Warriors’ Gate ★★★★

This is "hardcore, head-scratching, literary sci-fi" featuring time-sensitive Tharils and a farewell to Romana and K•9

190

Season 18 – Story 113

Advertisement

“There’s nothing beyond those mirrors for people like us, except the reflection of what’s here. Only the Tharils can enter your universe that way and that’s a talent they’re born with. The talent that you hunt them for” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Tardis arrives in a white void with zero co-ordinates – could this be the boundary between E-Space and N-Space? Nearby stands an ancient gateway, leading to a banqueting hall, as well as a marooned spaceship, captained by the cruel Rorvik. The vessel is piloted by Biroc, a time-sensitive Tharil, who aims to free the rest of his race enslaved on board. On the other side of a mirror in the hall, the Doctor learns the history of the leonine Tharils and resolves to liberate them. In trying to escape the void, Rorvik succeeds only in destroying the ship and freeing his cargo. The Doctor heads off to N-Space with Adric, while Romana and K•9 return to E-Space to assist the Tharils.

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 3 January 1981
Part 2 – Saturday 10 January 1981
Part 3 – Saturday 17 January 1981
Part 4 – Saturday 24 January 1981

Production
Black-and-white photography: September 1980 at Powis Castle, Powys
Studio recording: September 1980 in TC6, October 1980 in TC1

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Romana – Lalla Ward
Voice of K•9 – John Leeson
Adric – Matthew Waterhouse
Rorvik – Clifford Rose
Packard – Kenneth Cope
Lane – David Kincaid
Aldo – Freddie Earlle
Royce – Harry Waters
Biroc – David Weston
Sagan – Vincent Pickering
Lazlo – Jeremy Gittins
Gundan – Robert Vowles

Crew
Writer – Steve Gallagher
Designer – Graeme Story
Incidental music – Peter Howell
Script editor – Christopher H Bidmead
Executive producer – Barry Letts
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Paul Joyce

RT Review by Mark Braxton
For a science-fiction series, Doctor Who doesn’t actually “do” sci-fi all that often – not hardcore, head-scratching, literary sci-fi. When it does, it seems to bemuse as many fans as it amuses…

That’s certainly the case with Warriors’ Gate, which has an ill-deserved reputation for being wilfully cryptic and abstruse. And on the face of it, yes, it is a perplexing potpourri, treading in the footsteps of other outlandish entertainments such as Sapphire and Steel and The Prisoner. But Steve Gallagher, already an established genre writer for radio in the early 80s, attempted something different, and the story stands out to this day for doing just that.

Watched carefully, this four-parter is actually perfectly followable and has sound logical integrity. Anyway, there’s something rather fun about not knowing what’s going on, even into a story’s latter stages. Warriors’ Gate is a steam-powered ideas factory, with its temporal schisms and its reflections on life and death, freedom and captivity, sin and redemption.

Its visual influences are a firecracker blend of many things, including Belle et la Bête and Orphée – a Molotov Cocteau, if you will. And the static, black-and-white world behind the mirror has a brave and beautiful innovation, even if the banqueting-hall scenes now look as dated as a Visage video.

But Gallagher was also impressed by the work of American authors Joe Haldeman and Alfred Bester, not to mention Lewis Carroll. “It’s like talking to a Cheshire cat,” says the Doctor of our leonine lead. But this is a very warped wonderland, on a par with season six’s The Mind Robber, with whom Warriors’ Gate shares a minimalist aesthetic and an intellectual revelry.

The story certainly seems to have left a mark on Steven Moffat, and not just with its celebration of complexity. His 2011 adventure Day of the Moon features dwarf-star alloy, the adamantine substance that effectively imprisons the Tharils. Its super-density is a little difficult to believe, when we see the Doctor pocketing a lump, and a ship made of the stuff is turned into a skeleton by a few fireworks. But we’ll press on…

The Tharils are not just the mane attraction of the story, thanks to Pauline Cox’s wonderful make-up; they’re a believably flawed and likeable species, unlike most of the humanoids. Clifford Rose, instantly recognisable to contemporary audiences as über-Nazi Kessler in The Secret Army, is very one-note as grumpy old sod Rorvik, while Kenneth Cope, also a familiar face as the ghost in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), provides perky comedy as Packard, but isn’t given enough to do.

It’s no surprise to learn of Warriors’ Gate’s difficult gestation. Script editor Christopher H Bidmead believed “the drama of producing it was so much greater than the drama that actually hit the screen”, and Gallagher himself lamented some of the questionable science introduced by the rewrite.

It’s clear the production staff were fed up to the back teeth with K•9 after three years of whining and whirring. He gets booted by Rorvik and hurled by Packard. I suspect the little gibbering noise he makes by way of an “ouch” is meant to be cute, but it’s almost sick-makingly irritating. The story is a poor way to see off the Doctor’s pooch and protector, but at least he’s put to good use, in the service of another companion…

Despite featuring one of the most majestic puns in a departure scene – if you don’t check it for sense (“You were the noblest Romana of them all”) – Lalla Ward’s exit is one of the least emotional in the show’s history. No sooner has the Doctor uttered his Shakespearean tribute than Romana is vanishing into the void. She didn’t even seem to hear him. It’s unlikely that such glib, “bye then” offhandedness will ever be tolerated in today’s Doctor Who.

Nevertheless, this “Warriors of the deep” is an elaborate experiment with striking results. Fitting snugly into the E-Space triptych, its daring existentialism takes Who into another realm. Where are we going, it asks. And as Romana says, “That’s an interesting philosophical question”. One that Steve Gallagher can be justly proud of addressing in such an enchanting way.

– – –

Radio Times archive

Warriors Gate billings
Advertisement

[Available on BBC DVD]