Monday, 4 November 2013

Warriors’ Gate written by Stephen Gallagher and directed by Paul Joyce (with some help by Graeme Harper)


This story in a nutshell: A featureless void, a gateway and two spaceships…

Teeth and Curls: It's great to see Tom Baker, the most memorable of Doctors going out with such innovative material. It is interesting that this is early days for JNT and he is reluctant to use elements of the shows history as he would from the next season onwards and so the fourth Doctor is spearheading original storytelling right up until his last breath. Whilst I have some problems with quietening the most boisterous of Doctors so much, it is true that by forcing Baker to stick to a script as exceptional as Warriors' Gate you are dragging something rather inspired from him. And his performances in stories such as Full Circle and Warrior’s Gate are some of his finest from his entire seven year run. The Doctor is firm but friendly with the TARDIS and presses any button and hopes for the best. You’ve got to admire his audacity when pretending to be a Gundan and suggesting he always gets on really well with machines when his cover is blown  (Daleks? Cybermen? K1? The Robots of Death?). He is so cheeky, prompting the Gundan’s to continue their story (‘All the gateways are one! All the gateways are one!’). As much as it might stick in the craw because of the transition of companions that is about to take place, you can see what they were going for by sticking the Doctor, Romana and Adric together in the TARDIS as a family unit. It is only in this story that it is (sort of) bourne out. Had Matthew Waterhouse been at all likable it might have worked really well (they even have a pet dog). The Doctor fights tyranny and oppressors and knocks over his overfilled cup of wine. He gives up on trying to convince bureaucratic bully Rorvik of the dangers they are facing and munches on a pickle instead. The insane Tom Baker returns for a moment when he is in the driving seat of the MZ, looking positively dangerous as he makes his escape by pointing the destructive satellite dish at them. To show how much his efforts have been appreciated for the last seven years the Doctor is booted right in the face and nearly strangled to death with his own scarf. I can imagine Bidmead adding that touch to the script. His instant acceptance of Romana’s decision to leave feels very right, after all she has been doing all the Doctory bits for the last two seasons. There's no maudlin introspection here, there simply isn't time, he simply accepts her bold and brave decision decision and smile wistfully of the though of her continuing his work in E-Space when he is back in the TARDIS.

Luscious Lalla: Come in number two your papers have finally been served. JNT is convinced his audience would much rather hang about with Tegan than Romana (what the hell?) and so out goes all the style, charm and intelligence and in comes the antagonism, soap operatics and shouting. Fucking marvellous. Romana’s concern for taking Adric from his home universe is scuppered by the fact that Lalla Ward clearly can’t stand Matthew Waterhouse. She practically spits her lines at him. ‘What if the Doctor and I went separate ways?’ Romana is the Doctor now, watch as she manages to put down Rorvik, Lane and Packard just by being smugly intelligent. Within her departure story she also gets to be a whimpering, screaming companion one last time. And fabulously bossy as well - ‘ANSWER IT!’ Romana shows compassion for the Tharils and they help her to escape imprisonment because of it. It is long past time she has learnt to obey orders and it is a matter of complete indifference to her that the Doctor thinks she is improving. Romana’s blink and you’ll miss it departure is perfect for the sort of character she was, no nonsense and to the point. A protracted emotional leaving scene would have betrayed everything I liked about her. Can you imagine a better ending for Romana than giving her a whole universe to play with? When I did my marathon watch of Doctor Who I did miss her terribly once she had left though, since this marked the point where the effort started to go out the window with the companions.

Pudding Bowl Haircut: When the Doctor suggest that geeky Adric would love it on Gallifrey you just know he is right. Adric hangs around the console room like a bad smell, pretty much ignored by the Doctor and Romana making mooneyes at each other. Astonishingly Adric doesn’t connect with the plot or do anything until episode four, proving his usefulness to the central thrust of any story. Rorvik describes him as a poisonous child. Smart man.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The outer shells torn. A rip you can climb right through. In fact, I just did!’
‘Soon we wont be much better than that chap over there. When the pickles run out.’
‘Its on automatic!’ ‘It doesn’t have an automatic…’
‘I’m finally getting something done!’
‘You were the noblest Romana of them all!’

