Saturday, 19 September 2009

Doctor Who: Full Circle

Part One

“Well, of course I’m better than you. I’m an elite.”

Romana’s been summoned back to Gallifrey, which gives us an excuse for some references to Leela and Andred and the like. But Romana’s upset by this, and goes to her previously unseen room to be alone, the Doctor seemingly oblivious to how depressing the prospect must be. The Doctor’s attitude is that you can’t fight Time Lords and Romana will have to do as she’s told, and however much this may echo the end of The War Games it just feels wrong and out of character. Still, it’s in keeping with the Doctor’s subdued and sombre mood.

Gallifrey is not to be, though, as something odd happens to the TARDIS and, although they’re in the right coordinates and the scanner is showing images of Gallifrey, as soon as the Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS they’re somewhere else, an alien planet much more blatantly like southern England than the usual quarry landscape. This is very good indeed, a uniquely mysterious situation as well as lots of character stuff. Oh, and the music is quite peculiar in the context of what’s gone before, but I like it. It sounds very much of it’s time now and unfortunately dated, but then things from twenty of thirty years ago always do. In another ten years’ time it’ll have receded too far into the past to be dated, much as the Sixties have, and instead become simply period.

The society and situation of this planet is sketched out with admirable economy in this episode, telling us everything we need to know while also holding back a lot of stuff to be revealed later on. We’re introduced to the Outlers, the Deciders, the concept of Mistfall, and the Starliner. Oh, and Adric, who from the start is quite badly portrayed by Matthew Waterhouse. Still, we get George Cole and James Bree (putting in a much less mannered performance than he did in The War Games) to make up for this.

Part Two

“How odd. I usually get on terribly well with children”

The Marshmen look quite good- yes, they’re obviously in rubber suits, but this is Doctor Who- but they look as though they’ve come from the Black Lagoon.

This episode keeps up the quality and increasingly makes it clear how well-plotted this is. Characterisation is good, too; I love the moment where Romana hands the knife back to an Outler- very Doctorish.

Revelations trickle out at an appropriate place; this is Alzarius, but the crew of the starliner supposedly come from Terradon. But there’s a great and terrible secret, known only to the First Decider.

K9 is once again beheaded (grr!) but Romana gets a fourth wall-busting line bemoaning his fate this season: “In fact, we always seem to be repairing him”.

Part Three

“These short trips don’t usually work.”

Nice cliffhanger- shame that this results in Romana being pretty much written out of the rest of the story, though.

We get some real bombshells this episode: the maintenance being carried out on the ship is completely unnecessarily as the ship has been ready to fly for centuries, but no one knows how to pilot it. It’s a nice reversal of a trope of the show to see the Doctor lambasting the Deciders for their duplicity and to see them implicitly accepting his criticisms. It’s becoming clear just how good this story is- when a third episode successfully manages to unfold more bits of the backstory at an appropriate pace you know you’ve got something unusually good.

Part Four

“We’ve come full circle.”

It’s unusual in Doctor Who for the final episode to be the best of a story, but for once this is the case. In a couple of nicely done early scenes we first see the Doctor holding back the Marshmen by exploiting their apparent religious reverence for K9’s head (pre-empting Return of the Jedi there?) and then we get an excellent scene between the Deciders in the library. There are Marshmen clamouring to get in and presumably kill everyone, yet Nefred prefers to spout management speak (“a holistic approach”) instead of doing anything, to Login’s disbelief.

The final big revelation, from Nefred’d dying words, is a corker; the ship’s crew are not descended from the original Terradonian crew at all, but from Marshmen (themselves descendents of spiders) who got in and killed them all, eventually evolving to their present form, reading the manuals and eventually coming to believe themselves to be from Terradon. Of course, even someone like myself with a pathetically arty education knows this isn’t how evolution really works, but there actually seems to be enough of the right kind of somehow sciencey dialogue to get away with it.

There’s a great moment where the two Deciders are about to press the button for the ship to take off but Garif can’t resist the temptation to procrastinate: “But you will agree, it does require some thought.”
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Romana now realise they’re trapped in E-Space, unless they can find a Charged Vacuum Emboitment™. And unbeknown to them, they have a stowaway…

Absolutely brilliant, which comes as something of a relief after the first two stories of the season. 5/5, in fact. At last we have a script that doesn’t feel like a script from the previous regime with all the humour taken out but instead does something new, and in that context the new seriousness starts to make a lot of sense. This is the sort of “proper” sci-fi that Doctor Who doesn’t actually do that often (it’s the first story since The Mutants that I can imagine being adapted as a “straight” sci-fi short story) and so it feels very fresh and new. And Andrew Smith seems quite a find, coming up with a great central premise and handling structure and characterisation very well indeed, albeit possibly with help from Bidmead. Perhaps the show might want to consider more scripts by fans in, say, 25 years time?

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