I think I pulled the wrong lever.
By the time “Full Circle” (Story Production Code 5R) first aired in late 1980, Doctor Who had been on the air for nearly seventeen years, enough time for a generation that grew up with the show to start participating in its creation. First time writer Andrew Smith (scarcely 18 at the time) and Matthew Waterhouse (nearly 19), as new companion Adric, both fit into this category, bringing an infusion of youthful, fannish vigor that dovetails with producer John Nathan Turner’s frenetic new vision for the series. The resulting four episode tale, however, with its copious technobabble, extended scenes in a laboratory, establishment of a multi-story plot line, and overall lack of an “actual” villain, feels more like an early Third Doctor tale than a late Fourth Doctor tale—and that’s not a bad thing.
The Doctor has always been a scientist at heart; for all the complaints about the Sonic Screwdriver and K-9 serving as easy plot devices to get our heroes out of any quandary, his inexhaustible store of technical and scientific knowledge saves the day far more often than the random contents of his pockets. Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor leans into this aspect of the Doctor more than any other, so to have Tom Baker’s action-focused Fourth Doctor resolve a story’s basic conundrum by peering into a microscope rather than reversing a generator’s polarity or tricking a callow warlord into blowing up his own base provides a very refreshing callback, reflective, possibly, of Andrew Smith’s own experience of the Third Doctor’s exploits. At the very least, it’s reasonable to assume that he had seen far more Doctor Who than almost any other writer for the series.
“Full Circle” fits firmly that sub-genre of Doctor Who stories where the “monster” is just misunderstood, where blind obedience to an unthinking system serves as the real foe, and, crucially, where the resolution of the problem on offer is to realize it’s not actually a problem to be solved at all. Such stories require a deft hand at world-building and a nuanced approach to the various factions working at cross purposes, traits not often associated with John Nathan-Turner era stories, and the final product features far more running around corridors and incessant action sequences of stunt-men in latex suits flailing away with sticks than, say, “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” “The Ark,” or “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” all of which inform “Full Circle,” even if at something of a remove. The core concept is there, though, of the Doctor seeing through surface level appearances, coming to understand the multi-generational cycle at work, and realizing the possible extents of co-existence; the best, and sometimes only, solution is to leave well enough alone, or failing that, to just leave.
The Doctor and Romana are themselves stuck, unable to leave E-Space, a problem that will persist for several stories running and form a loose through-line. The TARDIS arrives, confusingly, on the planet Alzarius instead of Gallifrey after encountering some space-time turbulence. The coordinates are correct for the Time Lords’ home planet—10-0-11-0-0 by 0-2—but they are negative coordinates instead of positive coordinates, an impossibility that can only be explained by the TARDIS having passed through a “charged vacuum emboitement” that pushed it into an Exo Space-Time Continuum. So instead of returning Romana to Gallifrey, whence she was summoned at the end of “Meglos,” they find themselves in a completely different universe, right at the pivotal point where a precocious maths student is about to purloin precious river fruit…
As with much of Season Eighteen so far, the Doctor and Romana find themselves sidelined for the better part of the first episode in order to develop the story’s setting, here the seeming paradox of a simple agrarian people living in the shadow of the Starliner, which they have labored to repair for generations in order to secure the Embarkation. Such conceits are not uncommon on Doctor Who; “Underworld” and “The Face of Evil” in the Fourth Doctor’s run alone feature civilizations that have developed from the degeneration of once highly technical societies. A caste structure has arisen, with three Deciders at any one time having control of the accumulated knowledge of the colony ship and its history since crashing on Alzarius on their way to a new planet from Terradon. Only the First Decider, however, has full access to the System Files, which hold the real truth about the ship and its people.
To Andrew Smith’s credit—and, indeed, to story editor Christopher H. Bidmead and first time director Peter Grimwade’s credit as well—that secret remains a taut source of drama and interest throughout the story; its revelation serves as the story’s climax as surely as any grand explosion or outlandish fight scene. And somehow it all comes back to those succulent river fruits, which, every fifty years or so begin to house insect eggs. As foretold in the System Files, when the fruits begin to bear eggs, Mistfall will soon begin, signaling the reappearance of the marsh men.
