03 Jul 2003Full Circle, by James Gent
31 Dec 2003Full Circle, by Paul Clarke

The reinvention of the look and feel of “Doctor Who” in Season 18, Tom Baker’s final season, has been well documented, most notably in the superb book “The Eighties”. John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead hit the ground running, taking advantage of the best video effects available to the BBC in 1980, some of the Radiophonics Workshop’s finest new talents using modern equipment, and commissioning stories from mostly new-to-Who writers with a more pure, undiluted approach to science fiction than before, taking on some thought-provoking central themes, and with the linking theme of decay and regeneration leading up to the momentous events of Baker’s last story, “Logopolis”. The team were also lucky to have some very creative directors on board. Old hands Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts’ presence was mainly supervisory.

The team achieved all of their aims with the season opener, “The Leisure Hive”, which overcame the programme’s limitations with total confidence. A director unafraid to throw money everywhere didn’t hurt either! The following story, “Meglos”, was something of a step-back to the previous season, but in “Full Circle”, all the promise of this ambitious season came to fruition.

When people talk about ‘classic’ “Doctor Who”, the stories that top most people’s lists are usually of the epic quality of “Talons of Weng Chiang” or “The Caves of Androzani”. However, equally classic are the stories that don’t set out to be flashy or mark epic points in the Doctor’s history, but simply bring together all the elements on hand to make a solid, good quality “Doctor Who” adventure that is a joy to watch again and again. Doctor Who is packed with them and “Full Circle” is one such story. It’s driven by some interesting ideas, has strong performances from all involved and is a well-realised television production.

“Full Circle” is basically a story about evolution and social engineering. A humanoid civilisation is preparing for its eventual return to its home planet, whilst changes on the planet’s surface sees strange things happening that are part of the civilisation’s history and yet not fully understood, obscured by the traditions and rituals of the Deciders, a benevolent yet authoritarian committee bound by custom and procedure. Like Clare Daly in “Carnival of Monsters” and Shardovan in “Castrovalva”, certain individuals have vague inklings that there is something amiss about their way of life, but they are too much a part of their self-contained microcosm that they cannot think outside the box. The Deciders name is ironic, as they are not able to think freely, being bound by rules and regulations that conveniently wallpaper over any cracks – “Any inconsistencies must be accepted”. In his own quiet way, Andrew Smith is making a subtle commentary on society bound by legislation and procedure just as much as obvious satires such as Paradise Towers, Happiness Patrol and The Sun Makers. The endless pointless repairs to the Starliner remind me of local councils constantly digging up roads to use up their annual budget and maintain achievement levels!

At the heart of “Full Circle” we have a mystery of a microcosmic society based around confrontations and revelations. In Season 18, the Doctor remains cool, curious and casual on the surface, and his passionate ‘humanitarianism’ bursts through in one of his finest serious parts in the role, when he rails at the Deciders for their “procrastination”, and at the elder Decider’s obscuring of the origins of their race in order to maintain his bureaucratic hold over the society’s true evolutionary path. Definitely up there alongside his “Appreciate it?” outburst in “The Pirate Planet”, and the banquet scene in “Warriors Gate”.

This powerful scene, full of some memorable comments from the Doctor, comes right after viewing the disastrously fatal attempt to operate on the marsh child in the laboratory, and their treatment of the marsh creatures as an inferior subspecies for experimentation, because they are not humanoid. These scenes put me in mind of the Third Doctor’s similar idealistic confrontations, most famously in “Doctor Who And The Silurians” – in many ways, “Full Circle”s addressing of the Deciders’ attitude towards the marsh creatures (a mixture of primitive fear and cold scientific callousness) is a more successful revisit of that story’s themes than its true sequel “Warriors Of The Deep”. As with “The Silurians”, the amphibious creatures are not the real villains, as they are simply trying to survive and develop ‘naturally’ – which is why the revelation about the humanoids’ true origins is such a brilliant twist in this story, and underlines the theme of natural evolution versus social engineering. It is always good to see the Doctor side with the ‘threat’ rather than the humans, as it emphasises the universality of his pro-life creed.

