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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Action > Adventure > Time Travel > British TV > Doctor Who - The War Machines + Four To Doomsday (BBC DVD)

Doctor Who - The War Machines + Four To Doomsday (BBC DVD)

Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: B+/C-     Episodes: C-/B+



Reaching deep into the archives of Doctor Who seems more like commencing an archaeological dig than traveling through time in an old school British phone box.  Archaeology, however, is not without its own interests and so digging deep into these new volumes proves fruitful, especially for the longtime fan.  The story arcs included in The War Machines and Four To Doomsday in a very real way reflect the decades within which they were made and the science fiction trends that were current at the time.  

The War Machines, which originally aired in June and July of 1966, really feels like another time and, at 40 plus years old, it is most certainly that.  It is grounded in the hip London scene of go-go's and Carnaby Street fashion: wide-lapels, straight hair, and large-polka-dotted clothing.  The sci-fi in this episode is run-of-the-mill; a standard giant computer goes awry and decides to take over the world.  Of course, these were the days when a single computer filled an entire warehouse-sized room so, at least in look, they appear threatening.  In this classic story line, the original Doctor Who is portrayed by the fatherly, professorial William Hartnell (1963-1966) and the computer in question is WOTAN (the Will Operating Thought Analogue).  The computer is housed in the newly opened Post Office Tower (more about that to follow) and so an array of human slaves and mobile mechanized machines (bearing more than a passing resemblance to giant Daleks) is put in place to execute WOTAN's commands.

Basically, next to nothing happens for the entire four episodes.  The most threatening moments are when a lackey or two and a couple of soldiers are vaporized and when one of "war machines" runs over two garbage cans AND some cardboard boxes.   The Doctor seems to spend the entire time vacillating between cogitating and waiting around for others to return from wherever they've gotten off to.  No wonder long-time fans spend so much time looking for patterns in the carpet and errant boom mikes, dollying Dalek-like in the distance.  To put it simply, time has not been kind to this particular story.  Doctor Who’s origins in Saturday matinee serials is more than apparent, all the way down to the repeated few minutes at the beginning of each segment to catch-up the absent or forgetful and serve as much needed filler for an over-taxed production team.

What is thrilling about this disk, however, is the extras. The idea behind the episode coincided with the opening of the brand new spire-like structure, the Post Office Tower.  The first extra, entitled “Now and Then,” supplies the background to the opening and also visits various shooting locales throughout London 40 years later, which is of interest for long-time fans, Londoners, and Anglophiles alike.  The second extra consists of segments of the British children’s show Blue Peter, which also covers the opening of the Post Office Tower, along with excerpts from the episode (which proved historically important), and a visit from one of the war machines.  The third extra, entitled "One Foot in the Past," chronicles the history and privatization of the Tower through the eyes of the original postmaster general as he returns 40 years later. 

As good as all three of these extras are, the fourth is the one worth the price of the disc for Who fans and cinema buffs alike.  This segment, entitled “WOTAN Assembly”, details the reconstruction of the 4 episode story, which had been thought completely lost, from disparate sources from around the world.  The only complete existing copy was an AUDIO recording of the soundtrack and, using that as a basis, the entire film was put back together with only a few bits interpolated in.  A copy censored for the viewing of children in Australia was one of the only copies in decent enough shape to be used to put the project together, along with a badly scratched copy from Nigeria.  In one of the great ironies of film restoration, the censored footage was largely recovered from the episode of the children’s show, Blue Peter, which was used to promote the original airing in 1965.  Naturally they showed the good bits (the vaporizing and knocking about of dust bins etc.) and these were the sections cut from the Australian censored copy.  Some ingenious use of the intact footage patched in the last parts using the dialogue from the audio tape and, in this reviewer's estimation, made a better job of it than was done in the classic restoration of missing footage in the film Lost Horizon. 

The second set under review here, Four To Doomsday, stars Peter Davison (1982-1984), the 5th Doctor.  The story is much stronger than The War Machines, though it also reflects the time in which it was made, with its alien race storyline and cheesy versions of then state-of-the-art space travel effects.  The Doctor and his companions, Adric, Nyssa, and Tagan, find themselves mistakenly transported onto a large spaceship ruled by a humanoid/toadlike creature named Monarch.  The ship is due to arrive on Earth in four days, hence the title, and is occupied by a race from the planet Urbanka, as well as representatives from four distinct ancient Earth cultures.  Their intent is slowly revealed to be the colonization of Earth, as their planet is no longer viable to support life.   Over 3 billion of their species are aboard in the form of blots on slides, to be regenerated upon arrival, to the detriment of humanity.

This is classic Dr. Who, plain and simple.  The companions become divided and have to be variously rescued, while the Doctor plots to outwit their captors and overpower the seemingly godlike Monarch.  Davison's portrayal of the Doctor is solid, as always, and the story is simultaneously intelligent and fast-paced, making it a fine addition to the overall canon.

The 1.33 X 1 picture and Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono on both sets are on par with previous sets.  Unlike the Hartnell disc, however, the extras leave something to be desired.  The first is a series of outtakes in the filming of Four To Doomsday, which is probably riveting for someone, I just can't imagine whom.  It is a little like a live action Photo Gallery, one of which makes up a second "extra."  All this, plus a 3 minute Theme Music Video helps make the term underwhelming seem hyperbolic.  A Saturday Night at the Mill interview of Peter Davison by Bob Langley addresses his at that time recent selection as the new Doctor and is mildly entertaining, though Davison demonstrating his chocolate milk shake making capabilities is as superfluous as it sounds.



-   Don Wentworth


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