Doctor Who #550: Warriors' Gate Part 1

"It's a ship." "What, for midgets?" "Or a coffin for a very large man." (A prophetic quote, as it turns out.)
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Jan.3 1981.

The TARDIS and a human ship navigated by a lion-man's imagination get stuck at zero coordinates, in a vast whiteness.

I don't think we've had such a visually impressive story since The Leisure Hive shocked the show out of the 70s. There are hiccups here and there - the bit-mapped frozen coin comes to mind - but the handheld work walking around the split-level spaceship set, the leonine Beric running through the void with his own echoes on his trail, the cobwebbed castle right out of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, the wire-frame TARDIS in the navigator's eye... But all this eye-candy comes at a price. Appropriately for this program, that cost is TIME, and director Paul Joyce would never work on the show again. Overruns and all that. I don't think it's entirely his fault. There are LOT of video effects that must be catered to, and that just takes time. Not for the audience, of course - this looks to be another of those serials with chapters closer to 20 minutes than 25 - but the short running time is at least filled with interesting visuals and heady concepts.

Now, I'm all for rich and complex scripts. For example, I'm on record as a fan of Ghost Light. Warriors' Gate is one of those Doctor Who stories that invites literary analysis too, though I sometimes think it's overrated. What keeps it from really charming me is the underlying science. While I'm intrigued by the theme of randomization and the overt reference to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (the two grease monkeys commenting on the story happening over their heads and flipping coins), I have the niggling feeling that this is another Bidmead wet dream about mathematics. He's created E-Space where coordinates are negative, and now writer Steve Gallagher is asked to set a story at zero coordinates, an imaginary point where the two universes theoretically touch. Thankfully, Gallagher is literate enough to make this concept more poetic than scientific (though those TARDIS scenes tend towards technobabble), and the idea of "two sides of a coin" returns again and again - the two levels on the ship, Beric walking through a mirror, and his zen riddle about being from both the past and future.

One thing I've noticed since I started this pilgrimage is that the show used to told from the TARDISeers' point of view and over time moved that POV to the natives of the TARDIS' destinations. We used to discover worlds and times with the Doctor and his companions, but now spend a fair amount of time, especially in the first chapter of every serial, immersed in an alien world before the TARDIS ever arrives. The consequence is that we get tedious TARDIS scenes just so the heroes can appear early in the episode. By the time they disembark, there's only just time for a little skulking about before the cliffhanger happens. That happens here. There's a bit of discontinuity with the Doctor proposing to bring Adric to Gallifrey instead of returning him home as he intended at the end of the previous episode. K9 gets his with solar winds as he once again gets hammered by JNT edicts. And Romana prepares her departure from the program by saying she might part ways with the Doctor. Plus, what's the I Ching and some bla bla bla about time rifts. I've nothing against the "alien POV" structure per se, but they really need to integrate the regulars into it better.

THEORIES: A white void? Where have we seen that before? Ah yes. So is there a connection between the void at "zero coordinates" and the whiteness in the Land of Fiction's lobby? Both are outside the universe as we understand it, both snare the TARDIS, and both have strange physical properties that allow people to walk on, and breathe, nothing. In the middle of nowhere, there's a partly visible castle built by a race of lion-men - truly shades of Beauty and the Beast - one of which runs Through the Looking Glass to a pocket dimension/time track that looks (as we'll later find out) like pictures of gardens. Could this be a disused corner of the same pocket dimension where people can apply their imagination to affect reality, not part of the Land of Fiction exactly, but certainly woven of the same fabric? Maybe the white void has various realms in it. The Tharil Empire looks independent of the Land of Fiction, though there seems to be a certain amount of crossover if the literary references are anything to go by. Or might independent people in the void somehow affect creative types in real space, people like Cocteau, Carroll and Stoppard. The Land of Fiction could just be creative backwash.

- The regulars are ill-used, but the episode is otherwise gorgeous and richly textured.


Craig Oxbrow said...

Also an interesting bit of art history geekery - the Gate itself is based on a lost Romantic painting.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for that, it's really cool!


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