Change was most definitely in the air during the 18th season of Doctor Who. A new producer (John Nathan-Turner) and a new script-editor (Christopher H. Bidmead) were firmly in place, whilst an experienced old hand (Barry Letts) kept a watching brief as executive producer.
Those who have been around Doctor Who fandom for a long period will probably recall the time when S18 was highly rated. This was at exactly the same time that some of fandom intensely disliked S17.
The viewpoint at the time seemed to be –
Season 17 = Silly = Bad
Season 18 = Serious = Good
But as S17 came back into fashion this seemed to dent S18’s popularity a little. It was now seen by some as a little po-faced and science obsessed compared to the free-wheeling S17.
For me, both seasons have their merits and demerits and the dividing line between them can get a little blurred. Meglos, for example, could easily fit in to S17, whilst The Leisure Hive had originally been commissioned for S17.
By the time we get to Full Circle, the third transmitted story, we are seeing more of the pure vision of Bidmead though. Without a doubt this season, for good or bad, was created in his image. He once estimated that he wrote about 70% of S18 and Full Circle is a story that he had a great input into, as he considerably reworked Andrew Smith’s original scripts.
It doesn’t all work (there are some holes in the logic) but there’s a fine performance from Baker, particularly in episode three, and confident direction from Peter Grimwade which carries the story along.
Bidmead is quite a divisive figure. The DVDs have allowed him the space to clearly state his vision of what he believed Doctor Who should be – a series rooted in scientific fact and definitely not drawing on popular books or films to pastiche. One can only wonder how he would have got on with Robert Holmes, although we can probably guess by the somewhat strained relationship he had with Terrance Dicks, who didn’t care for his rewrites on State of Decay.
Bidmead’s extensive input across the season does mean that there’s a thematic unity unusual in Doctor Who at the time. The first six stories all portray civilisations that for one reason or another are stagnating.
The Argolins are sterile, Tigella is a planet held back by the superstitious nature of the Deons, the Three Who Rule have deliberately devolved the development of their planet, the Tharils once enslaved others but now they find themselves enslaved while the inhabitants of the Traken Union live in harmony for as long as the Keeper lives.
In the final story, the Logopolitans have been attempting to stave off the heat death of the universe by attempting to maintain stasis. But as the Doctor observes, entropy increases, and like the other stories of the season, change is inevitable.
In Full Circle, the Alzarians seek to deny the course of evolution by sealing themselves in the Starliner until the danger they believe exists has passed. Theirs is truly a stagnant society – with ineffectual leaders, the ironically named Deciders, who are unable to make any decisions except to maintain an existence based on continual procrastination.
Production-wise, this is an impressive Doctor Who directing debut from Peter Grimwade. The early episodes benefit from a generous amount of location filming and the location, Black Park, looks gorgeous in the sunshine. It looks so good that it’s surprising it wasn’t used more often in Doctor Who.
The production was fortunate to shoot in sunshine, which enhanced the shots, but there was also clearly some thought given about how to depict an alien landscape. Grimwade used coloured lamps from just off-screen to bathe parts of the landscape in an unearthly glow. It’s a simple trick, but effective.
Full Circle was, of course, the first transmitted story featuring Adric. In production terms Matthew Waterhouse had already recorded State of Decay, but as can be seen he’s still somewhat uncertain in the role.
Given his lack of acting experience this isn’t a surprise – although a more actor-friendly director may have helped to refine his performance. But anecdotal evidence suggests that Grimwade wasn’t an actors director, so Waterhouse had to make his own way.
He’s not noticeably worse than the rest of the Outlers though, who all have a whiff of the stage school about them. They’re fairly unrewarding parts but Richard Willis (Varsh), Bernard Padden (Tylos) and June Page (Keara) do the best they can. Although maybe it’s indicative of one re-write too many when Keara becomes suddenly intensely curious about everything in the last episode – possibly her lines were originally intended for Romana or Adric.
We’re on much firmer ground with the Deciders – James Bree (Nefred), Alan Rowe (Garif) and George Baker (Login). Bree had previously given a strange performance in The War Games, where every line was drawn out to the nth degree, but he’s far, far, better here. Bree plays it like many a politician or manager promoted way above their ability – he is able to project a calm outward exterior whilst having no original or helpful ideas of his own.
Alan Rowe, a familiar face from his guest appearance in Horror of Fang Rock a few years earlier, is equally indecisive as Garif. As previously mentioned, the title of Deciders is obviously intentionally ironic, but both of them are lucky to have a new Decider who knows his own mind in the form of George Baker.
Episode one establishes the planet and the mystery of the negative co-ordinates before ending on the emergence of the Marshmen. As monsters incapable of speaking, for a large part of the story the Marshmen are simply used as figures to menace the Alzarians. But the Marshchild shows that they are intelligent, reasoning creatures who have a closer relationship to the inhabitants of the Starliner than at first thought.
Episode two is where the story begins to kick into gear as the Doctor meets the Deciders and can begin to understand exactly what is happening on the planet.
In episode three the Marshchild dies and enough groundwork has been laid to ensure that we don’t regard it as just another monsters death. The Doctor’s link with the creature means he reacts with a fury that hasn’t been seen for a few years (since the conclusion of The Pirate Planet). It’s a wonderfully acted scene from Tom Baker.
DOCTOR: You Deciders allowed this to happen.
GARIF: The marsh creatures are mindless brutes. Animals!
DOCTOR: Yes. Easy enough to destroy. Have you ever tried creating one?
NEFRED: We were within our rights.
GARIF: One might argue that Dexeter was overzealous.
DOCTOR: Not an alibi, Deciders! You three are supposed to be leaders.
GARIF: Certainly we are. Though, of course, Nefred is, er, is now First Decider.
DOCTOR: Then Nefred is responsible.
NEFRED: For the community, yes.
DOCTOR: No, no! Perhaps they haven’t let you in on the secret, Login. Shall I tell him, gentlemen?
DOCTOR: Yes! And the fraud of perpetual movement. The endless tasks going round and round. The same old components being removed and replaced.
We haven’t yet discussed the other regulars. Lalla Ward gets an episode or so where she’s possessed by the Marshman. Although Sarah-Jane Smith used to get taken over on a regular basis it’s not something that has happened before to Romana, so it has a little more impact. Poor K9 finds himself decapitated half way through, which is a clear sign that his days are numbered.
The eventual solution to the mystery in episode four is something that may have been clearer in early drafts. The notion that the Marshman boarded the Starliner when it first landed, killed the occupants and then gradually evolved into the Alzarians is possibly not too explicit in the dialogue – so anybody watching for the first time might have missed this important plot twist.
And if the Starliner has been on the planet for 40,000 generations, how many generations passed until the Marshmen evolved into the humanoids we see today? It surely couldn’t have taken all of that time, so why have the Marshmen not been able, until now, to board the Starliner again?
Minor quibbles apart, this is a solid story. Attractive location filming, a decent monster, a great performance from Tom and some solid actors for him to react to all help to lift this above the norm. It’s only ranked 143rd out of the 241 stories in DWM’s 2014 poll and deserves to be higher (but then what has poor Meglos done to be ranked 231 out of 241? It’s not perfect but anything with Bill Fraser and Freddie Treves can’t be all bad, can it?)
After a slightly shaky start with The Leisure Hive and Meglos, S18 really started to gain momentum with Full Circle. And there was even better to come.