Rising from the swampy water on cue at the end of the first episode, like all good Doctor Who monsters, the marsh men appear to the Doctor as just born beings finding their way, while to the Terradonians, who have sealed themselves into the Starliner to avoid the “toxic” mist, they are savage beasts to be feared. There’s no period of the Doctor needing to realize the threat, or lack thereof, in the marsh men; from the start, he realizes they are confused, uncertain, but quickly adapting to their environment.
The Doctor is alerted to the marsh men by Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), a young “elite” with a penchant for mathematics who wants to join his brother as an “Outler,” a gang which rejects the status quo of the Deciders and the myths of the System Files. To prove his worth to the Outlers, he attempts to steal river fruit from the communal supply but is caught by First Decider Draith (Leonard Maguire), who is promptly dragged beneath the waters by a marsh man. Fleeing in panic, Adric chances upon the TARDIS and bangs on the door, where he tells the Doctor and Romana his story and has a wound bandaged that heals almost instantaneously.
After some narrative complications, the Doctor makes his way into the sealed Starliner (via Sonic Screwdriver). The marsh men, meanwhile, haul the TARDIS, containing Romana, Adric, and the Outlers, up to a cave overlooking the Starliner, in order to use it as a battering ram, to force their way into the spaceship. In a vain attempt to rescue Romana, K-9 gets his head bashed off (rather easily) by the marsh men, who then scatter when spiders begin to pop out of river fruit gathered in the cave. Once Romana pops out of the blue box to investigate, Adric and the Outlers panic, lock Romana out, and manage to start the TARDIS dematerialization process. Romana is bitten by one of the spiders and falls into a coma; soon, pulsing blue streaks begin to appear on her hands and face, never a good sign (but realized nicely on screen nonetheless).
The TARDIS materializes in the Starliner, which the Doctor then takes back to the cave to rescue Romana. The pace remains quick, enough so that one accepts that the TARDIS makes multiple short-range trips, an almost unheard of phenomenon in the series (and one commented upon by the Doctor himself), if only to keep unfolding the mystery of the System Files. The new First Decider, Nefred (James Bree) nearly blanches when he takes the mantle upon Draith’s death and learns the truth. Though bound to silence by generations of obedience, he nevertheless tries to confirm what he has learned by allowing a scientist to experiment upon a captured marsh man, an act of cruelty the Doctor roundly, and ferociously, condemns.
It’s not all speechification, though, as Romana has developed some biochemical affinity with the marsh men because of the spider bite, and she opens emergency hatches all throughout the Starliner to allow scores of marsh men to enter. In truth, it’s the same six or so actors, but overall effect suggests a veritable horde, a triumph of staging and effects work that is leagues above the old “three Daleks going around and around a pillar in circles” routine. In between scenes of the marsh men running rampant, the Doctor does his science-ing, comparing cellular slides of the Terradonians, the marsh men, and the fruit spiders, proclaiming, eventually, that they are all one and the same.
In conjunction with the Doctor’s realization that the Starliner is, in fact, fully operational, the conclusion becomes obvious: the current inhabitants of the Starliner are descendants of the marsh men, who, though their superior ability to adapt to their surroundings—as evidenced by Adric’s speedy wound recovery and the marsh men’s accelerated tool usage—became identical to the original Terradonians who crash landed there some four thousand generations prior. The maintenance of the ship became a ritual, and over time only the First Decider knew the truth of their origins. The Starliner could never return to Terradon because they had never been there in the first place.
With the marsh men driven off temporarily, the Deciders, assisted by the Doctor and a revived Romana, decide to leave Alzarius for good on the Starliner, to preserve their evolutionary progress as well as to allow the marsh men their own evolutionary path forward. No heroes, no villains, just a situation that required some thought and the willingness of a few brave people to question the status quo. Science wins the day, albeit a strange mishmash of concepts about evolution and genetics that sounds interesting enough but falls apart when looked at too closely. It’s science-esque, using real words in the wrong order. As with the “tachyonics” of “The Leisure Hive,” John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead’s new obsession with science-y concepts propels the narrative forward less obviously, but no less fraudulently, than a more traditional deus ex machina. And that’s fine, too, because it remains entertaining; to one extent, the entire point of the series is to watch the Doctor be clever in various ways, whether with lasers, language, or lab equipment.
