Arc of Infinity was the beginning of the 20th season of Doctor Who, and it was decided that every story should include some element of the past of the series to make up a celebratory year. Earthshock had gone down well with fans the previous year, so why not? This approach comes in for a lot of criticism but is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is done well, and for most of the season the past elements are either used well, or in a way that do not detract too much from good stories. Snakedance is a sequel to a recent story and does something very different to Kinda. The trilogy of Mawdryn Undead, Terminus and Enlightenment does something new with the Guardians, who previously only bookended the Key to Time Season. The King’s Demons brings back the Master for the sake of bringing back the Master, but we are used to that by now. Most importantly, all of the other stories, with the possible exception of Demons, have a reason for bringing back old villains that actually makes sense, and tell stories that couldn’t be told without them.
Where Arc of Infinity stumbles in its approach in contrast to the rest of the season is that the past elements are very much thrown in for the sake of them. We are supposed to get excited about seeing Gallifrey and Omega and the Matrix, just because it’s Gallifrey, Omega and the Matrix. In all three examples, everyone has forgotten what made them compelling elements of the series originally. In the case of Omega, that’s quite bizarre, as his original appearance is such a recent story.
That might seem like an odd statement, but if you have ever read anything to the effect that Arc of Infinity is doing something wrong by assuming people will remember a villain from ten years ago, it’s time to discard that notion. Arc of Infinity assumes people will remember a villain from one year ago, not so very different to Snakedance.
In 1981 there was a repeat season of older Doctor Who stories called The Five Faces of Doctor Who. The one thing we have to get our heads around that is very different to the modern world is that this was something very strange and special at the time. Forget about VHS, DVD, downloads, repeats on lesser channels. Think back to a time before all that, and the past of Doctor Who was largely inaccessible. Anything more than about a year old simply never got repeated… until 1981, and viewers finally had the chance to get a glimpse of past eras of Doctor Who. Predictably, a lot of people took that chance, and the viewing figures were impressive, in some cases more impressive than a few episodes from the preceding season. One of those repeated stories was The Three Doctors, and it averaged over 5 million viewers per episode. Most reviewers who criticise the assumption that the viewers will remember Omega and do grudgingly acknowledge the existence of this repeat try to twist it to a 2 year gap, but that’s not even the truth. The Three Doctors was repeated at the tail end of November 1981, and Arc of Infinity aired right at the beginning of January 1983, so not much over a year’s gap between the two. So Omega was more fresh in the minds of viewers than anything pre- Season 19. The problem is that the story doesn’t really bring him back. The costume is different, the actor is different and the interpretation and writing of the character is different. He has lost that scary otherness, that fear of an insane, formless personality that exists beyond the physical.
Likewise, the Matrix and the Time Lords have been made dull, there in name, but a shadow of what they used to be. Only Maxil makes any kind of an impression, based on Colin Baker deciding this was going to be the Maxil Show. When asked to tone down his performance, Baker’s response was interesting: nobody considers themselves to be a minor character in somebody else’s life. Admittedly he overdoes things a little, but how much better would it be if every guest actor was that determined to breathe life into their characters. Maxil comes across as a real person, with his own opinions and motivations, which is unusual for such a minor character. It just needed dialing down a bit, but the idea behind Baker’s approach is a sound one.
So is there anything more to Arc of Infinity than throwing in some old bits of Doctor Who and giving the crew a holiday in Amsterdam? We yes, quite a lot as it happens. Once we have got past the ridiculous coincidences that bring all the plot elements together, we have a fairly compelling story of tourism gone wrong, a reasonably popular theme in horror movies. We have an interesting, albeit slightly underdeveloped, connecting theme between Gallifrey and Amsterdam, with the authorities just not caring about the lives of others, and an air of xenophobia about them all. So the police in Amsterdam are not prepared to dedicate resources to investigating the disappearance of a hitchhiking tourist, while the Time Lords are willing to kill off the Doctor if it solves their problems. Then we have the wonderful scenes of Omega experiencing life in corporeal form for the first time in an eternity, learning what it is like to live as a human. It is slightly mishandled by not having Davison play Omega for the whole time, but this was a technical issue. Split screen on location would presumably have been a nightmare to achieve. But Davison does an amazing job with the material he is given, portraying Omega’s childish wonderment at the corporeal world, while retaining an air of wrongness and creepiness to the character (and not just because his face starts turning into rice crispies). Best of all, Arc of Infinity gives us the scariest chicken in the universe. It might be a guilty pleasure, but I can’t help loving a story that is just so weird. RP
The view from across the pond:
Omega. Introduced during Doctor Who’s 10th Anniversary, he was a living legend of Time Lord society. For the first time in the shows history, we would learn about the Doctor’s culture and Time Lords history. Played by Stehpen Thorne, he was scary; unhinged and angry about being abandoned, he bellowed with unchecked rage. The Time Lords however saw him as a hero; the engineer who gave them the ability to travel in time. So it was only a matter of time before he’d be back. Sadly, the part was now going to be played by Ian Collier, whose voice lacked any menace. It wasn’t terrible, but after all this time, instead of being more frightening, he lost some of the fear factor. That deranged madman that was perfectly inflected by Thorne is weakened with Collier. And that’s a huge letdown because Thorne had a magnificent voice. (I recognized it instantly as Eldred from The Hand of Fear, having seen that Tom Baker serial first, even though by the time I’d seen The Three Doctors, a good deal of time had gone by).
