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3. Full Circle
Writer: Andrew Smith
Director: Peter Grimwade
Script Editor: Christopher Bidmead
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: While responding to a summons to Gallifrey, the TARDIS is pulled through a Charged Vacuum Emboitment into E-Space, where it materializes on the planet Alzarius. The humanoid inhabitants, ruled by three "Deciders," are supposedly preparing their Starliner for a return to their original home planet while trying to avoid the Marshmen, who appear in conjunction with Mistfall, a cyclical atmospheric change that the long-preserved Alzarian records claim is unsurvivable. But something about their story doesn't add up, and soon the Doctor finds himself trying to avert a potentially fatal conflict between the Marshmen and the Alzarian humanoids.

Review: "Full Circle" represents the first example of the new approach to Doctor Who, as mapped out by Christopher Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner, really hitting the mark on all fronts. It is an imaginative, well-realized science fiction yarn, its characters are complex and believable, and its themes play to the strength of the Fourth Doctor.

I can't claim to understand Charged Vacuum Emboitments or E-Space, but it's a creative way of slightly altering the assumptions of the series by trapping the Doctor and Romana outside of normal space, and it's in line with the capacity of the Whoniverse to go beyond the simple existence of aliens and spaceships and explore some more unusual concepts. Just as importantly, Alzarius itself emerges as one of the series' more compelling takes on an alien society. The Alzarian humanoids believe that they are descended from the planet Teradon, with their ancestors having supposedly crash-landed the Starliner on Alzarius. But as the Doctor discovers - and as each successive "First Decider" has kept hidden - the entire story is a fabrication, as they actually evolved from the Marshmen that they now fear. Unable to figure out how to pilot the Starliner, the Deciders have kept their people engaged in unnecessary repairs and maintenance for generations, promising an "Embarkation" that may never come. The Alzarians speak of their "records," "manuals," and "procedures" with a reverence that further suggests that their traditions have become a source of stagnation rather than rational governance.

A lesser serial might have portrayed the Deciders as maniacal dictators, but the script actually presents them as well-meaning and conflicted. Nefred, who assumes the title of First Decider early on in the serial, is clearly deeply affected after consulting the secret records, and at the moment of his death, he tells the others the truth that they never came from Teradon and urges them to leave the planet. Representing a more forward-thinking outlook is Login, who is newly promoted to the rank of Decider. He is respectful of his society's traditions and is initially talked into continuing the deception about Mistfall, even parroting what seems to be a party line about his daughter, who has remained with the "Outlers" outside the Starliner during Mistfall, being a disruptive influence. But his personal concerns eventually prompt him to break with custom, and at the end of the serial, he is the one pushing for an end to the delays so that the Starliner can finally take off as Nefred had urged.

Tom Baker is often particularly effective when the Doctor is deflating the pretensions and rigidity surrounding some outdated laws or customs, and "Full Circle" gives him a chance to play up this side of the character. As we saw in "Nightmare of Eden," he has little time for fellow scientists who lack the proper concern for morality, and his anger at the scientist Dexeter who is prepared to conduct lethal experiments on a Marshchild is convincing and very justified. Later, when one of the Deciders seems horrified at the notion that the Alzarian humanoids and the Marshmen are somehow alike, the Doctor quips that perhaps they are pretty different because the Marshmen are adaptive. One set of rulers he doesn't seem inclined to oppose, interestingly, is the Time Lords. Romana doesn't want to go back to Gallifrey after all she's seen and experienced with the Doctor, but he doesn't see disobeying their summons as an option. When she notes that he fought them once, he remarks that he lost when he did so; it would seem that he hasn't truly stepped outside the boundaries of their tolerance ever since "The War Games" (or, at least, he doesn't think he has).

If there's one area where "Full Circle" falls a little short, it's the way it handles both the origin and the resolution of the humanoid/Marshmen conflict. Apparently a group of Marshmen took over the Starliner after it initially crashed many centuries ago (and possibly wiped out its original crew?), evolved into the humanoid form, and are resented by their ancestors because they're "not Marshmen," according to the Doctor. This comes off as arbitrary, and it might have been more in keeping with the themes of the serial if the humanoids and Marshmen had found a way to communicate. Still, there's something to be said for the fact that the Doctor helps the humanoids to depart from the planet without any further violence even in the absence of any greater understanding. Either way, "Full Circle" is still an imaginative and successful piece of anti-establishment Doctor Who.

Rating: ***
1/2 (out of four)

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