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Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Warrior’s Gate originally aired in 1980. It was the third instalment of the E-Space Trilogy.

We found it.

Yes, well, that’s one of the advantages of living in a rapidly shrinking micro-universe.

What are the others?

Other what?

Other advantages?

Ah, well, it’s difficult to say.

– Adric, the Doctor and Romana discuss modern living

I’m actually very, very fond of Warriors’ Gate. It’s a piece of bold science-fiction that actually manages to accomplish what a lot of these stories in Tom Baker’s final season try to do. It offers an effective bit of speculative fiction while playing to the theme of entropy, decay and collapse. Both Stephen Gallagher’s fine script and Paul Joyce’s direction come together to produce a very thoughtful and clever Doctor Who story that manages to avoid a lot of the problems facing this era of the show.

More than that, though, it turns some of those disadvantages into advantages. After all, when else is the show’s tiny production budget going to produce something this beautiful?

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

Warriors’ Gate looks superb. Apparently Paul Joyce’s style of filming caused some friction with producer John Nathan Turner, and not all of the serial was the result of Joyce’s work. Apparently Graeme Harper even stepped in at one point. Understandably, this was the last time that Joyce got to work on Doctor Who and a quick review of his filmography shows only two directorial credits following Warriors’ Gate – an episode of Tickets for the Titanic and the documentary 2001: The Making of a Myth.

The most striking thing about the superb visuals of Warriors’ Gate is that they take advantage of the show’s limited budget. The setting for the adventure is pretty much… nothing. It’s just a big, vast, open space. Sure, there’s an alien space ship and an old castle, but there’s no jungle or desert or city or anything. Indeed, for once, the weaknesses of the production in the Nathan Turner era become strengths. The later Doctor Who serials would often be lit far too brightly, but the brightness gives Warriors’ Gate an ethereal quality.

Three men and a box...

Three men and a box…

That said, the design of the actual sets deserves mention as well. The dining hall looks fantastic, but the BBC have always done that sort of quasi-historical setting so very well. It’s the space ship that stands out. It looks a lot less attractive than most space craft we’ve seen, a lot less polished. It looks like the inside of an old warehouse, something that has been lived in. The design is more functional than appealing. It’s the little touches like the graffiti and the scratches on the metal that makes it seem more lived-in than a lot of Doctor Who sets. In fact, it plays to the themes of the season quite well, the sense of decay and erosion.

The visuals of Warriors’ Gate are decidedly art house, and so they stand out when compared to quite a few contemporaneous adventures. The serial was heavily visually influenced by La Belle et le Bête and the mirror imagery owes a conscious debt to Orphée. You could also argue that the recurring coin toss motif feels like an echo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, that most iconic of meta-fictional plays.

Who says the scenery budget is too low?

Who says the scenery budget is too low?

The depth of imagery is also reflected in a surprisingly thoughtful and introspective story. Probability and destiny play a significant recurring part in the serial, from the opening scene through to the ending. In the opening TARDIS scene, which flies by relatively quick, the Doctor touches on the idea, asking Romana, “What’s so improbable about tossing a coin? Never heard of the I-Ching?” She dismisses it as “superstition”, but he argues, “Random samplings that affect the broad flow of the material universe.”

Adric spends most of the episode navigating by coin toss, and it’s a coin toss that indicates the slave ship has wound up somewhere decidedly unpleasant. It’s not hard to imagine that Warriors’ Gate might be a favourite of modern Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat, as it toys a great deal with “timey wimey” concepts like the cycle of time and predestination. Things seem to happen not only according to the rules of cause-and-effect, but according to some larger plan.

In the Tharil of slavers...

In the Tharil of slavers…

Interestingly enough, Warriors’ Gate was a replacement for Christopher Priest’s aborted Sealed Orders, which would have featured more “timey wimey” touches in the style of Moffat. Sealed Orders would have featured the TARDIS materialising inside itself, a concept that Moffat himself would use in the Time and Space charity specials. (Although the season finale, Logopolis, would see a TARDIS materialising within the TARDIS.) Sealed Orders had been in progress for quite some time (since Douglas Adams’ time as script editor), but never quite materialised. It had been planned to serve as Romana’s departure episode, leaving Warriors’ Gate to pick up the slack.

Warriors’ Gate also deals with fatalism. The Doctor discovers that the “time winds” allow him to pass into another realm with an escaped slave named Biroc. “But what about K-9?” he asks. “The time winds positively blasted him. Can he pass through the mirror?” Biroc’s answer is less than informative, “When the time is right.” It turns out that the time is “right” at the end of the adventure, when Romana and K-9 depart together to have their own adventures. It suggests that the choices leading to that point were not really choices at all, merely the inevitable flow of things.

Death comes to time...

Death comes to time…

Time itself seems somewhat elastic here, perhaps the most elastic it has seemed since City of Death. We’re told that not only is space itself shrinking, but time is as well. Asked what he is, Biroc responds, “The shadow of my past and of your future.” Again, Biroc seems to be auditioning for a role on Lost, so determined he is to avoid giving a direct or coherent answer. Still, the point is clear enough. Not only is history shrinking, it is repeating itself. It moves in cycles, a pattern of repeated behaviour.

