Sunday, 17 November 2013

Arc of Infinity written by Johnny Byrne and directed by Ron Jones

This story in a nutshell: Omega wants to cross the bridge between his universe and ours with the help of the Doctor's body, a gaggle of Australians, a Time Lord traitor and a giant chicken...

Open Honest Face: I know that the fifth Doctor is supposed to be a genial, agreeable sort of chap who faces his adventures with a pleasant open face (TM Terrance Dicks) but come on. He is recalled to Gallifrey and told that he is going to be executed for something that wasn’t even his fault and he accepts his fate with little care. The Doctor claims he has a great deal to say about the matter but never quite manages to make his defence and resignedly heads to his execution as though he’s actually a little bored of this body after all (in adventures like this who can blame him?). Even if he did know that his mysterious benefactor was going to save him you would at least expect him to put on some sort of show of defiance. The sixth Doctor would have railed and kicked the shit out of half of the High Council before being dragged to his death…there's nothing wrong with a little theatre to pass the time, you know. Davison is just…bland. It’s a complaint that I have levelled at his Doctor on many occasions and have (in recent years) felt necessary to retract but I still find most of his input in his second year hugely unmemorable. Guess what he and Nyssa do for fun now they have finally got rid of Tegan? Not visit the Great Exhibition or the Pyramids or the Singing Sands of Anangonia…nope they do some TARDIS repairs. Perhaps it wasn't the best idea to feature solely these two characters if this is the best Byrne/Saward can come up with. Before his execution he is shot in the chest and yet incomprehensibly he is still remarkably civil and polite to the man who gunned him down. Grow some balls man! In episode three he is subjected to the indignity of the wibbly wobbly floaty Matrix. The dullard even disapproves with Nyssa’s penchant for evasive action (i.e. grabbing a gun and shooting everybody). The fifth Doctor looks quietly hurt by Hedin’s betrayal whereas Sixie would have lamped him (and probably saved his life as a result). This is not a relationship we can buy into because it isn't one that we have ever heard of before so it has little impact. Imagine if it had been Borusa who was the traitor...surely no writer would go as far as that. The Doctor finally shows his teeth…but to Nyssa! ‘Wait in the TARDIS!’ he screams. Yeah, nice one Doctor, bully your only friend. Davison looks as though he is having much more fun as Omega; marching about in grand robes, smiling at the thought of beating up a gardener, discovering the beauty of music and sharing a tender moment with a little boy. My favourite moment comes at the end of the story where the Doctor discovers Tegan has lost her job and he will be stuck with her, he grins half-heartedly and then when he thinks the scene has ended and Tegan is no longer watching him his face drops and he looks utterly horrified. That's the genuine reaction of both the Doctor and Davison. 

Alien Orphan: Sarah Sutton is wasted on this show. She’s by far the most able and accomplished actor in this piece and she is forced to recite boring technobabble like she is reciting a Shakespearean sonnet. Frankly she is the only person giving the Gallifrey scenes some oomph, caressing the case that holds the stasers, shooting down guards a aplenty and holding the High Council at gunpoint and arguing the Doctor’s case. I love the way she spits out the line ‘So much for your justice!’ and she even takes on the dastardly Castellan with, ‘It’s a pity you weren’t so concerned when the Doctor was alive!’ Sutton mines a vein of drama that is missing from the rest of the story, bless her. Unfortunately all that good work is undone when Nyssa is confronted with the Ergon and screams like a harridan, horror movie style. Gales of laughter would be more appropriate.At least she plucks the intergalactic chicken for good.

Trying Tegan: I cannot handle the way that Tegan gets off the aeroplane in episode two smiling. Who ever knew she had teeth since she spent so much of season nineteen pursing her lips? There is such a difference in her look from last year it is clear that some time has passed since we last saw her. She’s lost her job so all that fussing last year was for nothing. It’s interesting how we see so much of her family over the three years; Auntie Vanessa, Cousin Colin and Grandfather Andrew. Has any other companion been afforded this sort of domestic development and yet still managed to come across as entirely artificial? Mind you, what an odd bunch they all are. My one residing memory of Tegan is her wailing in the Matrix: ‘Holland, Doctor! Aaaaam-ster-daaaam!’ That and the fact that she really doesn't complain too much in this story and it feels as though it might genuinely be the start of a new era for her character.

