Friday, January 27, 2012

Serial 113: Warriors' Gate - The E-Space Trilogy Part III

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Romana II, K-9, Adric

Written by: Stephen Gallagher
Directed by: Paul Joyce & Graeme Harper

Background & Significance: Wanting to push Doctor Who out of the complacency he saw under the purvey of Graham Williams, new producer John Nathan-Turner set about completely re-jiggering the show over the course of its 18th season.The first changes and were small but important when he commissioned a new opening title sequence, musical arrangement of the theme, and standard, codified outfit for The Doctor. The final major change was the turnover of Tom "he-pretty-much-is-Doctor-Who-at-this-point" Baker in the season's finale.

But before he did that, Nathan-Turner did a complete companion turnover.

 As with the other turnovers in the season, they came slowly and over time, so as to not be too jarring to the audience. Adric first appeared three stories in and became a full companion proper in the subsequent story. After the escape from E-Space, Nathan-Turner introduced new companion Nyssa in the season's penultimate story, and the final new companion (Tegan) in the season finale. It would leave an over-crowded TARDIS (a problem not really remedied until the departure of Nyssa in "Terminus"), but it still gave a new direction towards "relatability", which Nathan-Turner felt was lacking, especially when The 4th Doctor was as aloof and unconnectable as he was (and only getting more and more so as time went on), the first incarnation of Romana had proved as cold and unrelatable as she was, and the wonderful sidekick of the Tin Dog could only ever be a silly robot (and thusly not relatable). Lalla Ward's Romana definitely helped the situation by bringing levity, but in Nathan-Turner's eyes the fact that The Doctor (a Time Lord) was stuck sticking around with a robot dog and another Time Lord only made the show less connectable and personal...

So Romana and the Tin Dog... They'd have to go. And go they did.

Interestingly enough, "Warriors' Gate" was not the original conception for their departure. Initially, script editor Christopher H. Bidmead had commissioned a story from acclaimed novelist Christopher Priest (of "The Prestige" fame, amongst many many others) entitled "Sealed Orders", which supposedly would have featured "A political thriller set on Gallifrey in which the Doctor is seemingly ordered to kill Romana by the Time Lords. A complex plot involving time paradoxes would result in the appearance of a second Doctor (who dies) and lead to Romana's departure; it also involved the idea of time running into itself, resulting in one TARDIS existing inside another." [source]

Unfotunately, Priest was a novelist, not a television script writer, and the script proved unfeasible for television, resulting in Bidmead to using a fall back script by Stephen Gallagher he had commissioned for such an event.

And so "Warriors' Gate" came to be.

It wasn't a smooth transition, however. Gallagher's script proved to be fairly unfeasible for television, resulting in the story's director, Paul Joyce, working with Bidmead to do some major uncredited rewrites on the script to make the story workable. Joyce himself caused friction because of his ideas on the script, especially with Nathan-Turner (who contemplated firing him), and at one point handed over the reins to production assistant Graeme Harper, who worked on a few sequences alongside Nathan-Turner in what would be his first uncredited directing work.

And what we're left with is... a hell of a story. It's a jumble, it's a puzzle, and it's a hell of a ride. I mean, after all that we just talked about, it'd kinda have to be, right?

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So this story won’t be easy. I can tell you that right now. Nor will it be your typical Doctor Who story. But if you’ve seen part one, you already knew that.

Right from the get-go, this is weird and not what you'd expect. I mean, maybe it’s the ninety second tracking shot that kicks off the story, or the way it’s engaging you with its sense of space and locale. Opening on a slow moving shot is always a risky proposition because it’s a sure fire way of losing audiences to boredom because (seemingly) nothing is happening to move the story forward. You see this at its worst in “The Leisure Hive”, but here it’s different. Markedly different. It’s in the way Joyce chooses to reveal information. The opening image of the pump itself is something that’s almost abstract in its conception. And then we pan out and see one of the lion creatures. And then we find out that it’s a room of sleeping lion creatures. And then we realize we’re in a room on a spaceship and the rest of the ship is seemingly vast and endless… and empty. Even the upper deck seems empty.

And all of a sudden there are people. And a countdown. The race is on. It’s kinetic. It’s moving. What’s happening? And then there’s a lion dude strapped in a chair and he’s impossible to read. Is this benevolent? Or something evil?

