Friday, January 22, 2010

The E-Space Trilogy: A Full Review

I've been meaning to review the E-Space Trilogy since last spring, painfully aware how hard it is to do justice to a symphony that approaches perfection, especially when there's so much to say about it I hardly know where to begin. The stories come at the tail end of Tom Baker's incarnation as the Fourth Doctor, during John Nathan-Turner's first season as producer, and Christopher Bidmead's only season as script-editor. That last is too bad, because Bidmead's intellectual drive took the show to new heights throughout season 18, and the E-Space Trilogy, sitting in the middle of it, was the pinnacle of this success. Its only real weakness is Adric, the universally despised TARDIS companion who couldn't walk, let alone talk, without looking stilted and phony.

The trilogy begins with the Doctor and Romana finding themselves trapped in the parallel world of E-Space ("Exo Space"), the universe of negative coordinates, and ends with them finding a way back home to N-Space ("Normal Space"). While in E-Space they visit two planets before getting trapped in a void that bridges the two universes. In each case they encounter groups who are enslaved in some way -- the enslavement gets exponentially worse in each story -- and a "lost" spaceship is somehow involved. The stories are so different in terms of setting and plot that the common theme of systematic oppression is almost invisible, but there's no denying a progression of stakes being raised, and it would seem almost deliberately inversely proportional to how long the ship in each case has been stranded.

The ship in Full Circle crashed about a million years ago, and its current caretakers are not the descendants of the original crew as they've been taught, but people who have evolved from the planet's marshmen. They carry out routine repairs on the ship, never making any progress, preparing for a day of departure which can never come. Their three leaders (the Deciders) aren't overtly oppressive, but keep them in ignorance to maintain the status quo. The ship in State of Decay has been mired for a thousand years, keeping generations of colonists trapped in a feudal state of serfdom, forbidden to read or learn, and treated as livestock by a trio of aristocratic vampires. These overlords reign from a tower that was the colonial spaceship, harvesting peasant blood for the return of a Great Vampire lying dormant beneath the earth. Once part of the original crew, they are now gifted with undead life to pave the way for the beast's dominion over the universe. The ship in Warriors' Gate, frozen in the void for less than a year, becomes the microcosm through which we see brutal power being wielded over another species, requiring the rescue operation of fate itself, manipulated in advance from an infinite set of possibilities.

The Doctor's role in each story, or the antidote to the enslavement, is completely different. In Full Circle he serves as a catalyst for change, mostly by yelling and heaping insults on the Deciders for keeping their subjects in ignorance. In State of Decay he's aggressively proactive, instigating a peasant revolution against the vampire overlords. And in Warriors' Gate he does literally nothing –- but "the right kind of nothing" -- at the behest of a Tharil who knows how things are destined to play out. It adds up to a structurally flawless symphony, but one which requires tremendous unpacking. Let's look at each story in detail.

Full Circle is known for its brilliant plot twists and surprising revelations. The script was penned by a gifted seventeen year old, Andrew Smith, chosen, like many writers of season 18, for showing remarkable initiative with fresh ideas. Most notably, and for the first time ever in Doctor Who, there are no villains in the story. The Deciders are middle-aged farts who want to maintain the status quo and keep their privileges, to be sure, but they also operate out of a genuine belief of what's best for the community, fearing truth will do more harm than good. In the end, they see the errors of their ways and assert a positive leadership. Full Circle is about the cyclic patterns of society and evolution, the ethics of questionable experiments, and willful ignorance. If that all sounds unusual for a Doctor Who story, be sure that it is, and in a good way.

Because there are no villains, tension is carried on hidden mysteries and heated arguments. The best scene comes in episode three as the Doctor stands in an arena before the Deciders, yelling at them contemptuously for needless prevarication, revealing (stunningly, to us as viewers) that the Starliner ship has been ready to take off for centuries, and that the daily maintenance people are forced to carry out is based on nothing more than the "fraud of perpetual movement, the endless tasks of going round and round, the same old components being removed and replaced, and the willful procrastination of endless routine". But just as we're cheering him on -- Tom Baker hasn't gotten in a thundering indictment like this for a few seasons now -- we get the rug jerked out from under us by the Deciders' counter revelation that while the ship is indeed ready for takeoff, they don't know how to fly it, which completely deflates the Doctor's contempt for these poor men. The double revelation is wonderfully executed and one of the finest segments of dialogue ever written for the show.

