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Warriors' Gate

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

Warriors' Gate is not a classic. A common definition of the word classic is: ‘serving as a standard or model of its kind’. Warriors' Gate is neither standard or model Doctor Who fare. Instead this story boldly offers an elegantly inventive and visually striking departure from most of the series' accepted conventions. And yet, at its heart, the series' common themes of righting wrongs, overturning oppression and generally making a part of the universe a better place, remain in plain view.

“Do nothing. If it's the right sort of nothing.”

The Doctor's role in this story is most unusual. Warriors' Gate is a most atypical story in that the Doctor does not stride into the fray, take control and solve the crisis as we have been led to expect from previous Fourth Doctor adventures. From the moment of his first appearance, the Doctor is on the back foot and uncharacteristically not in control of his situation. The TARDIS is adrift in E-Space, and he even seems unable to correctly pilot the TARDIS, much to Romana's chagrin. She takes over operation of the console from the Doctor and chastises him for attempting to operate a control, which apparently would have had lethal consequences. She even gets him to admit, “I don't know what I'm doing”. This somewhat argumentative exchange could be interpreted as a foretaste of repetitive verbal sparing matches in the TARDIS yet to come (Tegan and the Fifth Doctor, Peri and the Sixth), but here the interaction effectively serves to highlight the Doctor's helplessness at his predicament.

It is Biroc who comes to their rescue, and the Doctor spends much of the rest of the story chasing after the Tharil, seeking Biroc's assistance to find the way out of E-Space. When the Doctor finally does take action in the last episode, to prevent Rorvik from destroying the Gateway, the viewer is led to believe that the Doctor's sabotaging of the Privateer's engines will be the heroic intervention that saves the day. Biroc however intervenes, telling the Time Lord to do nothing. As it turns out, Rorvik's self-destructive actions are inconsequential and perhaps even beneficial to the Tharils. All that is left for the Doctor to do is to return to the TARDIS and pilot his ship out of E-Space.

Arguably, the Doctor's role in the story is simply to inform Biroc at the banquet that the way forward is not to simply restore the situation to the time when the Tharils were the masters and the humans their slaves. If this is what is intended in this scene, the point is lost because all through the story both Biroc and Lazlo seem determined only to free their own kind, most immediately from captivity aboard the Privateer and ultimately on the many worlds where the Tharils are apparently enslaved. Nothing the Doctor says or does causes them to deviate from this path. Ask yourself what the Doctor does to make a difference in this story and the answer is the same as Biroc's advice to the Time Lord: “Nothing”.

“I've got to be my own Romana!”

If the Doctor's role in the story is unusual, the same must also be said of his companion, Romana. Perhaps in conscious recognition of this being Lalla Ward's swansong, Warriors' Gate presents her character in an unusually strong light. She is assertive and intelligent; more than capable of running rings around Rorvik and his men when they confront her outside the TARDIS. It is only when she is held captive aboard the Privateer that she falls into the traditional companion role of getting tied up. But even this stereotypical Who moment has a deeper role to play, for it is through her first-hand experience of being treated as an enslaved time sensitive navigator by the humans that Romana finds her ‘cause’ to fight for, and makes sense of her sudden and otherwise impulsive decision to leave the TARDIS in favour of helping the Tharils to fight slavery. There's a compellingly similar parallel in Nyssa's departure in Terminus, as it is her own experience of the Lazar treatment that drives her to want to stay behind to improve the situation. It is unsurprising in this respect that both stories share the same scriptwriter.

Romana's departure is signposted not only earlier in this story but also as far back as Full Circle when Romana first expresses her deep reluctance to return to Gallifrey. Ultimately though it still comes as an abrupt and unsettling moment, even on repeated viewing. Tom Baker's Doctor and Lalla Ward's Romana made a brilliantly successful pairing, overturning the conventional Doctor-companion relationship, in which the companion is there to ask the questions so the Doctor can in answering them and thus impart vital information to the viewer. The second incarnation of Romana was the Doctor's equal in a way that no other companion has been before or since.

The aforementioned Part Two cliffhanger plays out the perhaps defining Doctor Who moment; that of a defenceless and trapped companion in distress menaced by a heavily breathing monster, which has not yet properly been seen by the viewer. The cliffhanger's resolution however completely overturns the stereotype; Romana almost immediately cottons on to the fact that she and the Tharil, Lazlo, are in the same predicament and mere moments into Part Three they are working in collusion to evade the slavers.

“There's nothing beyond those mirrors for people like us except the reflection of what's here.”

