Doctor Who complete reviews: Full Circle
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Arguably the most controversial Doctor Who assistant ever crawls out of the water...
The older I get, the younger teenagers seem to get. Just look at this year's horrendous X Factor line-up, which seems to have been tailor-made for under-fives. Most of the acts are apparently around the 18 mark, including a Dot Cotton lookalike with a head that's about five times bigger than her body; a smug Todd Landers lookalike from Neighbours, and what appears to be a group of boy scouts from about 1977 (it's the crap haircuts, you see).
Still, this is nothing new, and even in Doctor Who, 18 year-olds seem to have overtaken the building. Take Full Circle, the first story of the E-Space trilogy. The author is a highly talented young chap called Andrew Smith, who was one of Christopher HAMILTON Bidmead's real finds. Despite being only 18 years of age, Smith turned in a script that was detailed, thought-provoking and highly entertaining to boot. It deals with a whole manner of weighty subjects, including vivisection and evolution, while telling a good-old-fashioned monster story with a twist.
So let's look at some of the undercurrents running through here. The story basically concerns The Doctor and co getting caught in a CVE (Charged Vacuum Emboitment) and ending up in the murky green universe of E-Space, and so pre-empting kiddies favourite Dungeons And Dragons by getting stuck in a world that they apparently can't get out of. Their first port of call is the lush world of Alzarius, where a group of doddery old fools are trying to take off from the planet in their rickety old Starliner, a crisis that's been heightened by the onset of Mistfall, which gives way to a dreaded race of creatures called Marshmen.
Despite their fearsome appearance, the Marshmen are a classic case of Don't Judge By Looks. Initially, they are portrayed as a fearsome presence, and Peter Grimwade's moody slow-mo shots of them emerging from a lake at the end of part one really heighten the fear factor for kids. But as the story progresses, we find out that in fact, there's a lot more to them than meets the eye, especially when The Doctor decides to do a bit of research into the biological backgrounds of both the Alzarians and the Marshmen. Put it this way, an Alzarian Who Do You Think You Are could throw up some surprises.
And another element that changes the viewer's attitude is, of course, the capture of the hapless Marshchild. This gives way to one of the strongest elements of the story - that of the anti-vivisection message. Dexeter, the Alzarian scientist, decides to capture the Marshchild and use it for his own research project. Unfortunately, that means hacking the poor sap about with a scalpel knife, as demonstrated in the most harrowing scene of the tale. Interestingly, we never see Dexeter cut into the Marshchild, but the close up of the possessed Romana's agonised screaming face does the job adequately enough.
Inevitably, the Marshchild comes to a sticky end, as it accidentally smashes its hand through a TV monitor - it's a far cry from the initial shot of the apparently all-powerful Marshmen. Basically, the Marshmen are trying to adapt to their new surroundings, and when they kill, it's on a purely primal level rather than a deliberate act of murder. It's a throwback to the Pertwee years in which monsters were presented in shades of grey rather than black and white baddies. Unsurprisingly, the executive producer of this season is the great Barry Letts, who presumably influenced a distinctly moral edge to stories like this and Warriors' Gate.
The outrage of this is seen in that splendid scene when The Doctor yells at the bumbling Deciders and takes them to task: "NOT AN ALIBI, DECIDERS!!" The anti-vivisection theme apart, the rant does throw up a couple of other possible themes, which maybe lurk closer to home than you might expect. On the one hand, The Doctor rants at the Deciders' lack of change, or rather, their unwillingness to change. The Starliner could have taken off many moons ago, but they have kept the status quo of having to maintain the ship to disguise the fact that they don't know how. Hmmmm, could this be a reference to the brand new changes implemented in season 18? One message that comes through from Full Circle is that Change Is Good. Clearly, the Deciders hadn't been listening to Sheryl Crow's 1996 ditty lately...
But on the other hand, a theory touted by some fans is that maybe The Doctor's railing against an uppity, unbending regime that's totally devoid of imagination or humour. Tom Baker's performance certainly adds weight to this theory, especially when you consider that the new regime of JNT and Bidmead are pushing for a show that's slightly at odds with the main man's vision for the show. Less ad-libs. Less humour. Less Doctor really. Up until part three, The Doctor's barely featured in Full Circle. He's had one or two brief scenes in part one, and then mooched around the Alzarian jungle and Starliner like a lost soul in part two. It's only in the later parts that Tom Baker is allowed to shine, both in his sadness at Romana's possession and also during the rant at the Deciders. It's tempting to think that the rant could easily have been levelled at both JNT and Bidmead - just look at the ferocity with which he hurls those plastic folders to the floor. Nevertheless, this is Big Tom at his best, delivering a speech full of heart and conviction.
