“The universe is our garden.” – Biroc
A fascinating story that I didn’t understand at all as a child. In fact, it took several viewings as an adult for the story to come together and make sense for me. It’s very mature thematically from the beginning as we see creatures lying stacked and shackled in a way clearly suggestive of a slave ship. The petty work jealousies and conflicting personality types of the ship also ring truer for an older viewer. They speak volumes about how things will fall apart before the story proper even begins.
While the plot elements of an alternative universe and time-sensitive aliens drive the story, it’s the use of art and imagery that make the episode stand out—particularly the decision to use still black-and-white garden photos as a backdrop for the alternate gateway world. The spooky medieval setting of the hall, the design of the imposing stone gate in the literal middle of nowhere, the use of imagery and themes from Jean Cocteau, even the warping effects—all this makes it one of the most artfully designed stories for some time on the show.
The core of the story involves understanding what the Tharils are—where they’ve come from and what they are heading towards—but it’s interesting that we only get a picture of this in pieces. The amazement of Romana and the Doctor at a creature able to move in and out of phase is an interesting start. A definitive and quite evocative moment comes when the Doctor is seemingly taken back in time to a moment at the height of the Tharil empire, a time when their arrogant mastery over their corner of the universe comes crashing down in a revolt by their slaves. That it’s so unclear whether the Doctor is or isn’t really there in the middle of events (and how Romana’s perspective keeps shifting) is brilliantly conceived. Even then, the bigger picture doesn’t come through until the very end when Romana finds her purpose.
I love Romana’s confident command in her first encounter with the ship captain and crew. Her arch knowing tone and odd delivery obviously grates on them as intended. The scene of her rescue by the Tharil–suddenly stepping through the void to the gate and beyond—is brilliantly handled because she shows no wonder or confusion. They are perfectly in sync and it almost comes across as romantic, especially as she stops to admire his face magically healed from disfigurement. It’s a natural progression within the story as her kidnapping as a ‘time-sensitive’ is equated with the plight of the slave Tharils. Her empathy for them culminates in her taking on their struggle for freedom. I’m sad to see her go but it’s a good, purposeful send-off.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The already forecast but nonetheless startling arrival of the Gundun robots at the feast is quite a striking and yet mysterious scene. As I already noted, the shifting and unclear perspective is pleasantly unsettling. Also the casual treatment of the Tharil slaves by the traders as a disposable commodity is quite disturbing.
This is not the first white void at the cross of two universes that the TARDIS has stumbled upon. One now must wonder if the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe perhaps passed through this very gateway long ago when they transitioned to the Land of Fiction.
I am not sure whether I would have wanted this story to be more clearly presented so I could have been able to understand it better as a child or not. It may have lost something if so. I do however hate the glaring continuity error where they film K-9 with his ear missing when he had already clearly gotten in back earlier in the story.