Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity Review
If one was to draw up a list of likely holiday destinations for the Doctor, it’s very unlikely that Amsterdam would feature very near the top. Unsurprisingly, on the few occasions we’ve seen him taking time off from saving the universe he seems to prefer vacations of total tranquillity, a spot of fishing, say, or basking in the Eye of Orion’s positive ions. While Amsterdam might seem an ideal spot to chill out, one suspects that the Doctor might not approve of some of the favoured methods employed to so do, while what he would make of the more overtly hedonistic parts of city life goodness only knows (not least because, as we’ve been reminded fairly recently, he hasn’t done much dancing in recent centuries). Nevertheless, in the Spring of 1982, Who producer John Nathan-Turner decided that it would be to the student’s favourite weekend jaunt that the Doctor would make his second overseas trip, in the opening story of the show’s twentieth season Arc of Infinity. After Tom Baker’s hugely successful sojourn to Paris in City of Death a few years previously, it was hardly surprising that the producer should wish to travel aboard again in the TARDIS, while the resulting publicity, always one of JNT’s primary concerns, would do the show no harm at all (especially if he could organise a photoshoot for the Doctor’s companions while there).
Of course, the problem with this approach was that it prioritised publicity over telling a good story. Whereas Baker’s Doctor, the wild-eyed Bohemian, was ideally suited to a light-hearted romp around gay Paree, Davison’s more stiff-upper-lipped Doctor was not the sort of chap you would expect to see loitering around the streets of such a decadent place as Amsterdam. As such, writer Johnny Byrne, when presented with this request to incorporate the city in his script, was already facing an uphill struggle. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that in the story he came up with the location turned out to be supremely unimportant, so much so that it could, in fact, have been any city under the sun. Indeed, aside from the last episode, he kept the place very much in the background, instead setting the majority of his episodes on the Doctor’s homeworld Gallifrey, in a story which saw the return of an enemy from the series’s past. The Doctor has been brought back home by the Time Lords as an emergency measure, after a mysterious antimatter entity bonded with him in order to gain access to our universe via the eponymous arc of infinity (it’s the bridge that connects our universe with that of antimatter, if you didn't already know). It turns out that said entity is none other than renegade Time Lord Omega (Ian Collier), who was last seen disappearing into a supernova in The Three Doctors ten years earlier. Now he’s back, and has enlisted a traitor in the High Council to help him return to Gallifrey and cause, no doubt, no end of difficulties. While the Doctor’s busy trying to sort all that out, his former companion Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) travels to Amsterdam to meet up with her cousin, only to discover he’s gone missing. Surely there can’t be a connection between his mysterious disappearance and Omega’s plans? And if so what are they? And can the Doctor discover who the traitor is who’s been helping him on Gallifrey? Or is the whole thing just the fevered imaginings of Miss Jovanka after a particular jolly night out down the Wallen?
To spoil it: no, sadly it isn’t. And, even though it takes our favourite Time Lord the better part of three episodes to work out what’s going on, it takes the viewer considerably less time, not least because Omega’s accomplice is inadequately disguised: despite his voice being electronically modified the actor’s distinctive diction still shines through all too apparently, somewhat giving the game away. As a whodunit, then, this isn’t in the first league, or as anything else for that matter, for in many ways this is a deeply flawed serial, and one not held in high esteem by fandom. Much criticism is directed at such problems as the design of Gallifrey, the poor acting of some of the guest stars, and the sheer dullness of certain sequences. And yet, despite all these problems, to my surprise I found myself really rather enjoying revisiting Arc on this release, and rating it more highly than I had expected. It is entirely possible, of course, that this was because I had just watched Time-Flight, against which almost anything would look infinitely superior, but on considered reflection I feel that there is in fact more to recommend this four parter than is sometimes recognised.
The central story, while neither especially original or loaded down with stunning plot twists, is sufficiently engaging. Once again the Doctor, getting caught up in the politics of a home planet he would far rather just avoid altogether, finds himself fighting a rearguard action against both the High Council and the mighty Omega. Although not given quite as much a showpiece as in his debut story, the renegade still poses a considerable threat (hell, at the end of the story his physical disintegration threatens to tear apart the cosmos) and, while hiding behind an effective shield which projects a negative image of himself, looks rather imposing. The tension on Gallifrey is nicely ratcheted up, and there are for once some reasonably decent characters walking the corridors of power, from the Doctor’s aged chum Hedin (Michael Gough, returning to Who sixteen years after his first appearance as The Celestial Toymaker) through to Nyssa’s partner-in-crime Damon (Neil Daglish). Famously, this is the story in which future Doctor Colin Baker makes his Who debut, playing an officious Gallifreyean guard named Maxil who, in the first episode, shoots the Doctor and then spends the rest of the time looking grumpy. This might be because he has to carry around with him a faintly ludicrous hat but despite that encumbrance Baker definitely has a presence about him which is not always visible among the Time Lords (contrast him with Leonard Sach’s President Borusa, for example). The first couple of cliffhangers are pretty good, and the denouncement, when it comes, is surprisingly brutal. Admittedly, the Amsterdam side of things does let the side down somewhat: disregarding the huge coincidence that Tegan’s cousin happens to be the one who is kidnapped by Omega, nothing really happens there for the first three episodes, other than Tegan and her cousin’s friend flapping round looking worried, occasionally menaced by a monster, but on the whole Byrne’s scripts are far more lively and eventful than his first contribution to the series, the deeply tedious The Keeper of Traken.
