Not the most welcoming return.
Recurring foes have been a staple of Doctor Who since the Daleks first returned to invade Earth. Typically, though, the Doctor’s repeat nemeses share a certain simplicity of purpose—conquest, domination, revenge—that makes sense even to viewers who have never seen an Ogron or a Sontaran before, their power coming from their present menace as much as their past misdeeds. Not so with Johnny Byrne’s Season Twenty opener, “Arc of Infinity” (Story Production Code 6E), which digs deep into the archives to resurface a complicated villain who took not one but three different Doctors, at the same time, to defeat: Omega.
Curiously, Byrne, producer John Nathan-Turner, and script editor Eric Saward never bother to clue viewers in to Omega’s backstory as the most tragic figure in Time Lord history, the ancient solar engineer who became trapped in an anti-matter dimension after triggering the supernova that powers all Gallifreyan time travel. His plans to wreak vengeance upon the Time Lords for abandoning him for millennia required the services of the First, Second, and Third Doctor to defeat, an effort that, supposedly, resulted in his final destruction in a second supernova (with which the Time Lords refilled their time travel tanks for another several thousand years). Without such knowledge, from “The Three Doctors,” which aired some ten years earlier in late 1972 and early 1973—albeit with a rare repeat in late 1981—much of the story of “Arc of Infinity” lacks significance or importance, rendering Omega (Ian Collier) just another in a long line of megalomaniacal madmen in an ill-fitting latex costume and with a litany of ill-defined greivances.
Lacking this understanding of Omega’s role in the annals of the Time Lords, it becomes difficult to comprehend why Councillor Hedin (Michael Gough), a member of the High Council of the Time Lords and an old friend of the Doctor, would offer up the Doctor’s “bio-data extract” to Omega, knowing full well that the following chain of events would put the Doctor in great danger. Though Hedin, who wears the orange of the Doctor’s own Prydonian Chapter of Time Lords, exclaims to Omega, “What we are, we owe to you,” such reverence offers thin justification for the acts of treachery he carries out in order to help Omega transfer his being from a state of anti-matter to matter, even if one recalls the minutia of “The Three Doctors.”
Byrne never fleshes out this motivation on Hedin’s part, but he does find time to intercut this taut, tense tale of Time Lord treason with the drawn-out travails of two hitchhikers, Robin Stuart (Andrew Boxer) and Colin Frazer (Alastair Cumming) who decide to sleep rough in an Amsterdam crypt…
Armed with the Doctor’s biological details, and given the location of the TARDIS by Hedin, Omega takes control of the blue box and diverts it to the “Arc of Infinity,” an area of space devoid of stars and home to a collapsed “Q-Star,” capable of containing anti-matter by means of quantum magnetism. There, Omega breaches the sanctity of the TARDIS and attempts to “temporally bond” with the Doctor in order to transfer from the anti-matter dimension. The process is only partially successful, but the prospect of anti-matter entering the universe through a full bond, with the devastation that would imply, causes the Time Lords to forcibly recall the TARDIS to Gallifrey in order to prevent the bonding from occurring—in a permanent manner.
Upon arriving, the Doctor and Nyssa manage to escape the security landing zone thanks to the intervention of Damon (Neil Daglish), a Matrix technician who witnessed the Doctor’s bio-data extract being transmitted to Omega and who, coincidentally, is another old friend of the Doctor. They are quickly caught, though, by the overly efficient Commander Maxil, acted by someone who will soon be well known to viewers of Doctor Who—Colin Baker. Here, Baker does everything he can to ensure there is not a sixth regeneration for him to play by delivering the Doctor to the High Council for “termination,” overseen by yet another of the Doctor’s former chums, Lord President Borusa (Leonard Sachs). In a nod to the change in actors, with Chancellor Borusa having been played by John Arnatt in “The Invasion of Time” and Cardinal Borusa by Angus Mackay in “The Deadly Assassin,” the president notes that they have both regenerated since their last meeting.
Indeed, at this point in Nathan-Turner’s run as producer, Doctor Who now relies heavily on audience knowledge of past events for much of its impact. That Borusa, of all people, would be willing to sacrifice the Doctor’s life, comes as a significant blow to those who recall their extensive history together. Surely Borusa knows that the Doctor can figure out some way of outwitting both the unknown traitor and the as-yet unknown foe, given their shared experience foiling the Master and the Sontarans on the Doctor’s past trips to Gallifrey.