The slavers try desperately to get a look at what lies behind the mirrors, but the Doctor tries to dissuade them. “There’s nothing beyond those mirrors for people like us, except the reflection of what’s here,” the Doctor explains. He has discovered a time when the relationship between masters and slaves had been reversed. The Tharils were the masters then, and the humans the slaves. “There were always slaves from the beginning of time,” the robotic Gundan explains, as if speaking in grand philosophical terms. It’s just the identity of the slaves that changed. The wheel of time shifts, the roles change but the drama remains the same.

Axe yourself a question...

Axe yourself a question…

It’s a bold and interesting idea for a Doctor Who episode, particularly given how the series tends to favour the importance of free will over the weight of fate. In a way, it seems to suggest, we are all slaves trapped in some grand repeating pattern that we don’t necessarily comprehend. “The weak enslave themselves, Doctor,” Biroc states. “You and I know that.” History repeats because people fall into comfortable roles.

Symbolism aside, the use of the slavers in Warriors’ Gate is uncomfortable, and another of the script’s triumphs. While stories like Full Circle might subvert the trend, we’re still talking about a series renowned for its portrayal of monsters. Serials like The War Games have touched up the evil that men do, but having the Doctor confront a bunch of human slavers really feels like its turning the concept on its head. More than that, though, we discover that both parties have blood on their hands, making this more than a black-and-white issue.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

Still, the human villains serve to make things a bit more sinister than they might otherwise be. There, is for example, some disturbing subtext to the scene where they encounter Romana. “Are you alone?” Packard asks the woman, and it’s clear that Romana immediately knows she’s in trouble. “Can I help you?” she asks. One of the men replies, in a decidedly creepy manner, “Or can we help you?” We’re then treated to the decidedly uncomfortable sight of the woman effectively being held down and taken into slavery. It feels a lot more unpleasant than most Doctor Who threats and – despite the half-there surroundings – decidedly more real.

I think you could make a logical argument that the banality of evil on display here (right down to the slavers worrying about their shares) seems to foreshadow a lot of the Peter Davison era of the show. Once again, the human race seems incredibly stupid and self-destructive, and the Doctor’s intervention doesn’t seem to accomplish that much. It’s a sign, perhaps, that the universe is changing and that the Fourth Doctor is nearing the end of his tenure.

I bet the bass is amazing on those headphones...

I bet the bass is amazing on those headphones…

Warriors’ Gate doesn’t just succeed on its own terms. It plays well into the arc of the season. There’s a sense of entropy and decay here, and there’s also a looming sense of doom. The story’s resolution hinges on the Doctor accepting that there’s really not that much he can do. “Do nothing, if it’s the right sort of nothing.” It feels like quite a sobering moral for the usually hyper-energetic and quick-acting Fourth Doctor.

In fact, early on in the episode, we get a strange moment of honesty from the character. As he tries to pilot the TARDIS, Romana challenges him, “Go on, then, admit it. You don’t know what your doing.” A year ago, the Doctor would have readily bantered, or stalled, or deflected. Here it seems like he simply doesn’t have the energy to bother with any of that. He just flat out confirms what a lot of us always suspected, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

A flying finish...

A flying finish…

Towards the start of the second episode, the Doctor is attacked by two robots. It’s not the worst scenario to ever confront the character, but here they seem to get the better of him. Of course he defeats them in the end. Trapped by the pair, he crouches down between them. Like live-action cartoon characters, they proceed strike across him at each other. This would normally seem like one of the Doctor’s quick-thinking slapstick ploys… but then he seems pleasantly surprised at how things went down.

“They’ve cut each other dead,” he observes as he straightens up. This raises a couple of interesting questions. Had the Doctor given up at that point? Was he waiting for death? Was that mere dumb chance rather than his skill that saved his hide. Warriors’ Gate does an excellent job creating a sense of doubt, and I think a lot of that is due to Tom Baker’s performance. He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his time in the role, but he actually takes the Doctor on a clear character arc in this final year.

A woman's best friend...

A woman’s best friend…

Of course, death doesn’t just stalk the Doctor. If Warriors’ Gate has a weak link, it’s the random departure of Romana, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Not only does Romana foreshadow her departure in a way that the early show didn’t tend to do for companions, but the episode also teases the loss of K-9. At one point early on, it seems like the Doctor thinks K-9 is dead. It’s a sweet moment, and it’s telling that Baker doesn’t over-egg the pudding. His head drops, and he accepts it. After all, morality has been on the Fourth Doctor’s mind of late.

Romana wasn’t always served by the best scripts on the show, but I think she’s easily among my favourite of the classic companions. Lalla Ward just worked very well in the role, and played rather naturally off Tom Baker. Although the dynamic only really spanned the short “E-Space Trilogy”, I actually really like the “family in the TARDIS” dynamic that we have here. The Doctor is the patriarch, Romana is the mother, Adric is the child and K-9 is the dog. I’ll even argue that Adric and K-9 work rather well in this capacity.

