Friday, March 16, 2012

You Ask Me To Appreciate It? (Arc of Infinity)

So that's what Stephen Thorne looks like.
It’s January 3rd, 1983. Renee and Renato are at number one with “Save Your Love,” which is... a song. Phil Collins removes it from number one in the second week of this story with “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Culture Club, Men at Work, Madness, Malcom McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team, and David Bowie and Bing Crosby also chart.

In real news, ooh, we get to do a big wrap-up since last time, don’t we. OK. So there’s the Falklands, obviously. Canada fully patriates its constitution and achieves full political independence from the UK. Ronald Reagan addresses a joint session fo the British Parliament. There’s a World Cup. England does well in its first group stage, then manages a series of two 0-0 draws in a second group stage, knocking it out of the tournament. The Equal Rights Amendment fails, to the delight of Phyllis Schlafly, who is basically the American version of Mary Whitehouse. Like all American adaptations of British source texts, she is bigger, louder, and stupider. The queen’s bodyguard, Michael Trestrail, resigns over excessive use of male prostitutes. The first lethal injection is carried out in Texas, the first emoticons are posted, and Time Magazine’s Man of the Year is the computer.

Also, at this particular moment in time I am exactly one hundred and sixteen days old, and this is the first episode of Doctor Who to air in a world I exist in. So I guess this is all my fault. Really, really sorry.

I talked, last time we did a television story, about the way in which it is at times helpful to watch Doctor Who without remembering actively that there is such a thing as a bad story. And that’s true to an extent. But another aspect of childhood watching of Doctor Who - or of any television series, really - is that rubbish episodes pass you by forgettably. Time-Flight, for all its flaws, was oddly memorable. Arc of Infinity, on the other hand? Here are my childhood memories of Arc of Infinity: it had Time Lords, it brought Omega back, and it had Colin Baker being as horribly unpleasant as I assumed his eventual Doctor would be. I remembered virtually nothing else about it. This, as it happens, is a very bad sign. While not every story that fails to make an impression as a kid is, in fact, wretched it is striking just how often a failure to remember a story at all on my part coincides with it being a truly and epically awful one.

To be fair, of the things I did remember, I was not quite right about any of them. My initial dislike of Colin Baker was motivated purely by my parents badmouthing him on the grounds of his strangling Peri in The Twin Dilemma. In truth the character improved and was not as wretched as Commander Maxil, and it is by now clear that the problem with the character was not, in fact, Baker himself. On the other hand, good lord, Maxil is a wretched character. As for the Time Lords and Omega, well, we’ll get there.

But other than that, this story left very little impression on me on first watching. Which means that whereas I could attempt a redemptive reading on Time Fight, which I’d had a vague sense of it having been interesting, and spent much of the time watching it going  “oh, yes, I remember this bit” in a vaguely satisfied way despite its glaring flaws, here I found myself with very few options. Arc of Infinity isn't even bad for interesting reasons. It's just bad. I said one ought do a redemptive reading if one can. But I can't. I just can't.

It is, at least, and this is about the extent of the defense I can muster, not awful in the way that Earthshock is awful. It’s not a betrayal of moral principles underpinning Doctor Who or anything like that. It’s just thoroughly misconceived and badly done in a way that it is difficult to even take seriously.

There was an interview with Gareth Roberts a few months back in Doctor Who Magazine in which he suggested that there are no stories in the classic series that couldn’t be saved by a good rewrite, using this as his limit case scenario - he suggested that even this story could have been saved by a Russell T. Davies rewrite and that the audience would be crying for Omega at the end. (Roberts tends to single out this story for particular criticism, and I suspect it of being his all-time least favorite Doctor Who story.) Which gets at about the one interesting thing I can think of to focus on with Arc of Infinity, so let's do it. Simply put, is there anything that is even remotely a good idea here? Not being one for suspense, I'll suggest that the answer is "yes, but barely."

Much like Time-Flight before it we have a case of the program constructing what is, if nothing else, a unique set of genre tropes. The Amsterdam sections through the first three episodes are firmly in an exploitation horror genre about the terrible things that happen to tourists abroad - I think Hostel is roughly the most recent movie of significance to mine this territory, though horror isn’t really my bag, genre-wise, so I may be missing something obvious. The Gallifrey sections are palace intrigue. And then there’s a big cosmic events gloss on the whole thing that’s all very mythic sci-fi. These three things do not go together. And yet here they are, all piled on top of one another.

The thing is, this is what Doctor Who does. This is the very definition of what the program is for, at least on the surface. But this raises a question - why put those three things together? What is the point of that juxtaposition? Or, more broadly, what’s the point of using juxtaposition in the first place in Doctor Who? Because this story seems to demonstrate that it’s not simply to put things together for the sake of it. In 1983 it can’t be anymore - everything, as we saw last time, is doing that. The mere spectacle of juxtaposition doesn’t cut it. So what does Doctor Who bring to juxtaposition?

The easiest way to answer that, of course, is to turn to the past. Which is exactly what Arc of Infinity does. To kick off the big 20th Anniversary celebration it goes and begins mining the series past. Which, again, isn’t the wrong decision. The 20th anniversary is a perfect occasion to do the “here is what the program was and here is why that is still relevant today” moment. The problem is that Arc of Infinity gets it appallingly wrong. It thinks that the thing Doctor Who brings to the work of juxtaposing genres is Doctor Who itself. That the value of Doctor Who is that it’s an effective frame for genre juxtaposition, so that’s its point. So to bring three totally disparate genres together all you do is layer on a big, fat slathering of Doctor Who.

