Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Full Circle"

I'll admit, I've been putting this one off a bit. It is a bit of a difficult story to get a handle on.

For once there was not much going on in the background on this story. It was written by Andrew Smith who actually holds the place for being the first Doctor Who fan to get to write an episode. He was no fan-ficcer turned lucky though; he had grown up on the show and went into writing for TV, having episodes of several other TV shows under his belt before submitting his script to the Doctor Who office.

It was decided to do a series of linked stories. "Full Circle" would start what became known as "the E-Space Trilogy" with "State of Decay" (which I reviewed previously) as the second installment. Since Tom Baker had announced he would be leaving the program the idea was for the E-Space Trilogy to set the stage for the Doctor's death and regeneration. This meant introducing a new companion to prepare the way for an exiting one since Lalla Ward was not interested in staying on as Romana either.

As such a very novice actor named Matthew Waterhouse, who also happened to be working in the BBC offices, got the nod to become the new companion, Adric, introduced here. And hated for years. But that's for later; in the meantime, on with the plot!

The Plot: The Doctor and Romana have been summoned back to Gallifrey but on the way the TARDIS passes through a rare anomaly called a Charged Vacuum Emboitment (CVE) this places them in the smaller, negative universe of E-Space. They land on the planet Alzarius to get their bearings and discover a colony of humans from a crashed starliner who have been busily repairing their ship so that they might one day return home.

This also happens to be a time known as Mistfall, when dangerous mists rise and creatures known as Marshmen rise from the swamps and attack the colonists. The colonists retreat into their ship but one group of teenagers remain outside. The Doctor finds all of this very curious and the more he digs the more he comes to realize that there is something strange going on on Alzarius and things are not as they seem...

My Take: Doctor Who is at some of it's best when it pushes boundaries and plays with new ideas. The central concepts here of change, fear of change, fear of "the other", and the potentialities of evolution fly pretty high. There are a lot of ideas packed in here and if you don't watch carefully and pay attention you may not catch everything.

For example, there is the fact that the Alzarians see the Marshmen as mindless brutes, little more than cattle, but the Doctor sees something different -- a species capable of learning and adapting quickly. There are overtones here of the way colonial powers often used to perceive native populations. The discovery of the true connection between the colonists and the Marshmen is therefore quite a shock to the colonists.

There is also the irony of the Deciders. The Alzarian society appoints a triumvirate of leaders which they call "Deciders" and these Deciders then seem to decide what the people need to know or not. And yet time and time again we see them as too timid, too frozen by their own uncertainties to actually *make* a decision.

There are also a number of reversals and surprise twists which keep the audiences sympathies volleying back and forth. At the start we see the monstrous Marshmen as the villains of the piece. They are frightening looking, it is indicated that they are responsible for the death of one of the Deciders, the nice, peaceful, Alzarians are terrified of them and most damnable is the fact that they knock K-9's head off (although it does lead to an amusing bit where Romana remarks that they're always fixing K-9. Seriously, the little tin dog was like the Kenny of Doctor Who he was forever having his electronic innards pulled out, getting attacked by aliens, having his batteries drained, etc.). And yet later we see the Marshchild become fascinated with the Doctor and it makes no truly threatening moves. It's capture by the Alzarians suddenly turns the table. The scientist's crude and painful techniques of study and his callous disregard for the Marshchild's life in the name of "science" turn the audience's sympathies to the Marshchild. The Decider's support of what amounts to vivisection of the creature alive finishes the transformation of the Alzarians for victims to victimizers. But yet again the wheel spins when the painful truth of it all is revealed and when the Marshmen rampage through the ship killing indiscriminately we again feel pity for the Alzarians.

There is a pretty big cast here by Doctor Who standards, although not all of them are given a fullness to become anything but cyphers. Most of the teenage "Outlier" band are little more than stock, rebellious teenagers who get to show a bit of mettle when the chips are down. Adric is the only one of them who is allowed to show much of a range and unfortunately Waterhouse's inexperience robs this of a lot of impact. There's always something a little off about his performance. He tends to either underplay or overplay and in at least one scene comes damn near breaking the fourth wall and delivering his line directly to the camera (a no-no with something like this). Inflection on some of the words is also just a shade off. Nothing you can really point to directly but something that just gets on your nerves a bit as the story goes on. There is also a kind of earnestness which seems built into the character in the script which doesn't do the character any favors -- it just increases the annoying factor.

The story also isn't quite Romana's tour-de-force either. Lalla Ward does a lovely job with what she has to do but sadly for a number of episodes she basically plays a zombie in thrall to the Marshmen... sort-of... either way we don't get to see quite enough of the intelligent, problem-solving, witty Romana that fans know and love.

Tom Baker, on the other hand, has some really lovely lines of dialogue and some great sequences. His defense of the Marshchild and the Marshmen in general is filled with clever, back-handed insults but at the same time we see even the Doctor taken aback as he learns more of the truth about the Alzarians.

As for the filming, the location shots are really, really excellent. The forest and water are shot in such a way as to put one in mind of Earth and yet still seem alien. The sequence with the Marshmen rising out of the water is also really well done and creepy as all get-out... if only they had left the Marshmen in the forest. Right around 1979/1980 something started happening in the studios at the BBC. In the past the Doctor Who production teams were careful to light the sets to hide some of the cheapness and stageyness of the sets. As the 1980's dawned that changed and the sets started to be over-lit, leading to them looking more like the backdrop to a high school stage production. We see that starting to creep in here. The starliner interiors don't look bad under this lighting but the Marshmen costumes suddenly go from something freaky and intimidating to looking like nobbly rubber wetsuits. And then there are the spiders. The spiders which are supposed to be rather creepy and jump out of the river fruit... yeah, I've seen cheap rubber novelty spiders which looked better than these things. They are absolutely ridiculous. Thankfully they only appear in a couple of scenes and then vanish.

Getting past some of the crappier special effects the story itself is compelling and keeps you off balance as the situation shifts and changes. There are a lot of good ideas and a lot of things to leave you thinking after the credits roll on the final episode.

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