In a revised version of an article written in 2011, Matthew Kilburn examines how clever Season Twenty’s opening story Arc of Infinity seeks to be, and some of what went wrong…
Arc of Infinity (1983) shares with Time-Flight (1982) the ignominy of my having two off-air UK Gold copies from what seemed at the time an endless cycle of Doctor Who repeats in the 1990s and early 2000s. I’m not certain that I ever got round to watching either. I remembered it vaguely as a procession of missed opportunities: dull design, duff dialogue and meagre menace. I came away having found it unsatisfactory, but also striving towards thematic unity: the effect was that of a tapestry seen through the eyes of a colour-blindness peculiar to early 1980s studiobound Doctor Who.
Johnny Byrne’s earlier script, The Keeper of Traken (1981), interpreted the universe as a realm kept in balance by an essentially benevolent, if mysterious, entity or collective which mediated the actuality of the universe on behalf of lesser beings. A full assessment of Byrne’s ideas would require a familiarity with Aristotle, Plato, and the Neoplatonists of the late classical period and the Renaissance, which I do not possess, but which I think interested Byrne. On Traken, the Keeper was the highest possible mortal being, the Source itself being near-immortal; the Time Lords in Arc of Infinity are clearly a higher caste, intermediaries between the material universe we experience, and the invisible forces which govern the material universe, where the distinction between the physical and the spiritual is blurred.
The script for Arc of Infinity provides perhaps the most sympathetic depiction of the Time Lords seen in Doctor Who. In The War Games (1969), the Time Lords were dispassionate to the extent that they could be promoted as the villains of the final episode. In their various appearances between Terror of the Autons (1971) and Genesis of the Daleks (1975) they were both remote and manipulative, and in The Deadly Assassin (1976) and The Invasion of Time (1978) they are inward-looking and petty. Arc of Infinity portrays them striving for omniscient compassion, even if this compassion acts in ways which to the individual might seem cruel. A sector of fandom at the time of broadcast read Arc of Infinity‘s portrayal of the Time Lords in the shadow of the ongoing debates about their nature prompted six years earlier by The Deadly Assassin. Richard Landen’s review in Doctor Who Monthly enthused that Arc’s Time Lords were but one step away from the ‘omnipotence’ of the Time Lords of The War Games.
It’s easy to read Arc‘s Time Lords as Landen did, because where Robert Holmes saw the very power of the Time Lords leading them into stagnation and corruption, for Johnny Byrne the Time Lords inhabited one of the highest planes of what the twentieth-century American philosopher Arthur Lovejoy called, “the great chain of being”. A theme from The Keeper of Traken is repeated – the introduction of a disruptive figure into a harmonious society and the corruption of one individual threatening the fall of all. Traken and Byrne’s Gallifrey are both Edens, tenuously self-preserved.
To make a crude parallel with John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667/1674), Omega is a regretful Satan, who might have thought it better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, but (after the defeat of The Three Doctors, 1972/73) now strives to return to his former sphere. Hedin emphasises that Omega wants to return to take up his place on the High Council, not to destroy, nor to rule; but Omega’s method of entering Paradise (Gallifrey) is to violate and ultimately displace the Doctor. The Doctor is still at this point conceived (in the wake of Christopher Bidmead’s reinterpretation of the character for the 1980/81 season) as an Everyman, and as such in Miltonian terms might be considered an Adam, defender of Paradise from Satanic assault. The parallel is not exact, because the Doctor is also a divine emissary, one of the Time Lords rather than their creation, but one who chooses to travel in the wider universe and apply the benevolence of the Time Lords (as perceived by Byrne) beneath his own sphere. Omega seeks to exploit this vulnerability, in that the Doctor has offered himself as an interpreter from the higher powers to the lower and so renders himself open to attack. In seeking to usurp the Doctor’s place in the universe, Omega would then change the Doctor’s role and thus remove the active logos bringing light and reason to the world as well as corrupt the higher sphere to which he aspires. If this explanation seems cut-and-paste, it’s because it has been quickly assembled from several sources; but I suspect Byrne drew his inspiration by blending different philosophies too.
Youth takes a bow
Johnny Byrne had a lot of experience writing for series where the location was a character in its own right: he was a major contributor to both Space: 1999 (1975-1977) and All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1980, 1983, 1985, 1988-1990). It’s not surprising that he was chosen to write this story given the decision to film on location in Amsterdam was part of the production office brief. He also seems to have tried to divine what the series format was by identifying characteristic features of early 1980s Doctor Who and applying them in Arc of Infinity. Vulnerable youth is a theme which could have been extracted from Full Circle (1980): the backpackers are unsympathetic sulky naive youths on the model of the Outlers, their dialogue somewhat artificial in the age of Grange Hill (1978-2008) and Tucker’s Luck (1983-1985). Doctor Who‘s treatment of the attractions of Amsterdam for students was not necessarily bound to be as cautious as its depiction of London night-life seventeen years before in The War Machines (1966), but neither of its leading lights in 1983 were close to mainstream youth culture, and it shows.