Whereas the position of this blog, of course, is that the thing Doctor Who brings to genre juxtaposition is alchemy. And in Arc of Infinity, that, above all else, is exactly what’s required. Specifically the principle of “as above, so below.” The reason you peg together a mundane horror genre like “terrible things happen to tourists in Amsterdam” with the absurd pretension of a phrase like “the arc of infinity” is to show a fundamental equivalence between them. You do the vast shifts of universes and ancient Gallifreyan history alongside tourist horror in order to show that the stories, at every level of the structure, are identical. You’re going for The Ribos Operation here. That is straightforwardly the correct choice.

So what the story needs, more than anything in the world, is a dramatic hook that allows  its three narrative levels to function in parallel. There needs to be something that operates similarly in the tourist horror, the political intrigue, and the basic cosmic arc of the universe. You can take your pick on what. It barely matters, just so long as there’s something. The one that springs to mind for me as an obvious choice, at least, is the callousness of deflected responsibility. Because that’s at least a theme that’s just about there at every point in the story already. At the bottom of the totem pole you have the lack of interest or concern in Colin’s fate on the part of authorities who see him as just another careless tourist. On Gallifrey you have the callous willingness to let the Doctor die simply because it’s more convenient than other options. And on the grand scale you have the basic failure of the Time Lords to ever take responsibility for the sacrifices involved in their own creation vis-a-vis the abandoned Omega. And the way you end it is by having the people at the bottom of the chain finally take some responsibility for the situation at the top. You have the characters at the Amsterdam end of the story stepping up and doing what nobody else in the universe has been willing to do.

What you don’t do is just anchor every piece of the story on nostalgia for its own sake. Actually, no, let’s be fair. The Amsterdam section isn’t based on nostalgia. Its entire emotional hook is based on Tegan asserting that some dude who gets a grand total of twenty-one lines before being possessed is her favorite cousin. So that one is more emotional hook by fiat. The other two plotlines? The Gallifreyan politics matter purely because they’re Gallifreyan politics, and the overall cosmic scheme of things matters entirely because it’s Omega behind it.

Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying these things matter for the same reasons that Gallifrey and Omega mattered in the past. I’m saying they matter purely because they are Gallifrey and Omega. And that’s in many ways the most obnoxious problem with this story. I’m not going to bitch about dense continuity. I love references to past stories. The problem here is that there’s not any actual references. I mean, just look at the scene where Omega’s backstory is explained so that viewers know who he is and why they care.

Oh right. There isn’t one. There’s one line from Chancellor Hedin about him, and that’s it. It’s difficult to stress just how idiotic this is. This is a character who has appeared once before in the series, a full decade prior to this story. Yes, that story re-aired a little over a year ago on BBC2, but that is not sufficient to just drop him in and expect that anyone in the audience is going to care. The show spends more time doing exposition dumps to help people that might have missed the Monday episode get up to speed with the Tuesday episode than it does catching up viewers who might have missed the episode that aired over a year ago on a different channel. And the fact that it’s Omega is the only thing that holds this part of the story together. One of the major throughlines of the story is “who is this mysterious figure trying to use the Doctor to break into our universe.” The answer isn’t just underwhelming, it’s pointless.

And the problem isn’t that the answer is Omega. A story bringing Omega back makes, if not perfect sense, at least some sense. But they didn’t bring Omega back. Omega was the original sin of the god-like Time Lords - the cast out inversion of all that the Doctor and his people were. Omega was an unthinkable menace that negated the very fabric of Doctor Who. This is just a pub quiz answer - “who was the masked villain in The Three Doctors?”

The same problem applies to the Time Lords, brought back here only in their most abstract sketch of a form. They wear the right robes, have the right names and positions, talk about the right things like the Matrix. But not only are these not the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin, they’re not even the Time Lords of The Invasion of Time. What is the Matrix in this story? What is a biodata extract? They’re nothing more than Macguffins with familiar sounding names. The show is trusting absolutely that setting a story on what they call Gallifrey will lend it dramatic weight, but nobody involved in this has even begun to think about what that means. Much like the death of Adric, this isn’t drama, it’s the desiccated corpse of drama. The vaguest shell made to look like drama but with no actual thought to what is going on or what reasons there might be to care about it. There’s no concept to Gallifrey. It’s just a set of funny robes assumed to matter intrinsically. And it doesn’t. It can’t. Not like that.

There’s a line of critique against Monty Python’s musical Spamalot - really just Eric Idle’s musical - that amounts to the accusation that a troupe whose comedy was once about transgression and surprise now amounts to nothing more than delivering lines that the entire audience has memorized and calling it comedy. Here we have Doctor Who doing the same thing, celebrating the abstract form of the past with no attention to what the past actually was.

Or more basically, this is the problem with the faux-drama of Earthshock extrapolated out to the entirety of the series. In Earthshock, at least, there was an attempt to provide the abstract shell of other things. Doctor Who was providing ersatz drama and ersatz action. But here we have that approach taken to its logical and horrific end: Doctor Who is now providing ersatz Doctor Who. It's no longer a show that's valuable for what it can do. It’s not even valuable for what it once did. It’s valuable, apparently, amounts to nothing more than its ability to quote itself without remembering what it was it meant.