The full truth of events cascades in the last episode: the Starliner crashed not forty generations ago, as everyone believes, but forty thousand generations ago; its original human inhabitants died right away, and the people don't descend from them as the Deciders have taught. They come, as the Doctor declares stunningly, from the planet's marshmen through an accelerated course of evolution.

The marshmen are more -- or perhaps less -- than the typical monsters we're used to seeing in Doctor Who. They're dangerous and kill plenty of the Starliner's people, but as their ancestors pose interesting questions and force us to view them as adaptive animals more than actual monsters. Dexeter's lab work on the marshchild in episode three is particularly upsetting. After its early playful reaction to the Doctor and developing trust, the child is now cruelly subjected to experiments under supervision of the Deciders. Traumatized, it manages to lash out and kill Dexeter, and then tragically dies itself when reaching out to the one individual (the Doctor) who was nice to it.

Special mention must be made of Login, the Decider who behaves more decently than the others, going especially out of his way to protect his renegade daughter in spite of what The Procedure dictates. In effect he's the internal critic of the trio he's only recently become part of, learning quickly that "deciding" is exactly what this group does not do. At the very end, when the Doctor shows the Deciders how to fly the Starliner, it's no surprise that Login is the one to reach for the launch button, while Garif stalls him on grounds that such a decision "requires some thought". We don't get to see who ultimately makes the decision when the Starliner takes off on the TARDIS scanner, but it's safe to assume that it's Login, who will presumably take the strongest role in leading people to a new life.

The twin perils of purposelessness and ignorance can be said to form a base level of enslavement which keeps people "running in circles", as it were, with liberation effected by a final willingness to accept cold truths. It's funny that evolution wasn't a particularly hot issue in 1980; the Intelligent Design madness gained momentum in the 90s and exploded in alarming ways just this past decade. Full Circle has even more to say today than to its original viewers, not only about the bond we share with lower forms of life, but the politics of not wanting to evolve as a species or society. It retains freshness and proves that villains are superfluous when people do a fine enough job being their own worst enemy, and in more ways than one. As a self-contained story it stands on its own splendidly. As the first beat in a trilogy, it foreshadows deeper threats relating to enslavement. Rating: 5 jelly babies.

Now for State of Decay. As a rule I go into vampire stories with low expectations. Vampires are my favorite of the undead, and so I'm all the more furious that they're rarely allowed to be frightening. The aristocratic version based on Dracula has been way overused, and the bubblegum pop-model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is a joke. I prefer the barbarically savage breed that go for the jugular with little fanfare (Near Dark, From Dusk Till Dawn, 30 Days of Night). That being said, State of Decay uses the aristocratic model to astonishingly good effect, in a truly horrifying story that harks back to the terrors of seasons 12-14. It allows us to relive Hinchcliffe's Gothic Age in the middle of the otherwise science-based season 18 -- and let's face it, vampires were long overdue in Doctor Who by this point.

The atmosphere of State of Decay is appropriately grim and depressing, with peasant villagers randomly selected by The Three Who Rule for a hideous purpose. The lucky ones get to join the tower guard, while most either become dinner for the lords or get stored in special bays which drain their blood for the Great Vampire. The Great Vampire itself -- mercifully glimpsed for only moments at the end; unlike everything else in this story, it looks rather silly -- is an ancient evil threatening on the same level as Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars, inspiring legends on countless planets, and whose goal is nothing less than the conquest of the multiverse (N-Space as much as E-Space). The overlords of the tower have been preparing for his imminent Arising, and it's the dominating presence of these three fiends that makes the story a smashing success.

