Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 131: The War Machines, Episode Three
Five or six years ago, probably around the time that The War Machines was released on DVD, I remember creating a custom War machine figure, in scale with the Character Options figure range. It was before they'd made any of the classic Doctors, so I probably paired it up on the shelf with a Tenth Doctor toy. It wasn't very good, as customs go. I seem to recall that it was made from a Coco Pops box, coated in tin-foil.
The whole reason that I'd even bothered to make one is the same reason that I wonder fairly regularly when we're going to get an official War Machine figure from Character - they're freaking awesome!
The thing that often gets forgotten with the War Machines, or at least it's often forgotten by me, is the sheer size of the things. The Daleks at this point in the series' history are quite short. That has a charm of its own, but then you're faced up against one of these machines and it's huge! It's a good foot or so taller than many members of the cast, and that really helps to sell it as something of a threat.
The other thing of note with them is the amount of detail included. It's seen clearest on the segment of Blue Peter included on the DVD, in which Christopher Trace examines one of the machines up close. It's all fairly basic by today's standards, but it's still pretty impressive when immersed in this part of the programme's history. There's flashing banks of computers on the side of the creature, some kind of optical 'eye' built into the front, two guns coming out of the sides and the big metal 'fists', too, which get put to a fair bit of use in this episode.
The one thing that I'd always failed to notice, though, is the face. Oh yes, the War Machine has a face. It's right at the top of the thing, with the number on the machine forming the nose, and the long, dark box posing as the mouth. Once you've seen it, it's impossible to un-see. As if that wasn't enough, they then cut back to WOTAN, and he's got a face, too! Ah, I've ruined a great design for myself, now.
Seriously, though, Character Options. I'm waiting to give you my money. Make a War Machine! Give them little number stickers like you did with the Voc Robots! I'd form a little army of them on my shelf!
I can only imagine the impact that these things had on the viewers back in the day. A large chunk of the episode is given over to demonstrating just how powerful the machine is, first as it terrorises Ben again in a cliffhanger reprise, and then as it takes on the army by itself for the last third of the story. We've never seen a fight sequence quite like this in the show, so it really makes an impact.
The only downside to having such a long sequence is that we see several things over and over again. This is partly a result of the episode being patched back together to cover a few missing parts (though I'm not sure I'd have noticed them so much had I not foolishly watched a documentary on how it was done!), and partly the result of them jus twanging to show it off.
There's a great moment in the warehouse when the War Machine crashes through a pile of crates and sends them scattering as it just powers on. Unfortunately, by the time it's reached the street outside, it seems to go out of its way to knock over smaller piles of boxes almost to show that it can. It's the equivalent of a teen who's lost a fight kicking over a bin as he retreats. Y'know, just to prove that he's still 'hard'.
I think you can just about forgive it, though, because the fight really is fantastic in places. It also leads to one of the best cliffhangers that we've seen so far, when the army retreats to safety, and the Doctor stands tall, looking fantastic in his hat and cloak, squaring up to the machine. The camera pulls into a close-up on William Hartnell, and it's possibly the best he's ever looked. A shame that the picture seems a tad over-exposed, here, but it's still a great moment.
The War Machines is still very much Ben's story at this stage. Polly gets plenty to do in this episode, under the control of WOTAN, and Anneke Wills gets a chance to show us what she can do (The moment that she realises she's let Ben escape because he was her friend is lovely), but she's still only just involved. Ben's the one performing all of the companion role at this stage, and it's still fantastic to see. Just as Steven came along and washed Ian clean from my mind, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ben may do the same to our space pilot!
It's also nice to see Dodo getting a brief mention. It's only in passing, and it comes again as the Doctor worries about Ben and Polly, but it's nice to see that she's not been completely forgotten just yet.