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Doctor Who (Classic): “Warriors’ Gate”

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“Warriors’ Gate” (season 18, episodes 17-20. Originally aired Jan 3-24, 1981)

As the title implies, “Warriors’ Gate” is about transitions. The gate in question is a doorway between dimensions that all the characters want to pass through—well, almost all of them, and that’s the emotional key to the story. Gates present you with a choice: this side or that side, this life or that life, out or in. And for the Doctor’s companion Romana, this gate offers her what’s probably the most difficult choice of her life.

More than most Doctor Who serials, “Warriors’ Gate” is not easy to just dive right into. For one thing, the story is a little complicated, stranding the Doctor and friends in a strange non-place that exists outside of everything—two everythings, in fact—anchored by a key sequence that, like a waking dream, puts two sets of characters in the same place but at different points in time, kind of sort of simultaneously. It’s a story that rewards some thought, even a second viewing, before what’s happening becomes clear. Neither is “Warriors’ Gate” very self-contained. The entirety of season 18, in fact, ties together into a broader storyline, and basically assumes you’ve been following along in sequence—which is, I have to admit, probably the best way to watch this particular season, much as I prefer skipping around between eras of the show. This was a season of tumultuous change, both on and off screen, so before I get into the story at hand, let’s set the stage.

First, the TARDIS crew at this point consists of the Fourth Doctor, accompanied by Romana, a fellow Gallifreyan and Time Lady; K9, his robot dog; and Adric, a teenage math genius the Doctor hopes to enroll in school on Gallifrey. They are currently lost in an alternate universe, called E-Space, and are trying to find the way back to the point where they unknowingly got in. When they get back home, Romana is supposed to go back to Gallifrey, because unlike the Doctor, she’s still a member of Time Lord society in good standing and they’ve ordered her to return. But after having seen the universe with the Doctor, she no longer wants to go home. The E-Space journey has delayed her decision, but something’s got to give before too long. Doctor Who’s popularity at the time meant that the real reason for the plot dilemma was well-known to anyone watching: actress Lalla Ward was leaving the show. So the question wasn’t whether Romana would leave, but on what terms she would.

Viewers were also well aware of the show’s even bigger imminent departure: Tom Baker was leaving too, after seven years in the lead role. Baker’s decision doesn’t play a direct role in the plot of “Warriors’ Gate,” but it’s part of the story anyway, hanging like a cloud over the whole season in much the same way David Tennant’s long-foretold regeneration colored the Tenth Doctor's last few shows in bright shades of maudlin. In a less overtly manipulative but no less purposeful fashion, producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Christopher Bidmead used the inevitable tragedy of the Doctor’s “death” as leverage to bring the show a new seriousness, toning down the comic approach Douglas Adams had brought the year before. They got off to a rocky start with the cheesy, garish “The Leisure Hive” and “Meglos,” both heralds of the worst aspects of the 1980s JNT era to come. But “Warriors’ Gate” shows the JNT/Bidmead team at its best.

It’s easy enough to see the whole season as a long, meandering buildup to the moment when the Fourth Doctor gives in to the inevitable and gives up the ghost. There’s certainly a repeated motif throughout season 18 about the dangers of getting old, calcified, static, or corrupted, and how radical change in your life can be good no matter how terrifying it may seem. That motif weaves its way through “Warriors’ Gate” as well, starting with its opening scenario: Two ships marooned in a featureless white void from which there is no apparent escape.


One of those ships is the TARDIS, of course, but we’ll come back to that. The story actually begins on the other ship, a rundown, unglamorous space freighter that’s carrying a cargo of catlike aliens in suspended animation. They’ve been stuck there for months, unable to navigate a way out of a place where the space-time coordinates all read zero. The mood is not good: The irritable captain, Rorvik, grows ever more desperate to escape, while his crew of surly, lazy proles grows increasingly apathetic even as the ship falls apart more with every failed attempt to get somewhere, as if Kruger Industrial Smoothing from Seinfeld survived into the far future and is now in the interplanetary shipping business. Rorvik bullies his crew through what seems like their last-chance roll of the dice, a particularly self-destructive jump of the ship that kills their engines and rips a hole in the hull.

