Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Random Who Report: Arc of Infinity (1983)

Order ARC OF INFINITY from Amazon here
I’ve wanted to write more about DOCTOR WHO on this blog for a bit, and with new series reviews being taken care of, I’ve decided to go for old school. It actually isn’t a big stretch from reviewing movies; the classic series was built around the serial format, with episodes of 25 minutes each linking together to form larger discrete stories (though they tried 45 minute shows for one season.) Stories would tend to be around 3, 4, or 6 episodes long, meaning that the average WHO story is about the same length as a feature film. So it’s possible to treat these like mini-movies and discuss each one on its own merits, not bothering with any kind of chronological or thematic order. Enjoy.

I rented ARC OF INFINITY for a couple of reasons. It comes from the Peter Davison era, which I’ve always personally regarded as a high point for the show; his three seasons were slickly made (for the most part), and had an energy and assurance to them, like producer John Nathan Turner had found his feet and knew what he wanted to do. On top of that, it’s a Gallifrey story, and I kind of like those. I understand why the new series had the Time Lords and their home world blown up off camera, clearing away years of continuity baggage in the process, but I miss the pretentious bastards nonetheless. The Time Lords are an ambiguous race, corrupt but not really evil, just stuffy and shifty. They have the powers of gods but the flaws of regular human beings, and their world is a mixture of shiny new technology and ancient myth and legend. Gallifrey stories are hard to do well, because of the aforementioned stuffiness and a way of getting bogged down in technospeak, but there’s something to the concept that grabs me.

Anyway, ARC OF INFINITY, written by Johnny Byrne (no relation to the comics artist), is about the efforts of a powerful being from an antimatter universe trying to possess the good Doctor. After one failed attempt, aided by an unidentified Time Lord, the High Council of Gallifrey decides to call in the Doctor to see what’s going on. Apparently the kind of merging that the being is trying to do runs a risk of bringing antimatter into our universe, which would blow up a substantial part of it. Some of the Time Lords get it in their heads that the safest way to prevent this is to execute the Doctor outright, so he and companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) have to solve the mystery before that. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, a couple of travelling youths try to sleep in a crypt and are attacked by a goofy looking alien who makes one of them into a zombie slave. The unfortunate fellow happens to be the cousin of recently departed companion Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), who shows up in Amsterdam to try and find out what happened, and yes this is related to the main story.

This is an odd one. John Nathan Turner specifically wanted to film in Amsterdam, and had also promised that each story in the twentieth season would feature the return of an old monster. The old monster in this case is Omega (Ian Collings), an ancient Time Lord who helped discover time travel and in the course of his experiments managed to catapult himself into the aforementioned antimatter world, where the isolation and not-quite-existence drove him mad. He showed up ten seasons ago in THE THREE DOCTORS, so there’s a nice symmetry there. JNT was sometimes criticized for going back to the well on old monsters so often, but this was an interesting choice.

As I’ve said, the reason I like Gallifrey-related stories is the weird grandeur of the place- at least, conceptually, since old-school DOCTOR WHO could manage visual grandeur maybe once per season if you squinted. The actual meat of the story- that Orion wants not only to pass back into existence but to control the power of an entire rift between dimensions (the titular Arc of Infinity), and to control the power of the Matrix, Gallifrey’s repository of knowledge which acts as a giant virtual mindscape (though here we only see a bunch of glittery lines.)

There’s a lot of nice epic background material here, which would have been more effective if the structure weren’t so choppy. The business in Amsterdam takes a long time to go a short distance, and the constant cutting back to it only seems to pad things out. To be fair, the actual Amsterdam locations look a bit better than the strangely drab grey sets used to represent Gallifrey, but it’s a less-than-perfect mixture.

On the upside, though, there’s some especially good acting in this installment. Nyssa, often pushed aside in her time on the series due to the TARDIS being unusually crowded, gets some great scenes as she rushes to and fro to prevent the Doctor’s execution; Sarah Sutton shows some good emotional range here. Peter Davison is as intensely gentle as ever, and gets to stretch his acting legs when Omega briefly takes on the Doctor’s form. Collings is good even when kept behind a (cool looking) mask for almost the whole of the proceedings. And Colin Baker, soon to play the Doctor himself, is nicely stentorian as a Gallifreyan guard captain with the silliest hat on what is essentially the planet of silly hats. To top it all off we have Michael Gough (who had appeared on the series back in the sixties) as Chancellor Hedlin, an old friend of the Doctor’s but also one of the potential traitors.

As weird as the pacing is on this one, I found there to be some redeeming elements. At heart it’s a good storyline, one with a lot of neat ideas and a few curveballs here and there to throw us off guard. We frequently fall back on running up and down corridors, but this is something the show did very well and the climactic chase through Amsterdam is downright fun. The production values are a mixed bag. Omega looks cool, his chickenlike Ergon construct not so much, Gallifrey’s too grey but still sort of atmospheric, etc.

Before I give a final grade I’ll have to explain how I’m doing the grades for this one. DOCTOR WHO is a very good show, and the kind that is good enough that even its worst episodes tend to have some redeeming element. So you’re probably not going to see many Fs or Ds, and even for the non-passing grades you might have to append “by the show’s standards”. But basically, C+ and below means it’s really only worth watching if you’re already a WHO fan.

Anyway, this gets a general recommendation, albeit sort of a marginal one. It’s awkard but worthy, good concepts and classic sci-fi scope pulling us through the slower parts. It’s also always good to see a companion do neat things, and here Byrne was able to do justice to the character of Nyssa (whom he created) not long before she left the TARDIS crew. ARC OF INFINITY holds up, and the DVD has some fun extra features that are worth seeing. A solid kick-off to the show’s twentieth season, if not the most memorable one.

Directed by Ron Jones
Written by Johnny Byrne

Grade: B-

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