It’s On Randomiser: Doctor Who Reviews #15 Warriors’ Gate (1981)

“Do nothing, if it’s the right sort of nothing”

The third and final instalment in season eighteen’s E-Space trilogy, Warriors’ Gate is set in the hinterland between that universe and our own, N-Space. The TARDIS, beset by time winds, arrives at these zero co-ordinates where they encounter Biroc (David Weston), one of a leonine race of time sensitives called the Tharils, whose natural ability to walk the winds are being forcibly used and harnessed by humans who wish to travel through hyperspace. Biroc has escaped from his human captors and leads the Doctor through the realms to a deserted, cobwebbed baroque banqueting hall, whilst Romana is confronted by the Tharils slavers – a cargo ship crew led by Rorvik (Clifford Rose) and Packard (Kenneth Cope). Having been identified as a time traveller, their intention is to put her to use as Biroc’s replacement. Adric and K-9 also feature but, to the relief of the audience, Adric has very little to do here and, to the relief of the production team, K-9 is also redundant and increasingly kicked around by the villains.

I can’t profess to knowing everything that’s actually going on in Warriors’ Gate, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t bloody love it. Stephen Gallagher’s screenplay presents proper, literate science fiction, a world away from the Saturday morning pictures thrills that normally make up the atmosphere of Doctor Who, and in some way predicts the tone of many of the New Adventures novels that were to come some ten years later. In its production design of the decaying dining hall and the mirror imagery, the serial is clearly influenced by Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Orphée, whilst I get a sense that another French film, L’Année dernière à Marienbad, was also on Gallagher’s mind when he devised this tale of a fatalistic. ‘timey-wimey’ purgatory. It’s certainly inspired the decision to use superimposed black and white stills of Powis Castle’s ornate gardens as a ‘location’, recalling to mind the similar gardens that appear in Resnais’ crisply shot black and white nouvelle vague classic. OK, it all looks a bit like a music video for Visage or Duran Duran now I grant you, but where did those New Romantic bands get their ideas from? Yup, the same place. Between these locations lie the white void, a budget saving device that is surprisingly effective and reminiscent of the similarly constrained, yet wholly imaginative Troughton serial, The Mind Robber.

It’s not all art house of course (well, not quite). Warrior’s Gate is clearly science fiction that has occurred in the wake of Alien and this is apparent in how both Gallagher chooses to write the slavers and how the production have chosen to depict their cargo ship. In the case of the latter, they have chosen to keep the look basic and lo-fi; atmospheric (ie dimly lit) lighting, scaffolding poles and gantries, as well as making use of the actual studio lights above the actors – “shooting off set” a verboten move at TV centre that saw ambitious director Paul Joyce briefly replaced by Graeme Harper before his eventual reinstatement. It’s ironic then that this approach would continue to be popular in the early half of the JNT era, most memorably in Earthshock the following year; meaning that Joyce – though he only directed this one story – is a rather unsung innovator of Doctor Who, shaping a significant amount of how the programme was approached in the ’80s. Best of all, this less than polished, functional style even incorporates graffiti, with the legend ‘Kilroy was here’ adorning the ship’s walls, scribbled by Mike Mungarven’s crewman. Rorvik’s rallying call of bonuses for his crew as a means of getting out of their predicament is certainly reminiscent of the concerns of the crew of the Nostromo, with the characters of Aldo (Freddie Earlle) and Royce (Harry Waters) providing the same kind of blue collar comic relief double act that Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton provided in Ridley Scott’s seminal movie. Indeed, the beanie-hatted and slovenly Aldo and Royce seem perpetually pitched apart from their fellow crew members, and it’s not just because of their affinity with shirking or their lowly duties on board as Gallagher seems to emulate the greats of theatre in their characterisation; from the existential clowns of Waiting for Godot to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the tossing of Aldo’s 100 imperials coin. Casting Earlle, a veteran Jewish Glaswegian music hall performer, in the part of Aldo further points to these intentions.

