Tony Fyler feels the mist coming down.
Andrew Smith was just 17 when he wrote Full Circle, the third story in Season 18 of Doctor Who.
You’re hating him just a little bit already aren’t you?
The story was the first instalment in a loose trilogy that took us into ‘E-Space,’ an entirely different universe to ‘N-Space,’ where we live. It introduced us to new companion Adric, and with the only other real contender being Johnny Byrne’s Keeper of Traken, it was the most accessibly scientific, audience-focused storytelling in the whole of Tom Baker’s final, moderately mystifying season, its ideas being, as the title suggests, cyclic, allowing the audience to feel the logic of the journey far more than other stories that year.
Just out of curiosity, what were you doing when you were 17?
Andrew Smith became a policeman. As some people do after writing impressive Doctor Who scripts while barely being able to shave, and, more to the point, getting them all the way to production on the actual telly.
But recently, Mr Smith is having something of an audio renaissance, and it’s fair to say it’s going spectacularly well. He wrote The First Sontarans – a story that lives up to the smack-in-the-face potential of its title. He delivered The Brood of Eyrs – both cutesy monster story and psychological examination of the personality. His is the mind behind the first new story in the Early Adventures for Big Finish, the utterly barnstorming Domain of the Voord (If you haven’t got it yet, stop reading now, go download it, enjoy, come back, say thank you. Seriously, we’ll wait), and he’s become a regular contributor to several other Big Finish audio series, including the revival of Terry Nation’s Survivors.
Now, more than 35 years after he first went there, Andrew Smith has gone home to Alzarius, the ‘Planet That Slept’ for the sequel to Full Circle. As before, it’s the first part of a three-story E-Space arc, this time taking the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough to the planet of mists and creepy fruitfulness to find out how things have changed, hundreds of years on from the Doctor’s last visit. With the economy of titling you’d expect from the writer of Full Circle, the sequel is simply called Mistfall.
For those not in the Full Circle know, firstly, go, stick it in your DVD player, you’ll have a great couple of hours, with Adric about as likeable as he ever was to get. Secondly, Mistfall is the time on the otherwise-sleepy Alzarius where things get busy – creepy spiders hatch out in the fruits that are the staple diet of the planet’s humanoid colonists, who’ve spent generations trying to get off Alzarius and back to their home world, Terradon. What’s more, the marshlands that form a good part of Alzarius get awfully interesting when the mist comes down too – they bring forth Marshmen, scaly, almost zombie-like humanoids with a telepathic nous and, as it seems, some serious anger management issues when it comes to the Terradon settlers on board their crippled starliner.
Without giving away the delicious denouement that makes fans nod in appreciation for the writing behind Full Circle, the Fourth Doctor and Romana discover that things are not entirely as they seem, nor indeed as they are believed to be on Alzarius before beating back a Marshman attack, accidentally picking up Adric and getting the hell out of Dodge.
35 years down the line we’re being pulled sideways into E-Space again, and heading back to Alzarius (in a way, incidentally, and for a reason that Smith manages to make sound perfectly reasonable and in character).
Some things feel exactly as they were when we left – there are Deciders who make the law, though now they generally make it on New Alzarius, an entirely different planet with issues of its own. There are outlers too, those outside the law who go their own way, like a kind of Occupy Alzarius movement. But when a starliner arrives with New Alzarians on board, the Doctor realizes there have been some important changes of attitude. While the old Terradon colonists feared the Marshmen, now the Decider on board the starliner is coming to Alzarius at Mistfall specifically to see them, meet them, even interact with them if she can, to learn more about them and the planet on which her ancestors spent so many generations. It’s a plan that is, as the Doctor’s not slow to point out, insanely dangerous, even before we take politically-motivated sabotage, questionable ethics and the awakening of the Marshmen into consideration.
The Doctor, to be fair, has to stay – in Classic Who tradition, a vital bit of Tardis kit goes missing during the course of the story, without which the crew will never be able to leave E-Space and get back to the universe they know and, in Turlough’s case, barely tolerate. But where Full Circle was a story that touched on racism and xenophobia, Mistfall is the product of a man 35 years older, so it delves deeper into the misguided optimism of imperialism (Decider Merrion has a semi-‘civilised’ Marshchild, Fem, who she hopes will be the builder of bridges between her people and the Marshmen), the weight of political decision-making and its interpretation by those who suffer as a result (the Decider is responsible for a decision on New Alzarius that killed thousands of natives of that planet, and is due to reap the whirlwind of that decision on this mission), and the misinterpretation of accident as deliberate attack. Above all, it feels like a treatise on not jumping to conclusions, and not assuming that your civilization is inherently ‘better’ than anything other people have, no matter how beneficent you feel that civilization to be. Lessons for our modern world, indeed.
But who am I kidding? You want to know about the Marshmen, don’t you? Truth be told, that’s why people who don’t just buy everything Big Finish puts out will be drawn to part with their pennies for this release – More Marshmen!
On that score, without dipping into spoiler territory I can tell you that Mistfall absolutely delivers. In particular, the Marsh Leader shows the potential of the species both as a threat, and as something more in the Ice Warrior vein, a misunderstood race, more hippie than zombie. And yes, their psycho rage-fest in Full Circle makes much more sense by the end of Mistfall than it does by the end of the first story, as we’re given a healthy chunk of Marshman backstory. So if you’re buying it for more Marshmen, you get more than your moneysworth. If you’re buying it for a return to that slightly discordant, yin/yang feeling of the original E-Space trilogy, you won’t be disappointed here either – the music of Mistfall is very similar (if not exactly the same) to that in Full Circle, giving notes of familiarity to anyone who’s been this way before.
That, perhaps is the point on which a decision to buy this story hangs – if you haven’t seen Full Circle, or didn’t enjoy Full Circle, this one’s a lot to grasp and take on board, and you might just find you’re struggling to get the rewards you know are probably there. It’s very much a companion piece to the original. There’s also a sense in which, in a universe where time and money were no objects (as surely they wouldn’t be in E-Space, given their importance in our universe), this might have worked even better as a two-story arc, showing the events on New Alzarius which prime and drive this story on (perhaps with an entirely different Tardis team, staying out of the way of the main players like the Decider) before plunging us onto Alzarius for the apotheosis of the Marshmen. A lot of what drives this story onward is related in expositional dialogue, which in a slightly more perfect universe, would have been rendered unnecessary by an earlier story that peaked with a Pompeii-style catastrophe. Also, if we’re being really picky, it’s slightly disconcerting to hear a New Who main character actor as another main character in a Classic Who audio – Jemma Redgrave swapping her role as Kate Stewart here for that of Decider Merrion.
But that aside, Smith’s renaissance continues strongly with this release, which expands hugely on the world he created as a teenager, while tackling some old and some newer themes with an assured hand. There’s always the danger with sequels that they won’t measure up to an enjoyable original. Put your worry beads away – Mistfall is the storytelling equal of Full Circle, while showing the deftness of style that comes with a greater authorial maturity. Curiously, the story would never have worked on screen in the 80s with this Tardis team – it would have been too much, too soon, and would have seemed like an idea over-milked. But 35 years on, the Marshmen are back, and in what they show us, they’re better than ever.