Happy anniversary.


  1. At least it gave rise to Nev Fountain's BF audio 'Omega', which is smashing. It's fan-aimed, of course, but is still an example of how to use continuity references intelligently and integrate them with genuinely funny and witty drama.

    Talking of childhood impressions, 'Arc' left me with a very strong memory of Nyssa waving a gun around and then watching the Doctor executed. Which goes to show what my childhood priorities were.

  2. Having said that I really like the entries where you find something sympathetic and interesting in poorly-regarded stories... I really liked this entry. You really nailed the problem with the JNT nostalgia approach.

    I'd say that not only are the Time Lords back because they're back, and Omega back because he's back, but even Tegan is just back because she's back. If Jamie came back it'd be "Jamie's back! Now we're going to get some good-natured but a bit dim kilted swashbuckling." If Sarah Jane came back it'd be "Sarah Jane's back! Now we're going to get some witty, plucky female sidekickery." But Tegan comes back and it's "Tegan's back! Look, audience, Tegan's back!"

    It's potentially an interesting plot idea to have the Doctor is condemned to die by the Time Lords and simply accepting it. It's a very Fifth Doctor kind of plot, though it does draw on the end of the War Games in a more interesting way than the other back-references in the story (perhaps more interesting because less explicit). This approach of meekly accepting his fate was part of what could have made Davison intriguing, but they didn't work out a way to marry it to a plot engine until Caves of Androzani, when they finally worked out that he could care about his companions.

    However, bad though this story is in general, it manages the "Doctor is going to die and accepts it" aspect better than the recently-concluded Series 6; there's a properly funereal build-up to it, the need for him to die is reasonably well-motivated, and the resolution advances the plot as opposed to being the whole point of it.

    It's still a dumb idea to kill the Doctor as the cliffhanger for the second episode of a season that's got 26 episodes, though. But not as dumb as doing as the cliffhanger for the first episode, as they do next season...

  3. Wow, this sounds rotten. Just as well I haven't seen it recently. Or maybe I have and can't remember. Boggling that Eric Saward and JNT were industry professionals with little or no idea of what they were doing.

    Also: bloody Russell T Davies! Why does Doctor Who have to be about making the viewer cry every damn episode??!

    1. Accepting the criticisms of the emotional constipation of the classic series, there has got to be a sinister reason for the emotionalism of the new one. I'm just not sure what it is. But when I read posters on OG claiming that tears welled up (and some people seem to do this at least every episode) I feel ...repulsed, as if by somthg clammy, dishonest. What are the tears a lying substitute for? Something as banal as a lack of real care? Anger? – but at what legitimate or misguided target? I'd be hoping Phil might provide the answers, but it may be he doesn't accept the problem.

      Anyway, there are some good things about Arc. I like the cut from the time lords' coffee bar to the bar in Amsterdam. Why shouldn't Time Lords enjoy a relax and a drink? The moral squalor of the Dr's trial is paralleled by the police in tolerant Holland dismissing the disappearance of a "foreigner". The matrix effect with the floating Doctor is quite nice. The set design is professional. Maxil's breastplate is buff. Omega's suit looks cool, at least when he's not lounging as if in an armchair in front of the TV. But you know a horror film is bad when you have to find praise in a few constituent bits.

    2. Criticising RTD for over-sentimentality is like criticising Jesus for not putting the stone back. Give the man some credit - nobody's perfect!

    3. To answer my own question, I would say it's the alienated pleasure of being worked like a puppet. Same reason with the porn actress being interviewed and saying "I got into the industry because I love sex and I thought, hey, why not get paid for it?"

      But at least with JNT Who actually, it's that the show feels alienating – it doesn't carry you up into it as an alienated emotional body. Juxtapositions jar rather than fuse to a climax. Performances are lumpy.

      I got the impression rewatching just now that the actors weren't having fun on or off set. It's obvious watching, say Curse of Peladon or Nimon or ... well, almost everything prior to this era, that once the cameras stop rolling there's the sort of atmosphere back stage that makes you want to go back to work the next day. Not here, somehow.

    4. I'm not meaning to criticise RTD btw. His writing is just... wow. But he's zeitgeisty, all the time, it's like he's plugged into the times, and any criticism of his work is just a ported over criticism of the world outside.

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    6. Would you believe, I did actually proof-read this? I need a lie down.

    7. Damn it, there are just too many typos - I'm reposting:

      Wm Keith - I don't think RTD's over-sentimentalising is an imperfection so much as a deliberate gambit. I have nothing against sentimentality, and I think it works generally very well in many individual cases (especially Love + Monsters, interestingly; and the Van Gogh one very nearly had me blubbing like a baby); and I do think the original series lacks emotion too often. What my objection is, is the idea that crying is the natural, ultimate end point of EVERY BLOOMING EPISODE. That the emotional place the producers are trying to get the audience and characters to every time is 'sobbing like a baby'. And Moffatt does it too now. It worked initially because it was new, but now it's so routine you just think, "Oh Jesus, not again". Especially when they keep fake-killing characters (Rose and Donna, for example). It's overkill, literally - they've cottoned onto something that they do well, something that was effective once or twice, and they flog it for all its worth, not realising that it diminishes by sheer dint of repetition (like Tennant's "I'm so, so sorry" catchphrase).

