Monday, January 23, 2012

Serial 111: Full Circle - The E-Space Trilogy Part I

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Romana II, K-9, Adric

Written by: Andrew Smith
Directed by: Peter Grimwade 

Background & Significance: Season 18 of Doctor Who is something of a strange beast if for no other reason than because it marks a period of transition for the show. Most transitory periods only last a few or so episodes (the transition from Pertwee to Tom Baker is a good example, where "Robot" is a weird UNIT story and not really the Hinchcliffe/Holmes vision of the show), but this season marks a big paradigm shift as the show prepares to move away from Tom Baker and towards the stewardship of Producer John Nathan-Turner.

This is the one where you really start to feel its effects.

As Philip Sandifer is talking about all this week, the hand off from Tom Baker to Nathan-Turner happened in stages. Certain things were immediately apparent, the change in costume being the one that really stands out. Nathan-Turner really helped to codify the Tom Baker costume, which is... well... it's a good thing, I think. I mean, I'm personally a huge fan of the first three years of Tom Baker's look: Huge coat, colorful waistcoat, tie, button down shirt, slacks, perfect-length scarf... hat optional. It gave the Doctor a sense of ordered chaos and manner of appearance. As time went on though, Tom Baker started to take more liberty with his costume. No tie. Waistcoat optional and unbuttoned (which makes me ask why he even bothered keeping it around). Scarf that looks like a two-story tall curtain rather than an actual scarf. (Compare the two and you'll see the difference).

If nothing else, the burgundy scheme really points towards Baker's imminent departure. It feels very restrained, very somber, very foreboding. Funeral clothes, if you will... but for his own funeral. It's an ominous touch that just feels so good and so right, especially in retrospect.

But then you turn around and talk about script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, who brought in an almost over-saturation of "science" into a show that had been so defined by the "world of dreams and fantasy" under Graham Williams. It's not that I don't like his ideas (I mean, I love "Castrovalva", and "Logopolis" was totally watchable), but the focus on that is a bit silly, especially when it gets into Bidmead's own perspective on "science" which is much more based on conceptual interests (entropy) than actual data, facts, and real physics or whatever.

Which brings us to our week-long discussion of E-Space, which will see the arrival of Adric and the departure of Romana and K-9. E-Space is a big sci-fi concept that really pushes the Bidmead conception of Doctor Who more than "The Leisure Hive" or "Meglos" ever could. Those two stories were conceived and commissioned by the previous production team (re: Graham Williams) and don't make for "Nathan-Turner" stories. The next story ("State of Decay") was a product of long time Doctor Who stalwart Terrance Dicks. Fortunately/unfortunately Nathan-Turner didn't want to be undermined by any experienced Doctor Who crew who could undermine his authority, so Dicks is an old holdover. Almost in response, Nathan-Turner went in the completely opposite direction and commissioned "Full Circle" from Andrew Smith, who was only a teenager at the time.

Talk about fresh blood. Youngest writer on Doctor Who ever. I'm curious to see how it works out.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So confession time: I’m not a huge fan of this story, or at least I wasn’t a huge fan of this story when I initially watched it. Writing this up is my second attempt to enjoy it, so we’ll see how it goes, I guess.

But my hopes aren’t high.

One of the things about a first episode that I think is really important is the way the episode has to set a tone and expectations for what comes next. It needs to be engaging and interesting, or you’re… kinda sunk/screwed for the next few episodes, stuck in a malaise of apathy while the story passes by before your eyes. If the first episode of “Full Circle” is any indication, I’m reminded why I’m not entirely engaged with this story, and it’s not because of necessarily anything it does wrong, but rather because of the choices made by the creative minds involved.

I’m speaking specifically of the decision to remove The Doctor and Romana from the story.

The vast majority of the first episode is all about the plight of the colonists(?) on this planet. What we have is a something conflict between the people of the main society/starliner and the “Outlers”. The Outlers are basically a rogue band of children who live in a cave and try to steal fruit from the society because they don’t want to be a society. Teenage rebellion, if you will, only like… real and stuff, where they ran away from society because… they did. The society themselves wouldn’t mind the kids back (for one thing, it would save on stolen fruit), but they’re not exactly rabid to pull them back in.

My question is, why should I care?

To be frank, I don’t find this story entirely engaging. It’s not for me. It doesn’t help that Matthew Waterhouse is a weak actor, to say the least, and he’s supposed to carry multiple scenes across this episode (and more moving forward, I’ll assume) and he just… can’t. To borrow a phrase from Janet Fielding, “you can see him acting” and he’s not even doing that good a job at it either. The scenes with him in the cave are painful, as are the ones of him in the TARDIS, and they really grind to a halt all of the things going on in the story.

