Arc of Infinity

Written by:
Johnny Byrne
Directed by: Ron Jones
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1983
Video Availability: Try

As the season twenty story most heavily made for fans, then it was the same target audience that rejected it. I've seen many, many slatings of this story, with the amusing alternate title "Arc of Inanity" coming most memorably to mind. Yet while such criticisms are indeed largely valid, I've always enjoyed it to be honest.

It perhaps shows the production team's crushing lack of imagination that after reintroducing the Master to the series, Johnny Byrne was thereafter given the "returning monster" stories, culminating in the underrated Warriors of the Deep. This marks the fourth era of Gallifrey stories of course. First we had the underbudgetted grandosity of The War Games. Next came the MFI 70s kitsch of the Pertwee era. Only during Tom Baker's time did it truly feel right, wonderfully reinvented for The Deadly Assassin and maintained better than its reputation attests for The Invasion of Time. The John Nathan-Turner era gives us possibly the cheapest, tackiest, dumbest version of Gallifrey, heavily indebted to the Tom Baker model but with none of its subtlety or class.

This is also the only solo Nyssa story, so forgive her and Peter if they look tired - they'd just been through fifty billion BBC books and Big Finish audios before they made this. Sutton's witless reading of dull exposition like "it'll make quite a difference to have audio link up on the scanner again" can only produce a non-committal "mmm" from Davison. His breathless running and associated characteristics seem oddly forced and artificial here, largely because the story is too inept to support them. Why bother rushing around when you're wading through tripe?

Finally, this is also the first story of the new administration to use an overseas location shoot. City of Death kicked the whole thing off, vibrantly showcasing Paris with style and panache. While this and Planet of Fire aren't as bad in their locations as The Two Doctors(which rams home Seville at every turn with no real reason for being there) this does perhaps make them even worse. After all, if they could have been shot anywhere, then why bother? This reaches its peak for Planet, which, while a fine story, didn't make me realise I was in Lanzarote at any point - so why not just shoot it in a quarry as normal? This "holiday for the team" mentality seems symptomatic of the production's developing love of gimmickry over logic.

"Oh no, a policeman." I used to think that Andrew Boxer was a guy who'd won a chance to appear in the series through Jim'll Fix It. Watching this after Enlightenment, it's amazing to find a man who makes Leee John look like an experienced thespian. Boxer could well be the worst actor in the entire history of Who, which is not an inconsiderable feat. Thankfully he's ably matched by Alastair Cumming as Colin, who is, if not quite as bad, still commendably execrable. A subtext that they're gay? Maybe. The whole point is that Cumming plays Tegan's cousin, who meets the Doctor again in this story, with all the contrivance that development implies.

This is a series now so far up its own back passage that it even has a line describing how the Cybermen could fire guns in the Tardis - like any casual audience member would give a toss about something that happened the previous year, or even care in the first place. Can you imagine Only Fools and Horses (awful mainstream sitcom with David "self conscious performance" Jason at the helm) having an episode where Uncle "Leonard Pearce was infinitely funnier" Albert says "Say, Del Boy, you once said that…" No, and no other show would do. Saward and JN-T seriously needed to get a grip.

I don't mind the "impulse laser?" bit that much (Time Lords wouldn't expect guns to be used in violence, maybe…?) but the tacky - not poor, but tacky - special effects are as painful to bear as the settish crypt and slow motion running. I actually have flu as I'm watching this (hoping, bizarrely, that watching Arc of Infinity will make me feel better) so I'll use that as an excuse for the Ergon being so outrageously, mind-staggeringly shite that I can't find the words to describe how bad it is. Words have yet to be invented to describe it, actually - at least the Gel Guards were in a hokey story so they could be excused. In a po-faced Davison continuity fest then it's one of the most embarrassing things I've ever witnessed.

Oh God, here comes The Blimp. A season before Colin Baker took over the role, his arch ham was let loose upon the Who viewing public as Commander Maxham. It's a decent, likeable ham for the most part actually, theatrical scenery chewing at an acceptable level. And seeing Colin has reminded me of a way to ease my flu symptoms - I need to eat something. The cliffhanger sequence also has to be one of the most poorly staged I've ever witnessed. But with so many things wrong with a story I still come to the conclusion that, as crap as it is, I do get a lot of enjoyment out of Arc of Infinity. It's naff but I love it anyway. Sadly, though, the format of my reviews forces me to give it a score, a factor where I cannot be so generous…
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Fluffy carpets in the Tardis? There just shouldn't be fluffy carpets in the Tardis - it's a given. So too should it be that the sadistic Time Lord played by The Blimp shouldn't wear more mascara than the female lead. Here Boxer begins a collaboration with Fielding, which makes her look good in comparison, and we meet loads of "old friend" Time Lords that we've never even seen before. Okay, it only takes a bit of imagination, but it's almost as distancing to have imagined old acquaintances as it is to have talk of Romana and E-Space.

