Ten years on and Omega’s back, hatching a plan to steal The Doctor’s “bio-data” and cross over from the anti-matter universe – which will have the inconvenient side effect of fatally blowing the matter universe up. On Gallifrey, a traitor must be unmasked before the High Council can carry out The Doctor’s termination and in Amsterdam, some teenage backpackers are being hypnotized in a spooky basement by a giant rubber chicken monster. Well, they do say the drugs are pretty good out there.
Doctor Who, just like nature, abhors a vacuum. That’s not to say that there aren’t frequent pockets of airlessness in the series; back in the days when stories had to run to 5, 6, 7 episodes or even longer to make their seasons work, you might have an entire episode of tedious corridor-running, or capture-escape-recapture shenanigans, that leave us no further on at the end of the 20 minutes than we were at the start. But in general the show manages to avoid too much “business as usual”. I’m almost certainly biased but I feel like I’ve seen lots of Star Trek episodes which are just that, and no more than that: some conventional Star-Trek-type things happen in them, no new ground is broken, no expectations are defied, and everyone seems perfectly happy with that state of affairs.
But Doctor Who when it’s working, which is to say most of the time, tends to give a little bit extra. It might be something as simple as the regulars clowning around, or some mad curveball of British eccentricity in the script taking us places that the Enterprise crew would never be bold enough to go. But there’s usually something there to love, even during supposed all-time nadirs like Season 17 or Season 24.
I’ve watched “Arc Of Infinity” around four times now in recent months and, having said all of the above, my brain can find almost zero little crumbs of Whovian comfort to cling onto for support. For a serial that’s meant to be ushering in a triumphant 20th anniversary season, it manages to demonstrate a truly breathtaking inability to understand what needs to go into a Doctor Who script to make it successful, or even remotely watchable. In my reviews of Season 19 I banged on enough about my problems with certain incoming personnel of the mid-1980’s regime but, honestly, “Arc Of Infinity” is where it becomes obvious that the pantsness of “Time-Flight” was no mere blip. The show’s format has curdled into something really quite off-putting, and pretty soon only weird anorak-sporting saddos are going to want to drink it.
But enough preamble, what’s “Arc Of Infinity” all about? Two different plots, interleaved: the first, a Gallifrey-set whodunnit in which his friends must race against time to find the traitor in the High Council and provide a stay of The Doctor’s execution; the second, some teen backpackers confronting monsters in a crypt in Amsterdam. If you’re scratching your head right now trying to work out how these two plotlines could possibly join up, don’t worry, I can practically guarantee by this point that I’ve watched “Arc Of Infinity” more times than you and I still can’t make much sense of it. Essentially Who’s fortunes had reached the stage where they could afford to film one production per season abroad (for some small values of abroad), JN-T presumably liked the idea of a weekend in Amsterdam, and they shoehorned it in.
Let’s deal with the plots one at a time. Plot A at least sounds promising, doesn’t it? A sequel to the much-loved “The Deadly Assassin”? In fact it turns out to be one of the final few nails in the coffin of the idea of setting stories on Gallifrey. What should be a planet of infinite, breathtaking wonders is once again a few beige antechambers populated by a small gaggle of crusty high-court-judge types. Apart from Borusa (who is never recognisable as a long-running character anyway, due to his twenty-a-day regeneration habit), all of the mystery suspects (including a couple of “old friends” of The Doctor) have to be introduced from scratch. Is there any reason we should care about the solution to this mystery when the characters are barely distinguishable and there’s no time to distribute clues, due to half the running time being wasted on an acned teen kicking around Amsterdam? The big twist (sorry if this is a spoiler but I really fail to see how anyone could spoil “Arc Of Infinity”) is that the suspect who seems nicest is – gasp! – the traitor and the one who seems most horrible is – no way! – loyal. Agatha Christie this ain’t. “The Unicorn and The friggin’ Wasp” this ain’t!