I can’t mention the marsh creatures without commenting on their appearance. Although they are obviously the latest in a long line of men in rubber suits, the design of their masks makes them a lot more credibly disturbing, a mixture of veins, seaweed-like fronds and barnacled flesh. Although they have the annoying Doctor Who tendency of walking around with their arms outstretched, zombie-style, the cliffhanger in which they emerge slowly from the misty, bubbling water is one that is still breathtaking. The other great cliff-hanger is Romana’s spider attack. Even though they are clearly toy spiders, the shot of the spider bursting from the fruit and leaping onto Romana’s face is so tightly edited it still makes me flinch. Top marks to Peter Grimwade. 

The direction and editing in this story is of a consistently high quality, and well complimented by Paddy Kingsland’s soundtrack. Kingsland’s score still sounds remarkably fresh, using a variety of sounds and moods to complement the story’s various settings. However, the similarity of many of the themes to those used in his classic score for “The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy” does not go unnoticed! 

George Baker gives a good performance as Login. One of Doctor Who’s specialities is portraying the little man who is caught in the wheels of the machine – Laurence Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars” coming to terms with his brother’s possession, and Rex Farrel, the tragic pawn of the Master in “Terror of the Autons”. He portrays Login as a warm, personable everyman who is a family man and a pillar of the Starliner community, with so much faith in the Deciders and their manuals that he does not question the pointless repair tasks that are being conducted all over the Starliner; and is wonderfully ‘real’ when the Doctor opens his eyes to the deceptions of his superiors, and has greatness thrust upon him when he has to take the initiative to launch the Starliner.

“Full Circle” is Adric’s story, so I’ve got to say a few things about him. Adric comes across pretty well in this story, and was initially well served by his first lot of stories. Adric is not likeable in the sense that Sarah Jane Smith was likeable – he is socially awkward, at once both insecure and arrogant like most teenagers, and a bit screwed-up thanks to his inability to fit in anywhere. Nevertheless, he is a trier, and it is this aspect of his character that balances out his personality’s flaws. In “Full Circle” he is not a companion, so the problems with his character that led to his exit do not affect his part in the story here. Matthew Waterhouse is not the best actor in the world, but he is certainly not the worst to have appeared in Doctor Who, so I’ve never thought it entirely fair that he’s so universally disliked!

Here, and in subsequent stories with the Fourth Doctor, his well-meaning bungling was intended to provide the ‘human factor’ to balance out the otherwise infallible crew of two Time Lords and a computer, and he briefly enjoys a charming tutor/student relationship with the Doctor in “The Keeper Of Traken” and “Logopolis”. Taken on his own merits in “Full Circle”, Adric is mostly inoffensive – give or take his proclamation that “I’m an elite!” – and not the petulant brat of the Fifth Doctor stories.

“Full Circle” is also famous for being the first story written by a fan. I wonder if the news that a fan – one of us – could get a Doctor Who story made was a factor that influenced fans to try their hands at writing Doctor Who scripts and books, from successful writers such as Paul Cornell to every budding Who fan that’s got a Doctor Who story hiding in their hard drive or in their desk?

Given the latter day precedent for fan writing to be full of returning monsters, continuity references and other ‘fanwank’ tendencies, it might seem surprising that “Full Circle” is a very original story. At the end of the day, it does prove the fact that to write a successful Doctor Who story, the main criteria is to understand the format and come up with a good idea, and anything else is window-dressing. A review of “Full Circle” quoted in David J. Howe’s The Television Companion makes mention of the fact that the opening TARDIS scenes refer to Leela and Andred (“The Invasion Of Time”) and the Doctor taking on the Time Lords (“The War Games”) – but this isn’t gratuitous continuity. It’s entirely in keeping with the series and its ongoing history that the Doctor would mention his past adventures or previous travelling companions, in the right context, and this is a nice reminder that despite each season having its own internal continuity they are all part of a larger series of adventures. 

The only line that possibly betrays Andrew Smith’s fan status is the Deciders’ comment that “all inconsistencies must be accepted” – perhaps an in-joke at the expense of the continuity cops that had started to rear their heads? 

