Reviewed by Brad Schmidt
Which is more successful: a Doctor Who story based on true science, or one based on Who science? Prime examples of two such opposing stories are The Space Pirates and The Evil of the Daleks. While the former is renowned for its dull, scientifically-layered plot, The Evil of the Daleks is an all-time classic, despite the fact that time-travelling via static electricity and mirrors is as unlikely as Hartnell presenting a page of scripted dialogue correctly.
Therefore this science-theory and science-fact influenced story is on unstable footing in the queue for status. Full Circle's redeeming and disappointing qualities are just as widely opposed as said Troughton stories. It's one of those delicately prepared attempts at a classic, using tried-and-tested formulae such as Spacecraft and liberal doses of Primordial Monsters, which results in a presentation neither particularly bland nor particularly memorable, rather like trying to mimic Grandma's prize scones with a shake-and-bake mixture from the supermarket.
Full Circle suffers mainly due to the era in which it was born. John Nathan-Turner was establishing control, Tom Baker was leaving, and the whole series format had changed. The Fourth Doctor's comic aloofness was forced against the cold science of Christopher H. Bidmead's decreed scripts with varying results. Despite this, it's still enjoyable, but the sparkle (evident right up until the preceding Season Seventeen even) has faded, even the core cast is visibly fighting to retain the magic through witty dialogue and disconcertingly temperamental performances.
“Why can't people be nice to each other?”
Tom Baker's Doctor seems to suffer particularly. All-too-easily imagined is the opinion that perhaps his role is somewhat tired, or that Tom himself is tired of his role. His perpetually surprised portrayal is still visible, but the Doctor seems sad and exhausted, as the portrayal of the above quotation suggests. In an uncharacteristically emotional scene, he tries to comfort Romana, who has been ordered to return to Gallifrey. This scene is not the only foreshadowing of the Fifth Doctor; many aspects of this story point towards the upcoming change: realism takes the lead ahead of humour, resulting in a stark atmosphere that is setting the scene for the new era. Cosy TARDIS scenes are anachronistically familiar with Romana's room offering a template for the future style of the Ship's bedroom decor.
The premise is simple: something leads the TARDIS astray from its intended destination, Gallifrey, and the Doctor must discover exactly where this Amazonian locale in which he finds himself is situated.
“This isn't Gallifrey!”
Alzarius is suitably alien. Peter Grimwade's direction, from foliage-filled frames to sweeping lake vistas, excellently portrays a humid isolation from reality. From here, the plot thickens as noticeably as the all-pervading mist. The Outlers, an intriguing group of Lost Boys-style youth, led by the Peter Pan-like Varsh, invoke concern due to their forced separation from what appears to be a decent community.
“So we once again are enclosed within our Starliner!”
The action suddenly relocates to the Starliner, a spaceship contrasting nicely with the rural simplicity seen, but unfortunately denying further exploration of the tantalising alien world. Because the story was written by a fan, Andrew Smith, I was suspicious of making comparisons between Full Circle and Season Six' The Krotons, which also offers fake poisonous gases and ignorant generations trapped with a downed spacecraft. The move towards science is also reminiscent of past eras of Who, with a moral point that might have been more central to the story had this story been made earlier - that the ‘monsters’ are the ‘good guys’ themselves.
These ‘good guys’ are shown as little more that peasants, toiling under the might of three leaders (a point to be distinctly repeated before too long). Impressive camera shots and lighting onto these three leaders - the Deciders - help convey a sense of dictated living in this world, bound by ritual and the System Files, text revered so avidly to be a substitute for religion.
In a succession of twists, these System Files are revealed to be currently redundant. It's the most effective moment in the whole season up to this point when Decider Nefred reveals why the Alzarians cannot return to their frequently-touted home planet, Terradon, which they have been apparently striving to do for thousands of years: "We have never been there..."