Neophyte writer Andrew Smith weaves his knowledge of the series into “Full Circle” subtly, most notably with an off-hand remark by the Doctor about checking in with Leela, Andred, and K-9 Mk I when they get back to Gallifrey. There’s no plot reason to mention them; it’s pure set dressing, a reminder of the series’ continuity. As mentioned, he leaves the Doctor and Romana out of the action for much of the first episode, common with writers new to the series who are more interested in their own creations than the established order, but Nathan-Turner and Bidmead, as they have demonstrated thus far in Season Eighteen, don’t seem to mind.
More tellingly, Smith seems to “get” the Doctor as a source of moral and intellectual strength, providing Tom Baker with a few choice scenes in this story, particularly when the Doctor excoriates the Deciders for countenancing the torture of a marsh man. There’s scant little intentional humor at all, though, beyond a scene where the Doctor fends off marsh men by hiding behind K-9’s decapitated head on a stick, and even that would have likely been more horrifying than delightful to a younger audience.
But while Baker likely didn’t feel competition from his guest stars, who provide solid but not screen-grabbing performances (with George Baker as Decider Login making the most of his time on stage), he is here matching wits with a new companion, Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric. The youngster proves his technical worth in several scenes, and given the attention paid to him by the script, it’s no huge surprise when he stows away on the TARDIS at the end of the story.
Adric assumes that he is smarter than everyone around him and lacks an understanding of nuanced interpersonal relationships—so, a teenager, basically. He is, in terms of behavior if not chronology, the youngest companion to date: Susan was wise beyond her years, and Vicki and Victoria both survived daunting experiences to grow up quickly. He’s close to Zoe insofar as both combine innocence and intelligence with ignorance, but Waterhouse delivers Adric as being self-sure to the point of arrogance, an admittedly unlovely trait that actually serves as a welcome counterpoint to a companion’s usual mien. He’s no audience-identification figure, as the companions were originally conceived, and in that sense Adric does not take away from Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s roles while adding his own take to what a companion can be.
Which is not to say that, apocryphally, at least, our co-stars were entirely sanguine about Waterhouse’s arrival in the series, which signposted the beginning of Nathan-Turner’s process of clearing out all of the old guard and bringing in his own team. The look that Romana gives Adric, when he explains that he knows all about homing devices to her, says it all.
Ward herself gets a decent range of scenes, including a few “possession” moments where she gets to claw at Tom Baker—which, again, apocryphally, she probably enjoyed quite a bit given their on-again/off-again off-screen relationship. Romana’s cool under pressure sees her disarm the Outlers, both physically and mentally, when they barge into the TARDIS and attempt to hijack it. As with the Doctor, Smith has a good read on the role of the companion as a plot force as well as an assistant, and it’s a satisfying story for Romana as she nears the end of her time on the TARDIS.
Poor K-9 (John Leeson, voice), though, just trundles from insult to ignominious injury. After finally being repaired in “Meglos,” the tin mutt finds himself as flustered as a Dalek by stairs when he tries to follow the marsh men across the, well, marsh, filled as it is with burbling ditches and other watery obstacles. Then, when he attempts to rescue Romana, loudly blaring that he means no harm, a marsh man does what John Nathan-Turner wanted to do all along and lops his head off, in possibly the most violent moment of the entire story. Even the obviously fake spiders jumping on Romana carry less overt menace than that scene. The odds of K-9 making it out of E-Space dwindle by the second.
“Full Circle” continues Season Eighteen’s pattern of shifting the focus away from the Doctor—or at least Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor—towards the possibilities of the series itself. The establishment of E-Space as a sort of trap for the Doctor to escape over the course of a few stories calls to mind the pseudo-arc of the First Doctor attempting to return Ian and Barbara to their homes, or of the Third Doctor being exiled on Earth. While not quite a narrative-driving arc like Season Sixteen’s Key to Time stories, let alone more modern serials that rival soap operas for long-winded and interconnected plots, an attempt is being made here to keep viewers tuning in, extending mysteries and narratives beyond the more formal boundaries of the four-episode story. The characters reminiscing idly about moments from almost three years earlier can be read as both fan service and a statement of intent: change is inevitable, but the series and its history endures.
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Post 115 of the Doctor Who Project