Doctor Who: The War Machines (s03e10, pts. 1 – 4)

3 out of 5

Directed by: Michael Ferguson

‘War Machines’ continues the surge into the more psychological sci-fi – a horrible term that I’m using to describing something more self-aware than Good Guys vs. Aliens but not yet full-on speculative sci-fi – that ‘The Savages’ introduced, but is foiled by some truly odd pacing choices and imagination limitations.  The DW crew – currently just Dodo and Doc – land in what appears to be modern day London, and, in some classically clumsy abbreviated plot machinations, the group decides to investigate The Post Office Tower (a wacky tall oddity that I’m guessing you’re familiar with if you’re one o’ them Brits) based on Hartnell getting some weird Dalek-like energy readings coming from thataway, because psychic Dalek sensations are something we’ve regularly relied on.  Lo and behold, calling yourself ‘Doctor’ gets you access to important places: Doc and Dodo meet Professor Brett inside the Tower, who is prepping a computer named WOTAN for some interconnectivity with other important computer systems for the sake of Answering All Our Questions Ever But Haha Don’t Worry Because Humans Still Need To Exist To Push WOTAN’s Buttons Dude Also All Women Are Secretaries … which is a weird subtext to the episode, since Professor Brett’s aide and Dodo both get called that and the latter is mysteriously shushed off to the sidelines for the majority of the serial.  Anyhow, WOTAN goes live and starts with the human mind control right away, and the super smart robot plan to build some War Machines to put the smack down on humans and set the status quo as Robot: Boss, Man: Slave.  When things kick off, this is pretty keen: while the mind control is a bit 60s wonky, this early expression of technology-fear is a new premise for the series and expressed in an amusingly fantastic fashion.  Especially appreciated was the way WOTAN’s creations could block other technologies from working, which was an easy but effective way to make the team think on how to stop these things without bullets.  The camera work is also a bit more emotive than usual and the sound effects and title cards all set the stage perfectly.  Production design is also up a notch: the variation in sets actually makes this feel like it is London and not just an empty street wherever.  But this creativity and polish gets stifled quite a bit by almost hilariously sluggish pacing in the middle two serials, where we get extended shots of WOTAN slaves just doing their thing… people not saying anything, staring off-camera, for notably long passages of time.  These scenes add nothing except to pad the runtime.  And then there are the moments that push the hokey a bit, like the computer needing to ‘say’ Doctor Who – also odd to hear the Doc actually called that – and our War Machines, despite having that awesome no-tech functionality, apparently needed a very slow and unconvincing ‘hammer arm’ that wouldn’t be, like, easy to avoid.  So it’s a mixture of high-concept and generic-concept, mashed together and hiccupped through its paces.

To top it off, since we had a well-executed companion send-off last serial, it follows that we should balance that by one of the worst with this one, where Dodo just… uh, disappears.  But at least the two new suckers who wander aboard – Polly and Ben – seem like they’ll be good sports for whatever’s to come.

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