Arc of Infinity

1-story disc
Region 1

for North America
2-story box set
Region 2

for the U.K.
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 124, starring Peter Davison)
  • written by Johnny Byrne
  • directed by Ron Jones
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Roger Limb
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: A powerful and dangerous anti-matter creature seeks to cross the Arc of Infinity into our universe, but first he needs to finish imprinting himself on the Doctor. Curious to find out who has betrayed his bio data to the creature, the Doctor's investigations are cut short when the High Council of Time Lords on Gallifrey decide the best way to stop the creature and prevent universal annihilation is to terminate the Doctor themselves....

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Peter Davison (The Doctor), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Janet Fielding (Tegan), and Colin Baker (Commander Maxil).
  • "Antimatter from Amsterdam" making-of featurette (35 min.), with Davison, Sutton, Baker, Ian Collier (Omega), writer Johnny Byrne,
    Paul Jerricho (The Castellan), Alastair Cumming (Colin Frazer), and script editor Eric Saward. Hosted by Sophie Aldred.
  • "The Omega Factor" featurette (15 min.), with actors Ian Collier & Stephen Thorne, and writers Bob Baker, Johnny Byrne, & Nev Fountain.
  • Optional new CGI effects
  • "Under Arc Lights" studio recording footage (11 min.) featuring bloopers & special effects setups
  • Deleted Scenes (3 min.) from part four
  • Isolated Music
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles by Richard Molesworth
  • Photo Gallery music montage (8 min.)
  • 1983 Doctor Who Annual .pdf file on DVD ROM

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

Season Twenty is a particularly strong one for Doctor Who, and it comes with a powerful opening sci-fi adventure in "Arc of Infinity". There is a lot of dramatic depth to the story, and a very superb guest cast is assembled to pull it off brilliantly. The original effects work wonderfully, even before the modern DVD CGI crew comes along to fix what ain't broke again. The really significant rough edges of this tale are in the editing, music, and lasting thematic style.

Editing Literacy

As much as I like this story a lot, I have a big problem with the JNT-style "cutaway" flavour of the final broadcast edit, as it gets used in ways that interfere with making the program easy to follow, particularly for those who don't already know the show very well. It starts with the introductory scenes. First problem: Have they never heard of "establishing shots"? It's curious to note how many times models have been used on the show since 1963 to create establishing shots for the various places the Doctor has taken us to, yet even as this becomes the third story set in Gallifrey's citadel complex on the main character's home planet, there hasn't yet been an establishing shot of it on the show.

The first scene is a teleconference between two plotting villains which keeps both of their faces hidden. Fair enough if the show's creators don't want to reveal where this is taking place; the scene is nicely mysterious and atmospheric, and works excellently just the way it is.

Scene two, between the two technicians, comes out of left field. Who are we watching? What is their significance? Where are they? There is no establishing shot, of course, and so one has to try to glean some information from their idle chit-chat, which is not much help. On first viewing, I distinctly remember wondering if I was finally getting my first view of the Time Lord home planet of Gallifrey, something I was not able to confirm until many, many scenes later. I wonder now if viewers were meant to recognize the distinctive Time Lord costumes (I'd never seen them before), or if simply no thought had been given to making the story accessible to people who'd never seen Doctor Who before.

Scene three, the Doctor and Nyssa at a roundel in the TARDIS corridor, making a repair. Once more, an establishing shot of the police box exterior of the craft is called for, but sadly missing. Worse yet, this scene is just too short to properly establish these two main characters for new viewers. The editor should stick with these two and the idea they discuss and continue with their next scene in the next room, but....

Before you know it, we're already on to our fourth location and our fourth set of characters. At least this scene begins with an establishing shot, and a snippet of "Tulpen aus Amsterdam" in the musical score to help inform the audience of where we are. Why we are watching two apparently random young tourists is a mystery not helped by their pleasant, idle dialogue.