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands…
One thing I do grudgingly like about this serial is how it trolls its audience for the first couple of episodes. Adric has left, Tegan has left. People are always going on about how Nyssa is the best companion of that particular line-up but, Jesus, watch the two-handers between her and The Doctor in this episode and tell me that, without the mouth on legs and the pyjama-wrapped brat to liven things up, things haven’t reached “watching paint dry” levels of tedium. Anyway, the point is that we’re definitely in line for a new companion. Enter Robin Stuart and Colin Frazer, the obvious candidates, especially Robin, as Colin gets nobbled by some kind of alien turkey pretty early on. And, OMG! No one liked Adric, but they’ve achieved the impossible here and found someone even worse. Awkward, goggle-eyed, terrible dress sense, stupid (not only has he managed to lose his passport, he seriously thinks the Dutch police will throw him into jail for this), unbelievably rude to the poor youth hostel receptionist who is trying to help him, ill at ease with girls…did the production team of the time not understand that their substantial spotty teen boy demographic might want some escapism out of Doctor Who, rather than a mirror held up to all their flaws?
But of course it’s all a trick, showing us this vista of unimaginable horror so that we do what we never imagined we would and breathe a sigh of relief when it’s revealed that Janet Fielding has in fact signed up for another season. Although, one of the most interesting things in “Arc Of Infinity” is right at the end, as The Doctor’s face falls when he realizes he really is “stuck with” Tegan again. Full credit to the 1980’s production team for their exploration of the idea of companions being more of a problem for The Doctor than an asset, though it’s not until the arrival of Ace that why The Doctor tolerates having companions will be anything other than a baffling conundrum.
But yeah, Robin Stuart is terrible, the pointless choice to film some scenes in Amsterdam is terrible, Gallifrey is terrible, the whodunnit is terrible, the Matrix being a few wobbly criss-cross lines generated by a BBC Micro is terrible and an insult to “The Deadly Assassin”. Bringing back Omega with an uglier costume, no discernible personality and a giant rubber chicken for a butler is terrible and an insult to “The Three Doctors”. The technobabble (all those “pulse loops” and “fusion boosters”) and the slavishness to continuity (namedropping Leela, wasting time on a discussion about the temporal grace goof from “Earthshock”) in the place of any kind of heart is terrible. The continuing decision to have The Doctor and companion attempt to solve almost every problem with guns is really terrible. Colin Baker in the role of Maxil is not completely terrible, if your idea of “not terrible” is “able to portray a dead-eyed Nazi thug with real conviction”, but of course the idea to take this performance and make a Doctor out of it may well be the most terrible ever. I think everyone agrees that as celebrations of two decades of the show go, this is a massive misfire.
But is there anything good to say about “Arc Of Infinity”? Well…I’ll offer up two things. Firstly, and okay, this is clutching at straws a bit, the name of the episode is really beautiful and evocative. It’s hard to understand how such a poetic story title could be attached to such a lumpen and prosaic story. Secondly, there is one scene in “Arc Of Infinity” that I really like, sadly in Episode 4, so much too late to stop anyone switching off, but still. Yet another terrible decision has been made to have Omega turn into Peter Davison in an ugly boiler suit and facial eruptions legging it around the streets of Amsterdam. Briefly, though, he stops to listen to a steam organ and, these being carefree pre-Yewtree days, exchanges some coquettish smiles with a tiny winsome blond Dutch boy. The tragedy of Omega is that all he wants to do is live; listen to music, feel the sun on his face, maybe skip through a field of tulips holding hands with a tiny child, I don’t know. But of course thanks to his exile to the anti-matter universe all of these joys are lost to him forever. The rest of the adventure squanders him entirely with boilerplate villainous posturing and bluster, but this scene economically describes his predicament, as moments later his face begins to revert to anti-matter and bystanders start screaming. It’s worth all the rest of “Arc Of Infinity” put together, as far as I’m concerned.
Even the aforementioned glimmers of something good and interesting about this serial aren’t enough to amount to an extra point out of ten. “Arc Of Infinity” is an empty void of a show, a display case for continuity porn instead of imagination, technobabble instead of plot, guns instead of humour, shoddy production value, contractual obligation rubber monsters and unimaginative direction instead of any discernible love anywhere. If Doctor Who is about joylessly reprising things from the shows past then this might qualify as some kind of success, but if it’s about anything else at all then I can only award it the ultimate bad story accolade of 1/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus