Trilogies are a mixed bag. Many have exemplary first installments and then less-than-wonderful denouements, which often happens when a film that was always intended to be standalone – or which would have worked best as standalone – has a couple of sequels tacked onto it years later (Wachowski brothers, I’m looking at you). At other times, a work that is clearly designed to have multiple parts spends the first two hours setting everything up, building to a wondrous (and usually fairly dark) middle segment and then a letdown (colossal or otherwise) of a finale: see The X-Men, and to a lesser extent the Lord of the Rings films, which peaked at Helm’s Deep and never really recovered. You could also group the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films into this category if you wanted, although that perhaps ties the films together with tighter bonds than are perhaps deserved.
Which leads me to my point. Viewed objectively – and within context – the E-Space trilogy, like Raimi’s, was never really a trilogy at all. But it is treated as such by many, including the 2 Entertain folks, and me, at least for the purposes of the three articles I’ve produced this past week or so. (Of course, the 2 Entertain DVD sets are occasionally a little tenuous in terms of their choice of linking material. Chronicling the narratives of Peladon or the Mara is perfectly acceptable, but frequently bad stories are dropped in with good ones – The Bred For War Sontaran Collection springs to mind, as does the combination of ‘Time-Flight’ with ‘Arc of Infinity’, although at least those stories are loosely connected. Most baffling of all is the inexplicably titled Earth Story, which pairs ‘The Gunfighters’ with ‘The Awakening’ – two stories with absolutely nothing in common except that they’re set on Earth, along with about two thirds of the rest of the canon.)
But the advantage of treating these three stories in this manner is that the trilogy closes with its strongest work, one that is stylistically more or less unique to Doctor Who, perhaps to television in general. It is a story that polarises its audience, as (to quote Gareth, who nonetheless loves it as much as I do) “in some ways nothing much happens, and it does it confusingly”. Certainly it is not a story to show to a first-time viewer, or perhaps even a casual viewer, if only because it will either put them off the show forever or unceremoniously dump them into a pit of despair when they subsequently discover that nothing (save perhaps ‘The Mind Robber’) is quite as unusual or distinctive. It is boldly written and even more boldly directed, fusing Oriental mysticism with time travel and blending it with an enigmatic alien race and a crazed, Ahab-like space captain and his crew of nonchalant slavers.
Let’s take that opening. The first two minutes of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ are a mesmerising crawl through a clapped out space freighter of unknown origin or destination. The camera pans out through a cryogenic chamber and up through maintenance decks, harsh lights shining through steel mesh walkways. Graffiti – in ominous red – is smeared across a wall. Peter Howell’s mysterious atonal synth drones in the background, but otherwise the only thing to break the silence is a solitary male voice, counting down.
It is stylish and eerie – the similarity to Alien, released the previous year, is perhaps not a coincidence, and Joyce’s debt to Jean Cocteau is well-established – but you can understand why John Nathan Turner freaked out. His clashes with Paul Joyce are well-documented, with Joyce even being replaced on one occasion when his sense of cinematic ambition clashed with time and budget constraints. He’s filming off set, for goodness’ sake, although you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you were working at the BBC. Even years later, Joyce is fiercely unapologetic in the making of documentary that accompanies ‘Warriors’ Gate’, describing it as “either a partial success or a glorious failure”, and reasoning that he wanted to make the sort of programme that you or I would watch – “you, and my kids, who grew up to love it”.
Whatever Joyce’s motives and the extent to which he succeeded (or did not, depending on whom you ask), the beginning of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ is, somehow, everything the opening to ‘The Leisure Hive’ should have been, but wasn’t. The heavily cinematic direction extends beyond the opening scenes: late in the story, the Doctor enters a mysterious mirror universe which consists of a series of monochromatic stills (Powys Castle and Oxford’s Rousham Gardens) meant to symbolise the decaying kingdom of the Tharils. Excessive CSO can work against a story – it was arguably the downfall of ‘Underworld’, even though hands were tied – but here the very fact that it looks utterly unreal is all part of the fun. This is to say nothing of the white set that symbolises the intersecting point of E-Space and N-Space, and from which half the TARDIS crew eventually depart. It’s familiar, if you know your Troughton, but it works, even within the context of the narrative: this is null space, steadily contracting, thus giving pace to the narrative. That doesn’t stop the juxtaposition of crumbling ruin and obvious
blue green screen from having an apparent influence on the much later Knightmare. You almost expect Rorvik to stop in front of the door, feet together and hands by his sides, and ask “Where am I?”.
But the direction takes much of its cue from Stephen Gallagher’s script, which manages to stay the right side of quirky, by the skin of its teeth. Metaphor and poetic reflection are abundant; at other times it feels as quirky and sparse as the dialogue in, say, Blade Runner. There are three things going on here: the banter between Ward and Baker, with occasional interruptions from Adric; the detached lamentation of the Tharils, who mourn their past mistakes with the same heavy sense of regret that must have plagued the Israelites in Babylon; and, lastly, the sense of gradual disintegration on board the spacecraft, with a disaffected crew and a captain who wears their casual insubordination almost like a badge of honour.
PACKARD: It’s a solid object.
LANE: These readings don’t make sense.
RORVIK: Oh, give me a printout.
LANE: It’s a ship.
PACKARD: What, for midgets?
LANE: Or a coffin for a very large man.
RORVIK: Yes, all right, that’s enough of that. Let’s bust it open.
(All extracts from Chrissie’s Transcript Site.)