But in an era when repeat airings of stories were few and far between, and the Target novelizations or bootleg off-air audio recordings were the only realistic means of reliving the Doctor’s past adventures—video taping being a very expensive possibility for late Fourth Doctor stories forward—is such an expectation on the part of the audience realistic? As a modern fan of the series with the abiltiy to watch any episode on demand, the frisson at hearing of Borusa’s regeneration can only make one smile knowingly; yet the steady decline in contemporary viewers begins at around this point—simultaneous with the increase in intensive lore references, and not coincidentally so. Brief asides or in-jokes are one thing, but entire conversations or plot points that don’t make sense without the needed context, and said context not being supplied, can only be off-putting.
Beyond the concerns with context and understanding, Byrne and director Ron Jones do effectively create a welcome degree of tension in the identity of the traitor, with Hedin only being definitievely revealed at the end of the third of four episodes. Suspicion lingers over Maxil, who enjoys his distasteful job with unseemly gusto, and the Castellan (Paul Jerricho), whose haphazard investigation of the potential traitor immediately casts doubt on his innocence. Hedin, meanwhile, sheds attention by attempting to save the Doctor from termination, voting for a reprieve he knows will not come. For a series that has only limited success hiding villains, “Arc of Infinity” at least shows that Doctor Who can successfully indulge in a bit of mystery and intrigue from time to time.
Because Omega can only control the transfer from anti-matter to matter by means of the immense computational power of the Matrix—that storehouse of all Time Lord experience and knoweldge first introduced in “The Deadly Assassin” and, again, not explained here at all—Hedin arranges for the Doctor’s mind to be transferred to the Matrix during the termination process, while the Doctor’s body is protected from the deadly device via an unexplained energy barrier. Because the Doctor was once Lord President (a detail not invoked in Byrne’s script), his mind is already linked with the Matrix, so the partial bond between the Doctor and Omega allows the latter to enter the Matrix and begin to take it over, in preparation for the final transfer, which is being powered by, um, Amsterdam’s canals.
Thus, the side story of the two hitchhikers ties into the main plot, with Stuart and Frazer, who just happens to be Tegan Jovanka’s cousin, stumbling upon Omega’s TARDIS in a crypt that also houses a canal pumping station. A Gallifreyan Power Converter, supplied by Hedin and capable of turning water into limitless power for short periods of time, is hooked into the pipes by Frazer, turned into a zombie of sorts by one of Omega’s psychosynthetic servants, an Ergon. (Here, too, the Doctor makes a reference to the shambling bubble monsters of “The Three Doctors,” the Doctor calling the Ergon “[o]ne of Omega’s less successful attempts at psychosynthesis,” a statement that makes very little sense without knowledge of the prior story.) Ostensibly, Frazer is turned into a servant because Omega, within an environmental shielding suit, cannot effectively interact with the world of matter, though the Ergon seems handy enough with its “matter converter” ray that variously blows things up and dematerializes people only to have them reappear as required by the needs of the plot, another of those aspects of this story that just don’t make sense.
Janet Fielding makes a welcome return after Tegan’s apparent departure from the series, with Tegan bounding off a plane in Schiphol—the second story in a row with filming in a real airport—expecting to meet Frazer but instead confronting his disappearance. She and Stuart make their way back into the crypt, where they are caught by the Ergon. A mind scan reveals her connection to the Doctor, and Omega uses her as a hostage to force the Doctor to cooperate with his plans to take over the Matrix and return to the material world. After they converse in the Matrix, Omega releases the Doctor back to his body, but he’s now under suspicion of working in league with the Lord President to conspire against the Time Lords, Hedin having planted evidence implicating them and both Maxil and the Castellan more than anxious to blame the Doctor.
By the time the Doctor and Nyssa have reached the Lord President, Hedin is already there, holding a gun on the Lord President to force him to lock down access to the Matrix in hopes of giving Omega enough time to take over. Maxil and the Castellan barge in shortly after, but when Maxil shoots at the Doctor, Hedin jumps in front of the blast to save his old friend. (Apparently Hedin is on his final regeneration, as everyone acts as though this Time Lord is simply dead, but it’s an odd moment for Byrne to gloss over.) Omega manages to gain control of the Matrix in all the commotion, shutting down all means of escape from Gallifrey. The Doctor tricks Omega into letting him see Tegan in the Matrix, and she reveals their location on Earth. A bit of technical know-how on the part of Damon and Chancellor Thalia (Elspet Gray) then distracts Omega’s focus long enough to enable the Doctor and Nyssa to use the TARDIS for a one-way trip to Amsterdam. (The implication being that control of the Matrix extends to control over the TARDIS somehow, though the Doctor takes pains to have his Type-40 fitted with a space-time element lacking a recall circuit. It’s all very confusing.)
With the Doctor finally in Amsterdam, focus turns to filming picturesque shots of him and his cream-and-celery coat along the canals, much as Tom Baker and Lalla Ward made many a transit through various Parisian arrondissements in “City of Death“—that location shooting has to be evident on the screen!
