Warriors’ Gate, by Frank Collins (and John Lydecker / Stephen Gallagher)

I vividly remember watching Warriors’ Gate when it was first broadcast back in the cold January of 1981. I was thirteen, and knew that this was Tom Baker’s last season; but much of the actual story sailed over my head. My family were not the only fans in Northern Ireland. In Newry, a thirteen-year-old girl missed the last episode:

But her younger brother caught it.

That evening I too remember watching the “stupid Finnish film”, The Year of the Hare, and unlike NornIronGirl (but like her father) I loved it. (It must have been that evening, because that seems to be the only time it was shown on British TV when I was a teenager.)

When I rewatched Warriors’ Gate in 2008, I wrote:

I was surprised that I did enjoy Warrior’s Gate. A somewhat surreal plot line, with reflections on colonialism, empire and slavery, and also Romana’s extended farewell to the Tardis (for once, decently signalled in advance, more perhaps than for any companion since Victoria). Even Adric, for once, seemed to fit in reasonably well. Definitely worth watching again.

Coming back to it three years later for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

Warrior’s Gate is truly weird and wonderful. The slavery of the Tharils is pretty horrifying, but we understand that there’s an element of cosmic karma in that they were once the enslavers (and Rorvik in turn gets his cosmic come-uppance at the end). For a story which is mostly filmed in a blank studio, there is an amazing sense of place about it. I still don’t completely understand the plot but I somehow feel confident that the author did, and wasn’t just making it up as he went along. K9 and Adric get reduced to mere observers here – again, it’s a strong story for Romana, but of course it is her last.

This time around, I came to it having seen the whole of Secret Army and its spinoff Kessler, in which Clifford Rose, who is the chief antagonist Rorvik here, plays the vicious SS officer in charge of Brussels. (Rose died just over a year ago in Denville Hall.) He seemed to me to be turning in a very strong performance: like Kessler, Rorvik is stuck with a mission that many would find ethically unpalatable, in an environment that he doesn’t really understand, and his reaction to new factors tends to be suspicious and violent. But it’s different as well to see him as the head of a team; Kessler tended to have the SS adjutant of the week.

I was also struck by the parallel with the other Doctor Who story mainly filmed in a blank studio, the first episode of The Mind Robber, where the production team successfully made something out of literally nothing. The same trick is pulled off here, with a few more props. You wouldn’t want to do this all the time, but it’s interesting to see it done twice.

Rereading the original novelisation in 2008, I wrote:

This is really good, the best book of this run; Romana II departing in style. Lydecker / Gallagher seems almost to be writing a standard genre sf book that the Doctor, Romana and Adric happen to have wandered into – Romana wanting to wander off on her own, of course. (And K9 gets perhaps his best characterisation in any of the novels, even if he is out of order for much of the story.) Of course, with it being the printed page rather than the screen, the story has to be told in a rather different way; but the author, whatever his name is, really rises to the challenge.

Since then I’ve read Gallagher’s early hit, Valley of Lights, and actually passed him by a couple of times in the corridors at the February 2022 Gallifrey One convention; I wish I had stopped for a chat. The book still holds up, giving a bit more meat to the bones of the show-don’t-tell TV story, especially on the background of the slavers. You can get it here.

But but but… it turns out that in 2019 the BBC released a considerably expanded audiobook of the novelisation, so much altered that it is basically a different book. Read by Jon Culshaw, with John Leeson contributing the voice of K9, it gives us a lot more background and characterisation of the slavers and the Tharils, and mixes up the plot quite substantially. Culshaw is very good at the characterisation of the voices, though I think his Rorvik is actually a bit closer to Kessler than Clifford Rose’s was.

It’s not the only or even the strongest case where the novelisation departs from the TV script, but it’s the most recent, I think, and certainly the one with the biggest broadcast-to-publication gap. It’s well worth getting to shed a new light on the intentions behind the story, and gives new depth to the narrative. You can get it here.

I still don’t completely understand every aspect of the story, but I felt I had a much better grasp of it this time around, especially thanks to the expanded novelisation.

Frank Collins’ monograph on Warriors’ Gate is one of the longer and denser works in the Black Archive series. There are eight chunky chapters, preceded by an introduction that explores the problems of assigning authorship of the story to writer Steve Gallagher, script editor Christopher Bidmead, director Paul Joyce (who becomes a major figure in the narrative) and even John Nathan-Turner and Graeme Harper.

The first chapter, ‘A Medieval Mystery Play’, looks at the appointment of Christopher Bidmead as script editor, touches on the Christopher Priest affair (which I’ve heard from the other side) and then looks at the early career of Steve Gallagher as a radio script writer.

The second chapter, ‘The Dream Time’, looks at the origin and early versions of Gallagher’s scripts, shaped also by the Christopher Priest affair, and its roots in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and the TV mini-series Roots. It also turns out that Gallagher’s original scripts were funnier.