The tossing of a coin. I guess that’s key to Warriors’ Gate and it’s certainly set up as such with the discussion about the I-Ching in the early TARDIS scenes in part one – a discussion that must have played out like a foreign language to most eight year olds sat eating their Findus crispy pancakes and chips that Saturday evening. Gallagher’s preoccupation here is with probability and destiny. When the Doctor passes through the mirror (or, rather, Through the Looking Glass – Carroll is clearly another influence on Gallagher’s script) he asks Biroc why K-9, who was also exposed to the time winds, hasn’t passed through with them. Biroc, ever the enigma, replies that he can “When the time is right”. As it is not his destiny to travel through now (that will come later) the robotic dog stays behind in the other realm. This implies that choice is an illusion which masks the inevitable flow of time, something which is an intriguing and distinctive notion from a programme which often places great store in free will.

Destiny also rears its head in what the Doctor discovers beyond the mirror. The once cobwebbed baronial dining hall is now populated by Tharils in a time when they were once prosperous and acting like the Thundercats version of the court of Henry VIII. When the Doctor spies a human serving girl being abused, he is quick to show his disgust with the Tharils and his protection of the girl. “They’re only people” The Tharil replies, in a manner that is far more chilling than anything previous Who villains who have enslaved humans – and the Daleks immediately spring to mind, for example – have ever been able to manage. Perhaps its the philosophical weight that Gallagher gives to the theme of slavery? “The weak enslave themselves, Doctor. You and I know that” Biroc subsequently states. Instinctively, they know that yes, but they also realistically know that having seen both sides of the realm. Here in the past, it was the humans from N-Space that were the slaves, but now – following the successful siege of the Tharil empire by the human controlled robotic Gundan knights, the roles have been reversed. History repeats itself. To the victors the spoils and to the losers, a life in chains, and both races are guilty leading to an intriguing morally grey area that compliments the netherworld parallel the TARDIS has found itself in. But there’s a parable to be found here too – we are all slaves to our destiny. We can do nothing to change it, but that’s OK – “if it’s the right sort of nothing”

This is why I don’t have an issue whatsoever with what some fans would call Romana and K-9’s rather abrupt exist at the end of the story. The joy of the writing for Romana’s second incarnation (beautifully played by Lalla Ward) is that this is a character who is often actually far more intelligent than the Doctor himself. As a Time Lord herself, she is planets apart from the usual female, earthbound and therefore naturally subservient sidekick, and she has found that her time with the Doctor has complimented her innate intelligence and heroism well, to the point where she does not need the Doctor’s validation, a point she often reminds him off. Ward’s natural chemistry with Tom Baker – they briefly married around this point – really sells this character development too and the playful, verbal sparring the pair enjoy is a delight to watch. This progression to natural authority especially works well with the third wheel in the TARDIS, Adric, as it means that the Doctor can (attempt at least) to give Romana orders which she will, in turn, give to Adric. They’re almost like a family; the two bohemians – aging professor and the younger, spirited woman he needs to challenge his preconceptions – their impossibly precocious adopted child and their cute pet dog. Their theme tune would have to be Bowie’s Kooks! But this peculiar family unit of season eighteen is about to be separated before it has even begun.