Back to the TARDIS interior, the Doctor and Nyssa's second scene has about as good an establishing shot as we can hope for, with a starscape gently floating along on the scanner screen while they stand at the console. Beautifully composed. And a nice scene. The regulars finally get their due.

After a time, events between the two villains and the two technicians begin to link together, and only then does something of a focus for the story begin to take shape. The villains soon affect the Doctor and Nyssa in the TARDIS as well, but it isn't until the technicians' room is used to recall the TARDIS and the Doctor reacts that the story itself makes clear the point that it is in fact set on Gallifrey.

The plot strand with the two young tourists in Amsterdam remains the furthest detached from everything else in the story, and remains far too purposeless until the glow from the other side of the door begins. How much you can figure out how events here connect may easily depend on how well your previous knowledge of the show allows you to follow the dialogue, but those who know nothing at all may have to wait until part two to have it all laid out and demonstrated properly.

The whole thing seems like it could have benefitted from a more careful sequencing of scenes, with dialogue written to aid the flow of logic as we cut from one location to another - something like what we get in "The Green Death" (story no. 69). Instead we've got things like a TARDIS console room scene jammed between two scenes of the tourists discovering the crypt. The tourists' scenes could easily have just flowed one into the other, following a line of exploration. Instead, Nyssa and the Doctor interrupt just to say that they don't know what's going on... which can only encourage similar confusion in the audience. Content like that should hit the cutting room floor, no questions asked, instead of being used as a band-aid to hit the right episode timing as it must have been.

The concept of the impossibly big white interior being inside of the police box isn't impossible to grasp from watching this story, but it requires concentration. The editors cram a lot of other scenes between the Doctor and Nyssa in the console room, and the Doctor and Nyssa exploring the area the TARDIS has landed in - fortunately one of these is a proper materialization for the police box, and if you happen to already recognize it as the TARDIS, you'll be able to follow the dialogue about it in the following scene between Maxil and Damon in the technicians' room. Ideally, the materialization shot should not be an isolated scene in itself; it should be preceded by the regulars in the console room, and followed by showing them coming out as soon as possible. And if Maxil and Damon need to interrupt, and this story wants them to, we should still see the police box on a monitor in their room as they talk, so the vehicle can make sense to brand new viewers.

The police box is all but forgotten in later episodes, even though obvious shots of it moving are warranted. Sure, they didn't want to cart it along on their expensive location shoot, but there are ways around this, as Fiona Cumming later proved when she directed "Planet of Fire" (story no. 135). The box does appear twice on screen late in part two, trying to do its bit to maintain the idea of its connection to the interior, but when it is needed most, during the first crossing between exterior and interior in part two, the edit leaves it out.

Dramatis Personae

"Arc of Infinity" still shines very brightly in spite of these technical considerations, thanks to a wonderful cast that is able to bring the dramatic elements of the story to the foreground, and a generally good sense of atmosphere being created for most of the scenes.

Borusa is a popular Time Lord character, one who quite bizarrely has never been portrayed by the same actor more than once. Here in his third television incarnation, he is played by Leonard Sachs who creates what is easily the least pompous version of Borusa while recreating the regal air he originally had in "The Deadly Assassin" (story no. 88). Although the writing of "The Invasion of Time" (story no. 97) made a friendlier Borusa, "Arc of Infinity" delivers a friendlier acting performance for its Borusa. Sachs is very watchable, likeable, and lively in the role, and is my personal favourite Borusa - not surprising as he was the first one I'd ever seen.

Michael Gough, veteran of four Batman feature films and "The Celestial Toymaker" (story no. 24) returns to provide Councillor Hedin with his graceful, sympathetic presence. Paul Jerricho creates a new nameless Castellan that is easily the most serious and efficient on the series yet, and very enjoyable to watch.

Ah, and then there's Colin Baker, making his Doctor Who debut as Commander Maxil, a heavy, nasty Presidential Guard commander who reveals no obvious redeeming qualities. Baker is so successful at throwing himself into this role and becoming the character you love to hate, he easily typecasts himself in the eyes of those Doctor Who fans who haven't yet seen him do anything else - which will eventually work hard against him when he takes over the role of the Doctor two years later and needs to be our heroic favourite.

