The Doctor lands in 1966 London with Dodo. Right away the Doctor notices a newly constructed tower and tells Dodo he can sense something “alien” and “powerful” about it, similar to the feelings he had when he first encountered the Daleks. Pretending to be a scientist and his secretary, the Doctor and Dodo enter the tower and meet Dr. Brett, the inventor of a new computer system, WOTAN, that is capable of independent thought but has “no imaginative parts.” Brett boasts that WOTAN will be linked to other government and military computer systems across the Western world and even the Doctor is disconcerted by WOTAN’s capabilities.
While the Doctor attends the press conference announcing the existence of WOTAN, Brett’s assistant, Polly, takes Dodo to a nightclub. Dodo feels ill and remembers being exposed to a high-pitched noise while in WOTAN’s room, and then disappears after a sailor named Ben gets into a fight with a man harassing Polly. Behind the scenes of the press conference, WOTAN manages to brainwash Brett, one other scientist, and the tower’s chief of security. WOTAN declares its intent to “develop the planet further,” by naturally enslaving or wiping out humanity. It turns out that WOTAN also managed to take over Dodo’s mind, and enlists her in the goal of acquiring the Doctor’s valuable mind.
WOTAN begins construction of war machines in an abandoned warehouse with the intention of starting his invasion of the world with London. Dodo gets the Doctor on the phone with WOTAN, where he is exposed to and overwhelmed by the hypnotizing noise, but the noise only shocks him. Because Dodo assumes the Doctor has been enlisted in WOTAN’s army, the Doctor realizes what’s happened and deprograms her, a process that puts her out of commission. After Polly also disappears, the Doctor asks for Ben’s help. Ben does find Polly, but she has already been brainwashed and is helping WOTAN’s other minions in building a robotic army. Ben narrowly escapes from being drafted into WOTAN’s labor force and warns the Doctor and another scientist, Sir Charles. The Doctor wants to attack WOTAN directly, but Sir Charles refuses to believe that WOTAN is involved and instead gets the British government to sic soldiers on the war machines, one of which is unleashed on the squadron. The Doctor watches as the soldiers prove to be pretty much helpless. As the soldiers retreat, the Doctor stands before the machine, forcing it to stop since its programming was not complete. With Ben’s help, the Doctor later captures another machine and reprograms it to attack the tower and destroy WOTAN. Against the Doctor’s objections, Ben sets out on his own to rescue Polly, which he manages to do just before the machine destroys WOTAN and breaks its hypnotic control over the others.
Later, outside the TARDIS, Polly and Ben meet the Doctor with news from Dodo, who had been sent into “the country” to recuperate. They tell him that Dodo has decided to stay in London. The Doctor grumbles about Dodo’s ingratitude and slips inside the TARDIS. Ben remembers that he was supposed to give the Doctor a key from Dodo and they enter the TARDIS using the key, just as it takes off.
It isn’t explicitly stated at all, but it’s possible that the Doctor feels like he’s detecting the presence of the Daleks because he is. Arguably this serial takes place roughly at the same time as a later serial that will take place in 1966 London, “Evil of the Daleks.”
I think this exchange is the first hint that the Doctor is very old indeed:
Dodo: “It feels like it’s been ages!”
Doctor: “Oh, when you’ve been around as long as I have, you won’t use that term quite so freely.”
There’s a couple of continuity “goofs.” Years before the flap with the Doctor being described as “half-human” in the American movie, WOTAN describes the Doctor as “human.” Also, for some reason, WOTAN names the Doctor as “Doctor Who.” It kind of reminds me of how much effort in remembering his own continuity Stan Lee put into his Silver Age stories.
Finally, this is the first series that takes place entirely in the audience’s present day, excluding “The Planet of Giants.” In a way, it also introduces the idea of the Doctor as a protector of Earth rather than purely a traveler, which would become a persistent idea for the rest of both the classic and new series, especially when it comes to the Pewtree and Tennant Doctors.
The First Doctor era has been characterized by abrupt and uncomfortable changes in companions from Susan on, but nothing has quite prepared us for the shuffling off of Dodo. I know she was an unpopular companion and that the amount of detail on her background and personality has been minimal – that is, all but non-existent – but still, the episode might as well have had the words [REMOVE DODO, INSERT NEW COMPANIONS HERE] flash across the screen. Hell, not only do they have her around to introduce her replacements, but she’s off-screen during her own farewell! Now that is cold.
To be fair, the new companions do get one of the better introductions. Unlike Dodo, they actually have personalities beyond one single trait (in Dodo’s case, absent-mindedness); Polly is uptight but hip and friendly, and Ben is a professional everyman. It is true that Ben and Polly exist as part of the showrunners’ attempt to grab at the youth demographic; the fact that the characters appear at a nightclub and use mod-slang says that much. Still, they at least feel like distinctive characters out of the gate, rather than afterthoughts (Dodo) or replacements for Susan (Vicki).
Now, for the episode itself, it will be difficult to simply damn it with faint praise, given how aggressively lackluster the whole third series has been. So I won’t say “The War Machines” is good, but it does show signs of improvement from what we’ve seen before. Having the Doctor fight a menace in the present day is old hat now, yet in the context of the other First Doctor episodes it seems a promising new direction, and it does seem like the showrunners have finally given up on simply replicating the exactstatus quo the show had in the first series. Now the whole “getting rid of Dido and bringing in Polly and Ben” thing is still jarring and just an example of lazy writing, the villain WOTAN is dull, the plot just never really goes as far as it should, and most of the show’s “action” basically consists of soldiers running around and accomplishing nothing while the Doctor watches from the sidelines – in other words, we’re far from the highs hit in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” It reminds me a lot of the low-budget ’50s and ’60s sci-fi films that have lengthy scenes of scientists and military types talking about the unfolding crisis without ever really getting involved. And, in fact, we don’t even get a confrontation between WOTAN, who only ever gets a couple of lines, and the Doctor. Instead he just programs one of WOTAN’s robots to kill their master and that’s it. Still, in the end it does feel as if the showrunners are once again putting some effort into things, and having watched the rest of series three myself that makes all the difference.