The second paragraph of the third chapter, ‘Aldo and Waldo’, with the quotation that it introduces, is:

Well known for his documentaries on filmmakers, actors and artists made by his company Lucida Productions, Joyce’s wider career spanned theatre, film, television drama, documentary, photography, painting and writing. In 1965, after two terms at The London School of Film Technique, he had used his final grant cheque to fund his first film The Goad, an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s short mime play Act Without Words II, which he’d seen during an experimental programme of five short plays, Expeditions One, at the Aldwych Theatre in July 1964. He saw the play as a meditation on the relentless rituals of modern life, the empty passage of time ‘from birth to death presented in the simplest of terms. (Two sacks, each containing first, a dozy human, and secondly, a spruce, athletic one, are prodded progressively across the stage by a sharp metal object on wheels, “The Goad”).’2 Perhaps he saw that sense of relentlessness when he encountered the world of Rorvik and his crew in Warriors’ Gate. He also fastened onto one of Beckett’s recurring themes: rubbish. ‘Beckett’s identification of miscellaneous rubbish with the world, minds and bodies of his characters indicates its importance in his writing,’ and itwas a signifier of mortality and the modern world in many of his novels, theatre and radio plays. The tramps in his breakthrough play Waiting for Godot (1953) also inhabit a world of ‘hand-me downs, cast-offs and detritus’ where ritual and habit are bound up with change brought about by uncertainty3. Again, the rundown privateer is a tangible evocation of Beckett. Joyce’s work continued to incorporate elements of the absurd and surreal, a sensibility that he would detect in Gallagher’s scripts for Warriors’ Gate. This could perhaps be traced back to a formative moment in his childhood, when he saw a black-and-white film that was:
‘…a bit like that Laurel and Hardy one where they have difficulty getting a piano up the stairs […] only it was the delivery of a stereo or a radiogram, of enormous proportions, which was taken upstairs and delivered to a bachelor in his apartment. It was what he’d always been wanting, he plugs it in, twiddles around with it, listens to the music. Magnificent. Then he thinks it’s time for a bite and he goes to switch it off. Switches it off and the music continues. Hits the thing. And the fucking thing won’t stop. In the end, he smashes it to a pulp. How about that for a surreal situation? That gave me film and a Beckett kind of situation.’4
2 Joyce, ‘Guinness with Godot’, unpublished essay emailed to author, 20 April 2018.
3 Bates, Julie, Beckett’s Art of Salvage: Writing and Material Imagination, 1932-1987, pp6-9.
4 Joyce, interview with author. Our efforts to identify this film have been unsuccessful.

The third chapter looks at the career of director Paul Joyce, his work with the plays of Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett, and his first TV drama, Keep Smiling. It then goes in detail into the changes made by Bidmead and Joyce to Gallagher’s scripts, and explains how we have ended up with two very different novelisations – John Nathan-Turner having forced Gallagher to rewrite the original version (now the audiobook) to be closer to the story as broadcast for publication in 1982.

The fourth chapter, ‘Fade to Grey’, goes into as much detail as is possible given the fading of memories and lack of records about the difficulties faced by Joyce in directing the story. This was his first (and as it turned out only) multi-episode TV assignment (indeed most of his subsequent IMDB credits are documentaries). It’s clear that he was unprepared for the demanding time scales required of Doctor Who story production; it’s less clear to what extent others had to step in to help him out; it’s very clear that John Nathan-Turner never wanted to see him again.

The fifth chapter, ‘Cinematic and Videographic’, looks at the extent to which Joyce brought film productions values to Warriors’ Gate, including the costuming as well as the cinematography, and the extent to which it fitted within the New Romantic Zeitgeist.

The sixth chapter, ‘Going Against the Grain’, looks at the impact of the films Last Year in Marienbad, Dark Star, Orphée and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cinematography of Warriors’ Gate. An interesting quote from Clifford Rose indicates that he saw Rorvik as much closer to Dad’s Army‘s Captain Mainwaring (Secret Army is not mentioned).

The seventh chapter, ‘The Impeccable Realism of Unreality’, looks more deeply at the two Cocteau films, La Belle et la Bête and Orphée, and at their impact on the plot concepts in Warriors’ Gate. (It is also noted that La Belle et la Bête experienced similar production difficulties in post-war France.)

The eighth chapter, ‘The Individual Confronted by the Desolate Universe’, looks briefly at the design of the story by David H. Smith, especially the eponymous Gate, and what it symbolises and is derived from.

A brief conclusion reflects again on the question of authorship, and applies it to New Who, especially Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver.

As I said, this is one of the longer, richer books in the Black Archive series, and will certainly help those of us who are still trying to get our heads around Warriors’ gate, forty-two years after it was first broadcast. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)