“Full Circle” is mainly known for the fact that it serves two purposes. It is the first part of the ‘E Space Trilogy’, a loose hook to maintain the viewers interest over successive stories, and it also gently ushers in the eventual departure of one companion, Romana, whilst ‘accidentally’ introducing a new companion, Adric. Stories that have external concerns grafted on to them often suffer as a result and tend to be considerably less than the sum of their parts. “Planet Of Fire”, for example, is not a bad story but has to accommodate Turlough, Kamelion, the Master and Peri and ends up as a bit of a mess. Fortunately, “Full Circle” does not have such weighty demands thrust upon it, and as a result is a story that one can enjoy regardless of being part of a story arc (a pretty tenuous one at that) or having to introduce a new companion, but it is for those two facts that it is mostly remembered. In a season book-ended by the stylish “The Leisure Hive” and the epic events of “Logopolis”, it’s very easy to overlook “Full Circle” – if this is the case, you are missing out on one of the undiscovered classic of the Tom Baker years.

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After the simplistic ‘Meglos’, ‘Full Circle’ is a return to form for Season Eighteen, benefiting from a rewardingly complex plot and generally excellent acting and production. With no real villain, but instead a struggle against a harsh and alien environment underpinned by plot twist upon plot twist, ‘Full Circle’ is memorably unusual, a fact which ultimately, is its strength. 

The plot of ‘Full Circle’ unfolds beautifully. Initially, a sense of foreboding is created as the Alzarians gather river fruits whilst Decider Draith and Dexeter ominously discuss the early signs of Mistfall and it becomes clear that a threat is looming that will threaten the inhabitants of the Starliner. The premise seems simple; a crashed spacecraft is stranded on an alien world, and its occupants struggle to survive whilst they affect repairs, as the first signs of a hostile threat from the planet in question begin to appear. This is fairly standard stuff, but even at this early stage, the direction and the scripting promise a great deal, by carefully building suspense. Towards the end of Episode One, as the Starliner is prepared to be sealed until Mistfall has passed, this promise is delivered on as the Marshmen erupt from the waters in slow motion as the Doctor and K9 look on, making for a highly effective cliffhanger. But ‘Full Circle’ quickly expands beyond this seemingly basic premise as plot twists allow revelation after revelation and it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. The scene in Episode Three boasts two such revelations in the same scene, as the Doctor angrily reveals to Login that the Starliner has long been ready for takeoff and accuses the Deciders of prevaricating needlessly to maintain the status quo; Baker delivers his lines in this scene superbly, in one of my favourite moments of the entire season, only for his towering contempt to be deflated by Nefred’s solemn response that whilst the Starliner is ready for takeoff and has been for generations, nobody knows how to fly it. But this is as nothing to the superb final episode, in which the full truth of events on Alzarius is revealed, the Doctor finally realizing that when the Starliner first crash-landed, not forty generations ago, as its occupants believe, but forty thousand generations ago, its original inhabitants died. The clues as to where the current occupants therefore came from are carefully built up throughout the last two episodes, but it is only when the Doctor pronounces that the Marshmen are the ancestors of the current Starliner inhabitants that everything finally falls satisfyingly into place. 

