I have a lot of correspondence with Gareth, but one regular occurrence in my outgoing mail is a list of bullet points about whatever Doctor Who story I happen to have watched that week. Said lists usually contain all the random things jumped out at me during a viewing – things I knew about in advance, or things that surprised me. Examples include –
- She turned him into a tree. SHE TURNED HIM INTO A TREE!!!
- I know you’re a wise pacifist with excellent diplomacy skills. But you’re wearing a dress.
- Amusing that they had the Doctor run through the same passenger deck four times, and had the extras dressed in identical suits so that no one would notice.
- WHY IS HE CLIMBING OVER THE LEDGE? WHY? WHY???
- What on earth was JNT thinking, getting rid of Dudley Simpson?
- So a sprout priest who lives in a hole, bunkered away from everyone else, is happy to give up his life and destroy an entire species on the word of a man who he’s only met once? I don’t care if he’s a telepath, that’s bloody stupid.
- Oh, the adjudicator is the Master. Well, I never saw that coming.
- I love the bit where the ‘You’ve got mail’ noise clangs for the second time and Troughton turns to Wendy Padbury and says “Sounds a bit like a dinner gong”, when you know full well that’s exactly what it was.
- Oh my gosh, it’s a GIGANTIC NOB!
I will leave it to you to work out which belongs to which story, except to say that none of them are from ‘Warriors of the Deep’, because I’ve determined that the comments from that probably warrant their own post, which I’ll do sometime. (Suffice to say ‘Warriors’ really isn’t one of my favourites, although it does feature a pantomime horse.)
“It amazes me,” Gareth has said on at least one occasion, “just how much Classic Who you haven’t seen.” Which is a fair point, although one I’ve spent the last couple of years rectifying in earnest. Just the other week, for example, I finally got round to watching the E-Space trilogy, in which a twilight Fourth Doctor gets trapped in a parallel universe courtesy of a Charged Vacuum Emboitment (a concept that is eventually explained in ‘Logopolis’). The three stories contained therein are a hodgepodge of different styles and approaches (for reasons we’ll explore over the course of the next week or so) with only the loosest narrative thread connecting them all, but their main narrative purpose is to bring in Adric and, in the process, ditch Romana.
When you write it down like that, it really seems like an unfair trade, and so it is. Romana is a sophisticated (if unworldly) intellectual with charm, grace and a fashion sense that borders on the iconic. She looks good in jodhpurs but can also outsmart the keenest mathematician. This is no screaming wallflower, and it is small wonder that men and women love her in equal measure, in both incarnations. (I’ve always been firmly in Lalla’s camp, but Mary Tamm was also marvellous, and sadly missed.)
By contrast, Adric is a precocious brat who dresses like he’s in a school play. He thinks largely of his stomach. Self-confidence in his natural ability is manifest in the most aggravating arrogance. Gershwin was a genius and knew he was a genius, but never boasted – he simply avoided the cardinal sin that is false modesty. Adric is like the kid at the top of the class who wants everyone else to know about it. Not all of this is Matthew Waterhouse’s fault. The kid was eighteen and inexperienced. He’s probably lovely in real life – certainly on the Saturday Superstore segment contained on the ‘Warriors’ Gate’ DVD he comes across as modest and good-humoured and entirely affable. (Of unending curiosity, of course, is his decision to write an autobiography, Blue Box Boy, in the third-person.) But character of Adric, and the way in which he’s written, do young Matthew absolutely no favours. It’s also fair to say that a more capable performer might have rendered Adric’s more irritating tendencies with a greater degree of pathos than Waterhouse is able to manage. Usually the only time anyone actually feels sorry for Adric is the final three minutes of ‘Earthshock’. Too little, too late.
It also doesn’t help that ‘Full Circle’ sees Adric at his most obnoxious, irritating and useless. It’s established fairly early that Adric is part of the ‘clever’ bunch of colonists (or are they?) that inhabit the planet Alzarius, where the TARDIS has landed. One of the first things we see him do is steal watermelons – badly – in an early attempt to establish the character as a kind of Artful Dodger, a trait that was swiftly and probably wisely abandoned, although the vacuum it left was never filled with any real success. “Of course I’m better than you,” he arrogantly assures a supporting character in the middle of a cave. “I’m an Elite.” This wouldn’t matter so much if Adric didn’t subsequently spend much of the episode fainting, getting involved in rubbish hijack attempts and generally being useless. In the episode two cliffhanger, Romana is being attacked by giant spiders, and Adric’s attempt to open the doors results in dematerialisation. Whereupon the irritating fuckwit glances briefly through the fourth wall before admitting “I think I’ve pulled the wrong lever.”
