12 May 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 132: The War Machines, Episode Four

Dear diary,

The notes for this story have only taken up a single side of paper in my notebook, because I've mostly been enjoying The War Machines too much to break away and write things. There's one note that keep reappearing, though. At the top of Episodes One, Three, and Four, I've scrawled 'Titles' (Actually, under today's episode, it's down as 'TITLES!!!!').

The War Machines is one of those rare 20th-century Who stories that breaks away from the usual format for its episode title. Here, we're given the title and the episode number in a 'computer' font (we all know which font that is, even if you've never seen the story), as they arrive on screen in what can only be described as a 'computerised' way. Right from the word 'go', we're being told that this is a story about computers and technology.

It's important to remember that this is only the second story to have one big title, as opposed to a name for each individual episode. There was a style guide for that, established right from the very start of the programme. The opening titles sequence dies away, and we're given an image over which the title - and then the writer's credit - will sit. For a time during Seasons One and Two, the action on screen would pause, and the actors would hold their pose, while the text appeared.

The same layout was used for The Savages, as confirmed by the tele snaps for Episodes Two and Three. It would appear that the episode number was simply added as an additional caption between the two standard ones. This, then, is the first opportunity for the programme to experiment with overall titles, and to start looking at a way to do them from now on.

I can't say I particularly like the titles for The War Machines any more or any less than the regular ones, and the same can be said for stories like The War Games which also employ different title styles. Equally, there's nothing wrong with doing them in this unusual manner, either. It just doesn't make all that much of a difference to me!

The other note that I've had scrawled at the top of several episodes over the last week is 'Ian Stuart Black'. The Savages and The War Machines is the first example in Doctor Who history of a writer being responsible for two consecutive stories (though Terry Nation came very close right at the start of the first season). In fairness, Black was only brought in to do a redraft of The War Machines, it having already gone through a version or two. As a fan of 1960s television in general, and not just Doctor Who, Black's name appears in the credits to several of the DVDs on my shelf, and I've alway been quite keen on his work. I'm pleased to see that my enjoyment has carried over to his Who writing, and I'm looking forward to The Macra Terror more now that I've realised it's Black's third script for the programme.

A couple of times over the last few days, I've compared Ben and Polly coming into the show as feeling like a new start, and I've linked it to the addition of Jenna-Louise Coleman to the current series of Who. I wasn't until today that I realised there were more similarities between the two eras than I'd ever thought about. Both get their breath of fresh air in a story that brings the Doctor back to modern-day London, and the enemy is based in the most modern building in the city (The Post Office Tower and the Shard aren't likely to be compared very often, but there's certainly a link here!).

On both occasions, the enemy is ultimately defeated when the Doctor reprogrammed their soldiers (he sends the War Machine to destroy WOTAN, and reprograms one of the 'Spoon Heads' to go confront Celia Imrie), and he picks up a new companion - or two, in Hartnell's case - along the way. All we need is to see the First Doctor ride an anti-grab motorbike up the side of the tower, and the comparison is complete!

It's strange, given how alien all of this story felt in the first couple of episodes, that the First Doctor looks so completely right as he strolls along a street to confront the War Machine. Shortly after, there's a shot of the Doctor in the back of a car and whereas before it seemed totally odd to see him in a taxi, now it just feels very natural. I think it has to be a success of the story that it all holds together so, so, well. And we've got the first real hint of something that we'll see far more later on in the programme - the Doctor slipping away as soon as things are complete, before he can be questioned or congratulated.

It's nice to see him waiting around outside the TARDIS for Dodo at the end, as I'd worried that having vanished mid-way though the story, she'd be instantly brushed under the carpet as we move on to the next set of companions. It's also interesting to see the Doctor feeling rather put out that Dodo simply 'sends her love' after everything that he's shown her through time and space. It's reminiscent of the departure of Ian and Barbara, in that the Doctor is a little hurt they would choose a normal life over one with him.

And Ben and Polly really do feel like such a breath of fresh air at the end. It's great the way that they get caught back up with the Doctor - 'Shh, watch him! I'm sure there's something strange about that police box…' - and it's very much in the style of that very first introduction to the ship right back in An Unearthly Child. I'm hoping that it's a sign (along with not showing their reaction upon entering the ship) that we'll be seeing the introduction of two new companions used to take stock and reintroduce the series again.

The Third Season has been something of a revolving door for companions (We've had Vicki, Steven, Katarina, Sara, Dodo, and now Ben and Polly since the start of Galaxy 4), so the way that they work within the series hasn't been as developed as it was in the first two years. Dodo serves as the best example, being introduced in the midsts of a massive info-dump.

Still, The War Machines has been a massive high for the series - the highest I've rated a story so far! - and a fantastic way to end this this run of adventures. I'm taking another slight side-step tomorrow (for one day only, though, promise!), and then we're down to the dying days of the First Doctor. An interesting time indeed!

8/10 
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