Doctor Who: The War Machines (and the computer that knew the Doctor’s name)

Doctor Who: The War Machines (and the computer that knew the Doctor’s name) January 16, 2012

The episode of Doctor Who, “The War Machines,” may seem to explore familiar terrain to viewers today. But keep in mind that this episode was written and aired not only decades before Skynet and the Terminator films, but also years before the movie Colossus: The Forbin Project was released. And so the Doctor Who episode is a forerunner to those famous sci-fi movies and not a mere imitation of them. If you haven’t seen it, you have probably guessed by now that it features a supercomputer bent on world domination, the next stage in “mechanized evolution.”

That in itself is interesting. But there is something even more significant about this episode. The all-knowing computer that is at the heart of the episode, WOTAN, seems to know the Doctor’s name.

When Dodo asks the computer what TARDIS stands for, somehow it knows. And so surely it is significant that the computer refers to the Doctor as “Doctor Who” – the only character in the series to call the Doctor that (although that is the way the Doctor was traditionally referred to in the show’s credits). It makes one wonder whether the Doctor’s name in Gallifreyan is in fact something that sounds like this English phrase, that perhaps being the reason why he adopted the moniker – wouldn’t the Doctor take great delight in having people produce his name, or provide countless opportunities to say it himself, and yet never be the wiser?

So what might his name be? Da K’tor Huu? Perhaps when other time lords call him “Doctor” they too are simply using his name, and it is only English speakers who mistake it for the English word. If so, then perhaps the significant revelation will eventually be not that that is in fact the Doctor’s name, but what, if anything, it means.

The computer is called WOTAN, which of course is the name of a deity in Norse mythology. And so there is more than a hint of the computer being “godlike” – although clearly neither infallible nor indestructible.

There are as always some comical moments. My favorites were when the Doctor hangs an “Out of Order” sign on the TARDIS, and when he pulls a screwdriver from his pocket – the latter would not have been funny at the time, but is with hindsight, since his screwdriver back then wasn’t a sonic one.

I’ve shared but a few thoughts on some key elements from this classic episode, “The War Machines,” rather than trying to summarize it, since there are other sites that have posted reviews or summaries of the episode.

Do you think that the Doctor’s name could actually be “Doctor Who” or something that sounds like it?

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  • Tony Bellows

    He is of course “Doctor Gond” in the Krotons.

    • Since Zoe was “Zoe-Gond” in that episode, I don’t think that was a clue about his name.

      It may have been “Who” or “________ Who” with “Doctor” as genuinely a title. But I still think “The War Machines” and the end credits were supposed to let us in on the secret – he is actually “Doctor Who.”

  • IIRC, in An Unearthly Child, Barbara called the Doctor “Doctor Foreman”
    (the surname that Susan used); and he replied, “Doctor Who?”

    • The first question, hidden (along with its answer?) in plain sight…

  • Daniel Elicker

    In the episode “A Good Man Goes to War” what River Song says towards the end when she finally shows up at the ship basically means that “Doctor” is a word used by many civilizations to have different meanings, to some it means healer, to others it means warrior etc. Instead meaning that the word,and meaning, for doctor in English originated from the Doctor. As opposed to his name sounding similar to the word.

    • So perhaps the better way of putting it is to say that maybe the word sounds like his name?

  • This computer is not the only character to call him “Doctor Who”.  Many years ago ( > 20, if I remember correctly), the local public television station showed a batch of the early William Hartnell episodes.  The reason I am so confident of my memory after all this time is that I was so surprised to hear some of the companions ocassionally call him “Doctor Who”.  At the time, I wondered when/how it happened that the later regenerations were never called by that name.  (I never found out.)

    You can wonder if the Doctor is the same character in the recent productions (Christopher Eccleleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith) because the personality is so different.  In “Genesis of the Daleks”, the Tom Baker Doctor Who wouldn’t kill the _Daleks_ because he wondered if he had the right to commit genocide.  In the latest series, we have a character telling him that “Doctor” has become the word for “great warrior” in several languages because of all the battles he has won.

    Still, if you assume they are the same guy, then we can point to the instance where River Song wispers his name to him to prove that she knows him.  (From her perspective, they have known each other a long time; he thinks they have just met – it happens in time travel)  It seems a bit odd that he might say “I am the Doctor” and then be surprised if she calls him “Doctor Who”, but I guess you could argue that knowing the last syllable counts for something.

    • Are you perhaps thinking of the Peter Cushing movies? In those, everyone calls him “Doctor Who.” I’ve been rewatching or listening to all the William Hartnell episodes lately, and so while there are some who as “Doctor Who?” I do not believe there is anyone else who refers to him as “Doctor Who” in the TV series.

      • I never saw the Peter Cushing movies.

        Unfortunately, I can’t remember the episode or even the name of the companions.  I don’t remember much detail because I only saw them once (unlike the Tom Baker epsiodes that kept coming around in reruns).  I know I saw the first Dalek story (where they are electrically powered through the floor) and an Aztec-themed episode that involved the doctor chatting up an Aztec woman and drinking chocolate.  I don’t know if either of these is the episode where somebody called him “Doctor Who”.

        I seem to remember the companions were two men and a woman, where one of the men was taller than Hartnell and had black hair.  Otherwise, he looked like an unremarkable character from an early 60’s TV show.  One of them might have been named “Jamie”.

        • That sounds like it would have been something from the Patrick Troughton era. Did Jamie wear a kilt?