Rorvik saves some special ire for what should have been their ace-in-the-hole—one of the lion-people, Biroc, is the ship’s navigator, with the psychic ability to see into the future and thus steer the ship through hyperspace. Even with his powers, Biroc can’t see anything but the blank white nothingness either. Until at last, in the middle of that disastrous jump, he does see something: The TARDIS, which has also dropped into the void. But Biroc keeps this to himself. Biroc, it will turn out, has been keeping a lot of things to himself. Why? The fact that he’s chained to his station at the bridge is the first clue: Biroc’s people, called Tharils, are slaves being ferried to auction, where they will be sold and used as navigators on other human ships. Having seen the TARDIS, Biroc seizes his chance and escapes from his captors to seek help from the newcomers.


Meanwhile, the Doctor and company have their own problems to deal with. Being stuck in the void is not one of them—not quite, anyway, because unlike Rorvik, they know what it is: A nexus point between two parallel universes, E-Space, which they want to leave, and N-Space, the “real” universe. First, though, they’ve got to find it. That leads to the story’s first really difficult stretch of dialogue, as Romana and the  Doctor argue over his decision to abandon scientific search methods in favor of an intuitive approach—references to Carl Jung and the I Ching are thrown around, but it boils down to just winging it, or as Romana sarcastically snaps, “we just press any button and hope for the best.” It’s not clear to me why the Doctor thinks this will work, but it’s worth noting that it’s similar to Biroc’s approach to space-time navigation, which is overtly intuitive, mystical and even psychedelic. Maybe using Biroc’s method is what brings them into Biroc’s vision in the first place, allowing him to go and find them.

After Biroc helps the TARDIS land safely in the void, he leads the Doctor across the blank expanse to the ruins of an ancient Gothic-style keep, where he walks past the cobwebbed remains of a feast table, then disappears Alice-like into a mirror. This is another secret he’s been hiding from Rorvik: The keep once belonged to the Tharils, and the white expanse was once the heart of an interstellar empire spanning E-Space. Their time-shifting ability made them invulnerable to attack, and they swept down on planet after planet as occupiers. The Doctor puzzles this out with the help of a couple of murderous robots in medieval armor, leftovers from the last days of the Tharil empire, and from Biroc himself, who shows the Doctor one more secret by taking him to the last days of the Tharil empire, where they dine at the feast that we’ve just seen, years later, as leftovers. Biroc’s last secret explains how the once-proud lords of empire became reduced to slavery under people like Rorvik: They were slaveowners themselves, and grew crueler and more decadent. The Doctor takes notice of this after a wine-pouring servant is slapped by a Tharil, but what drove it home for me was the statue that the Doctor had walked past earlier, showing a lion viciously killing a horse. That's how the ancient Tharils thought of themselves. (That's actually a Roman Empire-era artwork, appropriately enough; the Getty Museum's website has a little more about it.) The Tharil Empire came crashing down when their slaves secretly invented robots that could survive in the white void, and sent them to kill and enslave the Tharils. The Doctor finds out about that because Biroc has taken him back to the very moment of their attack.


Meanwhile, and yet somehow also years later, Rorvik’s men sit down for sandwiches at the same table. If you’re confused, that’s the intended effect—suggesting something of the awesome power of the Tharils and the bizarre way they must view the world, not as a series of moments passing but, Dr. Manhattan-style, as past and present and future all at once. Biroc’s dialogue,  like Manhattan’s, seems sometimes to mean more than one thing at a time as well—particularly his line “The weak enslave themselves, Doctor. You and I know that.” He says this arrogantly as a justification of the Tharils’ own slaveowning, but it’s interesting to note when he says it—during the ancient days of empire, when Biroc genuinely believed that. Later, back in the present, he prompts the Doctor to repeat the line as a way of acknowledging that the Tharils themselves were the weak ones, deserved their comeuppance, and have now learned a lesson in humility.

In the final analysis, the story probably is not clear enough in explaining how the Tharils’ strange time-based abilities work, but there is an underlying logic to it, or at least I think there is. My theory, anyway, is that they can see the past but not change it, which is why they don’t prevent the revolution that toppled their empire, and see the future as an array of possibilities which they can choose from, which lets them seem to walk through walls by momentarily choosing a possible future where the walls aren’t there. Not spelling all that out, though, does allow the fantastic cliffhanger that caps the feast-table scene, when Biroc saves Romana and the Doctor from being caught in the revolutionary massacre by sending them back to the present—where Rorvik is bemused to discover that the Doctor has materialized right in front of his gun. It’s an audaciously staged moment, and a rare cliffhanger that works not only by getting you to wonder how the Doctor will get out of danger, but how in the hell he got into it in the first place.


