Full Circle (Doctor Who review)

Above: a Marshman.

Today I'm going to review arguably the best story from Doctor Who season 18 - Full Circle. Broadcast from 25th October to 15th November 1980, this serial was Tom Baker's fifth last, and I think it's a too-often-forgotten classic.

On their way back to Gallifrey to return Romana (played by Lalla Ward) to the High Council of Time Lords, the TARDIS accidentally falls out of our world ("Normal-Space" or "N-Space") into a pocket universe called Exo-Space (or "E-Space"). There the Doctor, Romana and K-9 find themselves on the planet Alzarius, inhabited by the humanoid Alzarians. Alzarian society is based around the leadership of three "Deciders", the First of whom is tasked with carrying ancient secrets, and a grounded spaceship called the Starliner, which they spend their lives fixing in the hope that it will return them to their ancestors' home planet, Terradon. Every few years the Alzarians retreat into the Starliner to escape "Mistfall", a strange natural phenomenon which afflicts Alzarius, in which mist rises from the water, strange eggs appear in riverfruit, spiders crawl in the caves, and monstrous humanoids emerge from the marsh. However, it has been so long since the last Mistfall rebellious Alzarian youths, called the Outlers, have ceased to believe in it, and live on the outskirts of society stealing for food. But when the marshes start to bubble and the smoke begins to rise, they realise just how wrong they were...

A highly imaginative setting, as you can see. Full Circle was actually written by a 17-year old Doctor Who fan called Andrew Smith - who accomplished his life's dream to write for the show. This only makes this serial all the more impressive. Indeed, the great shots of the Marshmen emerging from the swamp is an excellent bit of early fan-service nostalgia - being reminiscent, of course, of the 1972 classic The Sea Devils. The Marshmen's costumes are great, and they're scary villains - in their multitude, walking slowly like zombies through the jungle, aimless and stupid like newborn babies, and armed with nasty clubs. They're not purely malevolent, either - they're just stupid animals. The Doctor displays his characteristic all-embracing empathy well in this serial, showing particular concern for a Marshman that wanders onto the Starliner and is vivisected by the Alzarians. An animal welfare subtext could indeed be read into this story, especially with regards to the twist at the end (which I'll come to later).

But there's plenty of playful fun to be had in this serial as well. The Doctor delivers a stream of entertaining, Bakerish puns, and there are fun moments such as when the Doctor tries to fix the TARDIS only for sparks to blast out of it, or when Romana gets trapped in a cave full of silly-looking spiders - and of course one jumps on her face of all places! I found it funny that each of the Deciders were introduced one after the other like Power Rangers, and even funnier still that one of them was called Gareth (well, technically Garif).

The sets are good; it feels very cinematic. It's also the serial that introduces the companion Adric (played by Matthew Waterhouse). I've always found Adric an interesting character. Sometimes he can be very likeable (I always thought he had a fun relationship with the Fourth Doctor as they were both so intelligent and efficient they seemed to work together well. It's a shame it didn't last longer), but other times he can come across like an entitled brat. For example, in his very first episode he accidentally pushes Decider Draith (Leonard Maguire) into a river, killing him, after foolishly rejecting his privileged Alzarian upbringing in favour of becoming an Outler. He effectively commits manslaughter.

However, the serial is not without its flaws. The Alzarian costumes, especially those of the Outlers, feel quite dated and 80's-ish. The Fourth Doctor at one point forgets to close the door of the Starliner during Mistfall, which allows a Marshman to escape onto the ship (who would thereafter be vivisected and die horribly). This seems like quite a callous error, especially for the Doctor, and is an example of the newfound weakness the Fourth Doctor experiences during his final season. At one point in the serial Romana is somehow brainwashed by Marshspider venom to let the Marshmen onto the Starliner. This makes not the slightest grain of sense, when it's established throughout the story that the Marshmen and the Marshspiders are not only two different (though related) species, but they are both animals, without a collective intelligence. And why Romana alone would be hypnotised by the Marsh venom is beyond me, when everyone else afflicted with it seems to die instantly.