Within the first three minutes, the story is nothing but extremely engaging, absolutely commanding your attention as something crazy happens. Do you know what? No. But like "Kinda”, the explanations are not necessary this early in. All that matters is that they seem to be using this lion dude for some reason and I can’t help but feel it’s not the benevolence it might seem. There’s a talk of jumping time tracks and screaming at the lion dude to make an image appear on the screen. It doesn’t even have to be a good image. Just an image.

Unseen by anyone, the very faint image he conjures is of the TARDIS.

All of this is excellently well-put together and constructed. Joyce (and Harper) brings a flair for this story that is… untouchable. It’s kinetic, it’s moving, it’s engaging. Look at the spaceship and the way he frames everything from a slightly charged angle. Certain elements are shot to engage in vertical space (the ship alone is a wonderful example of this), which is a thing that you never see on television, much less the flat confines of a Doctor Who set. But it stands out as visually weird and off-kilter, making everyone pay attention that much more to all of the things that are going on.

And really, the whole story is about the details that sell the idea. It’s not just the way that Joyce constructs Biroc’s (the lion dude’s) movements in the void and the TARDIS by leaving him jumbled in time and leaving trails of himself… but rather the way we have a great double act hanging out and betting and playing cards to help explain what’s going on through humor that both informs and amuses. We can tell these people have been here for a long time and that they hope to get out, and this isn’t the first time they’ve tried to escape. We also get the idea that Biroc might have some hold over some of the crew. But how? And why? Unclear. Yet.

I also really like the foreshadowing of Romana, and the seemingly throwaway line she makes to Adric about how she might not be around The Doctor for much longer.

Tom Baker is also on great form here. He’s serious but also kooky, great at delivering the moments he needs to deliver. It’s also good to note that The Doctor’s the one who realizes that Biroc really did say “I am a shadow of the past, your future”, which only helps to make this story even wibblier than you’d think it was. And the wobbliness of it all really comes to a head in the moment when Biroc runs into the random structure that’s in the void (the giant white space where everyone is trapped) and disappears into a mirror. The Doctor follows him in, taking notice of all the cobwebs and dust cluttering the large banquet hall.

Then in a seemingly innocuous moment, The Doctor sets a turned-over cup upright.

Were it not the key focus of the given shot, you’d probably cast it aside, but… it might be a shotgun on the mantle, so who knows what might happen next.

Finally, we end on the moment of The Doctor about to be attacked by a vicious looking dead skeleton knight thing. That’s right, on top of all the other awesome things going on in this story we get horror imagery like skeleton knights in full armor and with halberds who are ready to behead The Doctor as we hit a cliffhanger. AND it’s a mirror shot. God damn I love mirror shots. And I love this last beat. Wonderful first episode. Wonderful starter.

And oh man. We’re just getting started.

Part 2:

In which The Doctor hangs out in a banquet hall and Romana is captured.

Romana first.

So in this episode we see the capture of our companion by the evil people in the story. As I’m always pointing out, this is typical Doctor Who stuff. From the second Romana steps out of the TARDIS she is in danger, and (because she gives Adric the not-subtle-at-all “I’m in trouble” signal) we know she knows it. She does a good job hiding it, though. I love the way she steps out of the TARDIS and is all business to the spaceship crew. It’s very Tom Baker, that dialogue. It brings out her aloofness and her intelligence and how that intelligence makes her aloof. It’s a powerful scene and she commands it, and there’s perhaps something else to say about Romana being The Doctor in this episode, or rather, the typical Doctor role to Adric’s companion.

But then things go horribly wrong.

What happens to Romana is… shockingly violent and hard to watch. She’s manhandled into the chair and (for all intents and purposes) tortured until the space captain gets what he wants out of her. Suddenly, the seemingly innocuous and unassuming spaceship becomes a prison of the worst kind. Bringing out the images from Romana’s time sensitive head is excruciating for her, and it makes me wonder about Biroc and how much pain he was hiding under the surface of his stoic exterior while they tried to strip images out of his brain.

And then when you think it’s bad enough, we get the gorgeously well-done sequence in which a creature rises like Frankenstein (a creature we recognize/assume to be a Tharil like Biroc) and stalks through the spaceship towards Romana, leaving us on a cliffhanger of “Jesus, what the hell are they putting Romana through?”

