But I want a television in my tummy!
It’s October 25, 1980. Barbra Streisand is at number one with “Woman in Love,” which lasts for three weeks before Blondie unseats her with “The Tide is High.” David Bowie, Adam and the Ants, and The Police also chart, while Air Supply, Kate Bush, and XTC lurk about the lower reaches of the chart.
In real news, six IRA prisoners in Maze prison begin a hunger strike that lasts through December. El Salvador and Honduras resolve to put a border dispute to the International Court of Justice to decide. The border dispute stemmed from the 1969 “Football War,” the first war to be directly caused by a football result. The Polish government reluctantly recognizes Solidarity, Jimmy Carter gets his ass kicked by Ronald Reagan, and Voyager I flies by Saturn.
While on television things begin to get interesting. Some people suggest that this is the true beginning of the John Nathan-Turner era. This claim, however, is based on the difficult to defend assertion that there is a unitary John Nathan-Turner era. Nathan-Turner oversaw four script editors, three of whom deserve to have eras named after them. And one of those – Eric Saward – oversaw the bulk of five seasons and two Doctors, stretching the notion of the era to something in the vicinity of its breaking point there alone.
No, the Nathan-Turner era, inasmuch as such a creature can be said to exist at all, firmly began with The Leisure Hive and the ostentatious drive for change that it entailed. Nevertheless, there’s clearly something that shifts here. The most superficial aspect of it is Adric, who I suppose I have to deal with. Like so much of the John Nathan-Turner era, however, it is difficult to deal with Adric in the correct order. His first moment on screen is haunted by what’s to come. A commenter way back in Planet of the Spiders observed that the story is far better when Jon Pertwee regenerates into a funny looking man with curly hair instead of into Tom Baker. A similar principle applies here. Knowing what becomes of Adric makes every moment he is on the screen resonate oddly and in a way it could not possibly have at the time.
Added to this is the difficulty of Matthew Waterhouse himself. It is difficult to find any creative figure associated with the show that fewer people have anything good to say about than Matthew Waterhouse. He is notable for being, one of only two living leading actors on Doctor Who to have never reprised their roles (the other being Jackie Lane). It is a challenge to find kind words from any of his co-stars about him. One ought be fair – he was eighteen when he took the role. That the work I did and the gossip of people who knew me when I was eighteen is not how I am primarily known to the world can only be called a blessing. But Waterhouse is difficult to like even now, and his autobiography about his time on the series is an… interesting document to say the least.
But we’re putting lipstick on a pig here. The root of the problem is that Matthew Waterhouse was godawful in the role of Adric. I mean, this is an era where even K-9 – a character expressly designed for younger children – was being used in more sophisticated and complex ways. In the next story the musical cues begin making metatextual jokes about K-9, whereas in this story his decapitated head is waved around by the Doctor as a fetishistic totem to ward off swamp creatures. It’s the most interesting and complex use of the concept the series has seen to date (admittedly a low bar to clear). So when that is contrasted with Matthew Waterhouse’s performance of Adric, an overly emotive mess consisting of no successfully communicated emotions other than petulance and vanity, it is very, very hard to come up with anything good to say about the character. He’s a trainwreck of the sort that the series hasn’t seen since Mike Yates.
It’s tempting to try to build this out into a larger critique of John Nathan-Turner’s casting, but the fact of the matter is that he’s no more offensive than the children in The Horns of Nimon or than any number of other unfortunate moments in Graham Williams’s casting of the series. Graham Williams avoided ever making this bad a casting decision in the leads, but given that Williams only cast leads twice (plus two K-9s, only one of whom can even be argued to be flawed) that’s hardly vicious. John Nathan-Turner oversaw the casting of nine more leads in his time on Doctor Who, and while one or two can be quibbled with he never botched another quite this badly. (Casting was never the problem with Colin Baker, and Bonnie Langford has her charm.) Yes, his guest actor policy occasionally led to some questionable decisions, but the fact of the matter is that Waterhouse was no worse than plenty of what came before and that the casting improved dramatically over time. The only thing that really hurts is that he’s a regular.