Perhaps best of all amongst the guest cast is Ian Collier in the role of chief antagonist. His wonderfully deep, rich, resonant voice makes it easy to create a gripping sense of menace and a powerful presence, yet both Byrne's script and Collier's excellent acting manage to balance this with an enormous growing sense of pathos towards the character, making him far more sympathetic and interesting than was managed by Stephen Thorne in "The Three Doctors" (story no. 65).

Neil Daglish also features prominently as computer technician Damon, successfully making him a very likeable and watchable character. Andrew Boxer is also very well cast in his role as young Tourist-of-Amsterdam Robin Stuart, having great eyes and face with which to play against the frightening events in the crypt, and being able to pull off both those scenes and the lighter side of the story with superb believability and make his character very likeable.

Peter Davison is firmly established in his own version of the Doctor by now, and performs it as only he can, brilliantly, getting many scenes with dramatic and emotional meat in them. But perhaps his best acting moment in the story is in the beautifully simple moment he creates for the villain in Amsterdam in the final episode, beside the young Dutch boy at the musical display in the street. Pure gold. Worth the price of admission alone.

This is also one of the best stories for Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, as she gets to play the sole companion for a change. Sutton's utterly believable expressiveness really sells the first two episode cliffhangers, and she takes center stage for many of the story's sequences and shines in her role, making one suspect that, had a 5th Doctor & Nyssa duo remained exclusive to more stories, it might have been an even more outstanding run.

Janet Fielding's Tegan is off on an adventure of her own, sporting a new haircut and new outfit - neither of which is particularly an improvement on her look the previous year. Tegan shows some strength, having to command an entire strand of the story herself for an episode and a half, but soon becomes the mouthy damsel in distress again, bawling for the Doctor. Pity.

Holes of Infinity

Johnny Byrne employs a lot of conveniently intangible technobabble - decaying magnetic shields and such - to string all the various elements of his story together and create the drama that he wants. The finished product seems to still have a significant hole or two if one examines it closely enough.

Does it really make all that much sense for the Time Lords to turn on the Doctor? Considering that what they want is to prevent the Matter/Anti-Matter explosion that Omega's unshielded, unbonded presence in our universe would cause, what would destroying the Doctor actually achieve? Do they expect Omega to say "dang it!", not pick another Gallifreyan to bond with, and quietly slip back into his own universe? For all they know, he could have burned up a one way ticket coming to our universe, and without a Doctor to bond with, his magnetic shield would decay until... Boom. Anti-Omega explosion. Precisely what they don't want.

And on the other hand, letting the Doctor live might allow Omega to prove that he knows what he's doing, make a successful bond, and prevent the disastrous anti-matter explosion. So... huge plot hole. Killing the Doctor won't stop Omega from coming here. He's already here.

Action-wise, the story works best in the crypt. The Ergon poses a successful threat, offering bizarre visuals of the unknown to an already creepy setting, and nicely remaining very clean and non-grisly in its execution. Good job. There is also much evasion of guards in the corridors of Gallifrey, all of which is executed decently enough, but is far too cliché to win any points for innovation.

It is a bit disconcerting that this story was chosen for CGI effect upgrades, since it doesn't really need it as badly as many other stories that haven't been touched. In fact, significant time and money seems to have been spent on the original effects, and the new CGI, although more modern, really isn't all that much improvement. Most of the new effects boil down to painting a predominantly white glow over old footage, and sadly obscuring some of the clarity of the original material a bit too much. In many cases story points actually made more sense with the old effects, where you can still make out the Doctor's face as Omega's image is superimposed and appreciate his acting. The termination effect at the end of part two also now sports CGI that looks too much like a disintegration, despite the story point that this is actually being faked, and not faked well enough to truly fool the characters. The old effect was more true to an energy barrier hiding the Doctor for 2/3 of an episode. Mind you, the new effects aren't bad, they just aren't that much of an improvement to truly justify the effort, and at least they are respectfully included as an option. Options are cool.

