Do nothing, if it’s the right sort of nothing.
Where Terrance Dicks’ “State of Decay” suffers from too much exposition, first-time series writer Steve Gallagher’s “Warriors’ Gate” (Story Production Code 5S) leans in the opposite direction, doling out information in penny packets and leaving the audience confused through to the very end of the four episode story. As the final part of the “E-Space Trilogy,” which sees the Fourth Doctor attempting to get back to his own universe, “Warriors’ Gate” focuses very specifically on the predicament in a way the earlier stories in the mini-arc only obliquely touch upon. The demands placed on the narrative further intensify given that Romana and K-9 both leave the series at the conclusion of the tale, posing quite a task for an established script writer, to say nothing of a newcomer to the show. While both strands resolve sufficiently, the overall impression by the story’s close is one of sheer befuddlement.
The entirety of the story takes place in an intermediate time and space dimension, a gateway between E-Space and N-Space (the “normal” universe), a blank white canvas that immediately calls to mind the “nothingness” that so frightened the Second Doctor in “The Mind Robber.” The Fourth Doctor is more sanguine about the trapped predicament he, Romana, K-9, and Adric find themselves in, even after “time winds” smash open the TARDIS doors, allowing a furry humanoid to burst in and set the coordinates all to zero—the intersection between E-Space and N-Space.
The humanoid, a Tharil named Biroc (David Weston), has escaped from a spaceship crewed by humans from an indeterminate era and background, though their mannerisms and colloquialisms suggest they’re originally from Earth, like pretty much every human civilization encountered in the series. These humans, commanded by Captain Rorvik (Clifford Rose), use the Tharils as navigators for their ship, employing their time sensitivity to enable them to plot a safe course through time and space. Far from a mutually beneficial relationship, humans enslave the Tharils for this purpose, apparently journeying into E-Space, whence Tharils originate, on slaving expeditions.
Rorvik’s ship, filled with a cargo of Tharil slaves in suspended animation, has, somehow, also been stranded in the intermediate zone, ostensibly because Biroc guided it there in a bid for freedom. Along with the narrative uncertainty, director Paul Joyce’s adds visual discomfort through his incessant use of jerky, stuttering, stop-start filming to portray moments of time shifting and phasing. Though a clever approach, the excessive use of the technique leads to an unpleasant viewing experience, particularly in the first episode where several minutes are filmed in this manner.
Tonally as well, “Warriors’ Gate” shifts around, moving not just from the serious to the silly but from the present to the past, and this aspect of the story adds interest and moves the plot forward. Along with the “futuristic” spaceship (bearing a passing resemblance to the one from “Meglos“) and the TARDIS, the scruffy all-white wasteland of the intermediate dimension also houses an elaborate stone castle gate, inside of which the Doctor finds a decaying feast hall, festooned with cobwebs, skeletons, dusty mirrors, and suits of armor that, inevitably, come to life…
These armored antagonists, the Gundan, prove no match for the Doctor’s wit, and after defeating them, he fiddles with their circuitry to discover that they were created by the enslaved to fight against their masters. The robot warriors could brave the time winds where the slaves could not. But in a clever inversion, the Doctor travels through one of the gateway mirrors in the feast hall and steps back in time, to when the castle was new and filled with life, and discovers that the Tharils were the masters whom the Gundan were built to fight, and humans the slaves.
Meanwhile, Romana and Adric have been attempting to fix K-9, whose circuits were fried when the time winds swept into the TARDIS. In an attempt to secure parts for his repair, Romana engages with Rorvik’s crew, themselves hoping to scavenge the TARDIS for parts to fix their own ship. The part they need most, though, is a new navigator, since they are unsuccessful in reviving any of their other Tharils to replace Biroc. Romana promptly finds herself thrust into the navigator’s seat, causing two comic relief characters on the crew to take bets on whether she will survive.
The inclusion of two layabout, sardonic crew members, Aldo and Royce (Freddie Earlle and Harry Waters), as well as a broader cast of generally insouciant crew members, amidst a ship filled with graffiti, suggests a sense of the banality of the proceedings from the human side. Other than Rorvik, whom Clifford Rose plays with increasing delusion, bile, and mania, none of the humans comes across as evil as much as just indifferent, concerned mostly with the loss of their bonus payment as they casually kill Tharils trying to wake one up to use as a navigator. They all just go along to get along, with Aldo and Royce breaking out lunch while Rorvik proposes using a giant weapon to blast through the mirror as a means of escaping the intermediate dimension. It’s all very droll, intentionally so, one suspects.
The mordant humor counterposes a rather violent streak in this story. The attempts at reviving the Tharils, beyond the cavalier attitude shown by the crew for their safety, involve much screaming, with bodies heaving and sparks and smoke filling the screen as they are effectively electrocuted. And in a moment that was quite long in coming, Rorvik, alone amongst the Fourth Doctor’s foes, attempts to strangle him with his scarf, a fairly shocking moment whose gravitas is undercut by Romana smacking the enraged captain on the back with an orange plastic clipboard.