The Good Stuff: Warriors' Gate features the kind of attention grabbing opening that The Leisure Hive was going for but didn't quite achieve, a slow pan through the ship that exposes the detail in the set and ponders questions about the setting before the narrative has even kicked in. The direction immediately jumps out at you as something special, how crossing the time winds is captured in the slow motion tossing of a coin. The leonine Tharil make up is very effective because it is so subtle (take note Cheetah People, this is how it could have been done). Biroc’s escape and intrusion in the TARDIS is fantastically shot and full of inventive touches (the sudden close up on his eyes, Lane’s speechless reaction, the slow motion running through the void, making mincemeat out of the console). It's not every week that the Ship is invaded like this. Everybody must have met a personality like Rorvik in their life; an inwardly conflicted bully who ruthlessly self-destructs when people don’t take him seriously. It's effortlessly easy to sympathise with him whilst fearing him at the same time, he's like Mainwaring from Dad's Army at gas mark ten.. I love the fairytale idea of the gateway in the void, this is Doctor Who going all out at exploring a fantasy environment. In contrast the cobweb strewn banquet hall is a gloriously decaying piece of set design. Warriors' Gate is packed full of potent juxtapositions like that. I like it when the TARDIS is described in fresh ways and the comic potential of seeing the ship as a craft for midgets or a coffin for a very large man really tickled me. The skull faced horned Gundans are the best-looking robots that Doctor Who ever gave us, they manage to look both ancient and powerful. Despite the fact that it is clearly a model the freighter is another lovely piece of design work. Rorvik’s crew are such a realistic bunch; a lazy, mouthy, greedy, bored, hungry group of louts of which even the lesser characters are fleshed out well in this environment. The last people in the universe that you would want to be stuck in this environment and as such the best for driving the comedy and drama of the piece. They near as much give Rorvik a nervous breakdown. Aldo and Royce are famously memorable, commenting on the action with such bored disdain and not having the stomach to commit the brutal acts that Rorvik asks of them. The answers are built into the script slowly so you have to work to get a complete picture of what is going on before you can understand the answers. The jigsaw is made up of the Gundan’s exposition, conversations with Biroc and the banqueting scenes. Piecing this story together really is a treat because the answers are worth the investigation. Electrocuting the Tharil looks really nasty, he writhes with smoking agony. The direction continues to be inventive with the rasping POV of the burnt Tharil skulking through the ship and menacing Romana. It's one of the most effective and tense cliffhangers in the shows history – the music is phenomenal throughout but it is especially effective at these suspense building moments. Tom Baker looks resplendent in his burgundy costume roaming around the black and white stills, we’re really through the looking glass now. The banqueting music is one of the most evocative pieces in Doctor Who; rich, warm, textured and suggesting a real history for the characters and environment. How fantastic is that tear in the hull of the ship? The designers must have had a field day cutting that hole out of the set for the actors to step in and out of. A candle lit banqueting hall with the Tharils enjoying gargantuan repast melting forwards in time into cobwebs and skeletons…striking pictures are telling this narrative. When the Gundan’s burst into the hall to attack the Tharils we have reached a peak of Doctor Who visually, at least in the classic series. It's great fun that K.9 has been explaining what is really going on for four episodes and everybody from the characters to the audience have been ignoring him because he is so notoriously unreliable these days. Rorvik’s crew are slave trading in time sensitives and dwarf star alloy is the only substance that can hold them. The weak enslave themselves; the story exposes how easily the masters can become the slaves if those in captivity are pushed far enough. Bullies like Rorvik always lack subtlety in their methods, he wants to use the back blast to smash the mirror (‘Everything breaks eventually!’). Sagan’s death is brutally graphic and much deserved. The Tharils reviving is a simple but stunning effect, ghostly figures leaving the ship and entering the gateway. The story ends on one of the most epic explosions, the gateway tearing apart and Rorvik’s ship in flames. It's reassuring that even the most innovative of Doctor Who adventures ends on a big bang.

The Bad Stuff: The freighter scenes are shot like liquid flowing so why is it as soon as we return to the TARDIS console room the camera is frustratingly static? All this talk about the I Ching is fascinating on an intellectual level but the target audience must have felt as though they were talking another language. Bidmead seems determined to prove that smart means boring with this penchant of unnatural dialogue for the regulars that has plagued the characters all year. Poor K.9, in his last story he is kicked, thrown and turned half demented. I think he has just made a lucky escape. The MZ explosion is the only effect in this story that disappoints, bits of polystyrene flying everywhere.

The Shallow Bit: Romana gets to look radiant one last time in her blood red Chinese silk shirt.

Result: Doctor Who as a scientific fairytale, Warriors’ Gate is the show at its most rewarding and visually stunning. There are so many moments to treasure throughout that it is impossible to recount them all (although I have had a good try above) and everything from the set design, lighting, effects, music, performances, direction and scripting are at their peak. Visually it feels like Hinchcliffe is back in the hot seat but imaginatively it feels like Williams is still in control, Warriors' Gate feels like the best of both their takes on Doctor Who and yet remains one of JNT's greatest achievements as producer. Packed full of clever ideas, witty moments, dramatic twists and fantastic characters it is hard to fault a story that takes such an unusual approach to telling a story and gets it so right. One of the highlights of the JNT era and proof if it was needed that eighties Who could be just as bold, innovative and imaginative as anything that came before and since. Masterful: 10/10

4 comments:

rumblebars said...

I agree with you on this one. I think it's the best episode of Baker's burgundy season. I'm on the fence about how quickly Romana departed though, it seemed way too sudden, but you made some good points about it. I remember being terribly shocked by her leaving like that when I first saw it on PBS in the early 80s - so I guess in that regard, it worked well. (of course, two Sunday mornings later, I was even more shocked...)

Did you see those posts on TOR.com recently about each Doctor's "essential episodes"? (dumb title, as they meant stories). I had to post a comment here and there as I didn't always agree with their choices, and I had to mention Warrior's Gate one as one I might have picked. (admittedly, it is hard to pick just five Tom Baker stories as "essential" though)

Anyway, this title totally makes the E-Space Trilogy box set worth owning.

-Andy

Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

I'm glad you like this one. I like this one too. That is all.

Joe Ford said...

Audrey: :-)

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