And it shouldn’t really be like this. For starters, Adric comes from a very good concept. He was supposed to be something akin to “The Artful Dodger”, a mischievous little kid and street urchin whom The Doctor takes under his wing. (I’m sure there’s a Jason Todd joke in there somewhere, but I think this predates him… so…) It’s a good concept for the character, but they really declaw any sort of potential he could have by turning him into a failed outcast who’s not good at anything except math. I understand that this is supposed to help the show by emphasizing brains over brawn, but I’ll be honest with you… that badge for mathematical excellence makes him look like something of a pretentious douchebag, and specifically about something that matters only to him.

But I don’t care about the Outlers. They’re kinda lame and ineffectual. They can’t even steal fruit good. And fine, they can’t steal fruit, but they can’t collect on their own? Come on…

Nor do I care about this society. They feel bland and uninteresting, wrapped in a whole manner of sci-fi technobabble about things. There’s talk of the “Outlers” and the “starliner” and the “Deciders”, which kinda gives away that Smith isn’t a very old or experienced writer at this point. The terms don’t have flair, and when they do have flair it doesn’t… work because the terms don’t make sense. Compare the slang here to the slang used in something like Firefly or Dollhouse and it’s night and day. Wrapping this much nonsensical into this just pushes me away from the story and the characters and the plot and that’s… that’s not where I need to be.

So that’s weak, and it’s problematic because that’s the middle of this episode with no cutaways to The Doctor and Romana.

And there’s your biggest mistake. I don’t care about these people because they don’t have anything to do with anything. There’s no stakes and no investment. It’s all just setup and piece maneuvering for story developments that are down the line. The Doctor and Romana in this episode feels like something totally Sawardian in the way it pushes them to the periphery. And it’s compounded by the fact that the two of them are easily the best part of this episode. They work so well together and their chemistry is sparking all over the screen and it’s… engaging and interesting…

But instead we get a bunch of people I don’t care about dealing with problems I don’t care about and The Doctor and Romana nowhere in sight, it leads to me being uninvested and bored. That’s not where I should be at the end of the episode.

That said, the creature from the black lagoon ending is consistently lauded as a great moment of horror and intrigue. It certainly helps that it’s witnessed by The Doctor, bringing him into the story full bore. It’s welcome and sufficiently built up to, but the structure means I’ve all but tuned out by the time it happens so it’s kind of a slap in the face that is strong but not enough to pull me out of my general apathy…

Part 2

Reflecting on this story, I find it reminds me a lot of “Kinda”… Or at least… it sorta does.

See, one of the things that’s interesting about “Kinda” is the way Christopher Bailey refuses to explain himself, or at least… he does for the first three episodes. Once the final episode comes around he opens the floodgates to all of his explanations, explaining what exactly has been going on in the rest of the story. It means you’re kind of in the dark for the first three episodes wondering (at least initially) “what the frak is happening” while the insanity unfurls itself.

This story does the same thing only a season earlier. Except when it comes to me I think the story fails to be engaging on just about any level.

For one thing, it really feels like we’re not accomplishing anything in this story. The Doctor goes into the starliner and wanders around a bit before being brought before The Deciders (which is still a term I’m not huge on, to be perfectly honest) and arguing about something or another. Meanwhile Adric brings his cast of Outlers into the TARDIS where they sit around for a whole episode talking about what’s going on and what they should do. They make a joke about K-9 getting decapitated. And then the Outlers take off without Romana, leading to a cliffhanger that is a cliffhanger, I suppose.

In the end of the episode, it feels like we’re left with nothing and nothing was accomplished. It’s padded and problematic, it is.

To add to the thing, the creatures from the black lagoon are wandering about seemingly aimlessly, accomplishing goodness knows what. I guess it’s interesting that they’re not completely evil and that they’re smart and going to use the TARDIS as a battering ram to try and blast a hole in the starliner. So it’s nice that they’re giving a multiple perspective to the lagoonians to show you that they’re actually smart and not necessarily the beasty creatures we might assume they are. Sure, they want to break open the starliner, but they also are going about it super smart.

But seriously, what else? We learn that the starliner crashed and all the people in the ship now became this society. But so? That’s an idea, that’s not drama.

And that’s the biggest problem with this. There’s no drama or conflict in anything. Hell, I’d even take The Doctor being viciously lambasted by those in power for being an interloper and interferer person. But I don’t think we get any of that. We get bickering between the Outlers and Romana, but it’s nothing that progresses the story. Even the moment when one of the Lagoon creatures decapitates K-9, any drama in the scene about the “destruction” of K-9 is completely undercut by Romana saying “Ah well. Frak it. He breaks all the time anyways.”