The Good Stuff: I really had to scrape the barrel to fill this section but here goes…Omega’s mask looks quite impressive when it is glowing with antimatter. The idea of something extra-dimensional breaking into the TARDIS and attacking the Doctor is quite scary and for a few seconds there is some actual drama. Colin’s day glow should be brought up. Colin Baker turns up and hams up his role as Maxil to make things more entertaining – oddly he is the only actor to ramp up the theatrical nature of the piece, to try and suggest this is some sort of operatic piece (which it should be set given it is set on Gallifrey). The irony of Colin Baker shooting Peter Davison is delicious. There is a quick mention of Leela, which is actually one of the few necessary continuity references in a season full of them. It’s something of a minor miracle that Damon as a pleasant and helpful Gallifreyan doesn’t turn out to be a ranting super villain but exactly the sort of chap he seems. The planet can produce some regular citizens then. During the chase around Amsterdam they knock a woman over and her fruit goes rolling down the road…she should have picked one up and tossed it at the back of his head! The snotty, oozing Omega is quite nasty. There's something of a fetish for snot-dribbling deaths in the Saward era (the Tereleptils, Omega, the Malus, Mestor). You’ve got to love that doggie that tries to bite rice-krispified Omega.

The Bad Stuff: What has happened to Gallifrey? It was never exactly the vast tapestry of spires and gothic buildings as promised to us but they had a damn good go during seasons fourteen and fifteen to suggest some kind of splendour and vastness. All that effort is tossed in the bin in favour of a hideous MDF Ikea nightmare; the most sophisticated, technologically advanced planet in the cosmos looks so eighties. Some of those sets actually offend my eyes, especially that Costa coffee meeting joint that lies just off the one corridor that the Doctor and Nyssa have a desire to run up and down ad nauseum. Bleaugh. Ron Jones' direction is like a pendulum that swings between the horrendous (Arc if Infinity and Time-Flight) and adult and gripping (Frontios, Vengeance). When he was good he was very very good but when he was bad he was awful. The conspiracy scenes lack any menace or atmosphere (plus the pencil waving is comically distracting), the TARDIS scenes are unbelievably static with no attempt at camera movement and some real dreary long shots around the console and the Amsterdam scenes are shot with all the excitement and dynamism of a dreary tourist video for the elderly. There’s no oomph to any of it. The music is like a cheese grater to the ears; its so shrill, tinny and distracting it saps whatever atmosphere there might have been. The menacing shadow of a High Council collar on the door is comically gargantuan. The Ergon has to be seen to be believed; a armed, waddling, skeletal chicken. Every time I watch this story I try and think what the designer was aiming for and always come away wondering why I bothered. Why are the High Council positioned like kids waiting to have their class picture taken? I laughed my head when possessed Colin turned around and we cut to a horrified shot of Robin…you would be hard pressed to work out which one is a zombie given their performance value. The TARDIS roundels look fantastic in burnt peach so why aren’t they always that colour? The Gallifrey and Amsterdam scenes are worlds apart (figuratively and atmospherically); they don’t belong in the same series let alone the same story. To hop from one to the other is extremely jarring. Hedin is so overwhelming amiable towards the Doctor that it would take somebody seriously challenged not to realise he is the villain of the piece. Omega's green and red lit TARDIS looks alarmingly like a gay nightclub I visited once. The music grinds on and on, ironing out all of the tension. I know I have already mentioned that but it's worth another gripe because it is so headache inducing. By any stretch of the imagination the Matrix of Arc of Infinity is a massive step down from the nightmare world it was presented as in The Deadly Assassin; with distractingly unconvincing graphics and it's victims stuck in obscenely rude postures. Why would Hedin disguise his voice for his secret chats with Omega unless he knew he was being watched? It is only for the benefit of the audience at home, there is no explanation for it within the story. There is no characterisation for Omega, no sense of his history or importance, no development or addition to the shows mythos…so what was the point? Such a waste of Elsphet Grey, standing in the background whilst lesser actors spout dull technobabble. The Doctor grappling with the Ergon is another of those priceless moments from the 80s along with the Tinsel Timelash and Ingrid Pitt’s Kung Fu Myrka. Somebody should do a compilation. The closing ten minutes feature a brisk jog around picturesque Amsterdam but what baffles me is how can so much running around can lack pace? Plus it is one implausible marker after another that allows the Doctor to follow Omega. Why is the camera static on location? Tegan screams ‘he’s disappeared!’ but there are about thirty hiding places in the road they have just jogged into.