What makes the aristocratic vamps work so well are that (a) they actually look menacing (the costume designs and colors are perfect), (b) their performances never go over the top, and (c) their characters are fleshed out by tensions within the group (King Zargo and Queen Camilla resent the cleric Aukon who has more powers than they do, able to summon hordes of bats at will and commune directly with the Great Vampire). But it's the morbid way all of this is funneled into a Doctor Who story that makes State of Decay, in my opinion, one of the best vampire stories ever. As the Doctor and Romana discover the true nature of the tower, they see that some of its functionality as a spaceship has been put to disturbingly efficient use -- most notably the fuel tanks are full, but of blood, which is channeled beneath the earth to the Great Vampire. The scene where the Time Lords discover the bays with drained bodies and the blood tanks is unsettling in the extreme, and it paralyzes me when Aukon catches them snooping and assaults them with his hypnotic powers.

The peasant rebellion against The Three Who Rule, instigated by the Doctor, isn't like anything seen before on the show, except in The Sun Makers when the Doctor started a riot against a government for taxing people to death. That was an exceptional course of action for him; the Time Lord usually remains aloof from politics and certainly isn't in the habit of toppling ruling systems. The obvious rejoinder is that in State of Decay the fate of the multiverse is at stake (these are vampires with apocalyptic ambitions, not just local tyrants), and to an obvious extent that's true, but it's not quite the whole story. There's enough weight attached to how literacy and scientific knowledge have been criminalized by The Three Who Rule, that one senses politics being grounded here as much as in Full Circle.

If we look at this helpful graph which chronicles Doctor Who's revolutionary character, there's a curious spike at the tail end of 1980 and the year 1981 when the E-Space Trilogy aired. With the Winter of Discontent just over, the Thatcher government in place for over a year, and countries like Zimbabwe throwing off the yoke of British colonials, the scriptwriters may have felt the time was ripe for a more politically active Doctor. I confess that until recent years I've never thought of the E-Space Trilogy as political, and it's a sign of grade-A storytelling when political issues can be made to seem invisible by subordinating them to themes of biological evolution (Full Circle), gothic horror (State of Decay), or deterministic fate (Warriors' Gate) so things don't get preachy.

There's an anecdote to this story worth spotting. The off-and-on relationship (and impending marriage) between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward can be clocked to precision in this story, and has become something of an obsession among Who fans. Notice that the Doctor never looks Romana in the eye during the first two episodes (at which point the two actors were barely speaking to each other), but shares a tender moment with her in episode three (having patched up their quarrels in the real world). It's memorably beautiful: when she explains that his type 40 TARDIS contains the Record of Rassilon's special documentation of vampires, he slowly turns to her, smiles, and says softy, "You're wonderful." The marriage bells were ringing.

State of Decay has aged as well as The Three Who Rule. No dangers of this baby turning to dust for at least another millennium. Rating: 5 jelly babies.

Warriors' Gate is the most original story of the Tom Baker period, and possibly the most original story of the entire classic era running from Hartnell to McCoy. Like The Deadly Assassin it had a controversial reputation when it first aired for breaking too radically with formula, and also for not making sense, but has since undergone a serious reassessment to be considered a near flawless classic. For me it's one of the five crown jewels of Tom Baker's 42-story career (the others being The Talons of Weng Chiang, Pyramids of Mars, Genesis of the Daleks, and The Deadly Assassin), and a litmus test to gauge one's enthusiasm for what classic Doctor Who had to offer at its finest moments. Those who don't like this story are invariably the same ones who fawn over the lamest stories penned by Russell T. Davies in the new era.

For reasons that escape me, some continue to insist that Warriors' Gate makes no sense. So let's summarize the story clearly. A time-traveling mercenary ship has been stranded for months in the void between E- and N-Space by a Tharil (Biroc), who is determined to free his race from slavery (Tharils are a leonine species who serve humans by navigating ships through time, and their plight is absolutely horrible; I'd rather be turned into a vampire than strapped for life in a navigating chair). When the TARDIS happens by, Biroc summons it to the same point, able to sense the deterministic events that will follow from involving Time Lords. Biroc then escapes the ship toward a mysterious gateway which for his species of time-sensitives opens onto another universe (for other species it reflects the same banquet hall in different timelines). The Doctor follows Biroc, wanting to understand the plight of the Tharils more clearly. Meanwhile, the heavy dwarf star alloy used in the hull of the ship to hold the Tharils captive is causing the pocket universe of the void to collapse in on itself, intensifying the crew's efforts to escape the void and the Doctor's efforts to rescue the enslaved Tharils. But it is Biroc who single-handedly effects the rescue of his people from the ship; the Doctor is for once powerless to save the day, and does nothing, contrasted with the zealous ship captain Rorvik, who in the end screams, "I am finally getting something done!", as he uses the back blast of his ship to try escaping through the gateway -- annihilating his ship and crew instead. As the Doctor returns to N-Space, Romana bids him farewell, deciding to stay with the Tharils and (as a Time Lord) help liberate their species across the universe -- which was the ultimate point of Biroc's choosing her and the Doctor to begin with.

There is some question about Biroc's wisdom of "doing nothing". Appreciating the effectiveness of the wisdom depends on understanding the nature of the Tharils and the void. The void is a neutral ground where all future alternative possibilities are in a state of rest, and an interchange where time-sensitives (like the Tharils) can travel to -- or see into -- any place and time. Biroc brought the ship and the TARDIS to the void, able to sense events that would unfold from this combination. The Doctor and Romana needn't do anything (at least not directly) to help the Tharils because events are playing out according to Biroc's selected initial conditions. The shrinking of the void, moreover, reduces the permutations of outcomes, making the Tharils' liberation (and the mercenary crew's destruction) increasingly inevitable.

Amusingly, some fans have tried salvaging a proactive purpose for the Doctor in the famous banquet scene behind the mirrors, where he finds himself in a past timeline when the Tharils were kings and contemptuously enslaved humans. (The Tharils once ruled a vast empire until their slaves revolted by using the axe-wielding Gundan robots to hunt them down.) It does look like the Doctor is finally putting something to right as he yells at the Tharils for beating their servants: "This is no way to run an empire!" The problem is that Biroc isn't only his past self but his present self simultaneously (since he obviously knows the Doctor), and when he responds that "The weak enslave themselves, Doctor," he is speaking from the past (contemptuously against humankind) and also from the present (against his own race, whose weak character inevitably led to their current enslavement at the hands of the species they oppressed). Biroc is already repentant of the Tharils' crimes against humanity and remains undeterred from the point he first chose in bringing the ship and TARDIS to the void. He is educating the Doctor -- not vice versa -- which, of course, is why he brought the Doctor through the mirrors to begin with.

Speaking of the banquet, episode three's cliffhanger can't go unmentioned -- I practically have an orgasm whenever I watch it. It's best simply described: The Gundan robots burst into the hall with axes raised, and the Tharils scatter while the Doctor remains seated; an axe thuds into the table right in front of him; time shifts with an immense rushing sound, and he finds himself back in the present surrounded by Rorvick's hostile crew: "Well Doctor, this is a surprise!" Sting. This scene has taken on legendary status in the Who canon, and is definitely one of the top-10 cliffhangers of the classic era.

There's something else about Warriors' Gate that struck me in the middle of writing this review. Completely unintentionally no doubt, it's way ahead of its time in portraying an oppressed group of "savages" affecting their own liberation without the leadership of an outside hero. By today's standards, films like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar have come to acquire a racist air for implying ad nauseum that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives, and fueling western guilt fantasies about giving up one's whiteness without losing white privilege over "noble savages". When Frank Herbert did it with Dune it was fine, but it's high time to allow other races the wherewithal to save themselves. Warriors' Gate did exactly that, and in the year 1981. This is certainly not to imply that if the script had been written with Doctor Who saving the Tharils it would have made it in any way racist; Doctor Who is a Time Lord hero who is supposed to save the day, for anyone and everyone. It's simply a further testimony to unprecedented innovation on the part of scriptwriters during the amazing season 18.

Warriors' Gate is a priceless gem that gets even better with more viewings, and a perfect conclusion to a triumphant trilogy. Rating: 5+ jelly babies.


Anonymous mikeduncan said...

I agree completely. Those three episodes only seems to get better, and they feel like they're almost from another, better, alternate-universe Who.


Post a Comment

<< Home