    8. I'm not sure I see a reason why the emotional resonances of the RTD era need to be treated as a problem. The idea of art emotionally moving people certainly doesn't bother me in the abstract. I'm disinclined to bar melodrama from being emotionally moving. I mean, I think there are moments when Davies botches the attempt at emotional resonance, most obviously at the end of Season Three. But by and large, I feel like he's doing melodrama and does it pretty well.

    9. I agree with everything you say above. We've all moaned about "bloody Russell T Davies"; I just don't think it's the first or the most important thing to remember about him.

    10. "You" in my entry above meant Tom Watts and Exploding Eye". But I'm not disagreeing with Dr S either.

    11. It's the repetition of it. Tear-jerking pretty much every single story. I don't *mind* tear-jerking in and of itself; when the series first started I found it quite refreshing that Doctor Who actually moved me emotionally. I just don't see why that has to be the default setting - it's so specific an emotional response. There are many others to choose from.

      The reason Green Death 4 works so well, for example, is that it's the climax of a relationship, it's a rare and special thing. If they pulled those strings *every* final episode (especially if Jo kept coming back after each time), there'd be nothing special about it. It's poignant because of the lightness of the relationship that preceded it. Poignancy doesn't work if you ladle it on with a shovel. Ice cream for every meal would stop being a treat in less than a week, Christmas every day would soon become a bore. Just because something seems special and magical in isolation, doesn't mean it also works as a default setting.

    12. "I agree with everything you say above. We've all moaned about "bloody Russell T Davies"; I just don't think it's the first or the most important thing to remember about him."

      No, indeed, but specifically in response to:

      "he suggested that even this story could have been saved by a Russell T. Davies rewrite and that the audience would be crying for Omega at the end."

      Why? Why does it have to be that? Why not terrified of Omega, or fascinated by Omega, or siding with Omega, or even simply feeling sympathy for Omega? Why the assumption that crying is what we have to be aiming for? "Russel Davies will get you crying" - well, I wish he'd bloody stop! And you too, Moffatt. Try ticking some different boxes. This is Doctor Who, not Highway To Heaven!

    13. I assume because, as pointed out by Iain below, the one scene in the story that actually works is the one where they try to build sympathy for Omega.

    14. The problem with the tears for me is maybe just that after a while the writers seemed to have palpable designs on us. It was like they'd mastered a tear production technique in the same way some men go on a manipulating women into bed course. And then even when one does feel moved, one feels also used.

    15. The analogy would, for me, hold more weight if I could identify what the production team stood to gain by bringing the audience to tears. I mean, using people implies some benefit from the end result. Pickup artists use women, but for a definable end goal for themselves. I don't see how to make the sentimentality of the RTD era into selfishness on RTD's part.

    16. Well if you can move the audience to tears on a regular basis, you're good at writing, good at TV. It's like you can deliver these weekly orgasms to millions of people simultaneously. I'd say that was gratifying. Tears are enjoyable to shed, no question, but the moralist in me can't help worrying that they are thus being devalued. I mean, I cried when my Dr Who weekly issue 43 got torn, but my parents were quite right to say that such a misfortune was unworthy of tears.

    17. Not to derail excessively, but I'm pretty sure female orgasms are not the primary goal of pickup artists.

    18. But how are they supposed to know she loved it?

    19. I don't know if it's exploitation so much as lazy / entrenched thinking. RTD is an extremely formulaic writer (News 24! Large buildings or landmarks lighting up the sky! etc.), possibly due to the strictures of being simultaneous producer, head writer and script editor, and it could simply be that 'make them cry' is another box to tick on the "how to make a successful episode" checklist. And it worked for a while... but when you start to see the pattern, it loses its power. I'd much rather he'd given himself the space to be able to step back and say, "Okay, what does this individual story need to make it work?" or "What can we do to make this story a unique and individual entity?" or "What would be different and interesting here?" rather than being so reliant on his own tropes and formulae. My criticism of Moffatt is very similar.

      And while I accept that the example given, of making the audience cry over Omega, is very specific to the potential poignancy of the Omega character, my groan in reaction tells me that it's a seam already mined clean, and that whatever reverse engineering the old series could use, it doesn't need the compulsive blubbing of the new series.

    20. I think the idea of us crying over Omega refers to the fact that his story is intrinsically tragic: Omega sacrifices himself to give his people mastery of time, only he doesn't die but is instead condemned to untold centuries (possibly millions of years, depending on the vague Timelord chronology) of solitary confinement where he slowly goes mad. And in the meantime, his people basically abandon him because they all think he's dead. Every Omega story is ultimately about a tortured prisoner who wants to escape confinement, and for all its any flaws, the emotional core of "The Three Doctors" came in the last episode with Troughton's cold lines to the effect of "We're giving you your freedom. The only freedom you can ever know." So yes, I think a good writer and director could provide an emotionally powerful Omega story. JNT et al just couldn't be bothered to do so.

    21. Yes, that's the part I get! :)

    22. Exploding Eye, you're being rather harsh on Davies here. Fair enough, his big finales do tend to utilise the tropes that you list, but there's a lot more to his writing than that. Look at The End of the World, Love and Monsters, Gridlock, Midnight. Hell, just look at two of his Series 4 scripts: Partners in Crime and Turn Left. If you didn't see the author credit, would you even guess they were written by the same person?

