In its opening episodes Full Circle beautifully cranked up the suspense while also succeeding in building a believable alien world and culture. At its halfway point there are Marshmen at large, an unknown fate for Romana following her spider-bite, and a dark secret hidden in the Starliner’s system files. It’s an enticing prospect and the remainder of the story in no way disappoints, despite a few elements here and there that could have been worked harder. Sitting down to watch episodes 3 and 4, once again with my 8-year-old son John as my viewing companion, I wondered what he’d make of the rest of the story and especially whether he would understand the complex revelations about the origin of the Alzarians in the final episode.
A generous helping of action and menace – the fate of the Marshchild, the revelation that the Starliner-invading Marshmen can kill by touch, an infected and threatening Romana – is neatly contrasted with an entirely opposite subplot of inaction. It transpires that the citizens of the Starliner are being tasked to carry out unnecessary pre-flight circuit checks, and that the Deciders are committed to maintaining a status quo that will ensure their life on Alzarius does not alter. The reason for this is the simple fact that no-one knows how to pilot the ship, a clever notion that signposts a deeper secret at the heart of their society. The Deciders’ wilful procrastination and procedure is breathtaking and, if you’ve ever suffered at the hands of people like this, makes for uncomfortable viewing. It begs the question of course as to how 17-year-old Andrew Smith could write such achingly familiar bureaucratic characters with such limited life experience.
One of the most obvious joys of these episodes is Lalla Ward playing the possessed Romana with utter conviction. The fact that her visible infection is achieved with make-up rather than a special effect is entirely forgivable as it’s beautifully done: an art nouveau virus if you will. Romana’s connection with the Marshchild is also notable but it’s something of a shame we don’t see Ward in full ‘rage mode’ wrecking her bedroom, merely the aftermath of the incident. Her desolate wrecked quarters, discovered later by the Doctor and Adric, prefigure the character’s imminent departure in just two stories time. Her bedroom is seen once again in Logopolis, shortly before it is jettisoned from the TARDIS altogether, to further underline the fact that an era of the programme is over.
One can see the logic of removing Romana from the series. In her second incarnation she is perhaps the least vulnerable companion in the series history. Leela may have had more strength but Romana beats her on intellect, regularly running rings around the bad guys. In fact, in many ways she is an equal of the Doctor and, occasionally, is even given his role in proceedings, most notably when she investigates in The Horns of Nimon equipped with her own sonic screwdriver. She is far more worldly-wise than the green ‘straight-from-the-academy’ first incarnation of Romana who would regularly stumble into danger (e.g. over a cliff in The Stones of Blood and into the hands of Count Grendel in The Androids of Tara). This indomitability presumably made Romana II difficult to write for and, arguably, a much less accessible companion for the viewing public. Throw K9 into the mix and you have a team who were almost invincible. Nevertheless they were a TARDIS crew I would have been quite happy to see travel together eternally. This is perhaps mainly to do with the wonderful chemistry between Baker and Ward, or is it actually just between the characters of the Doctor and Romana? This very question of course would be tested by the pair’s short-lived marriage in real life. They wouldn’t be the first actors that might have actually fallen in love with each other’s screen characters and they definitely won’t be the last.
The initially intriguing Outlers remain disappointingly under-developed characters, a fact which makes their relative fates at the hands of the Marshmen much less compelling. Keara (played by June Page who previously had a meaty role as the pregnant Sally in one of my favourite Survivors episodes Over The Hills in 1976) is perhaps the most interesting of the three. Her arrival by TARDIS immediately after her father talks to the Doctor about looking for her is a particularly fun piece of plotting. Varsh (Richard Willis) has a very watchable intensity but his potential is never quite realised, perhaps simply because Full Circle is such a well-populated narrative. His death scene is not as dramatic as I remembered it to be either, principally because he could so obviously have escaped: the young chap is obsessed with closing doors after himself and dies as a result. Maybe there’s something to be said for being born in a barn after all? The idea that Varsh dies to save the lives of others is rather stamped on by the fact that the Marshmen immediately evacuate the area in which he is killed and thereafter the Starliner itself. It is also not entirely clear why the Marshmen leave so suddenly. I must admit that I had forgotten that the Alzarians principally leave in the Starliner for fear that the rapidly adapting Marshmen may return and wipe them out, despite the fact that this scenario of course constitutes the ‘full circle’ of the title and is precisely what happened to the Starliner’s original Terradonian occupants. The real threat is that history is in danger of repeating itself. I asked John whether this made sense to him, he replied that it did. I’m not sure he really grasped it, chiefly I think because he was still too annoyed by that fact that Varsh hadn’t just run away from his assailants: “What WAS he DOING?!”.