So we’re left with nothing happening. Nothing. And that’s the biggest disappointment.

Now, that said, it’s actually fairly gorgeous. Peter Grimwade is a great director who really gets the most out of his shots and composition. I love all the bits with K-9 and him traipsing through the jungle because it’s actually fairly hilarious and badass. He really did a great job with the lagoon creatures rising in the previous episode and really squeezes the best direction he can out of every single moment in the story. It’s just a shame how little he’s given to work with here, especially knowing his talents in the future.

But seriously, someone takes off in the TARDIS? Someone not The Doctor or Romana? Ugh. Pet peeve.

Part 3:


So it’s here that we get all of the cool bits of information about the mythology of this story. We learn that the Deciders of the realm are really just people who keep the ship in a state of arrested development so that they don’t ever have to take off. Among other things, it really does a good job of bringing up the idea that those with knowledge have power and stay in power. Leaving people in ignorance removes them of power and identity and makes them cogs. The Deciders get to be in power because they’re the ones who learn things. They have privy to the experiment that takes place behind closed doors. They are in power.

But then Smith goes and does a twist on the idea by revealing that yes, the Deciders are aware that they’re keeping the ship grounded and have done for generations. They could fix the whole ship and have it in the air in half an hour. There’s only one problem: no one knows how to pilot the damn thing.

This is clever stuff. And it works exceedingly well, if you ask me. It takes what you think the initial problem is (they need to fix the ship) and (when the problem is about to be fixed) twist it in such a way that there’s now a new problem. Sure, my question is, why didn’t they take off after they fixed it after it first crashed, because there must have been a pilot to fly the ship way back then. But regardless, the point is they need a pilot to fly the ship and no one knows how. Genius thing, that.

The only problem is that this thing is coming wayyyyyyyyyy too late in this whole thing.

I mean, look at this episode. Outside of what’s up with The Deciders, there’s very little conflict or drama going on, if you ask me. It’s all just mysteries and intrigue, but not any that I find myself terribly interested in. Sure there’s the things with the Marshchild and the Marshspiders, but that’s all… questions. I don’t care about questions. I’m sorry, I don’t. I’m past that point (I watched LOST…). Sure, there’s maybe some stuff and intrigue that I find engaging that has nothing to do with the characters, but the characters are why I’m watching this. They’re what keep me coming back. My interest in it has nothing to do with the what’s-it of mythology.

I know. I’m weird.

But look at the Romana thing to see what I mean. At the end of part two, Romana got bit by the marsh spider and spends the entirety of this episode not doing anything until the end, when she decides to open the door to let the Marshchildren in. There’s no real care on anyone’s part about what’s going on with her. I mean, sure, The Doctor cares, but he doesn’t have time for that shit so he leaves her in the TARDIS to fend for herself. Sure, he goes back for her, but he doesn’t do much to make sure he helps her get better. And yeah, that’s a byproduct of the fact that The Doctor has to go take care of other things, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s not much drama in this whole thing.

So… yeah. It just feels like this story lacks heart, and lacks it in a big bad way. I can also see that they’re trying to get it in there (Login and his daughter is something, but it’s almost entirely footnoted) but it’s so much focused on the science and the story and mystery that it really lacks the things that make a good story a good story… And for that, I think this story less-than-works, way less than it probably should.

Oh, and did I mention we get some epic screaming Tom Baker? Cuz we got some of that. Yeah we did.

Part 4:

See, this is better, but it’s way too little way too late.

One of the benefits of having a cool idea to throw at the screen is it can distract from a lack of story or character/emotional resonance. Hell, it can even distract from drama and tension and all that. The problem is, that idea needs to carry you far and it needs to provide you brain food as well as excitement and adventure. If it doesn’t you’re… you’re sunk. That is the path to boring stories and stuff that wanders without any sort of structure. Sure it works for some/most people, I suppose. But I just can’t handle the stuff that’s all plot no story.

Someone like Moffat can almost get away with it, but that’s because he throws tons and tons of ideas at the screen, nonstop, for the whole episode, but even then that doesn't mean it covers up the cracks of story shortcuts that he keeps taking. They just distract from it.

The issue with this story is it’s essentially just one idea played out for four full episodes, with no other ancillary ideas to help it along. If they’re not dealing with the direct problem then it feels like there’s no sort of movement propelling the story along and it leaves me rather bored. This episode works because it’s wrapping things up, but it’s also devoid of any sort of emotional drama or tension (save one beat, which I’ll get to in a second) and is completely concerned with explaining the Marshchildren and what they have to do with the people on the ship.

