The Tharils’ extensive facial hair makes them
It’s January 3rd, 1981. St. Winifred’s School Choir is at number one with “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma,” which is unfortunate. One week later John Lennon takes number one with the posthumous rerelease of “Imagine,” one of three number one hits he had that week along with “Happy XMas/War is Over,” “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and, later on, “Woman.” ABBA, The Police, Adam & The Ants, Queen, and Phil Collins also chart.
In real news, the Salvadoran Civil War starts to get ugly as the FMLN launches a major offensive against the US-backed military government, which, over 1980, murdered nearly 12,000 people, upping it to 16,000 unarmed civilians in 1981. Ulster Defence Association gunmen shoot and wound former MP Bernadette Devlin McAliske. The first DeLorean is made in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, of interest to fans of lesser time travel narratives, and in one of the great “fuck yous” of international politics Iran releases its American hostages minutes after Ronald Reagan is inaugurated to replace Jimmy Carter.
While on television there is a castle with a ruined feast hanging in an empty void on the edge of the universe. Mechanized suits of armor stalk the halls as noble lion men fight to regain their freedom. While the noblest Roman strikes off on her own, finally ridding herself of her own chains, forged less out of dwarf star alloy than out of red and burgundy wool.
Warrior’s Gate is a strange beast. A story structured with overt poetry, where thematic associations link the very fabric of the world together as much as scientific reason. In this regard it is the biggest test case of the Bidmead approach – a poetic setting extrapolated from science. On one level is the frame that has been holding the last three stories together – the so-called “E-Space Trilogy.” In truth these trilogy linkings are less useful than we might hope. The thematic “reworking past eras” trilogy of Meglos, The Leisure Hive, and State of Decay and the three science fairy tales at the end of the season are far tighter trilogies than three stories into which the idea of a miniature external universe with negative coordinates was shoehorned in.
The idea of E-Space is simple enough. The CVE is essentially a wormhole, E-Space as basic a parallel universe as they come. But here finally we have the idea explored as more than a mere plot hook (although there is something to be contemplated in the idea that Alzarius is actively the inversion of Gallifrey). If E-Space is to be understood as negative space and the normal N-Space as positive then what of the zero point between the universes? What would that be like?
But from this start exploring the more or less scientific concept the story opens up onto a more eccentric vista. I used the word poetic, but there’s an obvious oddity to this term when applied to television. Typically when we use the word “poetic” we really mean “lyrical,” that is, essentially working according to a non-narrative structure. Lyric poetry, contrasted with the narrative form of epic poetry, is a poetry based on the expression of emotions. But film and television are almost entirely narrative media. A tradition of experimental film existed by 1981, but it was still obscure and, well, experimental. It’s not something you can just spring on BBC1 in a family slot and expect people to catch on.
Or, at least, you wouldn’t be able to were it not for the fact that the music video was increasingly in ascendence. In the US MTV would launch in eight months, but of course, the idea of MTV is only possible when its underlying concept is familiar. In the UK the concept existed within Top of the Pops, a program that requires explanation and description in a couple of ways. First of all, its nature. That’s simple enough. It showed quasi-live performances – a combination of live performance and backing tracks – of popular music.
Second, its purpose. The BBC, being a public broadcaster, could not out and out get involved in tastemaking. This posed a problem for any effort it might want to make to document rock music and youth culture. Its solution was thus necessarily to be documentarian about it. Top of the Pops would feature whatever was popular. Any single ascending the charts was eligible, and no week-to-week repetitions were allowed unless the song was the number one. By design and mandate it wasn’t allowed to flinch or avoid things unless they were blatantly inappropriate. As a result counterculture got free reign on Top of the Pops – even the Sex Pistols made a 1977 appearance.
Third, however, is more subtle. Top of the Pops was an artifact of the television theater approach that characterized the BBC. Top of the Pops performances were full of visual trickery and effects, which is why the glam era of Doctor Who was associated with glam in the first place. But they were still basically live performances – whatever video tricks and pop art touches were added, the basics of a Top of the Pops video was still the idea of the band on a stage playing instruments.
But in the late 1970s Top of the Pops began allowing limited numbers of pre-recorded music videos. This is another symptom of the larger shift in the nature of television away from the BBC’s theatrical model and towards a different model. Increasingly the video clip became recognized as an existent item. This has been manifesting across the board – in the increasing realization that junking the BBC archives was a mistake, in the shift towards a more heavily edited style for Doctor Who, and in how music is performed.
