Aired 25 October – 15 November 1980
Following the successful- if ultimately underutilized- theme of collecting the segments of the Key to Time to link the episodes of season sixteen, ‘Full Circle’ opens up a trilogy of adventures set within E-space, a small and green-tinted universe comprised of negative spatial coordinates. And although it may seem a bit strange to insert a series of stories in an entirely new universe into the farewell season of Tom Baker, ‘Full Circle’ and those stories following continue to build up and expand upon the themes of entropy and decay within the confines of its unobtrusive linking device, hinting at Romana’s future departure while also introducing newcomer Adric to the TARDIS.
‘Full Circle’ is perhaps so successful because it offers a rather higher-concept brand of science fiction than is usual for Doctor Who, the marshmen filling the traditional role of menace but the true threat being the repressive system of rule present on Alzarius. While the Doctor is undeniably a force for good wherever he lands, it’s immensely rewarding to see him take on the very human failings of those in power putting their own community above everything else and putting in place procedure upon procedure to ensure nothing meaningful is achieved or changed. Indeed, after being thoroughly disgusted by the community’s actions and thoughts toward the marshmen, the Doctor proves just how much of a champion for the very best of humanity he is as he boldly stands up to the Deciders and spurns their way of rule.
The pacing of ‘Full Circle’ is generally slower than most that of most Doctor Who serials as well, but this allows more time for the grey morality of the community to manifest and for the slightly more intellectual plot to develop. Truly the story and direction do a good job of initially setting up the Marshmen as the villain, but having them acting in primal shades of grey as the Doctor begins to look into the backgrounds of both them and the Alzarians while a young marshchild is set up to be the subject of a decidedly amoral research project works to wonderful effect. The Deciders choosing to purposefully maintain the standards in order to hide the truth that they don’t know how to fly the Starliner which is perfectly capable of taking off is likewise and unnerving premise that can eerily be applied to far too many truths still present in the real world today. Although the Doctor is featured in a fairly limited basis early on as Lalla Ward’s Romana does more of the heavy lifting, Tom Baker’s dominant performance later in the story is certainly another highlight of his time in the role.
Of course, ‘Full Circle’ is also known for introducing the new companion of Adric. To be fair, Matthew Waterhouse does capture the awkwardness of adolescence perfectly well, but the entire prospect of the Outlers as well as Waterhouse’s somewhat stilted performance never ring completely true. Adric of course brings a completely new perspective to the TARDIS given his age and origins, but his age also seems a bit at odds with the programme seemingly undergoing a shift to cater to a slightly older and more mature audience. Nonetheless, ‘Full Circle’ as a whole does hold up very well and sets a strong precedent for the remainder of the trilogy. With good set design, direction, and performances overall, ‘Full Circle’ is easily able to overcome the dubiousness of the marsh spider and the slightly wooden Adric to offer an incredibly enjoyable and cerebral experience.