Strictly speaking, this is not the last episode of Hartnell’s final full season as the Doctor. Season 4 opener The Smugglers was the last to be filmed in the Season 3 production bloc, but was carried over to begin the next season while the producers were taking the momentous decision to replace the show’s main actor. But it is striking as the last fully surviving Hartnell adventure, the last adventure to feature Dodo (I don’t believe anyone is the least bit sorry about that) and the only fully surviving adventure to feature Ben and Polly.
I didn’t remember it as being that good when I watched the VHS, so had dialed down my expectations when I finally got around to buying the DVD – in actual fact, this was the final Hartnell adventure I purchased (not counting the incomplete Tenth Planet and Reign of Terror). My memory of the adventure was evidently unfairly tainted, for The War Machines is a well paced and intriguing adventure, that would not have been at all out of place in the UNIT era.
The Doctor and Dodo arrive in 1966 to discover that the new smart computer in the Post Office tower, WOTAN, has become fully sentient, gained the capacity to hypnotise humankind, and has cultivated a scheme to take over the world through a combination of mass hypnosis, and construction of the titular War Machines to seize the planet by force. In perhaps the clearest example of BBC Production Values influencing the plot, Dodo is hypnotised by WOTAN, then sent off in episode 2 to recover, never to be seen again – reflecting the BBC’s decision that the character simply hadn’t worked. Ben and Polly were the solution – both bring swinging sixties glamour, but also (in Ben) a necessary action man given Hartnell’s increasing frailty.
The success of this episode only makes one thirst to see more adventures featuring Ben and Polly – though the pertinent question can be asked as to whether they were better suited alongside the grandfatherly Hartnell rather than the more comic figure of Troughton. But unless the recent acceptance that there are no further missing episodes to be found is wrong, we can sadly only suppose.
I rather enjoyed The War Machines in the end, and think that alongside The Faceless Ones, The Web of Fear and The Invasion would be a prime candidate for a colourised pre-UNIT boxset of UNIT style stories, updated to match the later Pertwee era. Was well worth the wait in the end, and a worthy conclusion to the Hartnell era … for now?