Spoiler warning. Full Circle concludes with a delightful, one might say Lovecraftian, twist. The Doctor discovers that, though the Starliner does indeed originate from Terradon, the Alzarians are not the descendants of the original Terradonian crewmembers. The Starliner has in fact been operational for centuries - for all these years the Alzarians have merely been taking their ship apart and putting it back together again in a pointless eternal ritual, as the Deciders secretly don't know how to pilot it. Meanwhile it is revealed the First Decider knows a further hidden truth - that the Alzarians share DNA with the Marshspiders and the Marshmen - that their true ancestors are not the civilised Terradonians but the savage Marshmen that long ago must have broken into the Starliner, killed its original crew, and gradually figured out how to operate it and learn from its vast stores of information to evolve finally into civilised Alzarians. When the modern day Marshmen break into the Starliner, as First Decider Draith and his successor First Decider Nefred remark, it is as if evolution is coming "full circle".
However, before the evolved Alzarians of the Starliner are massacred by their evolutionary forebears the Marshmen, Romana begs the Doctor not to let the evolutionary cycle take its course when an entire new intelligent species, the Alzarians, would be wiped out. So it is that the Doctor expels the Marshmen from the Starliner with a non-lethal defence (oxygen, too much of which the Marshmen cannot tolerate). He teaches the Alzarians how to pilot their Starliner and they leave Alzarius to find a new home amongst the stars. Though, they cannot return to fabled Terradon, because that was never their homeworld to begin with.

Unfortunately the twist was spoilt for me by Wikipedia, which right up gives it away in the opening paragraph of its article on Full Circle, "The serial involves the alien time traveller the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) discovering the life cycle of three closely related species on the planet Alzarius - the humanoid Alzarians, the Marshmen, and the Marshspiders - coming "full circle"". The moral of the story is - never read the Wikipedia entry on a Doctor Who serial before you see it yourself.
Nonetheless, it's a very interesting ending. The Doctor is sympathetic to the Marshmen - after all, he sees in their inquisitiveness and capability all the potential for an intelligent life form. He exchanges the following sassy conversation with the lesser Deciders, who are horrified to discover that they're descended from the Marsh monsters:

Decider: "It's horrible!"
Doctor: "Oh I don't think so. We're all basically primeval slime with ideas above its station"
Decider: "How can you compare us to those... those things?"
Doctor: "Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose they are adaptive, intelligent..."

If you too find the idea of being descended from Marshmen and Marshspiders horrible, then I regret to inform you that a similar truth applies to our own species. We are, after all, effectively the descendants of primeval yeti, and beyond that all sorts of weird monstrous creatures not unlike the Marshspiders. The animal welfare subtext mentioned above could be linked to Full Circle's Darwinian conclusion, for the serial raises the question, how distant are we really from our animal ancestors? And therefore, if the distance is shorter than we think, what does this imply for the way we treat our animal kin? While the humanoid Alzarians can be compared to the human race, the Marshmen can be compared to the higher orders of earthly animals such as the intelligent great apes. Can we really defend vivisecting, experimenting on, and culling these creatures which are so like us? Is our treatment of these animals just an example of human or Alzarian hubris - a kind of arrogant speciesism that supposes we are greater than we are? Do we as a species really have all that much to be proud of, or like the Alzarians are we fresh from the primordial swamp and toying around with Heaven-sent concepts and tools we will never be able to truly understand?

Full Circle isn't the best classic Who story. It's not one of the pantheon of greats which includes Genesis of the Daleks and The Caves of Androzani. But it's a solid classic Who watch - it has the playful B-movie moments, the fun monsters, as well as the deeper science fiction concepts and moral themes. Basically, it's everything you want classic Who to be. And I guess, having been written by a passionate 17-year old Doctor Who fan, what else could you expect?