There's no epic feel to any of this story. Gallifrey looks alternately flat, unimaginatively filmed and tacky. And for every quality guest star there's a Damon, a Robin or a Nyssa, while Leonard Sachs is the least memorable Borusa. Of course, none of this is helped by one of the most staid directors in the whole of Who, Ron Jones. Let's not even mention Maxham's "listening device". The FBI have got nothing on him, have they? To be fair to Sutton, she does look genuinely upset when the Doctor is terminated, but then they'd probably just told her there was a more wooden actor than her in the story and she couldn't take it. As for the Doctor, is he really terminated? We can but hope.
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The once-mighty Matrix is now reduced to being a monitor on a wall, while Malcolm Harvey as the Ergon continues to send it up in a vain scene-stealing attempt. Why try and steal a scene when you're dressed like that? This is the first episode where it's revealed Omega is behind it all, so I'll now mention him. Despite looking like he has a pickled onion or a dislocated testicle on his head, the camp one out of The Time Monster does a much better job than Stephen Thorne. Having said that, the guy who delivers my post could do a better job than Stephen Thorne. Sadly, his studio flat HQ is pitiful, like something out of a Lenny Henry sketch. Seeing Cumming ambling around in a mock punk T-shirt with that big fanny of an Ergon staggering behind him is an all-time low in the series.

The Blimp seems to have not heard an acting instruction beyond the line "Maxham is a little arch…", while Sutton and Daglish seem not to have heard an acting instruction full stop. I'm not enjoying this nearly as much as I used to, because being forced to put it through the episode-by-episode judgement I'm forced to admit that it's crap. Cumming's zombie acting is no different from his real thing, while Tegan and Robin getting zapped while screaming is possibly an 80s nadir. JN-T could produce some good stuff - much better than his reputation allows - but he also had no concept of quality control. Most of this stuff should have been junked on the cutting room floor and used as a DVD extra. Not just scenes - the whole story.

This is possibly Peter's worst performance in the lead role actually. He normally does well, but, like a Frazier banging relentlessly away, he has no reverse gear when faced with this story's Big George of ineptitude. As a result he continually gets smashed to the canvas, giving his all in a story where no one else can be bothered or capable. He should have stepped back and played the ropes of self-reflexive send-up, but instead makes it all seem even sillier by taking it so seriously.

It's weird actually how the Time Lord facilities like viewscreen communications were supposed to be futuristic yet are actually achievable on Earth nowadays. Not the fault of the story, obviously, but it still looks cack, innit? The revelation that Michael Gough is the traitor is no great surprise to anyone with a pair of ears, while the cliffhanger ("It's too late… Omega controls the Matrix.") is meaningless. What is the Matrix? It's been mentioned and shown for the last three episodes, but it's never explained. Nor is the presence or purpose of Omega. Not really, and not fully. Not unless you've been watching the show closely for the last ten years. Yeah, I know who and what they are, and so do you, but did the millions watching? If they didn't, it was hard cheese, and that's when a TV series begins to strangle itself...
* *

Despite this being a poor showing for the staid fifth Doctor, hopelessly let down by everything else around him, it does contain arguably my favourite Davison performance. Yes, yes, I know everyone always mentions it, but that bit where he plays Omega in a copy of the Doctor's body is beautiful. The childlike innocence on his face when he looks at the accordion playing "Tulips of Amsterdam" is as charming, magical and first-rate a moment as the rest of the story is rock bottom. It's also so preciously devoid of any cynicism - if it was made nowadays you'd get fifty people kicking his head in and going "stop hanging around kids". Truly Doctor Who was a product of a purer time. I mean, even though it's set in Amsterdam, no one comes up to Omega and offers him a live show and four free drinks for 35 Euros.

Is Borusa gay in this story? He minces around like that old buffer who did the ads for Werther's Originals. (and that's another story in itself…) This story also features JN-T walking around in the background of the phone scene, looking not unlike an obese Bill Oddie in a donkey jacket. Placing himself into the story like this is almost a Hitchcockian move, except he didn't direct it, and Hitchcock was anorexic in comparison. Oh, it's just puerile mud-slinging now, but this is really not a very good Doctor Who story. There's a certain amount of serious thesping gravitas that Peter brings to a story, meaning that his turkeys never seem as bad as a turkey from 1984-1989, but even so this fails on nearly every level. Plot, script, direction, acting, design… it's all pretty abysmal. And that disappoints me greatly, because I normally get a lot of enjoyment out of this one, but there's only so many MFI door handles and Davo sprints I can take in one story. This is the last episode, it should be rocking like a daddy, instead it's just filling time. And if everything is always so urgent to the fifth Doctor, then it undermines the tension of the story. This is a man who runs around and gets out of breath if his toast is cold. He's always like that - so what does it matter if he gets like it again? The credibility of the situation is forfeit through repetition and lack of [can't think of the word I was looking for, I'm ill, okay?]. Davison - a good actor, but he can't lip-synch to save his life.

Have I really just sat through Davison getting a bitch slap off that cardboard parrot? And just how does he know it's called an "Ergon"? When and where did he hear the name? Did it makes its unscreened first appearance in a Paul Cornell MA or summat? I said earlier that you couldn't tell that this was shot in Amsterdam. While it wouldn't have made any narrative difference if it wasn't, the virtually dialogueless chase sequences do serve to show it off, as well as send the story plummeting towards a meaningless runaround. How does Peter resolve the situation? He blows the mother away, seeing him cascade out of existence with all the fizz and sparkle of a sherbet dib-dab. Only Peter's expression at the thought of Tegan rejoining manages to resolve some credibility.
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You just have to keep telling yourself: "it's crap but I like it, it's crap but I like it…"
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