Now that is all interesting. It’s interesting ideas about evolution and the role of societies that have gone on for too long, so long, in fact, that they have no history. It’s interesting that the Marshchildren and the Marshspiders and the “Terradonians” are all linked together and that the Terradonians are essentially 4,000 generations of Marshchild evolution, but that’s about where the interest sorta stops. And that’s the problem with this story, or any story based on any sort of idea like this. Ideas don’t have anywhere to go. You can reveal an idea and build up to that. You can even talk about it. You can dismantle it and take it apart and put it back together. But these things do not generate drama or a story or a sense of narrative, which is a problem.

And that’s the biggest failure of this. This story also happens to feature the death of Varsh, Adric’s brother, which is a big turning point for Adric as a character. It’s the thing that propels him into the TARDIS in the same way the death of Victoria’s father propels her into the TARDIS. It’s a strong character-building moment and a definite turning point for him. But instead of emphasizing the relationship between Adric and Varsh, the story sidelines it and hopes we get it over the course of two scenes. I know that things weren’t written that way back then, but this isn’t good enough. It’s just not.

This is why Matthew Waterhouse is shit on, I think. If he had been given better material he wouldn’t have been a sore point or whatever. Giving him better material would elevate his work. That’s almost always how it plays out. Would it make him perfect? No, it can only take him so far. But it’s something, at least.

I don’t think it’s from lack of trying. It’s clear from the way Peter Grimwade directs the scene that this is is a key moment in the story. It also happens to be horrifying and extremely well done. More than anything else it really turns the Marshchildren into real, scary creatures which they haven’t been all through the story. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t live up to the initial promise of rising from the swamp, but I think the way they murder Varsh rather redeems them as your typical monsters.

And really, that’s this whole episode. We randomly fix K-9. We’re still in E-Space. We got things left to do. Good times.

Final Thoughts?: Okay, so your mileage may vary, but... I am not a fan.

I think there's a lot to like here, and a lot of that is buried amidst a bunch of uninteresting mythology that fails to grab my attention. That said, the two things that definitely come out amidst all this are Tom Baker and Peter Grimwade.

First, to Peter Grimwade, who is, for my money, in the pantheon of Doctor Who directors, right up there with Douglas Camfield and Graeme Harper. This is his first outting as a director on Doctor Who, and while I can't say I love this story, I will admit that Grimwade's style definitely adds a kick to this story where it really needs it. The from-the-swamp sequence is rightly lauded, and all the shots are well composed and conducted in just about every sequence. You can tell he's still on the rough end of his work. This story doesn't give him nearly the amount of freedom that something like "Kinda" does, nor is it anywhere near the kineticism of something like "Earthshock", but it does allow him a little bit of horror, which he really does some good good work with.

The problem with this story, though, is that it never really does anything. It's hardly ambitious or inventive beyond the initial concept of "evolution coming full circle", and that means that Grimwade is left scrounging for good but does manage to shove some life into it.

And then there's Tom Baker, who's... really strong in this. This is by no means his best story, but he still does a good job at it. He manages to make moments entertaining and fun when that might not have been the intent and he really helps elevate this story beyond what it is to make it something that's better than it probably should be. He's witty and funny and inventive and terribly Doctorish. He even helps implement the "they-hate-oxygen" element that ends the story peacefully and such.

But neither of these two can overcome a bad script. Let's be honest: nothing can. But they can stand out as quality amidst mediocrity. It's just too bad that the first step into E-Space is such a misstep. Hopefully what's coming up will bring us some good.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Romana! Adric! A betrayal! VAMPIRES?! A giant hand! A rocket! Gothic horror! And is that a break up or a get-back-together? Come back on Wednesday for Cassandra's look at "State of Decay" before we head off to wrap up the E-Space Trilogy on Friday with "Warriors' Gate"!


  1. Completely disagree. I watched this today, and even after repeated viewings there is so much to get from this story. The script is great, the performances are great (Matthew Waterhouse is far, far better than he's given credit for), the music is great, the direction is superb, it's a 5 star story.

  2. The story was originally pitched to DWM who passed it on to the Beeb as being a better than normal submission.

    The opening location shoot also made it stand out and was the first story of the season I actually got into, leisure hive improved on subsequent viewings, meglos not so much.

    A friend had the "honour and privilege" to work with Matthew W and told me how full of himself MW was as the big star from Doctor Who and did not endear himself to cast and crew as a result.