All of this last sequence is down to Joyce’s skillful direction. The POV shot is not used in Doctor Who nearly as much as you’d imagine it would be, but after all the visual kineticism in the first part (and even here in the second) the POV shot here is nothing short of massively effective and offputting. To make it even worse, it completely subverts Romana’s role in the proceedings, where suddenly we are in the narrative with her rather than seeing her as a character within the narrative. Oh, and it looks like we’re attacking her, making it possibly even more perverse than watching her be tortured. Because we’re torturing her, or at least, we’re scaring the shit out of her.

And then in the other half of the story we have The Doctor investigating the eponymous gate, which is… so good.

For one thing, it’s a delight to see The Doctor go up against skeleton robot warriors purely for “that’s so cool” reasons. But beyond that, I love the way the warriors end up being used to deliver exposition in this episode, and watching The Doctor crack the code as he tries to discover what it means and how it can help him escape E-Space is nothing short of extremely engaging, especially when you see all the obstacles in his way. He runs out of a power source. He’s interrupted by the jag-offs from the spaceship whom he doesn’t want to share the secrets with. The other Gundan robot decapitates the robot The Doctor’s been using and then flees through the mirror.

The Doctor flees through the mirror…

It just works and works well. Is it obscured and hard to parse out? Sure, but it’s engaging because it forces you to engage with the story and to figure out things for yourself.

Tom Baker is on impossibly good form here. He’s a delight to watch and doesn’t even flinch when one of the Gundan robot’s snaps its halberd and it falls on The Doctor’s neck. It’s a delight to watch but also funny because in the moment it looks like The Doctor is completely invincible. But invincible he’s not. He’s stuck with trying to figure out the things that are happening just like us, and there’s every hint he’s no closer to it than we are.

Sure, we know things like the Gateway is the structure, the room, and the mirror all in one, and the fact that there once was a great race of galaxy conquerors who lived at this gate until the slaves rebelled. The Tharils, I’d assume… But we’ll find out soon. There’s still pieces missing from this puzzle, and the only way to find out more is to race forward.

It’s a strong episode, laden with intrigue and mystery and demanding we race forward to continue. I say we indulge and do just that, yes? It’s about to get nuts.

Part 3:

In the last part, the Gundan robot said the Gateway was in three parts all in one: the Gate, the hall, and the mirrors. What’s interesting is how this relates to the story on a metatextual level.

I’m speaking, of course, of the mirrors. See, with this part we get something of a recursion, in which The Doctor and Romana both meet up with each other for the first time since the Doctor left the TARDIS in part one. In the last part, I mentioned that it was interesting that Romana’s proving herself to be more and more Doctor-like as the story goes on, pointing out that she no longer needs The Doctor in the strictest sense, that she has grown into who she is (shockingly like The Doctor) and is now ready to move on, as she will at the end of the next part.

And let’s be honest, there’s only room enough for one Doctor in the TARDIS, isn’t there?

But in this part, two things happen, or specifically, two storylines. The Doctor (in the previous part) disappears into the mirror and goes wherever that takes him. There, he meets Biroc the Tharil and they journey through this mysterious world of black and white still photographs. Of all the things in this story, I have to give major props to this one for being the most visually striking and jarring. It somehow manages to capture the majesty and the antiquity of the setting, but also its harshness and its coldness, isolating the character in the space almost completely.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when The Doctor’s travels with Biroc take him right to the banquet hall, in the midst of the height of the Tharil’s power, with everything teeming with life and vibrancy.

It’s here that Joyce really starts to weave everything together, crosscutting to show moments that reoccur and  show how everything gets into place as it is in the present. We see the axe land in the table and stay there, covered in cobwebs, in the future while the expedition party bunker down for whatever is coming next. We see the Gundan robots bust in and start to slaughter the Tharils, explaining why the banquet hall in the present is all Gundarn in cobwebs with not a Tharil in sight.

But most interestingly, we watch as The Doctor fills up his cup of wine to overflowing and then knocks it over. The same cup of wine, in fact, that he himself righted at the end of part one (and the beginning of part two in the recap).

This is the shit that I love, and this is the shit that really stands out when it comes to “Warriors’ Gate”. It’s the masterful way we get planting and payoff for things that are just hinted at in earlier episodes that then become extremely important in later episodes. As Rob Shearman once said about “Kinda”, it’s really the first story to welcome in the rewatchability factor of Doctor Who, where the more you watch it, the more you understand and get out of it. I’d almost argue that "Warriors’ Gate" is the one that encourages that. Then again, it is less abstract.