The problem comes when his words are translated from paper to screen. The production side of things is, if not Time-Flight bad, certainly lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. The most obvious culprit is the Ergon (Malcolm Harvey), an absurd monster henchman of Omega’s who looks like a cross between Big Bird and a giant stork. Rather pathetically, the original design brief was to create a creature inspired by Giger’s Alien: the only similarity in the resulting model you can discern is that both look like a man in a suit when they stand up. (How Tegan’s cousin doesn’t burst out laughing when he sees it is beyond me.) That said, the Ergon’s boss is nothing to write home about either as, once Omega is revealed in all his glory under the unforgiving studio lights, he looks unfortunately like a frog which has been turned into a Power Ranger. Equally, the sets are not among finest the series has ever seen, the corridors of power in Gallifrey a bland, faintly gaudy place, inexplicably coming with comfy-looking sofas along the walls (although at least the crypt, which is ostensibly to be found underneath the streets of Amsterdam, does mesh well with the location shooting). But on a whole, the design ethic is not strong here.
Director Ron Jones, unlike his lacklustre turn behind the camera for Time-Flight, at least tries his best with what he has to work with, and manages to find at times at least a vaguely interesting way of shooting Gallifrey, turning in solid work and coaxing out decent performances out of the majority of his cast (although it's a little unfortunate - albeit highly amusing - he allows the early scenes between Tegan's cousin and his friend Robin to have a certain homoerotic frisson). He only has real problems, surprise surprise, when it comes to the location shoot. The last half of episode four consists of a lengthy, tension-free chase around the streets of Amsterdam as the Doctor and his chums go in pursuit of the rapidly disintegrating Omega. It’s relatively hard to film a lethargic chase sequence but somehow Jones manages it and, despite the evident exertions on the part of the actors, drains the sequence of all movement and drama. (It doesn’t help that it goes on far too long). This is evidently meant to be the thrilling climax of the piece, while simultaneously showing off Amsterdam in all its glory, but it doesn't succeed at all (although it doesn't help that the city, unlike Paris, has few iconic sights to pick out). Working as neither a travelogue nor a satisfying end to the serial, it’s somewhat of an irony that the pace of the previous three episodes grinds to a halt and loses any momentum it had at the very moment it finds itself in the location around which the whole story is constructed. Going to the city was an utter waste of time, and indeed drags the rest of the story down with it. (Having said that, do keep an eye out for one moment that seems to go unremarked on all documentaries and commentaries: in one scene, a clearly agitated businessman can be seen running as fast as he can in the background, evidently quite perturbed about something, the sight of which never fails to amuse me. I wonder what was going on?)
Hopefully Davison, Fielding and Sutton, who exerted such energy in all that fruitless running, didn’t realise quite how pointless it was. In general, this is not the best story as far as Davison’s performance goes, the actor handing in one of his more half-hearted performances as the Doctor. Given that he has often said in interviews that he felt that Nyssa was by far the companion most suited to his Doctor, it’s odd that in this one story in which they are effectively on their own he doesn’t try harder to convey some of the chemistry he obviously felt between them (can’t say I see it myself). In contrast, however, Sarah Sutton as Nyssa is given some of the best material her generally bland character ever has and she gives it her all: one can almost see her straining with the effort during the scene in which she tries to rescue the Doctor from being executed but, while one can’t fault her commitment, this does rather show her limitations as an actress, at least in this role. Of the guest stars, Gough is perhaps not as dynamic a presence as you might expect him to be, leaving the floor clear for Baker to make the biggest impression (although one can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t a bit of hindsight there). Paul Jericho as the Castellan also brings far more to his limited role than he really should, and makes a surprisingly memorable turn while doing relatively little. Equally memorable, albeit for a completely different reason, is Andrew Boxer as Robin, an obviously hitherto unrevealed brother of Frank Spencer’s who is absolutely awful, but so earnest in his attempt to act that one can’t help cheer him along. He’s rubbish, but at least he’s entertainingly rubbish, unlike, say, Matthew Waterhouse, who was just smug. And Collier as Omega makes a perfectly decent replacement to Thorne as Omega, even if I can’t help preferring the latter’s more theatrical style.