    23. I might, I can't remember, I've only seen them once each. At the risk of sounding contrary to the general consensus (but a genuine opinion nonetheless), the only one of those I actually liked was Love + Monsters. Midnight I found unforgivably shallow - its status as the 'best Davies script' is baffling to me - Gridlock bored me, and none of the series finales I had any time for. Yeah, I think I might guess they were all Davies scripts actually. Only Love + Monsters seems cut from different cloth.

    24. what i took from the original comment, is that, "IF DAVIES had wanted to, he could have re-written this bland, awful story to include so much emotional content that you would actually have cried at the end." Not that everything had to be about tears, just that modern Dr Who wasn't and isn't so goddamn sterile. Given the context, i think that debating everything being about tears is kinda silly folks.

      And i continue to hate the power of love to get us out of episodes, and at his worst, RTD was cloyingly sentimental, but guess what, his worst was miles better than Arc of Infinity.

    25. I get what Exploding Eye is saying though, I feel the same way. I got put off by the new series and stopped watching eventually, because it started to feel like they were manipulating the audience too much.

      I am surprised actually that Philip, who has so very many brilliant observations about this medium, can't see what an author would gain by falling back on an easy sentimental hook, instead of going for something more interesting. I am not taking issue with the fact that you disagree Philip by the way, we all have our own opinions, but I was surprised merely by you saying you didn't know what they'd have to gain. I am not always put off by manipulation, when there's a good enough story it's worth it, but I have the same feeling that it has been overused greatly in the new show.

      Maybe the best way to put it, is that it's swung too far in the opposite direction, I don't know, but I do know that it has made me lose interest and I do find that the emotional bits in the original show (barring the first season of the new, when it hadn't been overdone yet) tend to mean a lot more to me, than most of the ones in the new show. There isn't anything wrong with most of the individual pieces, but it feels, to me like there should be more. It feels like, in pulling these strings, they are losing the originality and adaptability that is so important to the magic of the show.

      Having said that I can't judge completely, because as I said I was put off it eventually and haven't gotten around to watching nearly as enough of the Smith stuff to judge. I don't know that I've gone off it completely, just lost interest for the time being.

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    1. So that’s what Stephen Thorne looks like.

      I expected him to have a hairier chest…

      I’m with you on almost all of that, though I still think Time-Flight remains even worse (you gave it a good one-line pitch, but most of its ideas are visual – which don’t come off – while the fourth episode is just endless lumpen technobabble). But Ron Jones, in an airport, again? The only defence for this following that was the nine-month gap between them, or the audience would have lost the will to live. Still, I quite liked Arc of Infinity when it was first shown, probably because I was an excitable boy who enjoyed it riffing off the past, whereas now I’m a more grumpy man who complains about it ripping off the past. And doing absolutely nothing else. Following Gareth Roberts’ idea, though, the one scene that still mostly seems to work is Omega wanting to go home at the end, though still not as moving as his operatic revelation the first time round.

      For me, incidentally, the horror tropes of the Amsterdam sections look more like a gay porn scenario (particularly when taken with Omega and the Doctor). Shame that, in the end, Arc of Infinity turned out neither scary, nor sexy, but painfully bland.

      You hit the nail on the head about what’s wrong with it, though. For all that it mixes different genres, something the series has often done to great effect, and that there’s not much wrong with the basic story – look at all the times it’s worked before – this is, as I said in my own Arc of Infinity review a surprisingly long time ago, displaying no imagination at all, merely trying to ‘do Doctor Who’. So I nodded in complete agreement with your closing sentences. If there’s an underlying theme here, it’s that you can’t go back – but that would be so ironic for a story that gorges so much on nostalgia that no room’s left for anything else that it has to be accidental. It would certainly display greater wit than is available in the script.

      I’m with Jack about Big Finish’s Omega, though; all three of those ‘villains’ pieces are fascinating, if flawed, as well as all telling much the same story of the Doctor’s past mistakes, so it’s a shame you’re not doing it on here (or the others when they come along?).

  5. I found watching this to be greatly improved by the DVD commentary, which features alongside the Davison/Fielding/Sutton trio, a guest appearance by Colin Baker. Much urine is extracted.

    They agree that Peter will exchange appearance on one of Colin's commentaries. I am a little sad that this never happened.

  6. There's one touching moment in the last episode that could - should - have been the emotional keystone of the story. It's when Omega, wandering lost through Amsterdam, joins the audience around the barrel organ. There, just for a minute, we get the idea that this ancient, legendary figure has transcended the known laws of the cosmos and travelled back to our Universe not to destroy it, or to take revenge on his enemies, or any of the rest of the usual villainy, but simply to wander around, see the sights, experience new things. To become, in short, the Doctor - and how appropriate then that he should do it in a copy of the Doctor's own body.

    Of course the script squanders this a few minutes later, where Omega decides to will his own destruction (whatever that means), making him a clear-cut villain who the Doctor must destroy. How much better if his very existence, however benignly intended, were a deadly threat, placing the Doctor into exactly the same moral position as the Time Lords who sentenced him to be executed?

    All of this could have been worked up into something really effective, but it wasn't. Byrne is at fault here, of course, but not solely. This is exactly the kind of thing a script editor should be picking up on and pulling out of a draft script.

