introduction of Ben, the Inferno club is a disaster, not the slightest bit credible. The place wasn’t likely to succeed anyway; they kept handing people drinks and never taking any money. That’s no way to run a business.

Eye Candy for Gay Time Lords
Well, there’s Ben. Unfortunately, most of the episodes with him are lost. Damn. The story also includes a lot of young actors playing journalists and soldiers. Not bad. (Speaking of the journalists, we get a lot of fake American accents, which are most decidedly not ear candy.)

So, Is This a Must See?
It’s not a stinker, it just seems to lack something. As Wikipedia makes clear, Kit Pedlar came up with the idea of the computer that controlled minds by telephone, but couldn’t finish the script. Instead, Stuart Ian Black wrote it, changing “The Computers” into “The War Machines,” and presumably making a mess of the plot. Compared to “The Gunfighters” it’s magnificent (because what wouldn’t be?), but otherwise, it just fails to hit the mark.
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