More remarkable is the assimilation of the Doctor to the model of the vulnerable youth himself. Wide-eyed with the awe of a naif at the sight of the Arc of Infinity itself, the Doctor is violated at the deepest physical and spiritual levels by a being who turns out first to be closely allied to an admired paternal figure and then turns out to be one of the fathers of Time Lord society. One might reflect that, as yet, we know of no mothers of Time Lord society – it is born from the technological cross-fertilization of Rassilon and Omega. Marc Platt’s Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible would in 1992 give the Pythia to New Adventures readers, but her rule could be read as presenting female influence as stifling. Big Finish’s Gallifrey series redresses this balance to show women fighting to redeem Gallifreyan culture; but in this story the appearance of Chancellor Thalia was a major step and an advance on the administrative role given to Rodan in The Invasion of Time, and the position of Romana as the Doctor’s quasi-student in seasons sixteen, seventeen and eighteen.
One of the odder notes struck in the early years of John Nathan-Turner’s producership was the respect the Doctor had somehow gained for Time Lord society. He is remarkably compliant when the Time Lords summon him and Romana back to Gallifrey in Full Circle, a move which is not accompanied (as far as we see) by manipulative telepathic visions of the same kind as in The Deadly Assassin, or information that the power of the Time Lords is about to be usurped by a malevolent force as in The Invasion of Time. Andrew Smith’s novelization of Full Circle (the first Target book to be written with a fan’s memory of the series), which appeared a few months before Arc of Infinity was broadcast, even had the Doctor reflect that his days as a rebel from the Time Lords were long behind him. Byrne carries this forward: the Doctor submits willingly to the decisions of the Time Lord high council. It’s perhaps here more than anywhere else that he is like one of Tolkien’s maiar, an emissary returning briefly from an existence spent abroad in middle earth to the abode of his fellows, seeking new instruction from a higher authority. Davison’s Doctor was more anxious than any other incarnation not to be seen to transgress the laws of time, thanks to his concern in Bidmead’s Frontios (1984) not to be reported to the Time Lords for landing the TARDIS in so late a time period (the series was still digesting The Five Doctors  and its reinjection of Terrance Dicks’s understanding of the Doctor at that point, too activist and Bohemian for Bidmead, I suspect). In Arc of Infinity, the Doctor wins by conforming to Time Lord rules or letting others break them for him, a strategy which works in his favour because his opponents have limited freedom of manoeuvre and the Doctor’s allies on his home world display more imagination. This can be contrasted with The Deadly Assassin where not only is the Doctor friendless, beyond his new acquaintances Spandrell and Engin, but he only survives because he can exploit to dazzling effect a loophole in Time Lord electoral regulations and so take his unimaginative prosecutors by surprise.
I thought you were going with the Doctor
Doctor Who‘s origins were kitchen sink: the viewer was meant to recognise Ian and Barbara as real people with ordinary concerns from the London of 1963. This serial’s realisation of Tegan shows how far it had travelled by this stage. The scene depicting Tegan’s arrival in Amsterdam, shot on film in the Netherlands, sums this up: Tegan’s heavily-designed outfit bears no resemblance to
anything her fellow-travellers are wearing. The script wants to emphasise her earthliness, but the
production is bent on presenting Janet Fielding as a leading lady in a way which doesn’t serve her role in the story. Instead of integrating her into her setting and bringing Tegan slowly out of Amsterdam back into the Doctor’s world, it instead realises her as otherworldly from the start. Her outfit makes her look not much less alien in Amsterdam than the Ergon and Omega. Though she is never seen on the pink-and-pastel Gallifrey set, her jacket and culottes as good as colour-coordinate with it, even though the costume was created by the designer for the second story of the season, Snakedance (which was recorded first).
The consequences for Tegan of her abandonment by the Doctor at the end of the preceding story, Time-Flight, are never explored beyond the throwaway information that she lost her job, and given that Tegan’s departure was probably the most memorable aspect of Time-Flight, they ought to have been. Eric Saward’s conventional defence, that Doctor Who is an action-adventure series which leaves no time for mourning, makes the death of Adric and the abandonment of Tegan more crudely manipulative than anything offered by Russell T. Davies. Tegan’s enthusiasm and obvious adjustment for time/space travel are not noticed by the Doctor and Nyssa, though they are by the audience; the decision to have the Doctor wince at the idea of Tegan’s return to the TARDIS serves only to make the Doctor look both ungenerous and dim.
