Full Circle is one of my Doctor Who happy places. I adored it on first broadcast aged 8, and 18 years later it was the very first story I elected to stick in the video player to watch with my wife-to-be. I’ve always thought it had everything: an ingenious plot, some true moments of peril, wonderful sets, and a beautifully haunting soundtrack. Oh and I had the Viewmaster slides too. They disappeared like much of my treasured childhood possessions between house moves so a while back I found myself buying them again from eBay to no doubt languish in the drawer with my rebought Flash Gordon sticker album. Anyway, this week, having not seen Full Circle for a good 5 years, I’ve started to watch it with my son John, also now 8. I’m intrigued to see how highly I rate it today and to hear what he thinks too. He’s chiefly a Tennant fan but he tells me Tom Baker comes a close second.
Note: This is the very first time I’ve written about Who publicly, which is odd when I consider that it has always been an important part of my life. As a rule I have always chosen to write about TV that no-one else writes about (starting back in 2003 with Survivors) so it feels a little naughty, if great fun, to make this very first exception.
Firstly, Andrew Smith… just wow! It’s totally beyond my comprehension that a 17-year-old could have written a Doctor Who, let alone a Doctor Who as multi-layered and satisfyingly complex as Full Circle. Actually I could imagine a 17-year-old writing Meglos, perhaps even a 12-year-old, but what sort of teenager comes up with Full Circle? A story with the central conceit of a spaceship inhabited by a race of people who believe they crashed on a planet but in fact came out of its swamps? It’s a staggeringly good idea. As good as City of Death‘s explosion of Scaroth’s spaceship starting life on Earth, actually no, its better, because its far more original. 17-year-old smacks down Douglas Adams in cleverness contest! An equally compelling mystery is why Smith, who clearly had such a natural feel for the series as well as great ideas, didn’t write anymore. I would’ve snapped him up. Which reminds me I must buy his recent Big Finish efforts.
Full Circle offers another rare example of a well-realised Doctor Who planet. Its bright colours, warm glows and lush greenery are in stark contrast to Meglos‘s studio-bound Tigella with its dreadful foam bellplants which required too much ‘Oh, no it’s got me!’ acting. In fact Alzarius is right up there with Inter Minor and Chloris. Although I am somewhat deflated that John immediately declares it just looks like England. The fact that there are guys happily swimming in the river is a great way of emphasising the exotic and, as I point out to John, you can’t grow melons in England, well not easily anyway. The spidery webs hanging from the trees also accentuate the alien as well suggesting potential threats of the arachnid variety. Episode 2’s march of the marshmen through an area of steaming mud amongst some strategically planted alliums is particularly alien. Its amazing on a rewatch when you realise you have never noticed something before, this time around it was the weird pink powder paint on the grass indicating where the TARDIS had been before the Marshmen walked off with it.
Neither the script, nor the action, suffers from being over-Bidmead-ed. We will later learn that the TARDIS has slipped through a Charged Vacuum Emboitement but don’t know that yet, just the compelling fact that: “We’re out of Normal Space altogether”. Its by no means the only intriguing element of the opening episodes: many mysteries line up for our attention: What is Mistfall?; Why are there spiders in the riverfruit?; What did Draith mean about coming ‘full circle’? Why does Adric’s leg heal so quickly? Ah yes, Adric…
Over 20 years ago at a convention in Blackpool I very rudely told Matthew Waterhouse that he wasn’t half as bad in Who as people made out. It’s not quite what I meant of course and I regret such an arrogant and damning statement. What its easy to forget is how the younger (8-year-old) me accepted Adric for who and what he was, an awkward, sometimes outspoken, difficult, geeky teenager: all character elements which many Doctor Who fans could identify with closely, however much we might not like the fact. I was horribly awkward at Adric’s age and I cringe to think of myself at 17. But I believe Adric had a place in a series like Doctor Who, he was an interesting new type of companion, and I kind of love the fact that behind-the-scenes Waterhouse spoilt the party for Baker and Ward with his apparent gauche lack of awareness (they both probably needed it by then) . Of course, however much Adric irritated us and occasionally reminded us of character flaws that we perhaps shared, ultimately, at the time, we were ALL upset when he died and those silent end credits rolled. Waterhouse’s performance is perfectly fine here (thankfully he has learned to walk properly since those first recorded scenes in State of Decay) and no better or worse than those of the other Outlers, but Adric IS irritating, especially when he is declaring himself an elite, but, here’s the thing, he is meant to be, and I think we sometimes forget that Adric was never conceived as being particularly likeable. This series and the next would have been much less interesting had this not been the case.