A word about Rorvik: Clifford Rose plays him with all the grandiose weariness of the king in a Shakespearian tragedy, or at least an Antigonus or Polonius. A slaver by trade, his downfall is charted through antipathy towards his cargo and obsession with getting home, and is punctuated by poor leadership skills, with the captain pulling a gun on his crew to demand their attention. Capable of utter menace when he is moodily shot from below as the Doctor ascends a ladder, he is then seen – moments later – emerging covered in dust in the aftermath of a failed explosion, in one of the story’s most comic moments, like one of those Laurel and Hardy cartoons where Oliver runs out of the room carrying a bomb, which then explodes offscreen. But the captain is no bumbling-but-lovable fool: he remains, at the last, utterly chilling in his incompetence, his trajectory concluding in fire, and with the words “I’M FINALLY GETTING SOMETHING DONE!”.
“Do nothing”, indeed, is the mantra for much of the narrative. Rorvik’s determination to take action is his eventual undoing: conversely it is only by stilling themselves and actively doing nothing that the Doctor and Romana, in the company of Biroc, are able to escape the inferno. Those of you who read my reviews will know that I took particular issue with three episodes in the last series (‘Listen‘, ‘Kill The Moon‘, ‘In The Forest of the Night‘) in which inaction turned out to be the only logical course of events, but there’s a difference between jamming a story with decisive action – and then deflating the tension in the closing minutes – and making the idea of inaction central to the narrative, which is what happens here, very early on:
DOCTOR: It’s jammed. I’ve lost control. We’re adrift in E-space.
ROMANA: Come on, Doctor. We’ve got to do something.
DOCTOR: Have we?
ROMANA: What do you mean?
DOCTOR: Maybe that’s it.
ROMANA: What, drifting?
DOCTOR: The way out of E-space.
As much as I like Biroc, sadly, the Tharils do not survive with their dignity intact. Part of the problem is age: the physical resemblance to the beast from Beauty and the Beast is presumably intentional, but would manifest in popular culture in the late 1980s in one particularly memorable form, and it is hard to take the race of hairy time-sensitive creatures seriously after you’ve seen them with their arms round Sarah Connor.
The first real indication we get of Biroc’s general benevolence, of course, is a scene that follows the episode two cliffhanger, in which Romana wears the same headphones we’ve seen in at least three other stories, as the hairy beast stalks through the decks of the ship in a manner that mimics the opening shot. Other times he’s usually seen walking, or standing very still, as if contemplating something important and OH LOOK THERE IT IS AGAIN.
I haven’t mentioned plot, because it plays second fiddle to the atmosphere (and because, candidly, I still don’t entirely understand it). As well-written as it is, a dissection here would somehow miss the point. It’s certainly a nice final story for Romana, whose Chinese-style attire mirrors the Asian philosophy running throughout each episode, and who symbolically uses her full name (Romanadvoratrelundar) for the first time since ‘The Ribos Operation’. Her departure is brief, and to a certain extent foreshadowed throughout the three tales we’ve discussed due to her obvious reluctance to return to Gallifrey – although her reasons for staying in E-Space are rather fudged. It’s no great secret that by this point in proceedings Baker and Ward were congregating at opposite ends of the rehearsal room, barely on speaking terms (shouting is another matter, of course), although the two would go on to marry shortly afterwards, for reasons I’ve never really been able to fathom. Whatever Baker’s feelings on the matter, the Doctor is certainly affected more than he lets on, as is demonstrated by his shortness with Adric, although I suppose it’s relatively easy to be short with Adric, even when (as in part four) he actually does something sensible that helps everyone else.
Certainly it is almost inconceivable to imagine the likes of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ being made today. Perhaps the closest in tone was ‘The Girl Who Waited’, with its minimalist sets, at least in the early parts of the story; or (in the very next episode) ‘The God Complex’, which is as brilliantly directed as anything in New Who. Alas, such bold strokes are few and far between. It’s partly the BBC’s reluctance to meddle with an obvious cash cow, and partly because there is perhaps little new that can be said by television – but it’s also true that much of what we would now term ‘innovation’ was born in the creative fires of constraint. ‘Spearhead From Space’, for example, was shot solely on film because they couldn’t shoot on set, while episode one of ‘The Mind Robber’ exists only because the series was running short and an extra installment was needed at next to no cost. The closest we get to that today is the absence of a key figure, such as the Doctor himself, and it’s worth bearing in mind that were it not for filming schedule clashes we would not have ‘Blink’. (Of course, we also wouldn’t have ‘Love and Monsters’, so go figure.)
But perhaps it’s time. Nick Hurran has already directed some of my favourite stories (and the ones that were dreadful, such as ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, were let down chiefly by poor writing) and he’s the safest pair of hands, but it would be interesting to see what would happen were he (or, indeed, anyone else) to push the boat out a little further. The worst that could happen would be bad Doctor Who, and perhaps that’s better than lacklustre Doctor Who. It’s tempting, when you have a formula that works, to do nothing. But inaction will get you only so far. We saw – in ‘Full Circle’ – the results of years of inaction, and ‘Warriors’ Gate’ shows the opposite end of the spectrum, and the detrimental impact of unnecessary action. Sandwiched in the middle like an elderly relative at someone’s party, ‘State of Decay’ nonetheless continues the theme by briefly debating the idea of action vs. procrastination-masked-as-preparation, as epitomised by Kalmar, and then adds vampires.
Well, how about that. Perhaps they really were a trilogy after all.