Warriors’ Gate is a real ‘Love it or hate it’ Doctor Who story. It has fans, absolutely, who rave about the concepts of the void, the mirrors between universes, the time winds. It has fans who point out the serious issues it tackles in terms of slavery, torture, and the wheel of fortune, with kings and conquerors becoming powerless against creatures fundamentally lesser than themselves, and their struggle for freedom against men who despise them and other who back them out of of venal greed and lazy self-interest. It has fans even who applaud the magnificent boldness of choice of setting a story in an environment of almost pure nothing.
Then there’s me.
Me, fan, notsomuch.
For me, Warriors’ Gate represents to me a storytelling low point in Doctor Who’s Season Eighteen. In among stories as visually fresh as The Leisure Hive, as mad as Meglos, as elegant as The Keeper of Traken and as positively mythological as Full Circle, it seems to simply sit there, stranded in a boring void, doing not very much with ideas that seem to promise a lot, flipping a coin at every storytelling juncture – and almost always making the wrong choice, never delivering on that promise.
The Target audiobook novelisation by the original author has been, we’re advised on the cover, extended and ‘restored’ by the author. Restored, we assume, from the relative bastardisation it received at the hands of Christopher Hamilton Bidmead’s script-editorship, which rendered the version everybody knows and… well, at least knows, from TV. If that sounds like I’m being mean to Bidmead, check out the extras on the Blu-Ray of Season Eighteen, where he more or less admits to tearing through most of the scripts from that season.
Let’s say this immediately – the Target audiobook novelisation is significantly better than the TV version, but not for the reasons you might expect. What really makes Warriors’ Gate on TV such an uninspiring watch is that none of the world from which the slavers and the Tharils have come really makes it to the screen. The whole thing is isolated in the void, dealing only with the Tharils’ ancient history as kings, rather than their more immediate history as slaves, so we’re never really given the context of their lives and the lives of the slavers, beyond the fairly obvious ‘Boo – slavery bad!’
But this is the extended and restored version. Surely now we can get the backstory, the depth, the characterisation we’ve always craved, to put the events of Warriors’ Gate into a context that makes us feel for the slaughtered, enslaved Tharils on a deeper level, and reveals Warriors’ Gate to be the lost classic that Season Eighteen didn’t have the time or the budget to deliver.
No, with the exception of a relatively inconsequential moment in the prologue, the novelisation delivers all the flaws of the TV version pretty much verbatim, if anything stripping out the characterisation achieved by some quality actors on screen and making the slavers a rent-a-crew of insignificants who seem entirely bored to be there and appear to follow their captain’s orders more readily once it’s clear he’s gone – for reasons never particularly explored or explained – totally tonto than they do at any point up until his full throttle Thelma and Louise act over the cliff-edge of sanity.
So essentially, a version of Warriors’ Gate that comes in at over five hours retains both the feeling of being underwritten in terms of back story, and underpowered in dwelling on the boring minutiae of some aspects of crew life on a slaving spaceship. Nothing is really done to expand on the pre-void life of the Tharils, no additional scope is given to their slavery by anyone remembering other slave-ships. And the whole of the actual threat in Warriors’ Gate is still driven by a captain going suddenly, seemingly inexplicably and suicidally mad, giving the whole thing a sense of ‘Hurry up, wait and explode in the middle of literally nowhere.’
None of the characters are particularly deep or interesting – as mentioned, there’s good work by good actors on screen, giving at least some of the crew the sense of individual personalities, and Jon Culshaw, reading this audiobook version, gives an almost uncanny smorgasbord of impersonations of those actors, but if anything, the writing itself gives them less personality than the on-screen version, meaning if you cared originally – which you should, this being a story of monstrous cruelty and enslavement – the chances are you won’t by the time this audiobook is finished. So – ‘Hurry up, wait and explode in the middle of literally nowhere, with people you’d want to kick to death in a bus queue.’
One thing’s distinctly better though – the hurried departure of Romana and K9. It’s not by any means much better, but Romana is at least given some moments across the course of the story when we get to hear her thoughts and ponderings on Gallifrey, on her tendency to be a follower rather than a leader or an individual, and at the end, we get the Doctor’s bewilderment, his reading of her being that she’s always criticised him, always scolded him for his lack of purposeful travel. It makes for a much more believable and poignant ending of their time together than the thoroughly Tom Baker but quite cringy ‘Noblest Romana of them all’ line in the televised version, and that at least is something for which to be grateful to this audiobook version.
Overall, while Culshaw is universally excellent, five hours of Warriors’ Gate on audiobook delivers all the issues of the TV version, and uses its double run-time to deliver a couple of extra flaws of crew characterisation, then redeems itself somewhat by the rewriting of the Romana ending. The audiobook version is lifted somewhat both by Culshaw’s uncanny Fourth Doctor and – let’s face it – the fact that his Doctor and Romana aren’t suffering from furious rows off-screen, which Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were when they filmed the story. Culshaw also brings his startling impressionist abilities to the table to replicate the vocal tones of the actors who played the slavers and the Tharils, and makes a heroic and valiant attempt to give the storytelling some pace – an effort against which the extended and restored version of the story kicks at every possible turn. Tony Fyler