“The willful procrastination of endless procedure…” – The Doctor
This story is much better in my memory than in actuality. In my mind from childhood, for example, the spider that pops out of the river fruit and bites Romana is quite scary with long slender legs that it uses to run up the side of her face and bite her as she screams. Looking at it now, I see the scene is quite badly edited, undramatic, and the prop almost laughable! Still, the story overall is full of several good ideas and surprise reveals that really struck me as a child and I think still stand up.
I really like the introduction of the crew’s accidental shift into E-Space. Having K-9 reporting events and then suddenly stop because he has no vocabulary for what he is seeing is pretty cool. Later, it’s quite an interesting surprise to learn that all the generations of fuss over repairing the ship is a bluff to cover the fact that the leaders don’t know how to use it. This seems like just institutional corruption, but then the story takes us even further with the final surprise of the biological connections between the spiders, marshmen, and Alzarians. I like how this is brought home with the view of the identical slides on the microscope and how it opens into the shocking realization that the Alzarians can’t ‘return’ to Earth because they’ve never been there—they actually evolved on Alzarius. (I used to think the story was actually presenting the even cooler idea of their society being in a recurring life cycle that they were unaware of—and I always misremember it that way. It’s actually not that but I think the surprise still stands.)
The marsh setting with all the fruit harvesting and playful swimmers is nice enough, but several aspects of the story production and acting are kind of lackluster. In no way does the group of young people really convince as a band of ruffians surviving in the wild. New companion Adric particularly does not come off well in this story. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a character arc (though he famously stays a whiny throughout his time on the show) but it’s a shame that our first impression of him is of a petulant child trying to prove himself but doing no more than beating up a girl and an old man!
The weight of knowledge the Deciders carry is explored in interesting ways, especially when the father must think about betraying his oath to save his daughter. The Doctor gets some great scenes when he returns with righteous anger at seeing Dexeter experimenting on the marshchild. (“Not an alibi, Deciders!” he rages as they try to deflect the blame for his death.) It’s also a true shock when the marshman suddenly knocks off K-9’s head—definitely didn’t see that coming!
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The cries of the Marshchild when ensnared are rather horrible. We’ve already seen it playful and curious so this just seems cruel.
I will always like this story though it’s not as good as I want to remember it being. I kind of wish my misremembered understanding of the Alzarian life-cycle was actually what the episode was about!