Arc of Infinity is a curious affair too. It’s not bad but has some odd ideas which probably gave the production crew a chance for a trip more than anything else. As always, all alien villainy starts on Earth, this time focusing on a couple guys hiking around Amsterdam. Tegan’s cousin, Egg-eyes, is being terrorized by Ergon, a creature that conjures images of chickens merged with skeletons fused with bug DNA. Of course, that means Tegan, recently departed from the TARDIS, was also coming back, this time with a haircut that was truly forgettable. (For a woman who did “80s big hair” later and looked great with it, her super short hair was unflattering!) Then the story shifts to Gallifrey. Like The Three Doctors, this is a welcome visit. Going to the Doctor’s homeworld is like getting a juicy piece of information about your spouse from other family members: we love it because we learn things about them that we never knew. It’s exciting, fun, and every so often it gives us something to playfully hold over them. Gallifrey is that special treat that should always be done right. So who better to have as a guest star than Alfred, Batman’s butler? Michael Gough is an incredibly likable actor. He plays Hedin, the one who is trying to help Omega. He’s a great addition to the Gallifreyan hierarchy. Sort of.
Here’s the thing. Some villains have terrible plans. I don’t think Hedin’s plan is terrible in that he wants to bring his childhood hero back from his prison in the antimatter universe. That’s not a bad goal. What is bad is using the Doctor’s biodata to do it. You’ve got an entire society of people many of whom would probably give their lives for Omega, but he uses the Doctor. He could have even used the Master. Best case: the Master is destroyed and a legend from Gallifrey returns. But no, that’s not Hedin’s plan. Hedin dives in using the Doctor’s biodata – the one man in all of time and space who might actually put a stop to Omega’s return. Talk about poor thinking. To quote myself: it doesn’t make sense. Hedin was asking for the plan to fail the moment he thought the Doctor made a good target. If the Matrix were consulted, it would have printed out a report that said “This plan will work on 99% of Gallifreyan’s. It has a 1% chance of failure. In other words: 100% chance of failure if you choose one specific person!” And Hedin chose the specific person. What was he thinking?
The same question can be asked of the creative team. The working titles for this story were The Time of Neman and The Time of Omega. Neman? Who? Newman, from Seinfeld? That’s just an odd choice, but that’s not even the one I’m concerned with. The one I’m really here to make fun of is The Time of Omega, because again we see the poor planning on the part of the creative team. Why spoil the big reveal before the episode even begins? Who’s coming up with these ideas? Hedin? Or Neman?? Just how many Neman have you seen today, anyway?
All of that said, it’s a good story with an interesting mystery and a heck of a cliffhanger when the Doctor is executed. Unlike so many others, it doesn’t look like an easy one to get out of! The inclusion of Commander Maxil, played by future Doctor, Colin Baker, is an interesting quirk. Was he that intimidating to the Doctor that he left an impression, causing a regeneration to look exactly like Maxil? Or was it a question of the Doctor thinking Maxil was a startlingly handsome fellow and gee, wouldn’t it be nice if I looked like that in my next incarnation? Who knows. Whatever the reason, we had a chance to see Colin in Doctor Who, pre-Doctor. And he was about as likable here as he was in his first story as the Doctor!
Arc of Infinity is a fun story that just proves that technological advancement is no substitution for good planning. Thankfully, there are a lot of better stories around it to keep spirits high! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Snakedance