Doctor Who episode 580: Arc of Infinity – Part One (3/1/1983)

‘To kill you? Is that why they’ve brought you back?’ You can see why on paper this looked like a good idea: opening the 20th anniversary series with the first Gallifrey story since 1978, some overseas filming and the return of both an old friend and an old enemy. It’s a slightly longer list of requirements than a writer might usually have – but only slightly. It’s not like The Five Doctors.

But rather than seeing this as an opportunity, writer Johnny Byrne seems to have found these requirements a distraction, and it shows. Gallifrey has none of the majesty of Traken. Partly that’s a design fault – the sofa in a corridor only the most egregious example of sets that don’t even have the faded grandeur of The Invasion of Time. However, the script also makes the Time Lords even less noble than usual – Damon clocks off and wishes a colleague ‘good night’, Cardinal Zorac declares the affair a ‘damnable business’ and no-one seems in the least bothered about the massive data protection breach. The High Council looks stiffer than the Time Lords on Rassilon’s tomb, immobile in their giant, creaking collars, all sitting facing the camera like they’re in Grace Brothers’ canteen. I quite like the ghostly figure making contact with the shadowy traitor (obviously Hedin), but in general everything on Gallifrey feels like it’s been written to please Ian Levine. It’s a massive contrast to the desperate crisis that grips the place at the start of The Three Doctors.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Nyssa are pottering round the TARDIS doing odd jobs. These scenes are charming – Davison finally gets to inhabit his own Ship without tripping over three other actors, and he’s relaxed into the role, giving a much lighter and more natural performance than last season. Nyssa’s gentle nagging works a lot better than Tegan’s snippiness and sounds pretty much like the tone Leela or Romana might have taken. Sadly, the TARDIS getting invaded is becoming old hat by this point, having happened four times the previous year, which diminishes the surprise a bit but is probably par for the course when every serial seems to spend half its time in there. The Doctor makes the Arc of Infinity sound exactly like the Medusa Cascade: ‘the gateway to the dimensions.’

In Amsterdam, there are hints of life. Byrne is going for an American Werewolf vibe as two backpackers seek shelter in a crypt as night falls. It’s a shame this aspect is secondary to Gallifrey, because it’s much more fun. And it’s disappointing that the Ergon looks like it’s wandered out of another story entirely – pitching for something from Alien might have worked if this were meant to be a Lovecraftian outer space gothic, but something a bit more in keeping with Earthly horrors – like a zombie or the ghostly form of Omega – would have worked much better in this context. It’s again suggestive of a serial thrown together without much coherent thinking.

Impulse laser?

Neither does the direction help: Ron Jones includes a couple of nice touches, like a looming shadow and point of view shot when Hedin shoots Talor (we could have done without the ‘Impulse laser?’ comment), but other bits seem amateurish and half baked, like a cut from Nyssa discussing mystery on Gallifrey to a disconsolate Robin and only then to Maxil investigating on Gallifrey. Still, the show thrives on surprising juxtapositions, and at least the new season begins with plenty going on.

Next episode: Arc of Infinity – Part Two

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