Well. No shit, Sherlock. I’d like to say things improve, but really the only thing he manages to do right in this story is half-inch a McGuffin that the Doctor needs at a crucial moment. The more I see of Adric the more he winds me up – and if this sounds like the musings of a grumpy old man, I’d point out that I absolutely love K-9, even if the production team didn’t. It’s telling that the only reason Adric is in ‘State of Decay’ – which we’ll cover next time – is because he’s hidden on board the TARDIS, and that the Doctor’s first reaction is to want to take him straight home. This is, to be honest, a little cruel: the chap’s just lost his brother, and it is only by viewing ‘Full Circle’ – and the bequeathing of his brother’s belt – that we can fully appreciate the gravitas of that final scene with Adric, some ten stories later.
Aside from the less-than-enthralling introduction to an almost universally unpopular companion, ‘Full Circle’ manages to be half evolution fable, half base-under-siege narrative. The central concept is that of a group of colonists trapped on Alzarius, led (badly) by a group of inept bureaucrats ironically known as ‘Deciders’. The Deciders have turned the simple task of ship repairs into a kind of religion – or, at the very least, the beginnings of a mythology. This is played out by having James Bree (Nefred) bellow “Continue…the work…of maintenance”, in the sort of tones one usually finds in a Shakespearian soliloquy.
The running joke in the story is the general inability of the Deciders to actually decide anything, as is epitomised by this scene – running like something from Yes, Minister – in which Login, the newest Decider, tries to convince his superiors that an imminent attack might be a good reason to close the door…
LOGIN: It might be possible to close this substructure.
GARIF: No, it seems as if the marsh creatures are already inside the main hull.
LOGIN: The bulkheads, sir?
NEFRED: One recourse, certainly.
LOGIN: Nefred, Garif, we must close these bulkheads and these, and we must gather the citizens in here at once.
GARIF: Yes, I see the plan has some merit in it.
LOGIN: And we must do it quickly.
NEFRED: We must certainly respond to this crisis on a real time basis, Decider Login, but appropriately.
GARIF: Decider Nefred is right, Decider Login.
NEFRED: I have been constructing the histories of our relationship with the marsh men.
GARIF: While a single defense response has a certain appeal, we must also consider the long-term consequences.
LOGIN: It’s not a defensive response.
NEFRED: We need a holistic approach, I think.
GARIF: I wonder if you’ve had time to consult this manual on the peripheral unit power supplies.
(Transcript, as ever, from Chrissie’s Transcript Site. Thanks again, Chrissie.)
It’s left to the Doctor to uncover the truth: the Deciders have been getting the colonists to take the ship apart and put it back together over and over again, over the course of hundreds of years, simply because no one knows how to fly it. I can sort of relate to this – the very same evening I watched this, Thomas spent fifteen minutes ‘tidying’ the bricks by putting them back in the tub and then taking them out again to build something. But while the concept makes utter sense to the Deciders, the visiting Time Lords find it utterly ludicrous. Or, as Timothy Spall would have put it, it’s like being stuck on the crap version of Rimmer for four years.
“That bit is a nice idea,” says Gareth. “Although it’s a bit silly when the Doctor just pulls away a rack of pigeonholes to reveal the technology beneath. No-one ever noticed?”
Speaking of the Doctor, he’s arguably the weak link in the story. I love Tom Baker as much as anyone, but on the basis of this performance, he appears to have had enough. It’s a recurring theme of this season (see ‘The Leisure Hive’, in which the Doctor is clearly spent even before he ages a hundred years), but it’s particularly prevalent on Alzarius. Part of the apparent gloominess is almost certainly John Nathan Turner reigning him in, after the excesses of the Graham Williams / Douglas Adams era, but rarely has he been so sombre. Even the jokes lack their usual panache (“Short trips don’t usually work,” he quips to Adric. “Ah well. Here’s hopping”). It’s a shame, because some of the emotional pathos is undermined, and the Doctor’s general gloominess in supposedly upbeat scenes makes for a lesser contrast with the moments when he’s supposed to be genuinely angry. Late in the story, he fends off the approaching Marshmen with the severed head of the robot dog, in a sequence that ought to be comic, but which instead plays out like something from a Greek tragedy, or perhaps Dr. Faustus.
Suffice to say this is the least interesting – and, ultimately, least worthy – entry in the set, but it was written by a seventeen-year-old, and its failings are as much down to pedestrian direction and thin characterisation as much as they are to anything else. In the end, the Marshmen are revealed as the genetic ancestors of the colonists themselves (who, as it turns out, “cannot return to Terradon”, because they “have never been there”). The Doctor and Romana give them a crash course – pun only half-intended – in how to fly a starship, and then disappear in the TARDIS to work out how they’ve got into this universe that hasn’t really been explained properly. It all comes out in the wash, along with the Doctor’s scarf, which has shrunk a little, although Peter Davison is about to unravel the thing in any case.
Besides, the Doctor’s stuck here now – at least for another couple of stories – so we might as well get used to it. Or I might as well get used to it. I was in Cambridge a few years ago attending a Christmas gathering, and one of the gifts unwrapped was Tom Baker’s autobiography, Who On Earth Is Tom Baker?. “Of course, the title’s wrong,” someone said. “Who on Earth is Jon Pertwee. Who in E-Space is Tom Baker…”