    There are two other noteworthy points about the script - one good, one bad. The bad is the godawful scenes between Hedin and Omega, whose only animating feature is a waggling pen. I blame the writer rather than the director here. Given the script requirement for a static dialogue between two characters, one of whom wears a full-face mask, the other of whom must have his identity hidden from the viewer, there's not much you can do to stop it looking like a game of statues but to waggle a pen around.

    The good bit is the treatment of Nyssa. I'm not generally keen on Nyssa, either as a character or as a performance, but here she really blossoms. No longer crowded out by Tegan and Adric, she gets to display a much greater range of actions and emotions, and Sutton takes the opportunity to do more with the part than she will ever get the chance to do again. There's also some real chemistry between her and the Doctor's never-before-mentioned Time Lord mate, to the extent that if she had chosen to stay behind on Gallifrey it would have been a lot more plausible than when Leela suddenly developed an attachment to Andred. And Byrne is the only writer who remembers that Nyssa, for all her poise and rationality, can be splendidly trigger-happy - an interesting facet of her character that other writers disregarded.

    1. The bit with the barrel organ is fantastic. I don't rate Ron Jones much as a director, but here and in Black Orchid he manages a couple of quiet character moments that really work well.

    2. I remember loving the barrel organ bit as much, in fact that is one of my few memories of this episode, I don't really recall what happened in it, other than that Tegan's cousin died and for some reason Omega looked like the Doctor and was watching street performers. I didn't even remember that they were in Galifrey for part of it. I mean I remember seeing Colin Baker as a different character, but I didn't remember that it was in this episode specifically.

  7. "Doctor Who is now providing ersatz Doctor Who. It's no longer a show that's valuable for what it can do. It’s not even valuable for what it once did. It’s valuable, apparently, amounts to nothing more than its ability to quote itself without remembering what it was it meant."

    So Doctor Who has effectively turned into it's own Tribute Band then?

  8. The cliffhanger where the Doctor is apparently disintegrated reminds me of Phil's criticism long ago in the blog of Lawrence Miles' definition of cliffhangers: it's kind of ridiculous to expect the audience to believe that the story would actually kill the title character of the show. So the best cliffhangers function as narrative shifts and surprises.

    Phil's vision of Arc of Infinity's squandered potential is fascinating. I wish he had gone into it in more detail. I'm imagining an alternative Time Lord storyline where Borusa and his crew are freaking out about "The return of an ancient presence that could destabilize the physical constants of the entire universe!" then cutting to a scene of Tegan and her cousin developing their characters as tourists in Amsterdam. Then we discover it's actually Omega, and not this joke of editing, in the episode one cliffhanger. Episode two would be the Doctor and Borusa investigating the anomalies and tracking Omega to Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Tegan's cousin goes missing and she hits the bureaucratic callousness of the Dutch officials, in parallel with the cold attitudes of the Time Lord investigators like Maxil. The cliffhanger would then be discovering that Omega has replicated the Doctor's body and linked them together.

    The Doctor escapes and leaves a message for Borusa that he can find a way to stop Omega without being killed (he reveals to Nyssa that this is a lie, but he's sure he can figure something out). Then the Doctor is tracking Omega in Amsterdam, while the Time Lords are tracking the Doctor in Amsterdam, becoming the villains. Comedy villains because Borusa and Maxil could then become a Holmes-style double act as they try to blend into Earth's culture with varying degrees of success. Omega (looking like the Doctor) meets Tegan (who thinks he's the Doctor with a new suit), and helps her investigate her cousin's disappearance. The episode three cliffhanger is something wild like the sun's light starting to fluctuate as Omega's presence starts causing visible destabilizations in the constants of the universe, and Omega himself starts to realize what he's doing just be being here.

    Episode four is all the plots coming back together. Tegan and Omega discover something tragic has happened to her cousin. The Doctor figures out that he has to wipe Omega from existence to restabilize the universe, and manages to convince Borusa and Maxil of the same thing. The story comes to an end when the Doctor meets Omega and the latter realizes that he has to be destroyed for the universe to survive. There's some Nyssa-Tegan comedy as Tegan figures out what's been going on. Omega submits himself to Maxil's techno-babble reality erasing machine as he says goodbye to his new friend, and apologizes that things couldn't have turned out better. Tegan hooks up with the TARDIS again, ironically joking that maybe they'll make it back to London in only six months this time. Maxil apologizes for being a douche, the Doctor and Borusa kiss and make up. And the sun shines brightly and steadily over Amsterdam.

    Big Finish should give me a contract to write this stuff.

    1. I don't mind cliffhangers where the Doctor's apparently dead. Yes, it's ridiculous to expect the audience to believe he's dead... but I don't think that's the intended effect. We know he's not dead, the tension is in figuring out how he escaped. Caves of Androzani is an awesome cliffhanger, purely because of this inherent contradiction.

  9. My own thoughts (as I rewatched this tedious episode just last week):

    1. It really was a waste to cast Michael Gough as Heddin. Even if Gough's voice weren't perfectly recognizable in the Heddin/Omega scenes, there's still the problem of "one of these five people is a murderer and only one of them is played by an actor you recognize." I mean, we've all seen "Murder, She Wrote," right?

    2. Just how stupid is every Timelord in this story (including the Doctor) to not even suspect that the "god-like figure from the anti-matter universe with vast knowledge of the inner workings of the Matrix" might be Omega! Who else could it have been? The Celestial Toymaker?