With the characterisation being as it is, it was inevitable that Romana will need to go it alone, that the Doctor really has taught her all he can. The fact that many stories in season 17 and 18 has seen Romana actually take the traditional Doctor role, only proves that point and Warriors’ Gate is no exception at all. There’s a scene in episode one where she gets the Doctor to admit, away from Adric’s prying ears, that he doesn’t actually know what he is doing. More, that what he was about to do before she halted him, could have placed them all in peril. In that moment it is clear to the audience that not only does Romana see through the Doctor’s braggadocio (which is charming and empowering in itself) but that she is, from this point on, several steps ahead of the Doctor in regards to both what is going on in this adventure, and what is needed if they are to succeed and survive. It is Romana who understands long before he does that they need to do nothing – which is only right, as such inactivity is naturally out of character for the impulsive and energetic Fourth Doctor – and it is Romana who implicitly understands that it is somehow her destiny to stay behind and help Biroc free his species from slavery. “That’s something we’ve got to do,” she tells K-9 against those stills of Powis Castle’s gardens “Don’t you think?” she adds, suggesting her decision is more instinctual, that she’s simply giving herself up to destiny and the cause. And I actually really love how subtle it is played too. There’s no milking it between her and Baker here – there can’t be because it’s over so swiftly – but their almost laissez-faire farewell suggests that the emotions of the Time Lords really are alien to those of mere humans, and it is sold here significantly better than the entire two seasons that made up Colin Baker’s tenure. It’s only in the TARDIS when Adric suggests that Romana will be alright that we see the real effect as the Doctor corrects his charge; “Alright? She’ll be superb” he says, with a mixture of love, pride and admiration in his gaze.

I also want to say something about Ward’s performance in another key scene, when she steps out of the TARDIS to confront Rorvik and his crew. Here is a very pretty young woman suddenly surrounded by a group of slavers. It’s a sinister scene in which power shifts back and forth. Romana ought to be vulnerable, but she has the element of surprise in stepping out to greet them and even offering her help that places them on the backfoot. A seedy, threatening “Or can we help you?” retort seems to seize power back, but Ward imbues her character with a haughty, unspoken contempt that not only marks her out as alien and above the lowly banal evil or leering thoughts of these men but keeps the power in her grasp even when she’s effectively hauled off as their slave. It’s almost like a seduction that somehow gives her captors the illusion that they have succeeded when in reality they have only succeeded in getting her further drawn into the narrative and a step closer to their ultimate destruction. It’s such a charged scene. A word too about Rorvik. Clifford Rose was so adept at playing villains you love to hate thanks to his performance as Kessler in the phenomenally successful WWII drama Secret Army, but his character here allows for none of the supercilious chill that the SS officer possessed. Instead, Rorvik is little more than a tinpot dictator at his job, hidebound by getting the cargo in on time. It’s small beer compared to much of the evil the Doctor has faced but there’s something real about this, and it’s arguably best witnessed in Rorvik final monologue. Having committed to a suicidal backblast manoeuvre (and let’s ignore “the backblast backlash’ll bounce back and destroy everything!”, an atrocious line poor Lalla Ward has to utter) Rose goes full on chaotic Mark Corrigan; “I’m finally getting something done!” – the cry of a man utterly stymied by everything around him. It’s significantly more authentic and more psychotic than ‘Why must I be surrounded by fools?’ or ‘Nothing in the world can stop me now!’ and yes, it’s even actually quite tragic.

I’m not the biggest fan of Christopher H. Bidmead, I think his propensity to criticise Tom Baker and previous eras is a bit rich when you consider his preoccupation for hard science led to some truly po-faced and tedious stories that are hardly going to trouble anyone’s top ten, but credit where it is due, both he and JNT established a tone and a clear journey for season eighteen that was consistent throughout and whose clear-eyed nature did not return to the series again until Andrew Cartmel fully took the reins at the close of the decade. Season eighteen is an ongoing story about decay and fate, all of which shadow the eventual regeneration of the Doctor. Once again Baker, plays it in a weary, tired manner, but that’s not to say that he is sleepwalking through the role in this season as some have often claimed. He still has some flashes of energy, from the comedic banter he shares with Romana to his contemptuous knocking over of the overfilled wine cup and swatting aside of a knife at the Tharils banquet. It is arguably the Doctor’s experience in Warriors’ Gate that will ultimately help him to accept his own fate which lay around the corner.

There’s two more things that ’80s Who could have learnt from Warriors’ Gate: The violence here is strong, but it’s not gratuitous. Eric Saward ought to have taken note. And the second is the Tharil’s make-up design. Why couldn’t something like that be replicated for the Cheetah people of Survival?

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