What’s It About
The Doctor, Romana, and Adric materialize at zero co-ordinates—the void between E-Space and N-Space. Believing this may be the gateway back to the Doctor and Romana’s universe, they begin investigating and soon discover a ship of slavers and their time-sensitive captives.
Do nothing, if it’s the right sort of nothing
Ah, and here we have one of those controversial stories. It isn’t controversial because it questions loosely established canon. It is controversial because it is so unusual. Viewers seem to love or hate this story, often the dividing line being how well the viewer seems to understand it (or profess to understand it). For my part, I think this is very atypical Doctor Who. It is a story that exhibits a successful blend of televisual language. The story is divided between scripting, directing, and symbolism. It is told through visual association. It is only by engaging with “Warriors’ Gate” as a unified whole that the story begins to make sense, and even then, at times it is almost like a vague impression. “Warriors’ Gate” is Doctor Who doing high-concept art, and largely succeeding.
Normally I avoid synopses because those are plentiful on the internet. In this case, I will go ahead and give my perception of the story being told, exploring different themes that are broached along the way. The entire story takes place at zero co-ordinates. This void is the space between universes, the space between spaces. But as the TARDIS also moves through time, it is reasonable to conclude the void is also the space between time. Romana directly addresses this when talking to Rorvik and Packard about “timelines” and “striations in the continuum.” Because of this, time has less meaning here. Time sensitives, especially those who have been burned by the time winds, may move through gateways to other timelines. This is expressed in the Tharil castle with the mirror (more on the mirror shortly). The only problem, however, is that time is altered by mass, which means the slavers’ spaceship, with its dwarf-star alloy (read “super-dense metal”) hull, is altering the space-time stability of the void. The ship is a time bomb due to its very presence in the void. But so is the captain, who is desperate to get out of the void.
So, the mirrors. The mirrors are handy as a visual gateway (Through the Looking Glass, anyone?), but they also match the thematic concept of reflection. The Tharils have been enslaved by humans who use them for their time ships. In the past, however, the Tharils were a great race who enslaved others. Biroc says, “The weak enslave themselves.” But the strong may one day become weak, and the robot uprising in the Tharil castle eliminated their strength. So, not only are the mirrors a gateway to the past, they are also a direct connection to it. They reflect the past to the present, and vice-versa. The story of the Tharils is the story of the slavers: the arrogantly powerful being overthrown by the weaker slaves.
At this point, we have a fairly interesting commentary on power and its abuse. The present is an outworking of the past. “Warriors’ Gate” tells this in a rather unconventional way, but it tells it in a fascinating and compelling way. The story required ambitious and visionary directing by Paul Joyce, and that was certainly achieved. But I think there is far more present in this story than the plot.
Who, ultimately, is manipulating events here? Is it the Tharils? I don’t think so. In episode four, the Doctor confronts Biroc, asking him (in the present) what he is doing here. Biroc replies, “Nothing.” Then further expounds, “And you, too. Do nothing.” This is a theme: doing nothing. And when looking at the story closely, nothing the Doctor, Romana, and Adric do ultimately makes any difference in the freeing of the slaves and the defeat of the slavers. There is very little agency for the characters in the story. This sequence of events story is preordained; the events have been planned. Just as the slaves overthrew the Tharil masters in the past, the Tharil slaves in the present will overthrow the human masters. The Doctor investigates and observes, but his actions ultimately make no difference. Biroc tells him outright to do nothing. In a way, the Doctor is fulfilling a very Time Lord role here: observe, do not interfere. Romana makes a decision in the end to stay and help free other Tharils (presumably in N-Space). She makes this decision after gaining wisdom about the Tharil experience (although a reluctance to return to Gallifrey is certainly part of her decision). But Adric also makes decisions by flipping a coin. After a brief explanation of the I Ching in the first episode, Adric takes the concept of random chance in decision making to heart. All his choices lead him to be in a strategic position to save the Doctor and Romana in episode four. Coincidence or guidance? But decisions made due to character agency are very rare. Ultimately, Rorvik decides to fire the engines of the ship in the hope of finding escape from the void. His battle cry: “I’m finally getting something done.” In truth, Rorvik and his crew were puppets performing according to pre-written dictates. Or, more literally, actors performing their pieces. They had no agency because prior to this story, they did not exist. For four episodes they do, but they could only act according to their scripts. Rorvik, by firing the engines and causing his death, exercises his agency—to no effect.
Finally, I love what this story does for my pet theory of season 18 as Tom Baker deconstruction. In episode one, the Doctor enters the ruins of the Tharil castle. He finds the banquet table, which is covered with cobwebs, as are the corpses seated at the table. Metaphorically, the Doctor has entered a tomb. Additionally, the Doctor is told to do nothing in this story. He is at his most useless and ineffective; he has been relegated to observer. The story moves on without him, and Romana symbolically becomes the Doctor and leaves. The companion has more agency than the hero. And now the last hold-over has been eliminated—except for the Doctor himself.
This entire season has impressed me and renewed my interest in Doctor Who and continuing this project. I can’t wait to see what remains of the season, and to see how the regeneration compares to what I remember.