It’s easier to build a critique of Adric’s high-concept nature. But even there, companions have been in high concept mode since Leela. Sarah Jane was the last “generic female assistant” companion for nearly a decade. Leela and Romana were both high concept, and everyone else in the classic series save Peri is as well. But at least in this critique there’s a grain of truth. Certainly it’s unmistakable that Nathan-Turner oversaw a shift in the series where it became more high concept than it had ever been. Increasingly many stories had blockbuster taglines and single catchy concepts (often, in the problematic middle years, “the return of X,” usually regardless of whether or not X was something anyone gave a crap about).
The question is whether or not that’s a bad thing. “High concept” is an epithet among the highbrow, but given that we’ve spent the better part of a year here taking Doctor Who very, very seriously any claim we might have to highbrow values is probably shot to hell. So let’s take it for what it is. The tag “high concept,” when used derisively, just means that the work is easily summed up in a single sentence. This is not actually entirely appropriate for Full Circle. While its idea – a planet with three species that turn out to be different forms of one species, one of which delusionally believes that it’s actually a species of alien colonists – is relatively simple, it lacks the movie poster punch of something like Alien.
A better definition of high concept is one we’ve been using for a while without attaching it to that phrase, which is a mode of storytelling in which every aspect of technique is pointing in the same direction. A high concept film, in this definition, is not merely one that has a simple premise, but one where every creative decision is made to promote and advance a single aesthetic goal.
This is much harder to criticize. Superficially, and About Time hints at this objection, it seems to mark a rejection of the multiple simultaneous audiences that characterized the Williams era. But closer observation of Full Circle shows that this doesn’t hold. There are clear components of the story that are designed for different audience segments, with children expected to like the Outsiders, teens expected to enjoy the science bits, and adults given some human drama anchored by the unsurprisingly fabulous George Baker. What’s different is not the multiple modes of reception, but rather what they’re supposed to do. The Williams era often held to a model akin to that of the Adam West Batman series where a younger audience was expected to take it seriously while an older audience knew enough to laugh at it. But here even though the show is working for multiple simultaneous audiences, every part of the audience is expected to get more or less the same aesthetic result out of it. It’s using different approaches to get to the same end as opposed to working towards multiple different ends.
This gets us towards the other way in which Full Circle marks a concrete turning point in Doctor Who. It is, if nothing else, the beginning of the Bidmead era. But as with everything else about this story we’re forced to hedge and qualify a little. For one thing, the shuffled production order complicates this. The production order actually goes State of Decay-Meglos-Full Circle. And over those three stories you can see Bidmead successfully developing a distinct style and launching it in a very concrete and sensible way. But it’s worth observing exactly how he does this. With State of Decay he applies his style to what was, in most regards, a Hinchcliffe-era script. (More, obviously, on Friday.) With Meglos he applies it to a story fully in the Williams style (whereas with The Leisure Hive he flailed around desperately trying to “fix” a Williams script).
This script, then, is the culmination of that. Andrew Smith is in many ways the first modern Doctor Who writer. Tat Wood argues in the sixth volume of About Time that the writers of the Cartmel era were all working from a folk memory of what the series was, and credits this with the turnaround of the show in those years. What is significant about this is that it means the writers of that era were all on some level fans of the show – they were not just writing stories for Doctor Who but were writing from a concrete and lived experience of what Doctor Who stories were. Certainly that characterizes every script written for the new series, and it’s unimaginable that there will ever be many, if any at all, scripts in the future that are not written by people who are writing Doctor Who based in part on a memory of watching it.
But Andrew Smith is the first writer this is true of. And so we get something interesting. Again, Miles and Wood come close to observing this by noting how the script incorporates stock elements of Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes, and Malcolm Hulke scripts. But what they don’t quite nail down precisely is the consequence of all of this. This is the first time that Doctor Who has done a story that is, at its core, the distilled essence of everything that had previously made Doctor Who good. Sure, it’s done ultra-traditional stories before – most obviously Planet of the Spiders, which is unrepentantly a greatest hits reel of the Pertwee era. But those are retrospectives of a single era. This is a retrospective of, in many ways, the entire show. It contains bits of everything that the show did frequently enough to become a trope.