But that’s just the recursion of the plot. We also get an element where the characters of The Doctor and Romana end up reflecting each other over the course of this episode, like mirrors.

See, this episode is interesting because it brings back Biroc in a big bad way. But it also introduces the Tharil who seemingly tried to kill Romana at the end of episode two (although we find out in this episode, he’s a kind spirit who just happened to be grotesquely barbecued). So here, we have two Time Lords converging on different paths with the same sort of spirit guides leading them to the episode’s ultimate end. It’s no mistake that the shot of The Doctor in the banquet hall as he looks out from the upper level is reflected in Romana and her Tharil when they’re watching the banquet table from the present.

It really brings them together in a way that they’ve rarely been before.

And before we know it, hell’s broken loose. Romana runs to The Doctor and they’re in the same shot for the first time in almost three episodes and before they know it they’re back where they started in the banquet hall (the one in the present with the cobwebs) with all the crew of the spaceship pointing guns at them and taunting whatever comes next because whatever does come next is going to be a problem. Or at least, I think it’s going to be a problem, don’t you?

To pile onto the madness, we also learn quite a lot about the ship and the added wrinkle that it’s constructed of Dwarf Star matter and that its warp engines are far bigger than you’d imagine them being. And then we get a bit about how it seems like the distance between the ship and the gate seems to be getting less and less. It’s a throwaway line, but like I said… rewatchability, don’t you think? I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, except to say that because the story has demanded your attention so much so far, it can get away with these moments of extreme esotericism, where you’re forced to pay attention more than you would and you are rewarded for it.

I’d also like to point out that this story also flips on the typical Doctor Who four-part structure. Here, part two is the wheel-spinny info-dump part and part three is the development fun time in which you learn a lot, but it’s all just playing with all the elements of before.

So… I’d call it a win. At least so far. Definitely.

Part 4:

Normally, I have a pet peeve about Doctor Who stories that come in “short” (that is to say, with episodes that are less than twenty three minutes long). But I don’t mind here.

Part of the reason for that is the way there’s not a wasted space in this episode. Every second and beat is jam packed with action and adventure as we propel towards the story’s inevitable climax, and really, in a final episode you can’t really want more. You have a big showdown with the bad guy, some eff yeah fist pumping moments, moments of total humor, a strong departure, and all your questions get answered. What more could you want?

If I could take a minute, though, I’d like to highlight the real unsung hero of this story: Captain Rorvik.

It’s not that I think Rorvik is a good person (he’s not) nor that I think he’s a hero (he most certainly is less hero than good person), but rather the fact that Rorvik is extremely engaging, funny, and believable as this ship captain. He’s ruthless and cold, but also prone to get really annoyed with his crew who, by the way, have all but given up at this point and resigned themselves to their fate. It’s an interesting contrast painted by Clifford Rose, who does a good job of trying to keep his ship together while simultaneously being something of a nutter.

I mean, he really tries to rouse his men in episode three, but they don’t listen to him. It’s kinda hilarious.

But the other stuff in this is pretty good. I love the way it suddenly becomes clear that this segment of space is collapsing in on itself, providing everyone the stakes they need to kick into high gear and that this gives a really clean, easy out for The Doctor and Co. at the end of the story, where they don’t have to worry about the ship because it takes care of itself in the end. It seems like a cop out, but it’s more important here that The Doctor let history play out as it will rather than trying to affect the inevitable outcome. I mean, isn’t that what he’s done all through the story anyways? What’s important is that he tries.

Beyond that, there’s great Doctor Who moments all through this. The moment Adric shows up and bluffs his way into convincing everyone that they’re gonna get blown up by the last dish is something of a brilliant stroke if you ask me.

And then there’s the departure of Romana, which doesn’t come from nearly the nowhere you expect it to, although it’s fascinating how Nathan-Turner wanted to de-emphasize the emotional resonance of her departure because he didn’t want soap opera elements sinking into the show. And yet if you look at the departures of the companions Nathan-Turner helped bring to life, they’re all given gravitas and import. Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough all get departures that really impact The Doctor in some meaningful sort of way. Adric, is, of course, Adric.