    3. That said, the scene where Heddin explains Omega's involvement is the only scene that works, mainly because Gough is easily the best actor involved in this whole sorry mess. But it does provide an interesting story hook that better writers and producers could have built upon. To wit: Omega is the legendary founder of Time Lord society who effectively ascended to godhood in the antimatter universe and who now wants to return to Gallifrey. And one Time Lord (that we know of) has resorted to treason to help him. Suppose there had been more. Suppose that there had been an entire Cult of Omega that had insinuated itself into Time Lord society in the aftermath of "The Three Doctors" with the eventual aim of freeing their imprisoned god-king and bringing him to Gallifrey so that he could reform their decadent and dying society. That's the sort of thing Stephen Moffat could build a season-long arc around!

    3. Good God, but the Timelords are boring now! Peladon has a more interesting society. The High Council now consists of five people sitting around in uncomfortable looking chairs (all on one side of the room because the BBC can't afford more than one camera apparently). The Castellan is bone-dead stupid and his Guard are ridiculous parodies of goosestepping stormtroopers. Even Moustache Borusa is a pale shadow of his former clean-shaven selves. I assume Colin Baker was playing Maxil as a psychopath who was looking forward to being the first Time Lord executioner in thousands of years. Or perhaps Maxil was just angry that he was expected to wear that preposterous hat. I did get a laugh out of Colin Baker saying that he chose to carry it under his arm most of the time because he couldn't actually fit through any of the doors while wearing it without ducking.

    4. The Fifth Doctor's waffling lassitude continues. Not only does he allow himself to be executed based on his completely unwarranted assumption that the villains would somehow intervene to save his life, but at the end, he hesitates to shoot Omega for so long that I expected an exasperated Nyssa to snatch the gun out of his hand and do it herself.

    5. Dunning-Kruger Tegan returns!
    Tegan: "We have to follow that killer chicken thing! Colin might be in there."
    Pasty British Kid: "But the killer chicken shoots lasers!"
    Tegan: "I don't care! We have to try!"
    And then she rushes in with no plan and immediately gets herself and Pasty British Kid caught. I did laugh out loud at the end, when Tegan reveals that she got fired (couldn't even handle stewarding) and wanted to return to the TARDIS and mooch off the Doctor. The Doctor looked visibly disgusted, as was I.

    6. What the hell was up with the Killer Chicken?!? Was there no one at any point who looked at that thing and said "That's the silliest looking thing I've ever seen! Strip off all the details and just make it look like an android!" And then, in the last episode, the Doctor proclaims "Oh, it's an Ergon!" which tells us absolutely nothing except maybe there's a race of killer chickens called the Ergons. Boy does that cry out for a followup episode.

    7. Time-Flight was still worse.

    1. Oh and one last thing. Was there any point to setting this in Amsterdam other than the producers wanted a free vacation? For all I could tell of the local landmarks, it could have been set in Cardiff! "City of Death" went to Paris because that's where the Mona Lisa is. "Planet of Fire" went to Lanzarote because it was set on desert planet. "Arc of Infinity" was set in Amsterdam so that in Part 4, the Doctor and friends could spend fifteen minutes of a twenty-five minute episode running up and down random streets and over random bridges. They could have wrapped up this story in three episodes had they not padded the story out just to show off picturesque local scenary.

    2. To be fair, I like the fact that in this era of Who we get away from alien invasions always happening in the south east of England. There isn't a particularly good reason why the action should be happening in Amsterdam rather than London, but it's a nice change nonetheless, so why not?

    3. "Oh and one last thing. Was there any point to setting this in Amsterdam other than the producers wanted a free vacation?"

      Perhaps the original draft revolved more heavily around dildoes and cannabis? Pity that all got cut. Could've played well with the gay porn vibe Alex mentioned.

    4. 'when Tegan reveals that she got fired (couldn't even handle stewarding) and wanted to return to the TARDIS and mooch off the Doctor. The Doctor looked visibly disgusted, as was I.'

      The Australians have a word for that - Tegan is a bludger. It's completely in keeping with her role as a full-on Ocker stereotype.

    5. all on one side of the room because the BBC can't afford more than one camera apparently

      Technically they're all on one side of the room because the BBC couldn't afford only one camera so had to use more than one instead but that's, you know, nit-picking.

  10. Phyllis basically the American version of Mary Whitehouse. Like all American adaptations of British source texts, she is bigger, louder, and stupider.

    Phyllis Schlafly's public activism began in the 1940s. Unless there is an earlier stage in her career that I am not aware of, Mary Whitehouse's began in the 1960s. So if there's a trans-Atlantic adaptation going on here, I'm pretty sure it's heading in the opposite direction.

    But there really isn't a trans-Atlantic adaptation going on here. Schlafly and Whitehouse are very different figures.

    1. Schlafly may have gotten started in the 40's, but she entered the American public consciousness in the 70's when she began an ultimately successful one-woman campaign against the ERA. I would agree that, while both Schlafly and Whitehouse were very conservative, their political aims were very different. I don't recall Schlafly every calling for Puritanism in TV and films, nor do I recall Whitehouse arguing in favor of second class citizenship for women. (And as odious as she was, I certainly don't recall Whitehouse saying anything as despicable as "By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don't think you can call it rape [when a husband forces sex on his wife]."