Though the Doctor is well versed with visits to Earth, neither he nor Nyssa have any money, so they walk everywhere trying to decipher Tegan’s cryptic (pun intended) instructions, which turn out to be a reference to a youth hostel where a note directs them to the crypt (left for Tegan by Stuart and Frazer originally). One quick sabotage of the power converter later and Omega’s transfer to the material dimension has failed. Or has it?
After long and frankly gratuitous sequences of Omega suppurating rivers of goo during the transference process, he peels off his helmet to reveal the Fifth Doctor’s face; the bonding succeeded, but only temporarily, the Doctor warns. Once the residual quantum magnetic shielding wears off, Omega will revert to anti-matter and explode, taking most of the material universe along with him.
The Doctor scrabbles around to find the Ergon’s matter converter gun—last used by Nyssa on the Ergon at the Doctor’s explicit urging—then he, Nyssa, and Tegan chase the impostor along the canals and flower markets of the world’s lovliest city for a good five minutes, the better to justify the expense of flying everyone to the Netherlands. All the while, Omega begins to deteriorate, his (which is to say Peter Davison’s) hands and face putrifying progressively. He’s finally cornered on a houseboat pier, and rather than let the Doctor return him to an anti-matter state in the Arc of Infinity, he begins to will himself to explode. All Omega wants is to be back among the living, he finally reveals, but absent that, he will burn it all down, leading the Doctor to kill him with the matter converter gun, bringing the whole affair to a close (or at least until the character is needed again).
Peter Davison delivers a fine performance in “Arc of Infinity,” fully inhabiting the role of the Fifth Doctor at this point. The character has a bit more of an edge, snapping at Nyssa and being willing to entertain, superficially, at least, Tegan suffering torture before finally relenting to Omega’s demands. Though Byrne scripted the lines, Davison carried them out in keeping with the Fifth Doctor’s evolving character. Somewhat concerning, though, is the Doctor’s newfound reliance on violence, both in Nyssa’s dispach of the Ergon and in his own killing of Omega. Certainly the situations demanded action, but writers in the past would have taken pains—and producers, to say nothing of stars, would have insisted—that another resolution be conjured, particularly given Omega’s pathos-driven desire to simply live amongst people again.
Sarah Sutton gets three episodes with Nyssa as “sole” companion here, and she more than takes advantage, playing off of Davison well and also receiving several impassioned speeches when she attempts to defend the Doctor to the High Council of Time Lords. Given that Byrne created the role of Nyssa back in his “The Keeper of Traken,” his careful treatment of the character makes sense, and Sutton portrays the young noblewoman with passion and inquisitiveness in equal measure, certainly enough so that viewers might really belive Tegan to be gone for good.
There’s not very much for Janet Fielding to do in her three episodes here, as Tegan is isolated from the main storyline for much of “Arc of Infinity.” Byrne doesn’t show quite so much care with her role, and while Tegan does lead the charge to find her cousin, once events begin to get strange, she settles into a inquisitive pattern rather than an active one, wondering what is going on instead of recognizing that there are TARDIS roundels on the walls of the room where she is being held captive and using her knowledge of the TARDIS to do something. (And just where Omega got a TARDIS of his own is unexplained as well.) Still, since Tegan was fired from her job and she’s reunited with the Doctor, both she and Janet Fielding are happily back on board.
Interestingly, the term “companion” occurs quite frequently in this story, more times than in the past several seasons combined; and, more to the point, said by the Doctor himself:
The Doctor: My companion is not involved in this.
The Doctor: Councillors, my companion, Nyssa of Traken.
Such an “official” use of the word cements it fully as the term of art going forward, and even extends it backwards, as when the Doctor asks after a friend who remained on Gallifrey:
The Doctor: What news of my old companion, Leela.
Such pleasant returns to past stories both highlight the joys of a long-running series with a rich history like Doctor Who and, as has been discussed, point out the threat to it remaining a long-running series. Where previously the mere mention of a prior companion or a distant adventure would suffice to make a dedicated viewer smile, now the canonical references flood the screen, no longer special given their commonplace nature. As with the prior story, “Time-Flight,” there’s simply too much going on in “Arc of Infinity,” and Nathan-Turner and Saward opt to leave in the lore callbacks even when they get in the way of the narrative on offer. Accepting that the dual plots were necessary to bring Janet Fielding back onto the series (and leaving aside that the stunt of abandoning her was just that, a cheap gimmick to drive press attention), shoehorning Omega into the role of the villain without spending time building up the character shortchanges the depth of the tragic character of Omega, leaving long-term fans dissatisfied, and confuses a wider audience excited to catch the new season of Doctor Who, leaving them wondering just what they’re watching. It’s not a winning, or sustainable, formula for either group.
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Post 128 of the Doctor Who Project