The way in which the Marshmen are utilized in ‘Full Circle’ is one of the story’s highlights. On a basic level, they are of course monsters, and in this respect they work well. In fact, it is to Peter Grimwade’s credit that they work as well as they do, thanks to his excellent direction; look at a static photograph of the Marshmen and they are clearly men in rubber suits, but on screen they are highly effective. Their masks look both alien and bestial, which enhances their effectiveness, and as they stride through the mist brandishing clubs threateningly they are passably scary by Doctor Who’s standards. Further adding to their credibility, the actors inside the suits do a good job of making them seem animalistic and the snarling sound that they make as the maraud through both marsh and Starliner complements this. And the script does very well at making them seem dangerous; they kill numerous people, including of course Varsh, and after they are driven out of the Starliner at the end of Episode Four, it is made clear that if the ship stays on Alzarius, they will be adaptive enough to eventually discover a way of getting back inside. But it is this very ability to adapt that makes them not monsters but animals, and once it is explained just how they relate to the occupants of the Starliner it is impossible to view them as the bogeymen that they are initially made out to be; ultimately, their ability to evolve is not monstrous, but fascinating. If this argument fails to convince the audience, we are also given the Marshchild, which further demystifies the Marshmen. The Marshchild’s story is a tragic one; after its early playful reaction to the Doctor and increasing trust in him, it is cruelly mistreated by the occupants of the Starliner, and is clearly as terrified of them as they are of its adult brethren. Despite the Doctor’s attempts to save it, it is subjected to Dexeter’s callous experiments, designed to allow him to understand the Marshmen. Ironically of course, it is the Doctor, who recognizes the intelligence of the Marshchild and reaches out to it, who comes closest to understanding the nature of the creatures and eventually learns the truth about them. Dexeter on the other hand succeeds only in provoking the hostile reaction in the Marshchild that he expects of the creatures, and is killed as a result. To compound this tragedy, the Marshchild itself, angry and traumatized, dies by reaching out to the one person who has shown it kindness. 

The acting of the guest cast also contributes to the success of ‘Full Circle’, and is generally of a very high standard. I will, inevitably, discuss Adric further below, but the Outlers are well acted and indeed well characterised as truculent teenage rebels, with Richard Willis’ Varsh of particular note, especially during his final scenes as he is dragged to his death during an act of heroism. The Deciders, the story’s other main group of speaking characters, are also well acted and James Bree’s troubled portrayal of Nefred almost compensates for his disastrous performance as the Security Chief way back in ‘The War Games’. The Deciders are very well written; the script allows them to be convincingly portrayed as the prevaricating and indecisive leaders that the Doctor initially believes them to be, whilst also making the eventual revelation that they can do absolutely nothing except maintain the status quo due to circumstances beyond their control entirely believable. Leonard Maguire’s Decider Draith is thus perfectly characterised as a wise and respected leader who has bourn the weight of the secret of the system files but who wishes that he could share them; he reprimands Dexeter for daring to enquire about these secrets, but in his dying moments he tells Adric to let Dexeter know that they have “come full circle”, suggesting that he finally decides that his people should know the truth about what they are about to face. Nefred and Garif are initially much of a kind as each other, both happy to follow Draith’s lead, and both ultimately indecisive despite their titles. That they are so alike means that Nefred’s change in attitude after he reads the system files is extremely noticeable, and the resulting contrast between the now-deeply troubled Nefred and the concerned but more placid Garif adds to the story’s suspense by indicating that plot twists are to follow. Finally, George Baker’s Login completes the complement of Deciders, and he contrasts very well with Nefred and Garif; when first seen he is fraught with anxiety over the fate of his daughter, and this emotion makes him stand out from Nefred and Garif, both at this stage motivated purely by duty however regrettably events surrounding them may be. It is perhaps Login who represents the best hope for the Starliner, as from the start he questions the acceptance of the traditions that his fellow Deciders automatically observe, and actually reacts to events, such as when the Marshmen invade the Hall of Books whilst Garif and Nefred dither about what to do. At the end, when the Doctor explains to the Deciders how to fly the Starliner, Login reaches for the take off button, only for Garif to stall him, suggesting that such a decision requires some thought. I suggest that when the Starliner is seen to take off on the TARDIS scanner at the end, it is still Login who makes the decision, and that it is he who will lead his people to a new life. 

