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Who Review: Full Circle

Romana’s in a funk. The Time Lords want their Time Lady back, so they have recalled the TARDIS to Gallifrey. After all, she was only on loan to the Doctor for the “Key to Time” adventure, and now she’s overdue her return. But she doesn’t want the adventures to end, and doesn’t fancy the prospect of the staid, safe life back home. The Doctor isn’t unsympathetic, but he’s in enough trouble with the Time Lords, so he dutifully plugs in the coordinates and sets course. But something goes wrong. There’s a bump, a shift, and when the TARDIS lands, the scanner doesn’t appear to be working. A careful examination of the coordinates reveals that they are negative. They are no longer in “normal space.” And they are not on Gallifrey. In fact, they are on the planet Alzarius, whose inhabitants live on a Starliner that crashed thousands of years ago. They have been gathering food and conducting repairs, ready for the day of embarkation, when they will leave for their home planet of Terradon. But not all of the Alzarians live in the Starliner. A group of youngsters, “Outlers,” have chosen a life outside, living in caves, and stealing riverfruit to survive. It’s a rough life, but better than the boring existence in the ship. Except when Mistfall comes. That’s when a noxious gas fills the air, and the marsh creatures emerge from the water to terrorize the land. Adric, a young Alzarian, one of the “Elites,” eager to prove himself to his Outler brother, finds himself outside and injured as Mistfall starts. The Doctor and Romana take him in, but the marsh creatures are coming. Finding themselves trapped in this strange world, our heroes need to uncover the mystery of Mistfall so that they can escape and find a way back to N-Space…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Full Circle” is the first installment of a three-part story arc known as “The E-Space Trilogy.” The next two stories, “State of Decay” and “Warriors Gate” continue and conclude the adventure. This story was written by a newcomer, Andrew Smith, who was only seventeen at the time. Andrew had been submitting ideas to previous script editors, but it wasn’t until this particular story crossed new script editor Christopher Bidmead’s desk that his dream came true. It needed work, which wasn’t unusual for new writers, but between them, Smith and Bidmead crafted one of the better stories of the season.

The first episode is mainly concerned with setting up the trilogy premise, and establishing Alzarius, its inhabitants, and the back story to the adventure. We spend at least half the episode with the Starliner and the Outlers, not the TARDIS crew, which is unusual. But there is a lot to explain: the various strata of society (the regular people, the Elites, the Deciders, the Outlers, the Marshmen), the planet itself, Mistfall, why they are there, and what they are doing. And all of these elements are important for the plot. They establish Adric’s character as an Elite with particular skill in mathematics and a strong connection to the Outlers, as well as giving clues to the true nature of the colony.

The plot rests on an acceptance of Neo-Darwinian Micro-Mutational Evolutionary Theory. As a Christian, I do not accept NDMMET, but for the purpose of fiction, I can suspend my disbelief because, frankly, it makes for a good story (NDMMET is useless for science, so it may as well be employed for fiction). There are three “big secrets” at the heart of the plot–so this is a huge spoiler if you haven’t watched “Full Circle”: 1) there is no Terradon–the colonists are on their home planet; 2) the Starliner is ready to leave at any time, except no-one knows how to pilot it; 3) the spiders, the Marshmen, and the colonists are all genetically linked as three stages of an accelerated evolutionary development over many years. Over the course of the story, various hints are dropped (Adric’s knee healing in a matter of minutes, the fact the Mistfall air isn’t poisonous but is rich in nitrogen, the affinity spider-bitten Romana has with the Marshmen, and so on), but the Doctor clearly has his suspicions, which he proves by microscopically examining samples from a spider and a Marshman. The way these threads are drawn throughout is well done.

“Full Circle” certainly doesn’t suffer in the story department, nor in the set design. Both the Starliner and the caves look good, and the choice of outside location works well for Alzarius. Even the mist on the water is believable, especially as the Marshmen rise up out of the watery depths. My only gripe in terms of the design is that the caves would have looked even better filmed as opposed to video taped (as they did for the jungle setting in “Planet of Evil”). Tom Baker is, once again, on fine form, as are most of the main cast. The younger actors give stage-y performances which is a little distracting. And while Matthew Waterhouse does okay as Adric, that assessment makes concessions for his youth and inexperience as an actor, which really shows when he plays against Tom Baker and some of the other more veteran actors. I have to say, Lalla Ward seems to tend toward the same kind of stage-y, overdramatic performance that we see from the kids, which is disappointing after a great run of actors playing Doctor Who companions. She’s a decent actress, but after the likes of Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), or Louise Jameson (Leela), I expect more.

As I said, the Marshmen looked quite effective on film, rising from the murky depths, but on video tape and on dry land, the costume flaws are more than evident. As is always the case with Classic Doctor Who, the design team is working with a very tight budget, and you have to applaud the creativity behind what they accomplish with so little money. When the effects and costumes work, you don’t notice them (e.g., Davros in “Genesis of the Daleks” or Linx, the Sontaran in “The Time Warrior”). Here, the costumes are very noticeable.

There’s a nice touch at the beginning of the story when the Doctor mentions the Key to Time, and looks forward to seeing Leela and Andred where he left them on Gallifrey. Viewers might have forgotten this detail, and it provides some motivation for the Doctor to obey the Time Lords’ summons. At the end of the story, our travelers are trapped in “Exo-Space” or “E-Space.” They determine that they stumbled through a CVE, or Charged Vacuum Emboitment. Their only escape is to find another CVE that will take them back to N-Space (“Normal Space”). They also have a stowaway on board, a fact that will be revealed in the next story, “State of Decay.”

As with all the stories in this season, I think “Full Circle” is worth watching. Not classic must-see Who, but entertaining, and with a plot that keeps you engaged, and some interesting characters.