Still, he has to make up for the companions. Lalla Ward is undeniably brilliant as Romana in this story, whether she's sadly contemplating a Doctor-less future on Gallifrey or standing up to the Outlers without so much as a raised eyebrow. And she is at her creepy best when possessed by the Marshmen. But she doesn't really get to do much in the last couple of parts, which is a shame, and as for poor old K9 - for the third story on the trot, he's reduced to a heap of spare parts.
"Matthew Waterhouse had barely had any previous acting experience prior to Who, and sadly this shows in the end product, which is stilted and wooden"
What's worse is that Romana and K9 are making way for your friend and mine, the one and only Adric. Poor old Adric - it's fair to say that the second 18-year-old of Full Circle has received the sort of reception that you'd get when someone's just puked up on your shoes. There's a million and one things wrong with the idea and execution of Adric. For one thing, Matthew Waterhouse's performances are sadly never up to scratch. Waterhouse had barely had any previous acting experience prior to Who, and sadly this shows in the end product, which is stilted and wooden. The scene in which he first encounters The Doctor and is meant to react with frightened horror ("I've got to warn them...") just becomes a big joke because Waterhouse's acting is more akin to a slightly confused monkey trying to work out a tricky Sudoku puzzle. Props to Waterhouse for trying, but sadly he never quite gets Adric, apart from the awkwardness of adolescence.
And there's another problem. For a show that's now trying to go in a new, adult direction, the adolescent teenage companions are totally at odds with this remit. Both Adric and the forthcoming Nyssa are really no more than kids, while the other forthcoming companion Tegan has the emotional maturity of a two-year-old. Ridiculous, and to make matters worse, Adric is very much one of those spotty nerd genius types, the sort that only a very select few can relate to.
And finally, there's the pudding bowl haircut, which even today (in this day and age of the bowlcut making an inexplicable renaissance - just ask Justin Sodding Bieber) looks ridiculous.
Baker's evidently none too happy at the asylum being taken over by a horde of kids, refusing to look any of the Outlers in the eye. Still, at least some of them are better-acted than Adric. Varsh, despite a perpetually angry glare that looks like his eyebrows are knotted to his eyes, is well acted by Richard Willis. June Page is also good as Keara, as is Bernard Padden as Tylos, even if Padden himself lately seems to have morphed into Victor Spinetti, judging by the accompanying talking-head DVD documentary.
In fact, there's not a duff performance among the bunch. The Deciders are all very well acted, and yes, that includes James Bree, who had given such a risible performance as The Security Chief in The War Games. Bree's Nefred is excellent actually, a boring old plodder who nevertheless seems more aware than he lets on at times - he knows very well that he's not that popular, despite being at the top of the pile, especially when he tells Garif that Login is the most popular man in the community ("After no one..."). Alan Rowe is also very good as Garif, but stealing the show this time is George Baker, who is brilliant as Login, a man whose compassion and thought for others leads him to question the Deciders' apathy ("So that is your solution from all this knowledge? Do nothing???!!!?"). By the end of the story, it's a dead cert that Login's more proactive approach may allow the Alzarians a better future.
On the whole, Full Circle stands up very well indeed. It's superbly directed by Peter Grimwade, who makes his debut here. The atmospheric location scenes work very well, but then he certainly knows how to create a setpiece in the studio, such as the Marshchild's escape and Romana freeing the Marshmen at the end of part three. The production values look splendid with the sole exception of the Marsh Crab Spider, a nice idea that sadly comes over as a plastic toy.
Otherwise, this is an impressive start to the trilogy. The outlook may look gloomy for The Doctor, Romana and K9, as they grimly contemplate a future in E-Space with no way out. But for the viewers, this is 12 weeks of solid storytelling, high production values and many a memorable moment. Full Circle is one of the crowning glories of both the trilogy and the season as a whole.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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