Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Arc of Infinity

From the sublime to… Oh, dear. Much of ’80s Who uses the past intelligently or fashions its own myths, often with considerable style. This, though, fails on almost every level. The Doctor returns again to his home planet but the ideas, the plot, the actors and design each seem drained of all life. The ancient founder of the Time Lords, who turned up in a story ten years earlier, comes back as the villain purely to have a villain come back, and wants to take over the Doctor’s body so he can live again. The plot doesn’t sound altogether bad, possibly because you can probably think of several better stories it’s already turned up in, but it’s done in such a lifeless way you wonder why they bothered.

Almost everything in the story has been done before, with conscious attempts to echo The Deadly Assassin – with the Time Lords’ planet no longer a techno-medieval cathedral but an airport lounge, and all the wit, satire and bitchiness replaced by actors taking it terribly, terribly seriously, never moving, never looking at each other and boring the pants off you. There’s a council chamber evidently based on the House of Commons but with only one side – because the other side’s where the cameras are – which means that people address the ‘Speaker’ at stiff right angles to him for no reason at all. When it’s not in a sci-fi café corridor, other bits take place in Amsterdam, for no very engaging reason. Even the music, often beautiful in early ’80s Who, is dreadful.

The story desperately tries a bit of The Quatermass Experiment / An American Werewolf in London-style horror, but has a fatal lack of atmosphere (and, assisted by the Amsterdam setting, in its early parts more resembles a gay porn film. No, do your own Googling to find out where I’ve explained that in detail). There’s barely a single good line in it, with everyone speaking sonorous clichés or spouting acres of tedious made-up science (Richard points out that some of the science is actually real, but would take half an hour to explain so it was any use, rather than throwing it away in a sentence and expecting anyone without a degree in theoretical physics to spot the difference from the other bits). Perhaps the most infamous moment is the man who, when the mysterious killer points a gun at him, looks faintly curious and tells the audience what kind of gun it is before being shot down, rather than any even faintly natural response – such as, say, screaming or ducking. The audience knows it’s a gun, and giving it a made-up name tells them nothing else of any use; you’d think even the most flat-footed whodunit might contrive to have the victim say something along the lines of “What are you doing here?” to unsubtly convey that the killer is, gasp, known to him. Having the victim recognise the made-up make of gun instead somehow lacks the same dramatic impact. As the type of gun is never mentioned again, it's not even relevant to the plot, unlike a dreadfully improbable ‘clue’ that turns up later on. The script confuses ‘ideas’ with ‘jargon’ and ‘complex’ with ‘pointlessly complicated’ (to the extent that even the hardened fans watching it last week wondered what was going on), and the way it’s presented on screen does nothing to save it. Despite ornate costumes – though the ‘monster’ is cruelly but not unfairly known as the ‘anti-matter chicken’ – and rare shooting abroad, it somehow also contrives to look especially cheap, when it's aiming to be epic.

It’s one of the few times when Doctor Who displays no imagination at all, and merely tries to ‘do Doctor Who’. That’s a fatal mistake, and fortunately one the series didn’t make very often; you’re far more likely to have Doctor Who make the ordinary world seem strange and unsettling than an alien world seem like the blandest of wine bars. If there’s an underlying theme, it’s that you can’t go back – but that would be so ironic for a story that gorges so much on nostalgia that no room’s left for anything else that it has to be accidental. It would certainly display greater wit than is available in the script.

It does have three saving graces, though, in its guest cast. While several good actors (and other bad ones) vanish almost entirely under the disposability of their dialogue – in theory, Leonard Sachs is playing the same politician left in charge at the end of Assassin, but the character’s so forgettably inoffensive here that it’s impossible to recognise him as a proto-Urquhart – at least Michael Gough is always diverting, even when he’s ‘in disguise’, his voice treated to sound like Perky and doing most of his acting with a pen. Ian Collier’s villain has a gruff rumble and some charisma, even genuine pathos towards the end, though his mostly rather stylish costume is undermined by its tendency to light up; when he gyrates, a light flashing above his groin, “Danger, danger, high voltage!” was the most printable of the comments made in Cambridge. And finally there’s Colin Baker, later cast as the Sixth Doctor, in the sort of ‘unfeasibly comic opera guard’ that’s forgettable in so many stories. Not here. When Colin was the Doctor, he was sometimes the only watchable thing on screen, and never more so than here, as he camps it up outstandingly in a scarlet uniform with an enormous plume. With most of the lines and most of the cast seemingly made of wood, it’s as if he’s acting for two, or perhaps twenty-two, and at least he doesn’t bore you.

Watching these two together showed Doctor Who at its most stunningly original, then at its most dully derivative. Unsurprisingly, one of these stories is strongly rumoured to be released on DVD soon. Considerably more surprisingly, it’s Arc of Infinity. Sigh.

If you’re a Lib Dem reader and have got this far, first, well done, have a chocolate button, and second, if you want to know what all the fuss is about for me and Doctor Who, look here. Conversely, if you like Doctor Who and want to get inside my head about Liberalism, click here. They’re nearly the same. But not quite.

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