But here it’s different. You can feel The Doctor trying to give some care to Romana’s departure. He even gives her K-9 as a parting gift, and yet…

I think if I had to say anything about it, it would be the ultimate conclusion that we got from The Doctor going back to our discussion “Horror of Fang Rock”, where I argued that story is the first in a series of steps that distances The Doctor from any sort of emotional resonance or care between himself and the people around him. Sure, he cares about Romana and cares about her a lot, but she’s outgrown him and, quite frankly, he’s outgrown her. The way the two of them interact with each other (that is to say, not at all) shows how much they need each other. But by the time he bids farewell to her, he does it with something of a joke (“you’re the best Romana of all the Romanas” or something like that) before slamming the doors and taking off.

So here we are now, with The Doctor leaving E-Space, the furthest away he could possibly be from Earth (negative coordinates, you know), dropping Romana off at a location with “zero” coordinates.  He’d go on next to “Eden” and then to Earth, which is his last and final stop, the place where he saves the universe.

It’s fascinating here that we get this story at this point. A story that’s about the past and how you can’t stop certain things from happening, or rather, you don’t have to. Romana was going to leave soon anyways (he knew it, that’s why he’s not super broken up about it) and there’s the sense that The Doctor knows he’s coming to his end soon (why else would he have randomly changed his outfit while leaving his original up on the coat rack as a reminder?).

But this… this gives him a clean slate. And just like he has liberated the Tharils from their bondage and given them a clean state, so to has The Doctor been given one. He’s allowed to return to the universe, our universe. He has a new companion. He has tossed the old baggage overboard. He’s ready for whatever it is that’s coming next.

So really, it’s almost the end, but the moment is being prepared for.

Final Thoughts?: I've said it before, I'll say it again: "Warriors' Gate" is one of the great gems of the Tom Baker run of Doctor Who stories.

The more I watch Doctor Who, the more I find myself impressed with the stories that are really abstract or push the boundaries of what it is to be a Doctor Who story.

"Warriors' Gate" is a wonderful example of this. It's a story that is based on some very normal, typical Doctor Who tropes: a race of imprisoned beings, a space crew who happen to be something allegorically interesting (in this case, slavers), a magical portal that takes you into another segment/world, a storied backstory for the weird aliens.... Hell, even The Doctor and his companions getting split up and putting together different pieces of the puzzle is straight-up, old fashioned Doctor Who.

But "Warriors' Gate" (like so many other good Doctor Who stories) really pushes these elements into new and better directions. The slavers (aside from the captain) are not amoral assholes. They just want to go home and they're sick of their captain acting like a dick bag all the time. The imprisoned beings are not just slaves, but they were once kings and queens of the universe, holding slaves of their own; oh, and they're time sensitives, which makes them that much weirder and off-putting. The magical portal does take The Doctor into a new location, but it does it in such a way that it allows us to learn a lot about the the backstory that is... completely mythological. And I love that about this story. I love stories that really push the mythology and try to make something that's massive and believable and enveloping. We get that here, and the moment when The Doctor sits down with the Therils for a feast colors for all the right reasons.

And of course we have the companion story, in which our companion becomes The Doctor to the new companion, bringing her (for lack of better term) full circle.

But even if none of that is impressive, if none of that abstraction or large large talk about concepts and things strikes you as super fun, you can't deny the fact that 1) this story is one of the most visually striking Doctor Who stories in the entire classic series and 2) that this story is pretty kick ass with tons of fun and interesting set pieces. I mean, there's the banquet sequence or the bit where The Doctor is walking through the black and white world of the Therils' past life, or the fight with the Gundan robots and the way he interacts with them all through epiode two. There's everything with Biroc in the first episode and the wonderful fight at the end, which includes Romana whacking Rorvic with a clipboard while he strangles The Doctor (as if that'd do any good).

So it's a triumph. A real triumph. It's easily my favorite Tom Baker story in his final season and one of my favorites for him in the back half of his run. It's a great finale for Romana and K-9 (especially with all his Tin Doggy babbling) and a wonderful send off to the E-Space trilogy.

Except for the bit where it doesn't take place in E-Space. But that's neither here nor there. Thank god we're out of there.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Weird bug looking mutants! A giant angel! An even bigger Deus Ex! Lots of caves and a too-small space station! And the return of my least favorite Doctor Who writers ever. That's right. We're back for some Baker/Martin (god help us all) next Tuesday to take a look at "The Mutants!" See you then!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome review... I really look forward to seeing this one now... I never got to when it was on TV here in New Zealand when I was a kid :)