John was once again absorbed throughout but had less to say overall, probably because he now accepted the story’s setting and protagonists. He made special mention of the horrible spiders being “all over Romana” at the start of episode three and considered the spider autopsy to be “absolutely disgusting!” He was completely horrified by Dexeter’s actions in respect of the Marshchild, calling him “a murderer,” and furiously asking: “What did the Marshchild ever do to him?” Elsewhere he considered James Bree’s attempts to get away from the Marshmen in the Great Book Room to be hilarious and very much appreciated the gas weapons used to deter the invaders: “like cool water pistols but with gas.” However, the most interesting thing he had to say was why he felt this story was different to other 4th Doctor adventures: ‘Because Tom Baker is more scared and serious in this one, plus the Doctor and Romana are getting closer.”
Given this is his directorial debut Peter Grimwade does an admirable job. No wonder he was invited back to direct two of Who‘s most important stories of the era: Logopolis and Earthshock. He was also of course behind the wondrous Kinda. Looking at his body of work for the programme, it’s hard not to conclude that his writing may not have been as good as his directing, considering the likes of the widely-panned Time Flight, the frankly odd Mawdryn Undead and the misfiring Planet of Fire, but his overall contribution to Doctor Who is no less immense. Such a shame that we never got to see how he tackled The Return (the original name for Resurrection of the Daleks), originally scheduled as the finale to the 20th anniversary season.
Several of Grimwade’s directorial touches that deserve mention here include the Marshchild’s death and the Doctor’s furious response; the low-angled, and therefore more menacing, shots of the Marshmen entering the Starliner; and the radiant close-up on a smiling Romana after her sudden recovery in Dexeter’s Lab. Another short scene set in the Lab that also caught my attention this time around, features the Doctor discovering that Adric has stolen an image translator. This prompts the Doctor to ask him if he thinks it’s OK to steal other people’s property. Adric’s reply is a pleasingly defiant: “Sometimes!” One wonders if Waterhouse’s reply is so emphatic here due to his reported behind-the-scenes treatment by Baker? I like to think so. The final scene aboard the Starliner in which even in these last moments Decider Garif still questions whether leaving Alzarius is a hasty idea is a lovely piece of well-judged characterisation (“but you will agree it requires some thought”). As we see the Starliner take-off we realise that the much less Decider-esque Login, a rather subdued performance by George Baker, has obviously overruled Garif’s deep-seated preference for inaction.
The Starliner sets are a triumph, especially the corridors and the main entrance. Their designer Janet Budden has clearly put considerable thought and effort into their look and feel: the Starliner logos, the shiny black walls, the patterned floors and triangular laboratory grilles. As well as looking great they also complement the action: the claustrophobic nature of the narrow corridors; the sliding door under which Varsh is pulled, and the murky feel of the below decks area where Nefred finally reveals that they cannot return to Terradon because they have never been there. It’s a shame that Bree doesn’t quite get the right intonation right when explaining this, failing to emphasise the all-important word ‘return’. The Great Book Room is a little less successful than the other sets mainly because it looks like someone has nipped down to Smiths at lunchtime to buy some folders and coloured card with which to dress it. However it’s a great name for the Starliner’s main flight deck as it’s a lovely clue that the Deciders have no idea what the room is really for other than to store their historical documents.
The story ends rather uncertainly, partly because the TARDIS crew are now in the uncharted and mysterious Exo-Space, but mainly because it’s unclear whether Adric is on board. Certainly this was all John could focus on despite knowing that Adric becomes a bona fide companion.
I’ve enjoyed revisiting Full Circle: its unique look, feel and sound and the fact that it’s quite unlike any other Who. It’s a confident affair and the care taken with it by its writer, designer, director and performers comes over strongly. The adventure also marks a significant turning point in the show’s history, with the first proper indication of Christopher H Bidmead’s more scientific ambitions for the series, the introduction of the first of John Nathan-Turner’s three new companions – the first suggestion that an era of the show is coming to an end. It was common knowledge by the time Full Circle was broadcast that Tom Baker was leaving the show, but quite impossible to think who could possibly replace him.
I’m now tempted to review some more Who but I think my next blog post will see me back at Hammonds road haulage circa 1973 for the second series of the curiously compelling saga that is The Brothers…