|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.