In the end, Biroc’s dilemma offers a solution to Romana’s dilemma. He needs help to free the other Tharils back in E-Space, and Romana desperately doesn’t want to go home to Gallifrey, where only her stifling old life awaits her. This plot point had been percolating all season, and really has its roots at the very heart of Romana’s character, going back to her introduction two and a half years earlier in “The Ribos Operation.” She’d joined the Doctor then not because she’d particularly wanted to, but because she was told to by (so she thought) the Time Lords. Though she was capable enough to deal with the Doctor on his own terms, the early Romana was also a rulebound neophyte who followed orders. Her travels with the Doctor changed her—quite literally, considering the regeneration in “Destiny Of The Daleks” when Mary Tamm quit the role and was replaced by Ward. Even at the beginning, Romana’s relationship with the Doctor was much more equal in its power dynamics than most of his companions, thanks to her being one of his own people. Ward’s Romana took that even further, making her something close to a female version of the Doctor himself, or at least a Doctor-in-training. That’s best exemplified here by the way she handles her first encounter with the slavers: Alone and unarmed against three men she’s been warned not to trust, she gets them to reveal who they are and what they want while keeping them off-guard with a combination of eccentric charm, sly doubletalk, and deliberate bewilderment that’s exactly the sort of thing Baker’s Doctor, or Patrick Troughton or Sylvester McCoy’s, might have done. (Of course, there is the little flaw that she’s shanghaied by Rorvik to replace his missing time-sensitive navigator, but nobody’s perfect…)

Leaving with Biroc lets Romana take the painful but necessary last step in her evolution—to go past being the Doctor’s sidekick and on to being his successor, or his E-Space equivalent. (Thanks to K9, she’s even got the blueprints to make her own TARDIS.) If her final moments onscreen are a bit too rushed to be completely effective, it’s still one of the series’ best conclusions to a companion’s storyline, and a great way to send the character off. This, or something like it, is what should have happened to Susan.


“Warriors’ Gate” closes on the image of Romana walking away confidently into her new future and out of the show. But the show itself, of course, follows the man she leaves behind. For the Doctor, Romana’s leaving is a sadder occasion than he’s probably willing to admit— absolutely crushing, quite probably. Because there was an unusually romantic angle to their relationship too—something Doctor Who typically avoided in the companion/Doctor dynamic, but in this case it was inescapable—partly an echo of Baker and Ward’s real-life courtship and short-lived marriage, but also something that genuinely worked for the characters. In Romana, the Doctor had arguably found his ideal companion—and she chose, like him, to rebel against her own people and run away. But that also meant running away from him. That’s gotta sting. And it might have made him regret encouraging her to be so much like him in the first place. It might have even made him not want to be so much like himself either, and to welcome the quasi-death of the regeneration lurking just around the corner. I don't mean to suggest that the Fourth Doctor had turned suicidal. Regenerations are a way of cheating death, after all. What happens to the Doctor instead is a radical personality shift—he's still the same person with the same memories, but a different way of looking at the world, and that new outlook often seems like a reaction against the flaws he had in his old life. So the timing here is suggestive: Two serials after his girlfriend dumps him, the famously arrogant Fourth Doctor falls from a great height, lies broken, and gets up as a new, humbler man.

Stray observations

• One of Rorvik’s crewmen comes up with an oddly morbid description of the TARDIS: “A coffin for a very large man.”


• Note how Romana misunderstands Biroc’s meaning when they first meet. She asks who he is, and he tells her enigmatically, “The shadow of my past and of your future.” The Doctor and Romana stare after him, and repeat his odd phrasing in puzzlement:

DOCTOR: The shadow of his past…
ROMANA: And of our future.

Not quite: Biroc sees into the future, and he knows she’s going to travel with him. He’s answering a question she asked, not the Doctor, and  his reply is to her as well—”your future,” he said.


• The downtrodden, dirty look of Rorvik's space-freighter—my editor, Erik Adams, describes the crew in their orange jumpsuits as “outer-space janitors”—was a nod to movies like Alien and Dark Star, in which the crews  were also out in space less for the glory of exploration than the promise of a steady paycheck, and just as often not really competent to do their jobs.

• After divorcing Tom Baker, Lalla Ward eventually met and married scientist Richard Dawkins. That is not him in the picture above.


• Upcoming schedule:
Feb. 3: “The Caves Of Androzani”
Feb. 17: “Shada”
And on deck, order to be determined: “The Ark In Space,” “The Reign Of Terror,” “The Edge Of Destruction,” “The Sontaran Experiment.”