So here begins the E-Space Trilogy, a run of three stories set in a different universe. If this were done again, it would be described in terms of the TARDIS passing through a “rift”, or a “crack in the universe”, but we are in the Christopher H Bidmead era, so the TARDIS goes through a “charged vacuum emboitment”. It doesn’t matter what you call it (although it would make sense to call it something less tedious), the effect is still the same: this is Doctor Who falling down the rabbit hole.
The problem is that the rabbit hole has the same thing on both sides.
Our own universe is labelled as “normal space”, which is akin to archaic ideas about the Earth being the centre of the universe because it’s where we live. E-space is not, as the name might suggest, something to do with a Renault Espace, but “exo space”, another universe. This presents an opportunity for doing weird and wonderful things. It’s not that the universe isn’t big enough for Doctor Who to do that anyway, but this kind of thing does work as an effective excuse for going really bizarre with things, so one might expect surrealism or inventiveness along the same lines as The Celestial Toymaker or The Mind Robber. And we kind-of get a little of that, but not until the third story in the trilogy. Full Circle simply explores a planet that is not significantly different to anything we usually see in Doctor Who, complete with aliens who look like humans.
But this does all feel like a break from the past nonetheless, and that’s because of the choice of writer. Andrew Smith is the first ever Doctor Who fan to become a writer for the show. This might not seem particularly significant, with virtually every writer nowadays a fan of the classic series. In fact, when we don’t get one of those (e.g. Rona Munro with The Eaters of Light) something immediately seems off about the episode.
There is a line of thought that Doctor Who went astray in the Eighties because the producer listened to what the fans wanted too much. This is wrong. The fans wanted a return to the heyday of the show and some old monsters coming back. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but it was implemented in a superficial manner. You’re not going to bring back the Pertwee era by having a story with Omega in it, or bring back the Troughton era by having a story with the Cyber Controller. You have to actually look at what it is that made those kinds of stories a success, and then do something new and interesting. Contrary to what anyone outside the world of Doctor Who fandom looking in would probably assume, Doctor Who is actually better when the lunatics are running the asylum.
Like later fan writers, Andrew Smith instinctively gives us a distillation of a lot of things that work well in Doctor Who: scary monsters rising out of the mist, a base under siege run by incompetent people, a seemingly struggling colony on a hostile planet, conflicts between different areas of society, youth versus experience, misunderstood aliens that appear to be hostile but have a genuine motivation. Crucially, this is not just a “best of” hits package, nor a rerun of an old story or the return of an old monster, but Smith does what all the good new series writers do: find an interesting twist on classic ideas. Modernise.
It must have been so frustrating for Christopher H Bidmead to be script editing a third story in a row that used science as magic+technobbable, which is basically what Doctor Who does all the time. Either (a) he just couldn’t find a way to combat this, or (b) he really didn’t understand science in the way he thought he did, because the sped-up evolution linking spiders and humans with a monster-of-the-week in the middle is utter nonsense. And it’s glorious nonsense. This is what Doctor Who does when it is at its very best: come up with an interesting, visual idea, and twist the science to fit. Full Circle is Doctor Who doing Magical Evolution, and it’s magnificent. RP
The view from across the pond:
After two particularly uninspired Doctor Who stories, Tom Baker’s era was winding down, looking like it would go out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Then something marvelous happened. The TARDIS crossed over into an unknown area of space; a pocket universe that the Doctor knew nothing about. Populated with only a handful of stars and a green aura (instead of the deep black of normal space), this was something new. This was E-Space.
As production goes, nothing had changed. The only difference was that in the context of the story, the Doctor was out of his element. But that makes a universe of difference. He doesn’t know what to expect, he doesn’t know if he can get back, and for all he knows there’s nothing else in this universe. It created a whole new tension for the show. And it was a work of genius. Although, like the previous story Meglos, they can’t just have slipped into a parallel universe; they traveled through a “charged vacuum emboitment”. Say what? Watch Romana say that with a straight face. She pulls it off! Remember, I too can make up sounds. (I’ve found the best way to overcome a fibbleshot dobberdink is to use a wacklehabba! No, not a wacklehabba!? YES! A wacklehabba. [I type this with a straight face too.])
But honestly, for this one, it’s worth ignoring the silly technobabble. There are some notable things about this story. Unlike cactus-boy Meglos, the Marshmen come off a bit more startling with their pocked flesh. There’s a hint of The Creature from the Black Lagoon merged with a plucked chicken that’s rather off-putting. Nothing against them, but I did want these Marshmen to try to use the TARDIS as a makeshift battering ram, because I wanted to see it make one single flop and then stop, because typically, you know, rectangles are not good to roll downhill. They sort of… don’t. That aside, credit where due for writer Andrew Smith, these creatures are more curious than actually hostile and that is mature storytelling. They learn and adapt, leading to the surprise revelation at the end of the story. It just added more when we were introduced to a child marsh creature. The Doctor, in typical Doctor fashion, tries to befriend the creature. (How spectacular if that child became a companion instead of Adric!) When the revelation is made that these Marshmen have more in common with the Alzarians than anyone thought, it’s a stunning moment. (Although one wonders why the Deciders were the only ones who were made aware of this.)
Then there are the spiders and, while clearly not real, still have something disconcerting about them. When they are crawling everywhere, Romana speaks words that I will never understand. She says “they’re only spiders!” Let’s be clear: a spider greater than ½ an inch is bad news. When the thing is the size of your foot, you learn the subtle art of flight. Or teleportation. Regardless, they added to an already uneasy atmosphere. And since they hatched out of marsh fruit… one might be put off eating watermelons for quite some time.
Then there’s Adric, the newest member of the TARDIS crew. He’s more frightening than the Marshmen. He’s just a magnet for trouble. He’s largely responsible for the death of Decider Draith. Then, unable to help his brother close a door, he runs off to get more oxygen and his brother dies in the process. Then, to add insult to injury, Adric takes his brother’s belt as some kind of keepsake. (Great keepsake… I hope my sister finds better keepsakes than my belt if I ever get killed by Marshmen!) Adric is a lightning rod for disaster! It never gets better for him. (Of course, watching Varsh yell for Adric rather than actually do anything almost begs for his demise, but let’s be charitable!)
Bottom line, Full Circle offered a solid introduction to the E-space universe. It was a universe full of potential. The downward trend evident at the start of the season stopped like a rectangle being rolled downhill. After the last two stories, it was like the mists parted and along with plucked chicken-men, a new and invigorating idea emerged.
I was going to make a pun about the next episode title, but decided not to. Does that make me a Decider? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… State of Decay