Lalla Ward is as faultless as ever as Romana in these first two instalments. The scenes in which she is unwilling to return to Gallifrey “after all this” and bravely returns the knife to Tylos: “Your knife,” are particularly enjoyable. Both define her determined character beautifully. The former also shows a more sensitive side which we only usually glimpse when she or K9 (“Oh K9!!!”) are in serious danger. To have a scene in her bedroom is a definite choice. It’s a reminder that we are now properly entering the JN-T era in which companions are seen to properly live aboard the TARDIS rather than being ever-present in the console room. Of course it also means we can see it in a wrecked state later on, but its primary function is to give more depth to Romana and emphasise that by now she has built a life for herself with the Doctor. I’m not entirely convinced she would have chosen all those pastel pink furnishings but that’s a minor quibble.
With the exception of the ill-fated Decider Draith, the Deciders are unappealingly drab individuals, just as they should be given their relentless pursuit of procedure and the need to keep on keeping the system files. They rather remind me of the many old school and thankfully disappearing senior librarians who I’ve come across during my professional career who are only really present to look after collections and procedures and are much less interested in the people who actually need to use libraries. The Deciders make a great show of being there to help the community they serve but are happy to keep secrets for the purpose of crowd control and, when the Doctor first meets them, use tiered seating and special lighting in order to artificially enhance their great power and authority, demonstrating that this is more important to them than anything else. Of course their total belief in their self-importance is laughable, which brings me back to those librarians I was talking about.
The cliffhangers of the opening two episodes are some of the best examples from the classic series. I guess the marshmen rising from the swamp is the third time (in Doctor Who) that we’ve had that particular ‘monsters emerging from water’ cliffhanger but it might just be the best of them, thanks to the use of slow motion and the fact that these monsters are actually truly scary. It’s such a shame that later as they makes their way through the woods that it becomes more obvious that they are costumes. What possessed the designer to add those flat saggy breasts though? The less said about the barmy Marshmen sub-plot in which they are apparently planning to use the TARDIS as a battering ram on the Starliner the better. I’ve always chosen to ignore it. If Lalla Ward can’t convince me of its reality then no-one can. Thankfully the possibility of the ridiculous execution of this mad idea evaporates almost as soon as it is suggested.
The episode two cliffhanger’s marsh spiders are much less successful than their evolutionary cousins but they were definitely creepy to the 8-year-old me and it transpires that my son feels the same. He asked me to accompany him to the bathroom and reluctantly admitted later that it was for fear of rogue marsh spiders. I’m suddenly tempted to have a large melon for dinner tonight! Romana’s repeated insistence that they’re only spiders only serves to emphasise the palpable danger she is in. The sequences of her reaching out for the TARDIS, her increasing distress as she backs away and the spider flying out of the riverfuit onto her face are beautifully put together and were long remembered in the Priestner family home. A few yeas later my elder sister, Anna, had a not too dissimilar experience with a nectarine – a creepy crawly inside the fruit’s stone that almost made its way onto her face. The screams were chilling! Its not her only Romana moment, in the 90s she regularly teamed her long blonde hair with long skirts, petticoats and boots, pulling the overall look off pretty well.
I must wax lyrical for a moment about Paddy Kingsland’s incidental music. Sometimes a soundtrack is just so in keeping with the look and feel of a story that it truly sings and takes you right back to the first time you watched it, reminding you how you felt and what it meant to you. Geoffrey Burgon achieved this with both his stories, as did Dudley Simpson for City of Death, but they’re rare examples. A few weeks ago I looked into the availability of secondhand copies of the Meglos/Full Circle soundtrack CD but discovered them to be ridculously expensive. If anyone wants to record me a knock-off, then yes please. I’m always reminded of Full Circle when I hear that Howard Jones track ‘Hide and Seek’, released some 4 years after this Who aired. Have a listen further below and see if you agree that he too must have slipped through a CVE at some point.
I knew I’d have a lot to say about Full Circle so had already decided to only explore the opening two episodes in this post, but before I go I thought I’d share John’s other thoughts on the story so far.
- Romana was sad about going to Gallifrey because at the moment she gets to travel to lots of different places and stay with the Doctor and K9, see new species and have exciting adventures. Romana and the Doctor are getting closer too.
- Adric’s people were annoying but Adric was OK. They were annoying because they wouldn’t let Adric into their team cos Adric couldn’t steal the food. He’s a bit of a show-off though with his mathematical badge.
- When the Marshmen came out of the water it looked cool and it was a good episode ending.
- The Marshchild is cute but very scared. I was worried that he’d get caught but I think he’ll escape.
- Romana was good when she protected the TARDIS and brave in the cave.
- I didn’t like the ‘prime mInister people’ because they were wearing weird costumes and stepped forward like they were awesome but they weren’t.
- The spiders were scary especially when they popped out of the melons. I bet Romana’s gonna be taken over now.