The production of ‘Full Circle’ is superb. The direction makes the story very atmospheric and also allows it to move along at an impressive pace; the slow-motion emergence of the Marshmen from the waters at the end of Episode One is especially impressive. The generally creepy atmosphere is greatly benefited by Paddy Kingsland’s dramatic and often eerie incidental score, especially during the mist-shrouded location scenes. This location work is very effective, and because the majority of the studio scenes are set within the Starliner, the studio and location work don’t jar. In fact the only set that really needs to feel like it is part of the same environment as the location footage is the Outler’s cave, and careful use of lighting, plus a pretty decent set, means that this is more than passable. It is also interesting that in this story, much more than in ‘Meglos’, we start to see quite a lot of the TARDIS interior (Romana’s room is a case in point), something that becomes more and more common during John Nathan-Turner’s tenure as producer. The only weak point of the overall production is the realization of the spiders, but then this isn’t the first time that unconvincing giant spiders have appeared in Doctor Who… On the other hand, the model of the Starliner is well designed, and its take off at the end is rather well done. Whilst I’m on the subject of model work, it’s also nice to see the TARDIS in flight again, as it passes through the CVE. The costume design is also worth mentioning; I’ve already mentioned the Marshmen, but the costumes of the other characters effectively reflect their social standing, showing that some thought has gone into the designs. The Deciders’ uniforms are of course the most grandiose, whereas the yellow clothing worn by the other occupants of the Starliner are far more worn, as befits clothing that is worn during farming and harvesting. They also contrast nicely with Adric’s clothing, also yellow, but which are far finer quality, reflecting the fact that he is a member of a scientific elite, complete with gold-edged badge. Finally, the mismatched wardrobe of the Outlers depicts the fact that they have chosen to live on the edge of their society.

The regulars continue to be on form here. Tom Baker gives one of his finest performances when unfairly condemning the Deciders for their prevarication, and especially when angrily challenging Dexeter’s experiments with the Marshchild. Whilst I am very fond of much the Graham Williams, I do in retrospect appreciate the fact that for his final season, Baker was forced to reign in the comedy and return partly to the commanding performance he delivered in his first three seasons, whilst also making the role more sombre than ever before as he nears the end. Whilst Season Eighteen feels considerably less cosy than much of Baker’s time as the Doctor, it nevertheless provides a timely reminder of just how good an actor he could be. Having said all that, he still gets plenty of opportunity to display his usual wit, such as his repeated double takes when the Outlers leave the TARDIS in Episode Three. Lalla Ward as Romana is used well, although some of her performance whilst infected with the spider toxins seems rather stagy. Romana benefits from the story in two ways; firstly, her initial recall to Gallifrey reminds the viewer just how much she has changed during her time with the Doctor, as she has come to enjoy her travels and has become considerable more competent. Secondly, her experience gained with the Doctor is nicely highlighted by the comparison with Adric and the other Outlers, which paves the way for her handing over the companion role to a far less experienced traveler and departing to follow her own path. Poor old K9 on the other hand continues to suffer, this time getting virtually nothing to do expect get decapitated. 

Finally of course, ‘Full Circle’ sees the introduction of a new regular, in the shape of Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric. It is very easy to criticize both Waterhouse’s dire acting and Adric’s irritating character, as I will unfortunately demonstrate in due course, but here Waterhouse is quite good and Adric fulfills his role perfectly adequately. Adric’s potential is considerable really; seemingly orphaned, only to see his brother die here, Adric really feels like the outsider he thinks he is here. Separated from his fellows by his mathematical prowess, but too rebellious to happily fit into the society of the Starliner, he is in other ways a typical awkward teenager, and the way in which he latches onto the Doctor as a mentor worthy of his respect and from whom he can learn a great deal promises much for this new Doctor/companion relationship. His confusion when the Doctor tells him to cross his fingers nicely shows how much Adric has to learn and the Doctor slips surprisingly patiently into the role of teacher. It is painfully obvious even here that Matthew Waterhouse the actor is only capable of frowning in puzzlement, smiling sickeningly, or looking blank, but these three expressions are all he needs here. I could cynically suggest that Adric’s stunned look when he has to confront Varsh’s death is actually Waterhouse’s default expression, but given the depths to which his acting will later sink, I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.

In summary, ‘Full Circle’ is an underrated masterpiece and a fine return to form after ‘Meglos’. Ironically, the E-Space subplot for which this story is often so well remembered by fans is almost superfluous and seems to have been introduced solely to sow the seeds for Romana’s impending departure. Nevertheless, it makes for a nice final scene, as the TARDIS and its occupants set off in search of a way home.

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