Review [DW]: “Arc of Infinity”

20×1. Arc of Infinity
Writer: Johnny Byrne
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The insane Time Lord Omega plots his return to Gallifrey, setting up a power center underneath Amsterdam and using stolen bio-data on the Doctor to engineer the creation of a matter-based body that could exist in our universe. The Time Lords attempt to execute the Doctor to prevent Omega’s return, but Omega and his co-conspirator, the High Councillor Hedin, interfere, while Omega holds Tegan – who came to Amsterdam to meet her cousin – as a hostage to manipulate the Doctor.

Review: I’m starting to think that “less is more” might be a wise rule regarding visits to Gallifrey. While the Time Lords featured in two classic serials, “The War Games” and “The Deadly Assassin,” the former left their appearance until the very end and the latter was set up partly to illustrate that, despite the Time Lords’ power, Gallifrey could be just as corrupt and regressive as many of the other declining, aristocratic regimes seen on other alien worlds. But in “The Three Doctors,” “The Invasion of Time,” and now “Arc of Infinity,” the creative team have sometimes seemed to struggle with the sheer scope of any narrative involving such a powerful civilization.

For starters, there’s simply too much contrived plotting here. The reason for Omega using Amsterdam as a sort of headquarters is strained at best (it has something to do with the city’s below-sea-level location and some quirk of the Arc of Infinity, itself a purely fictitious concept), and Tegan apparently stumbles into the midst of this purely by coincidence. The science fiction elements underpinning the conspiracy on Gallifrey are only marginally better developed. There’s some pseudoscience invoked to explain how Omega is attempting to form a “bond” to the Doctor, why the Time Lords think killing the Doctor might be the only way to stop it, and how Omega and Hedin interrupt the execution while making it appear as if the Doctor has died. But it doesn’t amount to much more than a fancy way to say “because the script said so.” Meanwhile, a character is murdered at the very beginning without anyone acknowledging it until the third episode, when a line of dialogue implies that everyone knows that he’s dead. But didn’t anyone even notice him missing before that, and shouldn’t that have prompted an investigation of its own by the time the Doctor’s TARDIS is recalled to Gallifrey?

What makes this especially disappointing is that there actually could have been an interesting story here about conflict within Gallifrey’s political establishment. Some amount of contrived plotting is perhaps inevitable in a story dealing with hyperintelligent aliens and a being trying to cross over from an “antimatter universe,” and I’d be happy to just accept the premise for what it is if the characters’ reactions, and the decisions they face, were interesting and understandable. But Borusa, Thalia, and the Castellan rarely strike a pose other than cold, bureaucratic aloofness, and the Council is surprisingly slow to accept that there is a traitor within their ranks – surely they should be aware of their vulnerability after the events of the last two Gallifrey serials. Meanwhile, Hedin and Damon are introduced as friends of the Doctor even though we’ve never seen either of them before, while the Doctor’s actual allies from past Gallifrey serials are absent. Even if none of the previous actors and actresses were available, why couldn’t the producers just do what they did with Borusa in this serial and use regeneration as the pretext for recasting a second Time Lord character as well, such as Spandrell or Engin from “The Deadly Assassin”? Or why not at least show a stronger sense of regret or guilt from Borusa himself, who must feel something for his former pupil even if he thinks he can’t let it influence him as President? Instead we’re left trying to feel invested in the decisions and motivations of characters whom we mostly haven’t seen before and who don’t show much personality.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this serial, because the script does seem to engage with these issues at some level. While the fine points could have been better, the general sense of Gallifrey as a society not to be envied for its power is still present. Clearly all is not well when the Time Lords’ power can be manipulated from within to the point of threatening such a catastrophe that their leaders feel justified in executing an innocent man as a method of preventing it. Commander Maxil (played, interestingly enough, by Colin Baker) is the sort of hard-nosed authoritarian who flourishes in this sort of environment; as the Doctor points out, he may just be following orders, but he seems to find a bit of relish in them. The tragic aspect of Omega’s character also comes across more effectively here than it did in “The Three Doctors.” Hedin’s motivation for his betrayal – that Omega deserves to return to Gallifrey – nicely avoids simplistic villainy (though it would have been good to learn more about how he came into contact with Omega and decided on this course of action). Omega was originally trapped in the antimatter universe by accident and, as far as we can tell, had done nothing reckless or unethical leading up to this. It’s clear that the Doctor would have preferred to try to help Omega – just as he also would have preferred in “The Three Doctors” – if Omega weren’t so dangerously egocentric and unhinged.

A show like Doctor Who has a fine line to walk. Since the concepts in play often have little basis in realistic science and the main character is far more experienced and intelligent than anyone in the audience, we need to know what’s at stake for the characters – both literally and psychologically – even when we (and the writers) don’t entirely understand what they’re talking about. In other words, contrivances can be excused as long as the story isn’t primarily *about* the contrivances (or else you end up with another “Time-Flight”). “Arc of Infinity” gets part of the way there, but ultimately the guest cast isn’t strong enough to carry it through its more strained moments.

Other Notes:

– The absence of past Gallifrey characters is especially noticeable given that Leela is mentioned at one point. Again, I don’t know whether any consideration was given to having Louise Jamieson and/or Chris Tranchell (who played Andred in “Invasion of Time”) make a guest apperance, but it reinforces the sense that the writers are inventing new personal history for the Doctor rather than building on what we already know.

– I’m just as confused about why Tegan was left behind at the end of “Time-Flight” as I was at, well, the end of “Time-Flight.” The Doctor and Nyssa aren’t talking about going back for her when we catch up with them, but then she rejoins the crew after announcing that she’s lost her flight attendant job. So her only options are working as a flight attendant or going on an extended and frequently dangerous trip through space and time?

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

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