Friday 22 October 2010

Warriors' Gate

A slave ship is trapped in a void between universes. The TARDIS becomes a trapped there as well.

I think Warriors' Gate is a nearly flawless story. The superior production values of Season 18 are honed to absolute perfection in this story. Yet strangely, while being one of the finest and best produced Doctor Who stories ever, it departs radically from the conventions of the show.

The most notable feature of Warriors' Gate is that its plot is not explained and the viewer is left to make sense of a quite puzzling narrative, that takes place across the time stream in a not-quite-linear sequence. Some fans might be tempted to compare Warriors' Gate to the Season 26 story, Ghost Light. This is a significant and interesting comparison, not least because both Season 18 and Season 26 are highly regarded by fans. I would argue, however, that the comparison is wrong.

Like Warriors' Gate, Ghost Light leaves making sense of the plot to the viewer. All the clues are there, but you have to figure them out and this requires viewing it several times. Ghost Light is not so fun a story to watch on first viewing. A significant difference between Warriors' Gate and Ghost Light is that in the latter, the clues to make sense of the narrative are mostly in the dialogue and thus the imperative nature of a repeat viewing. In the former, the dialogue is much sparser and the varied visual images are used in place of a lucid plotting. The emphasis on the visual means that Warriors' Gate can be enjoyed much more than Ghost Light without a repeat viewing. Ghost Light also differs from Warriors' Gate in its annoyingly frantic pace; so many things are going on in a short time, so many subplots and weird characters have been thrown in. In contrast, Warriors' Gate has a much more relaxed space, allowing the viewer to soak in the visual images and dwell on them.

This story is a visual feast. We are treated to a fantastic spaceship set, one of the best on Doctor Who, echoing the Nostromo of the Alien film, to a strange white void with a medieval gateway (taken from a Caspar David Friedrich painting) surreally deposited,to a race of aliens that are based on the French film La Belle et le Bette to a creepy gothic castle with some quite impressive robots and finally a fascinating monochrome world that looks very much like a gothic English country garden. There is a wonderful contrast between gothic, fairy tale images and the bleak functionality of an Alien-style spaceship and its rugged crew. This reflects the way the story blends tragedy with bleak comedy. We have the rather Shakespearean duo of the two crewman, Aldo and Royce who act as a sort of Hellenic chorus, while making some very morbid jokes.

The use of out of sequence narration regarding the events of the fall of the Tharil empire is deeply clever. It is rare that Doctor Who does clever stuff with time. In this case, the out of sequence narration enables us to put together the background of the Tharils piece by piece, rather than being giving an annoying info dump. This trick makes excellent use of the set, showing the gothic chamber both in desolation and in splendour at the height of the Tharil empire. We are able to see the tragic way that history unfolds.

The Tharils are a masterfully constructed. Their time-sensitive ability and leonine grace gives them a great nobility. We initially see them as wretched slaves of their brutal human masters, but then we are lead to see that they themselves the masters, tyrannising over captured humans. My favorite moment in the whole story is when we see the Tharils feasting with the Doctor. One of the Tharils suddenly punches the human serving girl brutally in the breast. Some people have made the silly suggestion that we ought to be told a bit more about this serving girl; who she is and what happened to her. This completely misses the simple beauty of this scene. In that one image of a girl being brutalised, we have a glimpse of what might have been centuries of tyranny and abuse by a decadent empire. we don't need to know more about her; that punch on the breast tells us everything. The Doctor protests by filling his goblet to the brim and knocking the wine over. The Tharil chillingly responds "They're only people!"

Rorvik is a fantastic character. A villain who, for once, does not seek ultimate power over the cosmos or the domination of the earth, but simply to get to his destination and make a reasonable profit. As he becomes trapped in an impossible situation, he loses his grip and desires only to make a difference to his dilemma, no matter how futile; his incredible final words are "Now I'm finally getting something done!" He is a man of action trapped in a situation where all action is hopeless and it destroys him. Doctor Who has showed us plenty of madmen, but Rorvik is a character who is convincingly losing his hold on sanity. Nevertheless, he is a villain, a man who will enslave, abuse and kill to make a profit. His crew are no better. They show not the slightest nod towards a conscience about their enslavement and ill-treatment of the Tharils, going about their work with a mixture of dark humour, bored indifference or casual sadism. In Rorvik's crew we get a taste of the banality of evil shown by those who try to profit from injustice.

Tom Baker's performance has lost the exuberance that characterised the Williams' era. It has been replaced by a very convincing image of a character wearied by the darkness of the things he has seen. The Doctor is confident and relaxed when threatened by Rorvik and unflinching in his condemnation of the Tharil's past tyranny. Peculiarly, in this story, the Doctor is left with no role to play in determining events. His only recourse is to do nothing.

Lalla Ward gives us one of her best performances as Romana. When she first meets Rorvik and company, she comes across as genuinely alien. Her departure is rather hasty, but it is an appropriate ending for her. She effectively becomes a female Doctor, helping the Tharils to right their wrongs, though the way Biroc says "You will be OUR Time Lord," I can't help wondering if the Tharils are back to their old tricks and thinking the universe is their garden once again. I rather dislike the way that the novels and audios have seen her return to Gallifrey and become Lord President. That would make sense if the Season 16 Romana had returned to Gallifrey, but it does not fit the way Romana developed after her regeneration. The wardrobe department was evidently left a bit short of cash, as Romana has a much less interesting costume than her previous outfits.

Matthew Waterhouse is a bit annoying as the waddling Adric, but he would get worse in the next season. As I said, this is a nearly perfect story. And of course, the "Kilroy was here" graffiti is a nice reference to The Invasion.

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