There are no ‘monsters’ in this story, at least not in the usual Doctor Who sense of the word. The Tharils are not evil or destructive; they are a noble race with a rather dishonourable past, and only kill in this story in self-defence. Despite the fact that Lazlo momentarily fills the traditional role of the unseen, heavily-breathing menace, the Tharils are revealed to the viewer in the very first scene, again overturning a commonly-expected house style of building up to the full view of the creatures over the course of an episode or two.

The only other monster candidates are the Gundan robots, but aside from a short period of menacing the Doctor to provide a good cliffhanger, their main role in the story is to provide some of the only exposition we ever get about the nature of the Gateway. If this stereotype-inverting tale has any monsters at all it is in fact the human slavers, with their callous complete disregard for the morality of their actions, which are the real monstrous villains.

The crew of the Privateer are themselves subject to this story's apparent agenda for defeating established stereotypes. A small group of humans trapped in a limited environment at risk of imminent destruction is par for the course in Doctor Who, but this type of plot usually has the characters caring about their chances of survival enough to take action. Nowhere else in the series have the assembled characters been so apathetic about their predicament as they are in Warriors' Gate, and like every other departure from the norm witnessed in the course of this story, it's a welcome change.

“Let's do something around here for a change.”

The first scene set on the bridge of the Privateer instantly establishes that the crew are dispirited by their predicament. “Stuck in this nothingness for months on end”, as Rorvik puts it, has understandably taken a huge toll on the crew's morale. Rorvik, alone among the humans, retains a drive and determination to make a difference. He is an aggressive and unstable man, played with consummate skill by Clifford Rose who even displays an unnerving mad glint in his eyes when seen in close-up. But Rorvik, unlike many other Doctor Who villains, has some very real and down-to-earth motivations that we can, for once, relate to as similar to our own. Rorvik's not interested in conquering worlds or universal domination; he just wants to get the job done: get the ship repaired, find a way out of the micro-universe, deliver the cargo and collect his bonus. It is his abject failure to achieve any of these goals, and the complete apathy of his crew despite his best attempts to cajole and bully them, which ultimately unhinges him. By the time events reach their climax, Rorvik has taken on the demeanor of a cackling madman. His final rant, in which he delivers a criticism of the Doctor which for once has compelling justification, is one of the story's great lines: “Run, Doctor! Scurry off back to your blue box. You're like all the rest. Lizards when there's a man's work to be done. I'm sick of your kind. Faint-hearted, do-nothing lily-livered deadweights. This is the end for all of you. I'm finally getting something done!” For all the impact of this dialogue however, the moment is a little spoilt by Clifford Rose's forced manic laughter that unintentionally bears an uncanny resemblance to the trademark cackle of Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder.

Aldo and Royce are another remarkable innovation. Best compared to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these layabouts offer commentary on events in an often humorously cynical manner. The wider concerns of the imminent collapse of the micro-universe, the morality of slavery or even finding a way home don't particularly interest them; they are just two ordinary men doing as little as possible to get by. It is almost as if the camera has wandered off set and caught two stage hands sitting around waiting for the next scene change. Aldo and Royce are entirely inconsequential to the advancement of proceedings, but crucially provide an anchor to normality in the general weirdness of their surroundings.

“The culinary arrangements are variable.”

The one defining moment of Warriors' Gate is undoubtedly the end of Part Three, which deserves to be rated as one of the series' all-time great cliffhangers. The Gundan burst into the banquet hall with axes raised. The Tharils scatter but the Doctor remains seated. Romana rushes to his side and an axe thuds into the table, just as she has already seen in an apparently precognitive vision earlier in the episode. Suddenly time shifts around them and with a great rushing sound they are instantly transported to the present. The banquet table is covered in cobwebs, and the slavers confront the Doctor and Romana. Rorvik has the last line: “Well Doctor, this is a surprise!” This is a truly spectacular cliffhanger, both for its style and sheer unexpectedness.

This scene is the best of many such ‘arty’ or subtly clever moments in the story. The opening tracking shots through the bowels of the Privateer is very effective; the spinning coin slowing and freezing in mid-spin is a superb visual effect, and the merging of black and white photographs with live action colour is beautifully realised.

Although the visual elements of Warriors' Gate are often arresting, mention must also be made of the music score, which is never jarring or inappropriate, but adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the void, and of the banqueting scenes. There is a particularly good piece of composition at the very end, beginning with the Doctor's declaration that his former companion will be “superb”, and building, over the last shot of Romana, Lazlo and K9 moving away through the black and white garden, to a triumphant peak, blending seamlessly into the opening bars of closing theme music. A perfect end to a remarkable story.

Warrior's Gate will never be recognised as a ‘classic’ because it confounds and overturns so many of the precepts we expect from Doctor Who. There is another definition of classic, though, meaning to be ‘of the highest class’, and in this respect it is deserving of considerable appreciation.

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: Warriors' Gate