What this allowed is best captured in the music video for “Ashes to Ashes.” Abandoning the notion of the performance for a series of solarized, deformed video clips nested one within another, Bowie’s persona flickers from form to form, the mercurial performativity that had defined his career at once literalized in video and captured in a song that cannibalizes his own past, it marks a point where the language of video and editing could be wedded to the lyrical structure of music as opposed to a narrative structure.
Warriors Gate ports that visual language back into the realm of the narrative. The space between two universes manifests as a music video, television in a featureless void becomes television in its lyrical mode. The result is the most cinematic Doctor Who has ever been. The lengthy tracking shots through the spaceship border further on Alien – indeed, the homage seems almost deliberate this time. An unmistakably grimy, working class spaceship defined as a whole space instead of just as a set. But the narrative itself is simply the play of symbols. The action of the Doctor righting the cup in a ruined feast and the later action of him angrily knocking one over are as important to the plot development as any sleuthing about or cleverness he engages in.
Here, then, we circle around the heart of the Bidmead approach. And around an issue that’s been lurking around since what may in fact be my most controversial post, the one on The Masque of Mandragora. There I suggested that even that story, more overtly about the triumph of science over superstition than any other in the series, cannot quite be taken as nailing the case. On fundamental levels the entire grammar of narrative undercuts the argument.
With Bidmead we have a second test case. Someone who is as adamant about grounding Doctor Who in rationalism and rejecting superstition and magic as anyone has ever been. And yet here we have a story where everything is governed according to a logic of symbol. A story where the world in every way runs according to the logic of magic. On the most basic level this seems as though it must call Bidmead’s sincerity when he talks about removing magic from the show into question.
Two points, then. First of all, if we take Bidmead’s task as the rejection of magic-based narrative structures his job was impossible from the start. Narrative is always magic. On a basic level, Aristotelean structures mean that in a story everything is significant, either pointing forward to set up the inevitability of later events or to explain the significance of either ones. Narrative is conspiratorial – always and necessarily so. There is always a teleology to narrative. There is always a god. Even on the most basic and literal sense, narrative makes sense as narrative because we assume an authorial consciousness controlling its contents. There is no such thing as atheistic fiction, because all fictional universes, in point of material, real fact, have a god. This is the real reason why even Masque of Mandragora can’t throw off superstition. Because at the end of the day all even a false prophet like Heironymous is giving the audience information through his prophecies. They are not mere contentless babble but communicative, revealing statements. Magic is always real in fiction.
Second, and perhaps more significantly for our purposes here, Bidmead is a very intelligent man who is unlikely to have been unaware of this. He’s not sodding John Byrne or anything. If anything, the fact that he made stories like Warrior’s Gate suggest very strongly that he knew what he was doing. He understood instinctively that narrative is an overtly magical medium. As I’ve said before, his goal was always to wed those magical tendencies to a scientific model.
In a way this is just a restatement of Clarke’s Law. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Thus by pushing science past the point of understanding Bidmead is able to generate magic-like effects out of science. The point, from this perspective, is simply that it’s not really magic – it’s just fancy science. This is, if you will, the last stand of the purely rationalist defense. The last way you can draw the line and try to hold Bidmead and Doctor Who as some sort of arch-rationalist project. And up to this point it worked. You could, if you wanted to be adamant enough, insist that this was what Bidmead was doing. Less so that it’s what Doctor Who as a whole was doing, but even that’s down to some very old story elements.
Actually, it’s bleakly fitting. There’s an event we missed talking about in Shada. A news story that would have happened during when that story aired. The man with the best claim to having created Doctor Who, David Whitaker, died on the 4th of February, 1980. And it is Whitaker, in the end, who most troubles the idea that Doctor Who is a rationalist show. His stories are drenched in alchemical symbolism, as we’ve noted many times before. If you want to argue that Doctor Who is a nearly 50-year-old quasi-sentient metafiction that has actively placed the spirit of Hermes Trismigistus into the heart of contemporary British culture – and I admit that I do – you face an uphill battle. Except for the fact that David Whitaker essentially created the show. Do I believe that David Whitaker actually consciously did this?
I don’t disbelieve it. Let us leave it at that.