But crucially, it doesn’t do them all out of a sense of nostalgia or cynicism. Smith is changing things around. The tropes aren’t used for their own sake but because Smith is so steeped in Doctor Who that its tropes are completely instinctive to him. So when you get the foolish and bureaucratic old men who are lying to the entire population – a vintage Dicks/Holmes concept – that’s immediately undercut when you find out that they’re only lying because they’ve lost the manual to their spaceship and can’t fly it. The conflict between the people and those in charge, which previously would have been the plot of an entire story – indeed, which next story is the plot of an entire story – is here just a shorthand to get at a different story entirely.
On top of this, there’s a sense of seriousness and drama to it. With a script that’s just got its head down and is doing its work there are opportunities for depth of acting that have been missing. Tom Baker, for all that is said about how miserable he was on the program and how unpleasant he was, is once again on form in a way he hasn’t been since Season 14. When he gets angry here there’s a palpable depth to his rage that is new. And the death of the Marsh Child is played so straight as to be devastatingly effective.
Unfortunately it’s a while before this sheer and easy comfort with the past of the show becomes standard issue. Smith, for whatever reason, never pens another script, and as I said it’s not really until the Cartmel era that writers working from an instinctive understanding of what Doctor Who is become the norm. But whatever other weaknesses the script has – and there certainly are a fair few – the fact that the script is so comfortable with being Doctor Who is a major advantage that lets Bidmead, in his edits of it, really shine and do what he’s trying to do.
Which brings us back to the strange paradox of Christopher Bidmead – the fact that despite being the most openly pro-science and anti-magic script editor Doctor Who has ever had he ends up overseeing some of the most magic-filled stories in Doctor Who. On the one hand this is ostensibly a story about evolution that’s meant to teach all the little boys and girls of the United Kingdom how that works. On the other it has next to no understanding of how it works, what timeframe it works over, and postulates a bizarre system in which spiders, humans, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon are all meaningfully the same species.
Miles and Wood indulge in a long and relatively fun essay entitled “How Does Evolution Work” on this point that suggests various scientific models that could rescue evolution in Doctor Who from its obvious scientific difficulties (most obviously the fact that virtually every intelligent lifeform in the universe visually resembles British character actors), but the essay is firmly a case of trying to find a diegetic solution to a non-diegetic problem. Any in-universe explanation for the phenomenon is really just window dressing for the obvious answer that every intelligent lifeform in the universe is being portrayed by British character actors.
But what’s key to understand is that the non-diegetic answer is, in most regards, the superior one. I mean, if you actually want to understand Doctor Who the fact of the matter is that what is going on is not primarily based on some elaborate in-universe explanation about the origins of life. It’s based on the fact that the show is being made in England. We’re back, in other words, to my old anti-realist argument about how art is generally better understood as a constructed aesthetic experience than it is as gossip about imaginary people.
But this is what is so interesting about Bidmead. For all of his pro-rationalist leanings, he is ruthless about subjecting science to the larger concerns of narrative. What we noticed in Meglos about the chronic hysteresis only becomes more extreme here. Alzarius is a planet where the laws of evolution serve the plot of the story in an unabashed manner. The three species we see are all differing forms of one another despite the improbability of that. The story is set in a moment where the evolutionary turmoil of the planet is coming to a head. Everything, in other words, is actively geared towards the matter of telling this specific story. The story may be, on one level, a primer on evolution, but it’s a primer where every aspect of evolution is subject to a larger narrative goal.
The State of Decay-Meglos-Full Circle trilogy, then, is where Bidmead shows what he can do. These are the three stories in which he shows how his vision of what Doctor Who can be improves existing models of Doctor Who. From a production standpoint, he moves through both previous versions of Doctor Who – the Hinchcliffe and Williams eras – and in each case attempts an improvement in which he shows how his approach expands on the potential of the previous models. And now, having completed those, he finishes with this, a script that takes the best of the entirety of Doctor Who. And over it he lays his scientific-minded approach, showing how the intersections of real scientific ideas with narrative structures can tell increasingly interesting stories.
And the thing is, it works. By grounding the fantastic in the high-mindedly real Bidmead manages to construct a model of Doctor Who that is fascinating – one that merges the high concept visuality that Nathan-Turner is demanding with not just strong narrative but with the very essence of Doctor Who. For all its flaws – and to be fair, most of them are Adric – this story is a shot across the bow that suggests a new vision of what Doctor Who can be. Now Bidmead just needs to show that he can carry on with these sorts of high wire acts.