The dense plot might have been more aptly-suited to a novel or a film, not an episodic series, which is why its full release on video will greatly benefit its reputation. Viewed in one sitting, Full Circle is easier to follow, but the special effects are more enticing than the plot, regardless of their dubious conviction.
“They seem to resent our presence as aliens.”
Most striking of all are the Marshmen, whose rise from the swamp is chilling and unexpected. Helped along by the direction and ominous incidental music, it is a clichéd idea turned into one of Doctor Who's finest cliffhanger endings.
The music isn't all so memorable. An embarrassingly Eighties soundtrack makes an unwelcome overture to the otherwise effective action scenes, out of place with the ahead-of-its-time location filming. However, this aspect of the incidental music is forgivable due to a suspenseful fluting harmony that foreshadows the appearance of the Marshmen.
Full Circle suffers from the stark set lighting of the kind John Nathan-Turner seemed so fond, a sterile white glow unfortunately undercutting the potential menace the Marshmen could convey. Like some form of reptilian Yeti, their cries are primal and wild, but considering they're revealed to be the usual BBC budget-created creatures in the glare, they're not overly frightening.
Additional mystery is denied, albeit this time not so unfortunately: K9 is seen to be quite mobile, navigating fairly rough terrain for once; that is, until he is decapitated by the Marshmen, a comically cruel scene displaying his increasing redundancy in the series, and one that is dismissed by the other characters far too casually.
“They're adapting very fast. That's intelligent behaviour.”
This dismissal by Romana in particular isn't too out-of-form with her character in Full Circle. Lalla Ward gets to play Doctor (in what could be seen as the beginning of her eventual destiny), in a detached manner not dissimilar to that of Tom Baker. Particularly evident of this is the Outlers' impossibly loud hammering on the TARDIS doors in Part One, in response to which she claims to have "heard a noise" in a manner that suggests she may be mistaken. Also striking a familiar chord is the scene in which Romana hands back a dangerous weapon (which she was previously threatened with) to its owner.
So again, an aspect of the show somewhat absent from the norm; Romana is firstly a tad eccentric, then after being attacked by a spider, Lalla Ward allows a spooky and strangely amateur portrayal to take control. In this attack, the climax of Part Two, the rapid cutting between scenes was probably unintentional but certainly helps the spiders betray a ferocity their unconvincing construction betrays.
“We have questions to put to you.”
Full Circle has as many rewards as it does dodgy effects - the rich story itself is another saving grace in the sterile production. The revelation of why the Starliner cannot leave Alzarius is ludicrous - but clever and ironic.
All in all, Full Circle's most obvious claim to fame would be that which I dread to mention. Andrew Smith's sole contribution to the series introduced a young Alzarian called Adric, who would have a (literally) large impact in the relevant future.
Adric is a genius mathematically, and compelled by his brother Varsh's rebellious Outlers, he yearns to join them.
Perhaps one could be sympathetic of the character. Perhaps one could like him.
Perhaps one could perform the character better himself.
“He belongs in the Great Hall of Books with all the other dreamers!”
Even in his first appearance, Matthew Waterhouse is shockingly poor in his performance. The only talent with which he shines is displaying his amazing lack of ability. His blasé reaction to his brother Varsh's death would be forgivable if he showed convincing emotion later on, but as it stands it is a disappointing omen for the future.
It's telling for Adric's future that a junior Marshman, to which Romana mentally (and inexplicably), becomes linked, is far more likable than him. Indeed, the Doctor seems to think so too, because he shows far more affection towards it than he usually does to his companions.
“There is no need to be alarmed!”
As the first of a series of inter-linked stories Full Circle offers enough interest to be casually enjoyable. I'm compelled to believe that had Peter Davison played the Doctor for this story, it would have been more successful - judging by the success of similar Fifth Doctor stories such as Terminus and Frontios - but overall, Full Circle only half achieves its obvious attempt to be ambitions and fresh. However, it is a still a well-made and watchable adventure that demands attention - and when given it, Full Circle is often disappointing, but just as equally rewarding.
This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).