    2. Schlafly may have gotten started in the 40's, but she entered the American public consciousness in the 70's

      She entered the public consciousness at least as early as A Choice Not an Echo, which was published in 1964.

  11. I think the best pats of Spamalot is when they weren't just parroting the lines from the movie. There is a perfectly competent, fun, frivolous parody of musicals there, and some catchy tunes. Doing the Black Knight scene verbatim added nothing to it. It's not high art, but it isn't Mama Mia, or Phantom, and that was enough for me.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. The best parts of Spamalot to me are those sections which are not from Monty Python but which are metatextual commentaries that poke fun at musical theater itself ("This Is the Song That Goes Like This" and "The Diva's Lament" for instance.)

  12. One thing I don't think anyone has mentioned yet, and it's a highlight of Timeflight 2 and Arc 4 and starts with JNT: the shift to displaying horror by means of nameless loathsome fluids and deliquescence. Previously the show had used monstrousness (dry monstruousness by and large) or deformity to give the audience the creeps. Now we get vile liquids and dissolvings. Note the way the camera leers at Khalid running green snot for no logical reason. Horror fans will think of the contemporaneous work of Lucio Fulci. Not so much for the gore per se, but for the way the camera lurches over to cop a look. I'm not sure why the change, and whose obsession it was – even at the end of Snakedance they feel the need to have the dead snake gush nasty stuff.

    1. And the bubbling snotty tereleptils at the end of Visitation.

    2. Compare the death of Styre, or the still superb dessicated horror of the Nimon larder victim.

      By way of explanation, Arc marked the point for me when I decided to stop watching. I can't really remember my motivation, but perhaps I just couldn't connect with Davison's portrayal. However as a replacement obsession, I started watching horror films – this was the time of the UK home video revolution, and Zombie Flesheaters was the talk of the playground. Maybe the production team were trying to win back those children who had graduated to video nasties.

    3. I kept watching until the bitter end, though Colin Baker's first season made it awfully hard at times. Actually, come to think of it, I never did see Timelash. I do remember talking with fellow nerds in study hall about Doctor Who in the 9th grade about how Peter Davison always seemed to be fainting or getting slapped around.

    4. Now we get vile liquids and dissolving

      Alien is a possible influence here.

  13. there are so many interesting ways to make this story, but as we'll see for the next few years, JNT will avoid all those ways like the plague. "we have a set way of doing things and, by damn, we'll stick to it. Except that that mode of storytelling was both old hat by that time, and, even then, misunderstood from a mechanics and emo point of view. Philip is right, none of the stories in Arc tie together, and yet they could have.

    Here we are, starting Davison's second season and, really, we're stuck in the early 80's, a time between ernest and hammy, and with no visionary behind the scenes to help bridge the two and bring Doctor Who in to the new world. Which is it looks more and more dated, since they end up doing a pastiche of themselves. Its not until Cartmel comes along that it begins to change.

  14. Back when I was first making my way through the Davison era, I remember really liking "Arc of Infinity." I loved the quasi-political feeling of the Gallifrey sequences (yes, I was a a twelve year-old who really enjoyed that sort of thing, what of it?), and the location work, and so forth. Certainly, I enjoyed it more than "Time-Flight," which irritated me because of the too-obvious high-concept nature of the story ("The Concorde! In time!") and what I perceived as the racism of Kalid.

    I've never really had the heart to go back and reevaluate either story, though.

  15. Tom Watts:
    "I got the impression rewatching just now that the actors weren't having fun on or off set."

    I just read the other day that, by the end of Season 20, Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson ALL announced they were leaving the show, which is why Season 21 was one long slow goodbye. Even the actors knew the writing sucked.

    Oddly enough, the first time I ran across the idea that actors thought writing on a show they diod was bads was the day I spoke with Louise Jameson at a convention. She knocked thew writing on "THE OMEGA FACTOR", which, first time around, I thought was pretty interesting. Watched it again last year... yeah, she was right. AWFUL writing. Very smart, classy lady.

    Philip Sandifer:
    "Not to derail excessively, but I'm pretty sure female orgasms are not the primary goal of pickup artists."

    Not unless the one doing the picking-up is the woman.

    "the emotional core of "The Three Doctors" came in the last episode with Troughton's cold lines to the effect of "We're giving you your freedom. The only freedom you can ever know.""

    Just watched "THE FIVE DOCTORS" again last night. As before, anything Troughton appears in, HE's the real star!

    "RTD was cloyingly sentimental, but guess what, his worst was miles better than Arc of Infinity."

    These days, I'm feeling the same way about the entire Graham Williams era. Yes, I would rather watch Season 17 than anything than came after it (until Sylvester shows up).

    Iain Coleman:
    "How much better if his very existence, however benignly intended, were a deadly threat, placing the Doctor into exactly the same moral position as the Time Lords who sentenced him to be executed? All of this could have been worked up into something really effective, but it wasn't. Byrne is at fault here, of course, but not solely. This is exactly the kind of thing a script editor should be picking up on and pulling out of a draft script."

    True-- TRUE!!! (see "PIT AND THE PENDULUM")

    John Dorney:
    "We know he's not dead, the tension is in figuring out how he escaped."

    As it always was since the days of FLASH GORDON (1936).

    "come to think of it, I never did see Timelash."

    As Michael Palin once said, "You LUCKY, LUCKY BASTARD!!!"