Set design is an enjoyable success this time around, creating an enjoyable and rich cultural look for Gallifrey, and appearing spacious enough (particularly in the corridors) even without the grandiose areas previously seen in "The Deadly Assassin" and "The Invasion of Time". The crypt also works superbly, and Omega gets an instantly recognizable TARDIS interior with a fascinatingly different layout.

Another plot-question / potential hole. As one imagines Omega crossing the Arc of Infinity in his TARDIS, are it and the Ergon not made of anti-matter as well? Since no attention is paid to the possible explosions these things might cause if they were, perhaps it's better to believe that Omega somehow created them after coming here.

Many of the DVD's from this era are worth buying for their isolated music tracks alone. This is not one of those. "Arc of Infinity" is hands down the worst score of the Radiophonic Workshop's five-year (Seasons 18-22) monopoly on the incidental music of the program. Roger Limb's emotionless motifs, played on his trademark cheesy high-pitched fake instruments, are easily mistaken for aimless randomness, and return time and again to crutch themselves on semi-tone drops. Extremely irritating and disappointing, although the story survives this and remains extremely watchable.
Music by Roger Limb and Special Sound by Dick Mills
"Omega Field Force" (1:54),
"Ergon Threat" (1:03), and
"The Termination of the Doctor" (2:10) are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who - Earthshock
Silva Screen FilmCD 709

More info & buying options

The Doctor doesn't quite get as much to do in this adventure as in some of his others, but he does manage to achieve something in each episode and remain front and center in the drama. Nyssa looks ready to upstage him in heroic actions as part two reaches its climax, yet he is playing a more intellectual game, and disarms her violence in a very emotional and moving scene, managing to appear wiser and more courageous in the end. Sweet. The spiritual Doctor at work. If only the show had done more of that for Peter Davison....

Technically, the Doctor spends significant time in variations on the prisoner dynamic, but this is disguised so well, and remains so full of interesting scenes and continues to move through all kinds of fascination sets including the TARDIS interior that one is left with really nothing to complain about at all.

Expel or Destroy...

The final climactic act is not quite as satisfying as the adventure that led up to it. This is now the third adventure amongst the last five to end with the villain screaming and writhing in pain for an extended amount of time, seemingly to live up to the misguided deterrent against violence proposed by Eric Saward in "More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS" in which he says that it's important to show that violence hurts. Lots. True cinematic conscience should show that a hero attempting to use violence to solve the challenges proposed by the drama will only make those challenges worse. Remember, the whole aim of interplanetary society in this story is to make sure Omega DOESN'T explode.

Maybe his pain is all due to the self-willed destruction he tried to inflict on himself and others, and maybe it ended as quickly as it did and faded away because the Doctor used his device to contain it. The higher road saved by technobabble existing only in the viewers' memory? Sadly, visual literacy says it's a shooting with horrible results. This climax suffers an unpleasant aftertaste, a lonely depression similar to that which graced the end of many episodes of the "Space: 1999" series that Johnny Byrne himself previously worked on as script editor. An enjoyably light-hearted coda is tacked on afterward here, but feels a bit too rushed and out of place.

"Arc of Infinity" is still a powerful success despite its less wonderful elements, and delivers an emotionally engaging and thought-provoking adventure. Although not quite as good as Byrne's previous Doctor Who triumph, "The Keeper of Traken" (story no. 115), this is easily a close second, and contributes to an exciting rise of quality in the stories crafted for Peter Davison's Doctor.

International Titles:

Magyar: "Végtelenség íve"

Français: (L'arc de l'infini)

Русский: "Арка бесконечности"

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video.
DVD NTSC Region 1
single-story disc
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
2-story box set
for the U.K.:
VHS Video
NTSC A U.S. (and Canada)
NTSC B U.S. (and Canada)
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Snakedance"

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