Clarke’s Third Law. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Very well. Let us then offer… a corollary? An inverse? It has, of course, been stated before, obvious inversion that it is. But no sourced version can be located, it seems. Nobody actually knows who first inverted it. At least, out loud. In practice, for us, the name is obvious. We’ll call it Whitaker’s Law, even if he never codified it as much. No. That’s wrong. Not Whitaker’s Law. Whitaker’s Heresy.
Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science.
Whitaker’s Heresy haunts all of Doctor Who, lurking about in the shadows being unseemly and suggesting with a startling lack of decorum that the lady doth protest far, far too much. Oh, yes, all of these ancient gods are just aliens. Of course. Nothing to see here. Move along, lest Miss Hawthorne get a word in edgewise and point out that this is how magic has always worked anyway.
Oh, yes. Miss Hawthorne. If Whitaker is haunting the program literally as well as figuratively now, disappeared into eternity without so much as a thorough interviewing to finally nail down what it was he was doing, we mustn’t forget about the other overtly magical influence on the program, Mr. Barry Letts. The one we know was high on Dennis Wheatley at the least, whose debut on the series was directing Whitaker’s last solo script, who wrote The Daemons, and who got brought on to supervise for Nathan-Turner’s first year. We know he had his fingers in Warrior’s Gate, rewriting the I Ching sections a bit.
And then there’s Bidmead. The arch-rationalist. Or, if the heresy may be permitted, the truest spiritual successor to David Whitaker to date. Let us remember that Bidmead’s belief was that the show had strayed too far from its original mandate of teaching science to kids. But who was in charge for that original mandate? Whose view of the program was Bidmead actually returning to? Clarke’s Law and Whitaker’s Heresy are already, by their nature, indistinguishable. One can never quite tell which is in play. But by simultaneously embracing the development of a new visual grammar for television and a drive towards real science Bidmead conflated the two more completely than anyone on the series had to date. He is the ultimate Whitakerian heretic.
Warrior’s Gate hangs suspended between two universes, a mirror reflecting each back at itself sitting at the threshold. On one side a scientific concept, the play of “Charged Vacuum Emboitments” (and what an odd term, “emboitment.” Wherever might that come from, and what might its significance be? Ah well. Surely the concept won’t come up again, so let’s not worry about it), becomes the occasion for a set of symbols to interact. On the other the symbols and the interactions that stem necessarily from those concepts can be named and treated as a predictable system, at least from within the system. The two views are coextensive.
Here we start to see what the magic that Bidmead sought to eliminate was. It was specifically the use of magic as an excuse to not explain things – the sort of silly play whereby the Doctor survives things or accomplishes things simply because he is the Doctor. It is an assertion that the Doctor’s mercurial powers must function materially now – that he must not simply destabilize the world but work his way through it, using language and observation and play within the system to dismantle it. The Doctor’s magic must be advanced magic, indistinguishable from technology, based on the play within a system and rules and the ambiguities and gaps of that system.
The problem, then, is the Doctor. Baker remains magnificent in the part, but the series is, in this model, forced to fight against him continually. Not just in terms of his own preferences on the series, which were much more in line with what he got in the Graham Williams era than what he was getting now, nor in terms of his increasingly difficult behavior, but in the basic nature of his character. The Doctor that Bidmead wants are the Doctors that Whitaker wrote for – the small and seemingly harmless men who skulked and observed and learned to understand the system before making a single decisive move within it. Not the Doctors of the 70s – big, starring leading men who were the center of attention and whose charisma and likability drove the entire story.
In this regard, Bidmead’s approach works better with Romana. Lala Ward’s at once imperious and elfish presence is perfect, and she’s the best thing on offer here, once again stepping into the secondary Doctor role that has been increasingly carved out for her. She boggles and charms and throws people off-guard, not clowning but conniving. Her scene as she steps out of the TARDIS to deal with the slavers is pure Troughton.
But, of course, this is the problem. Romana steals the episode and then leaves. Ward, by all accounts, hated the emotionless nature of her departure, but frankly, she’s wrong. It’s a fantastic scene, and her delivery of the line “no more orders” makes it. It’s the Problem of Susan solved – the companion who finally grows from girl sidekick to an equal who stares down the Doctor and makes him blink. In this exchange Romana upends the entire structure and logic of the show, confidently stealing the starring role out from under the Doctor. But the result is that we want to follow her, not the Doctor. She should be the protagonist, and her adventures in E-Space sound a damn sight more exciting than Tom Baker wandering around with that whiny prat in the yellow pajamas.
Never mind becoming the Doctor’s equal. Lalla Ward has gone and bettered him.