Whenever I go to the supermarket, I always love to check out the cereal aisle. The brightly colored cardboard boxes, the cartoon animal mascots of almost terminal cuteness, and the bold call-outs boasting heart-healthy goodness and the taste that kids love fill me with a sense of consumerism-fueled joy. Not least in my favorite aspects of cereal-shopping is the comparison of name-brand cereals, with their flashier advertising and beloved mascots who’ve starred in countless TV commercials, with the generic brands. I find the generic brands infinitely more interesting, because it’s obvious that their manufacturers had to have spent sleepless nights inventing ways to make cost-effective discount cereal without it being blatantly apparent that these cereals are little more than glorified knock-offs of name-brand product. In dusty plastic bags, covered with slightly less glamorous colors, cereals named things like “Apple Dapples,” “Sugar Smacks” and “Feisty Fruits” sit waiting for their inevitable purchase in a sheepish sort of way. They’re not the real McCoy (so to speak), but they’ll get the job done.
That’s what I thought of when this serial’s Badduns appeared for the first time. They’re called War Machines, and they were constructed and programmed according to the world’s first sentient computer, WOTAN (pronounced “vo-tan,” for some inexplicable reason). WOTAN was constructed by a team of British scientists and was intended to be used as a problem-solving tool, connected to all the other computers in the world (all six of them). Before this great technological coup can be made, however, WOTAN the sentient computer decided that humans could make no further advances on Earth.
There’s an Apple and Microsoft joke to be made here, but darned if I can find it. The upshot of it all, however, is that WOTAN elected itself dictator-for-life over the human race.
Now, there are several things wrong with this picture. First of all, if WOTAN is supposed to be the acme of invention, I want to know why it needs human beings to take care of manual labor for it. A great deal of the “tension” in this serial results from various people being hypnotized by WOTON and forced to construct the War Machines. Surely, there are further advancements to be made in the way of working limbs for WOTAN?
And speaking of technological advances…WOTAN thought that 1966 was the cutoff point for human ingenuity? Somewhere in computer programmer heaven, Steve Jobs is laughing his head off. It’s shamefully clear that WOTAN is clearly not the finish point of invention. Besides the fact that the darn thing is immense and clunky, every action of WOTAN is accompanied by harsh, grating, metallic noises. These noises bear a horrifying resemblance to the dial-up tones that every nineties-era computer user remembers with fear and loathing. The constant noises made me fear that my computer was crashing (which it has, a couple of times, poor thing). Ach, constantly checking the state of my computer was more stressful and entertaining than the whole serial.
Additionally, it astounds me that everyone else was astounded when WOTAN began its mechanical revolution. Professor Brett swore up and down that there was no way that a sentient computer could in any way put the entire free world in jeopardy. Never mind the fact that artificial intelligence is infamous for disliking having to take orders: even if WOTAN was cooperative, can you imagine what would happen if the technology ever fell into the wrong hands? Bear in mind, we were in the middle of the Cold War at the time. The results would be catastrophic. A case could be made, of course, that since WOTAN was the first of its kind, the worry about a cybernetic revolt was a concept not quite out of the realm of science fiction, and as such, hardly a cause for concern. Certainly, nowadays a hostile computer/robot takeover is number two on our list of common-sense pseudo-fictional concerns, after a zombie apocalypse. Still, we’ve got to remember that as of 1966, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had been in print for almost 150 years. The hostile takeover bid by WOTAN was something for which the British government really should have been prepared.
Next, and most egregiously, we have the War Machines themselves. Returning to my generic vs. brand name cereal analogy above, the War Machines are essentially bargain-basement Daleks. They have a similar build, similar weaponry, and similar objectives: destroy every living thing in their path.
They are officially the dumbest-looking and lamest-conceived villains on “Doctor Who” so far. Huge, boxy, and unwieldy, I would be more terrified to encounter that huge Voldemort in the Olympics opening ceremony. And they were constructed on the cheap, you could tell. At one point, Ben (a new friend of the Doctor’s) actually knocked a piece off of one of them! Even by “Doctor Who” standards, that was a new low. I’m appalled.
Last on the litany of laziness, we have Dodo. I mentioned last time how I was liking her more and more as time went on. She was slowly transitioning from the random ditz in “The Ark” into a companion that I wouldn’t mind supporting. Well, all development in that area was axed in this serial, faithful viewer, because this is the last we see of Dodo Chaplet. And as Neil Perryman wrote, “Her departure reminds me of her arrival: abrupt and stupid.” After being hypnotized by WOTAN, Dodo is sent to recover in the country. She later sends word to the Doctor that she would prefer to remain in London rather than continue traveling in the TARDIS. The last time we see her, she’s zonked out in a chair. Poor Dodo; given short shrift by the writers until the very end. Sorry, sweetheart.
On a more positive note, we’ve got two brand-new companions: Ben and Polly. Ben is a rough and ready AB on shore leave and who proved quite capable and clever when facing down the War Machines. Polly worked as Professor Brett’s secretary and apparently spends her free time being a club kitten at a local nightspot. With her long blond hair and smoky eyes, Anneke Wills gives Brigitte Bardot a run for her money as the lovely Polly. I don’t know a great deal about her, but apparently a simple toss of her hair has the power to make even the most impervious male Whovians bite their fists with longing. I’m not sure what kind of companion she’ll make, seeing as how she spent most of this serial being hypnotized by WOTAN. All I can hope is that the writers will treat her better than they treated Dodo.
All in all, faithful viewer, not much of a season finale. All it was really good for was establishing the change of companions. But don’t touch that dial, because the next two serials are William Hartnell’s last. Wow, where has the time gone?
Stay tuned ’til next time, faithful viewer, where we travel to beautiful Cornwall and hop aboard a ship with an even more ill-fated name than Titanic…
Author’s Note: I almost forgot! WOTAN called the Doctor “Doctor Who” at one point. And then a few scientists repeated it, for good measure. Cue Whovian aneurysms.