To kick off its 20th season (and 580th episode!), Doctor Who returns to his home world of Gallifrey, goes on location abroad - for only the second time in the series' history - and faces yet another old enemy, sigh, in Arc of Infinity, an entertaining but deeply flawed story airing over four episodes in January 1983. As the impressively honest featurettes included with this DVD make clear, the teleplay was written to comply with the sometimes fickle wants of the BBC and the show's executive producer, while the low-budget and some misguided imagination result in a few laughably bad concepts. Once again though, the DVD delivers with a feast of extra features, including the option to watch the four episodes with a smattering of newly-enhanced effects shots.
The story's set-up is rife with pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, but essentially is this: a Time Lord traitor steals The Doctor's (Peter Davison) bio-data on behalf of "the Renegade," actually the time-traveling (but now quite mad) pioneer Time Lord called Omega (Ian Collier), who longs to escape exile in a repressive anti-matter counter-universe. To achieve this somehow involves not only use of The Doctor's bio-data, but also setting up shop at an underground crypt in Amsterdam (!), and a ripple in space known as the Arc of Infinity.
As The Doctor and his companion, Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) travel to Gallifrey, another sub-plot is established back in The Netherlands. Friends Robin Stuart (Andrew Boxer) Colin Frazer (Alastair Cumming), on vacation in Amsterdam, make the unwise decision to save a few quid by camping out in the same crypt where Omega is hiding out with a ludicrous bird-like creature (imagine the Warner Bros. cartoon Road Runner as designed by H.R. Giger). They turn Colin into a zombie slave, but the young lad turns out to be the cousin of Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), The Doctor's former companion abandoned by the Doctor at the end of Season 19. Her experience with strange, alien life forms gives her something of an edge in dealing with the creatures and in getting The Doctor's help.
Meanwhile, on Gallifrey, the High Council (whose members include genre favorite Michael Gough) makes the extraordinary decision to execute The Doctor rather than allow Omega's anti-matter state to threaten the universe with total destruction.
The location work in Amsterdam, the visit to Gallifrey and its political crisis, and the reuniting of The Doctor with Tegan all make Arc of Infinity a lot of fun to watch...but are also the reasons the show is so disjointed and unsatisfying. Writer Johnny Byrne had these and other story elements imposed upon him, specifically the Amsterdam locale, the return of Tegan, and the season-long policy of bringing back old monsters in every episode. The result is that the Amsterdam locations are picturesque but meaningless; Tegan's reappearance - that a cousin would be caught up with an intergalactic crisis involving The Doctor - is such a wild coincidence as to be totally unbelievable; and reviving an old character (last seen in 1973's "The Three Doctors") is unimaginatively done, feebly echoing Frankenstein in a few scenes.
As the featurette interviewees amusedly point out, the disjointed teleplay and location restrictions also meant that the show's heroes do an awful lot of running around, often to nowhere in particular. They dash from place-to-place in Amsterdam, and endlessly down corridors on Gallifrey. In the latter case, the art direction is a real let-down; the oft-seen corridors are blandly designed, with incongruous-looking '80s-style sofas standing out, badly, amidst the set decoration. Only the elaborate costumes worn by the High Council have any flair; they predict an ornate style later incorporated into films like Dune and Stargate.
Besides Gough's appearance, the story is notable for featuring Colin Baker as the brutally efficient Gallifrey Commander Maxil. Baker would eventually replace Davison as the Sixth Doctor in the show's 21st season, so it's somewhat interesting to watch Arc of Infinity as a kind of tryout for Baker; his scenes with Davison are fairly interesting. But all the techno-babble and awkwardly written-to-order teleplay really drag everything down in the end.
Video & Audio
Arc of Infinity is presented in its original full-frame format, a mix of videotape (for studio interiors) and 16mm color film (for location exteriors), and the final outcome is in line with mid-1980s video technology. The mono sound on all four shows is okay. Optional English subtitles are available, including on all the extra features.
Arc of Infinity is accompanied by the usual orgy of supplements, including two excellent featurettes. Anti-Matter from Amsterdam features interviews with Davison, Baker, Sutton, and others (with Janet Fielding conspicuously absent, even though she was featured in Time-Flight), and quite unlike nearly all big studio American featurettes lets its interview subjects be openly critical of the story's varied shortcomings. The Omega Factor is the kind of thing that's appealing to both hard-core fans and relative neophytes to the series, in this case exploring through writer interviews the origins of the Omega character, supported by clips from both this and "The Three Doctors." (I've not seen the 1973 show, but it looks infinitely better and the design of Gallifrey is far more evocative.)
Even taking into account the show's relatively low budget, the original video-generated special effects are at times quite awful. Eighteen of these shots have been replaced with CGI effects work that is significantly better executed while maintaining an unobtrusive, mid-'80s look. Fortunately, viewers have the option to view the shows with or without these enhancements. (Some of the most glaringly awful effects have not been replaced, so those familiar with the story shouldn't expect too much.)
There's no audio commentary this time around, but there are production subtitles crammed with information about the story and its background and production. Note: Reader Marc Matsumoto writes, "I...wanted to let you know that there is an audio commentary on the disc [featuring] Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding and Colin Baker. It's not mentioned on the packaging but it can be [accessed via the] Audio Options." Thanks for catching that!
Deleted Scenes and Under Arc Lights offer material cut from the final version and raw in-studio material. More casual viewers will find this of minimal interest, but die-hard fans will doubtlessly find it all quite fascinating. Also included is an isolated music track and an extensive photo gallery, along with several PDF DVD-ROM features: a Doctor Who Annual and Radio Times Listings.
Compared with the latest incarnation of Doctor Who, Arc of Infinity appears both crudely-made and crudely-plotted, a fair assessment. On its own level, however, it's still pretty entertaining if flawed, and the extra features and CGI enhancements are fun. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.