After the Doctor has seen into the Tharils’ past, Biroc reappears and acknowledges that the Tharil empire rightly fell for having enslaved humans, but they had paid for their crimes and now deserved to be free, a belief that Romana takes to heart. Already concerned that returning to N-Space will lead to her recall to Gallifrey, she decides that she will stay in E-Space with Biroc to help him free the rest of the Tharils throughout the pocket universe. Far from trying to stop her, the Doctor offers her K-9 to help her—the damage done by the time winds to the metal mutt make it so he can only be repaired in E-Space for some reason, but the gesture remains a kind one nonetheless. He’s proud of her decision, and in terms of companion departures, Romana’s ranks among the strongest. Like Steven, she stays behind for a noble purpose.
Romana’s leave-taking is not lingered on, however, and deserves more screen time to play out, even though she is given more time than most companions to fade from the screen. Even when signposted, as hers was, the abruptness of the goodbye feels at odds with the audience’s investment in the character. Given that Lalla Ward inhabited the role of Romanadvoratrelundar for eleven stories—slight, perhaps, compared to Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith or Frasier Hines’ Jamie, but not by much—a few more minutes of run-time in a story that has already forgone attempting to forge a coherent narrative and features plenty of extended, wordless special effects scenes is not too much to ask.
Those effects do work well in “Warriors’ Gate,” particularly the scenes where the Doctor enters the titular gateway and follows Biroc, in color, through black and white backgrounds, and the models of the human spaceship and castle gate carry out their roles without fuss. As previously noted, the visual frame-skipping strobe effect of people moving through time waves can be considered successful on their own, but only in moderation, which is little in evidence here.
Ultimately, the solution for the Doctor to escape E-Space (and the intermediate dimension, which is collapsing because of the incredible mass of the human’s ship) is to simply do nothing. Desire is the foe. A strong current of mysticism runs through the story, with Adric in particular being positioned as preternaturally attuned. He studies the I Ching with K-9 and makes decisions on where to go in the void by flipping coins. With some urging from Biroc and Romana, the Doctor realizes that attempting to leave E-Space will result in being stranded in E-Space, so at the end, he and Adric simply hang on as the TARDIS is flung back to N-Space due to the humans’ destructive efforts to escape E-Space. (Which makes as little sense in this telling as it does on the screen.)
Tom Baker seems fairly well finished with the series at this point, it must be said. He still dials up his performance as needed, and the story’s mixture of the silly and the serious suits his skills, but a lack of enthusiasm can be detected. In fairness, he’s held the role longer than anyone at this point by a full ten stories, and there are only so many ways to shift from righteous anger to bemused calm in an instant. His Doctor still carries himself as disinterested by threats and danger, shrugging off Rorvik’s many attempts at cajoling him at gunpoint, but one gets the sense that Baker is ready for a change.
Lalla Ward’s swan song is a mixed bag. Romana gets captured more than once and screams, but she also figures out several key plot points—like the human ship being made from ultra dense dwarf star alloy, explaining why the intermediate dimension is shrinking at a threatening rate. Gallagher’s script has her assert her independence from the Doctor on a few occasions, though the moments seem shoehorned in. Ward herself conveys continued conviction in the role, and one can see Romana wanting to stay to help the Tharils, not just because she wants to escape a life of drudgery back on Gallifrey but because she believes in the cause. Having a co-equal companion to the Doctor has been a refreshing change of pace, and the series without Romana—and Ward—will take some getting used to.
Young Adric continues to find his place amongst the TARDIS crew. Matthew Waterhouse seems to have adapted to the role well enough, but the script uses him poorly, which is to say almost not at all. He does begin to pick up the supernatural attributes that will hover around the part, punching buttons at random and flipping coins to decide actions, but Adric seems foisted upon this story. Only at the end, when he shows up out of nowhere and threatens the humans with their own massive weapon to allow the Doctor and Romana to escape, does he change the course of the narrative, and he’s only able to do so because he never once interacts with anyone outside the Doctor, Romana, or K-9. The humans simply don’t know he exists, and for all intents, he didn’t need to for this story, reflective not of Waterhouse’s skills but of the massive flux the series is experiencing under John Nathan-Turner as Doctor Who prepares for life after Tom Baker.
Poor old K-9 (John Leeson, voice) gets sidelined for the last time as well in “Warriors’ Gate,” trundling off with Romana into a black and white sunset in E-Space. The time winds that disrupt his circuits would seemingly have kept him from featuring in the story, but oddly he plays a key, if comic, role, continually nattering on about the shrinking dimensions in the intermediate zone, hoping someone will pay attention. He gets thrown, kicked, carried, and has the indignity of driving everywhere tail first throughout the story. At least Lalla Ward can take some comfort that Romana got a better ending than K-9.
“Warriors’ Gate” just tries to do too much. The crux of the story, of a group of slaves who were once the enslavers, and the moral and ethical dimensions of their current enslavement, has much to commend it, but there’s precious little attention given to that aspect of the narrative. More attention is given to Aldo and Royce trying to get out of doing any work than to building the world they come from. Too, the notion of a rapidly shrinking gateway between E-Space and N-Space works as a nice conclusion to the three story mini-arc, and the ability of the Tharils to navigate between the two universes ties in neatly to the main story, but it, too, is given short shrift. Nothing is ever explained, most prominently how the Doctor and Adric wind up escaping. Throw in Romana and K-9 departing, and Gallagher seems to have been under pressure to fit multiple plot lines into a four episode story, one of the rare times a story deserves to have been six episodes long.
(Previous Story: State of Decay)
(Next Story: The Keeper of Traken)
Post 117 of the Doctor Who Project