Although it has many problems, and almost in spite myself, I found this a surprisingly diverting story. The script itself is solid if unremarkable (although one can’t help but have qualms about the Doctor wielding any sort of gun, even if it is just a matter converter) and the production, while problematic, covers its flaws by providing many unintentional laughs. This is a serial with which it is very easy to have a lot of fun with: admittedly often at its expense, but that doesn’t make it any the less enjoyable. With few genuine irritations (other than Roger Limb’s ghastly, piercing musical score) and plenty of action, it’s a very genial way to pass a hundred minutes. If one was to look at it ultra-critically, it is very easy to see the serial as a prime example of JNT’s mantra of style above substance, with coincidences and dodgy moments in the plot covered over without any real regard, and in all honesty there's little that can be said in defence of that: it's a messy piece, no doubt about it, but I would argue it's at least an entertaining mess, and far better than some of the dross that surrounds it. Besides, how can you not enjoy something which stars these two fine chaps?
Arc of Infinity is released as part of a two-story set with the immediately preceding story Time-Flight. As usual, the story comes in its own case and cover, with a single disc held within. The disc’s Main Menu is the usual set-up, with clips from the story running alongside the Menu options. As well as watching the story as nature intended, there’s also the choice to watch with new and improved CGI Effects, which are pleasingly effective, or the Isolated Score, although why you’d wish to do the latter I have no idea.
The episodes themselves and all extras, with the exception of the commentary are subtitled. As well as the extras, there’s also the same Coming Soon trailer for The Time Warrior as is seen on the Time-Flight disc, as well as another trailer that is somewhat harder to find...
Reasonable. The material shot on video tape is what we've come to expect from a Davison-era release - ie soft but acceptable - but the location sequences are blurry at times with low detail. The usual extensive clean-up has been carried out so the episodes are looking as good as they can, but these aren't the prettiest visuals you'll ever see.
Clear enough, and fine to listen to, the only complaint here is that the music is so harsh to listen to at times that it can be rather distracting. But then, that's my problem rather than the audio tracks...
Despite the general low regard for the story, this has still been one of the most eagerly anticipated commentaries thus far for the Who releases because of the presence of both Peter Davison and Colin Baker on one track. Separately the two doctors have provided by far the most entertaining yak tracks, and their pairing together here does not disappont. Davison is on particularly amusing form, Baker very much the support man, but together they put on a fine show and greatly entertain for the length of the story. The other two commentators, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton, are, if not spare parts, then not as vital as usual (although Sutton never has much to say anyway) but nevertheless this lives up to the billing and is one of the strongest commentaries we’ve had on a Who disc.
As ever, this is the usual collection of episode trivia, comprising such minutiae as actors’ CVs, original plot lines and factoids about the shoot.
Anti-Matter From Amsterdam (34:56)
A somewhat eccentric Making Of, but nonetheless entertaining. Sophie Aldred presents on location in Amsterdam and has fun pretending not to notice that Johnny Byrne is there too while telling the story in a haphazard rather than chronological fashion, making this more of a potpourri of observations from cast and crew rather than a straightforward production history. Greatly enlivened by some hugely amusing contributions from Davison and Baker, at times mischievously edited together, this is the other highlight on the disc. Reasonable.
The Omega Factor (14:56)
The best Who featuring Omega wasn’t a television story at all, but rather the Big Finish audio play Omega, in which Collier reprised his role and once more came up against Davison’s Doctor (as well as once again… no, won’t spoil it). That play is briefly mentioned at the end of this reasonable look at the villain’s two TV appearances, featuring contributions from, amongst others, both Collier and Stephen Thorne, who played him in The Three Doctors.
Deleted Scenes (2:55)
A varied if brief selection of missing material, with a couple of character moments which are quite nice.
Under Arc Lights (11:32)
A boring collection of footage from the studio floor which is wholly unremarkable.
In which a trailer for the upcoming Season Twenty opens with a shot of the Ergon, a somewhat self-destructive move. This is the usual collection of “And now on BBC 1…” and are always a welcome nostalgic feature of these discs.
Photo Gallery (7:47)
Bog-standard gallery almost exclusively made up of photos taken during filming, with a few publicity pictures and some phenomenally boring set shots at the end.
A complete scan of the 1983 Doctor Who Annual and the Radio Times listings for the story are included for completeness sake, and very nice the former looks too.
Think about this: in one day the Doctor is nearly executed by the Time Lords, is forced to float around the Matrix for what seems like forever and faces an insane duplicate of himself who could destroy the universe. And what’s his reward for getting through all that unscathed? Tegan turning up and re-inviting herself back on board the TARDIS. Some days it’s just not worth getting out of bed. Another good set from the Restoration Team; one wouldn’t every Making of to be like the one on this disc, but the occasional eccentricity, especially for an average story like this, enlivens what could have been otherwise a somewhat bog-standard piece.