The lasting impression one has is that Arc of Infinity suffered from a confused vision of what Doctor Who was and how it should be made. Execution is divorced from the script; dialogue is emphasised in a way which sometimes suggests those involved have no idea of the meaning behind it. The production note subtitles on the DVD reveal that short cuts were taken in studio which diluted the dramatic impact of several scenes and compromised the storytelling in the interest of getting the job done. This wouldn’t be the first or last time this happened on Doctor Who, but what marks out much 1980s Doctor Who from its predecessors and successors is that the shortcomings of a modest budget seem not to have been addressed at an early stage. Worse than that, Arc of Infinity works against the writer’s budget sensitivity; Omega changes from being a slender young man entirely cased in a bodystocking and cape to a figure encased in an ornate golden outfit which can’t make up its mind whether it is chrysalis, or butterfly, or perhaps frog; the Ergon, according to Johnny Byrne, was also meant to be humanoid, but ended up as a sort of skeletoid giant pterodactyl. (Those who thought the Krafayis on Vincent and the Doctor (2010) was ineffective should consider this bulky, ungainly costume, with no obvious inspiration or any reasoning why Omega should want anything like it as a companion, and compare it to the Daliesque Krafayis.) There is an insectoid theme to the design of both Omega and the Ergon, but while Omega’s costume can be justified as the chrysalis from which the restored Omega will emerge, it’s also over-designed, a complication which an already baroque story does not need. Furthermore, by being so ornate it exaggerates the shortcomings of the serial’s visual impact as a whole, with its boxy sets and washed-out rainy street scenes in Amsterdam.
Overambitious design running up against the serial’s limits hobbles the Time Lords, too. The legacy of previous Time Lord serials weighs more heavily on Arc of Infinity than necessary. Byrne revealed in an interview for the DVD release that he saw the Time Lords as ‘gracious’ – literally, one suspects, in the sense The Concise Oxford Dictionary reserved for God: ‘merciful, benign’. There’s a nicely played deleted scene on the DVD where the Castellan attempts to resign, and where the President refuses the resignation and forgives him any trespasses. The President isn’t just showing kindness to a contrite inferior, but granting absolution. Byrne’s Time Lords are more celestial choir than the bickering dons or clergy of The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time. Giving the Lord President the name Borusa when he has little resemblance to the devious character of the previous two Gallifrey stories does the integrity of Doctor Who’s vision of Gallifrey no service. Neither do the Time Lords’ vestments: the new regime is clearly a higher high council than its predecessor, given by the additional embroidery on the robes and skullcaps, and the curious small horns seen on the heads of both Borusa and Hedin. These have little relation to the rest of Time Lord iconography as seen in the story, and end up looking incongruous at best and tacky at worst.
Indeed, it appears that inspiration and money ran out after the garments of the Time Lords were designed. The sets – pinks and reds among pastels and white – suggest that Gallifrey is now meant to be a place where enlightenment and understanding bloom, rather than the decrepit seat of corruption introduced in The Deadly Assassin. The complexity of the universe is expressed in the designs woven into the dress of the high councillors (or stuck on with sequins). However, what vision there is falls before the beige sofas and the flatpack-furnished cafeterias where Time Lords evidently spend their aeons. Colin Baker’s headgear as Commander Maxil – not only ludicrous in its rainbow plumage, but too tall to get through doors – defies analysis.
This article hasn’t set out to be an exhaustive examination of every aspect of Arc of Infinity. Its imagination coped well with an impossible brief – as Johnny Byrne remarked, it was made clear from the outset that he couldn’t use anything particular about Amsterdam that might be seen as controversial, from financial crime to drug dealing, and he was left with extrapolating a cosmic connection from the water system which kept Amsterdam from flooding. The actors seem bored in a production which is very routine. While Paris was deployed with imagination and improvisation as a setting for 1979’s City of Death – the success of which had inspired John Nathan-Turner to set a story in Amsterdam – both aspects are wholly absent here. Andrew Pixley’s Archive feature for Arc
of Infinity in Doctor Who Magazine 261 (11 February 1998) even reports that director Ron Jones specifically selected areas of the city in which to film which were atypical of Amsterdam as a whole, surely the reverse of the producer’s intention of showcasing the city. Byrne’s
reconceptualization of the Time Lords was lost in the poor design work and the weight of the past, as unanticipated corner after unanticipated corner was cut to stop the script breaking the production line’s conveyorbelt.
Far from being a triumphant opening to the series’ twentieth season, Arc of Infinity provided worrying evidence that despite stories such as Earthshock the previous year, which showed that the claustrophobic cinematic atmosphere of Alien could be translated through the multi-camera video environment for the lighter terror of early-evening television, Doctor Who was edging towards becoming moribund. The next serial, Snakedance, would be an improvement, but Arc of Infinity would not be the last time that 1980s Doctor Who would try to reach beyond its grasp without knowing what it was stretching its hand for, and not seem to recognize that the fruit it plucked might not have been worth the effort.