The Shallow Bit: Colin and Robin are two of the most mis-matched hitchhikers you will ever come across. Considering they are supposed to be best mates they share zero chemistry, like two actors who have just met for the first time. Robin leads Colin down to a crypt so they can snuggle up in sleeping bags. They should have gone the whole ho and had them share one. The chemistry between Nyssa and Talor is much better, he might be as beige as Davison (she likes that sort of thing) but he does seem to care a great deal for her. Tegan vibrates madly and groans her displeasure in the Matrix…the mind boggles! Sarah Sutton looks radiant in the crisp Amsterdam sunshine. I don’t wish to pick on the extras but what is going on with that little girls spectacles in the organ sequence? Go watch it again and boggle.

Result: Arc of Infinity features two equally ponderous plots that fail to gel and direction that sabotages the drama on every level. The cameras stand stock still exposing the scripts deficiencies, the actors’ stiffness and the general cheapness of the sets. When did Doctor Who start relying on technobabble over characterisation? Is this all part of JNT’s drive to aim the show at older nerds? I find it hard to believe that a story where the Doctor is forced back to Gallifrey and assassinated and ends with him murdering a mythic Gallifreyan hero can be this tedious. Tegan returns, but considering I was just getting used the peace without her that is hardly something to shout out about either. This is the story that convinced me that Russell T Davies’ decision to eradicate Gallifrey was a damn good idea. The second overseas location shoot should be something to celebrate but unlike the romance and adventurous spirit of Paris in City of Death you have an appalling plod around Amsterdam, which is made to look like the dullest vacation spot imaginable. Add to this list of deficiencies a sentient, skeletal chicken with a gun, the most bizarre pair of squatters imaginable, a bunch of artificially characterised Time Lords, headache inducing music and a villain who only makes an impact in the last fifteen minutes and a lead actor who seems bored with the entire affair and is making the least amount of effort to inject any drama into the piece. No wonder the show had hemorrhaged around a third of the audience in Davison's second year if this is the best they could come up with. It's worth tuning in to see how well Nyssa copes being the sole companion but make sure you fast forward all scenes that don’t feature the fabulous Sarah Sutton: 2/10


Anonymous said...

While flawed, I definitely liked this one. Especially the part of the Doctor willing to sacrifice himself to avoid needless bloodshed - and its nice to see the Fifth-Nyssa dynamic on TV for once, after all the wonderful audio adventures of theirs.

The ONLY thing I really, really didn't like, was Omega's henchman... what a terrible, terrible, terrible monster costume! But as it is, I like it.

AND, it sets up the Omega audio story pretty neatly - and conversely, that audio story certainly help improve upon this story.


Joe Ford said...

The weird thing about Arc of Infinity is that if somebody wanted to make an argument for it I can kind of see them succeeding because on it's own terms it is competent enough with very little to point at and say that is abysmal. On the other hand (and this is rare in Doctor Who) there is so little you can point and say that is very good either. It is so bland, coupled with some production errors, poor judgement in characterisation and a general feeling of ambivalence to the whole production... I don't think I would be so harsh if the shopping list of elements wasn't so damn exciting (the Doctor summoned to Gallifrey to be executed, a long dead Time Lord hero returns from the grave, foreign location filming...). How they managed to make such a story this dreary baffles me.

Anonymous said...

The giant chicken was the best part of this story. Big Finish should do a miniseries about its back story like they did with Davros. The chicken itself would be understood by making a series of grunts and snorts, which would then fade out to be translated by Brian Blessed(when in an angry or warlike mood) and La La Ward(when in a good and sympathetic mood)

Peakius Baragonius said...

I second that idea! But only if the Skarasen shows up and the Ergon rides around on its back blackmailing the world into giving up the poultry industry. A positive environmentalist model for children

Go and make it, Big Finish!

Anthony Pirtle said...

I feel worst for Michael Gough. An actor of his caliber in two different stories, and they're both awful.