Things are hardly ship-shape...

Things are hardly ship-shape…

It’s a great approach to the character because it dares to suggest that the Doctor is (gasp!) entering middle age. He’s had his student years travelling through space and time, he’s brought home strange girls in miniskirts, he’s been a cosmic hobo, he’s worked a government job. Now the character has found a Time Lady with whom to spend his remaining years, and with whom he doesn’t have to keep up the impression of a galactic know-it-all.

It’s clear that the Doctor doesn’t mind that Romana doesn’t necessarily see him as perfect, and it seems like character development that he’s comfortable enough with that fact that he’ll concede he has no idea what it is that he’s doing. One can’t imagine a similar confession to Sarah Jane or to Leela. I’ve always liked that Romana sees right through the character’s bluster, and I think it’s sweet that the Doctor seems to finally be getting used to it.

Sticking up for himself...

Sticking up for himself…

Which, of course, makes her departure all the more tragic. I mentioned above that Romana’s departure is a bit of a weak link here. It feels a little shoe-horned in. Of course, the show has done an excellent job making her departure seem inevitable. After all, her summons to Gallifrey was first mentioned in Full Circle. In the first episode, she even hints to Adric that she won’t be around much longer. “What if the Doctor and I went different ways?” she asks, like a mother trying to talk about divorce to a young child.

Indeed, the show does an excellent job demonstrating how Romana has grown as a character. She’s presented as an authority figure to match the Doctor, offering serious advice to Adric after the Doctor has gone walkabouts. “If they’re all right, I’ll give you a signal and you can come out. If not, stay put.” The serial returns to that idea in the final part, where Romana dismisses the Doctor’s instructions (“it’s about time you started accepting orders”) and then turns around to issue the same instructions to Adric:

I’m coming too.

You are not. It’s long past time you learnt to obey orders. Now stay here, and if we are not back for whatever reason in thirteen and a half minutes, I want you to dematerialise. Do you understand?

I like that. I think you’re improving.

– Adric, the Doctor, Romana

It creates the impression of character growth, and makes it clear that she’s learned a lot from the Doctor, for better or worse. As such, I suppose, you could argue that it was clear it was time for the character to move on.

The Doctor's surgery...

The Doctor’s surgery…

The problem is that Warriors’ Gate doesn’t really feel like it’s quite that moment. We know Romana is leaving, and soon, but her decision here still feels rather spur of the moment. It catches the Doctor by surprise as well, and he could be speaking for the audience when he reacts to her decision in the last three minutes of the adventure. “What?” he asks. “What a moment to choose.”

The suffering of the Tharils seems terrible, and it’s great that the show didn’t resort to marrying Romana off like it tended to do with female companions, but it still feels a little random. Even Romana herself seems a little bewildered by the fact that she just left the show. She takes K-9 with her, and – when Biroc states he plans to liberate his people – Romana’s decision to go along with it seems relatively half-hearted. “That’s something we’ve got to do, don’t you think?” It sounds dangerously close to “Ah, sure, why not?”

Shocking...

Shocking…

Still, while it’s not quite the send-off that the character deserved, at least Warriors’ Gate is a great story to go out on. The adventure does an excellent job playing with high concepts and playing into the themes of Tom Baker’s final year. Indeed, there’s a solid argument to be made that Warriors’ Gate is the best episode of the season, both as a stand-alone adventure and as part of a larger story.

I know that the final year has its rocky moments, but script editor Christopher H. Bidmead did an excellent job establishing a clear and distinct tone from when came before. While that tone might not be to everybody’s taste, I do think that it actually works better as a story arc or large-form story than The Key to Time did, and it creates a wonderful sense that the year is building towards something. Of course, the season leans heavily on Logopolis as a result of that decision, but I think that Warriors’ Gate is a sterling example of what Bidmead was doing.

2 Responses

  1. I think this is an underrated period of the show. Bidmead, Letts and even John Nathan Turner really did save the show from the mire it was wallowing it during the Graham Williams. Other than ‘Meglos’ , which was produced as a spoof of the preceding era, none of the stories of Season 18 were bad. They also didn’t seem cheap and shoddy nor feature ridiculous scenarios. It is interesting to note that in the season before this one, the Doctor was befriending a giant green penis .

    Thematically, ‘Warrior’s Gate’ is the best of the E-Space trilogy. The idea that the slaves were once slavers before the time had turned is a strong and thought provoking one. The motifs behind the slavery, that of pure capitalism, is dating and more realistic than over takes that have found currency. I am not sure if they’d do a story like this one today now that this hypocritical retributive streak has become more widespread. Now we are more likely to get a story that ends with the slavers becoming slaves themselves, as a twisted sort of “just desserts”. I think it will be a long time if we till we get a story as mature and complex as this one.

    • I rewatched Warriors’ Gate recently, and it’s a stonecold masterpiece of the late Tom Baker era, and one of my favourite Doctor Who stories ever.

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