Thursday, May 14, 2015

Arc of Infinity - "The Dutch are a very civilised race."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Arc of Infinity - Details

Season 20, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #124) | Previous - Next | Index

In the Matrix. Image via Doctor Who Gifs
Tegan's lost her cousin, Councillor Hedin's lost his mind, and Omega's lost his bombast (not to mention his samurai helmet); but, contrary to what we've been told, this isn't one of the series' coffin nails. The ground may be shaking, but this story manages to stay on its feet, even while it staggers. We're not down the sinkhole. Not yet.

Like Amsterdam, it's probably fair to say that with JN-T in charge, the series is below sea level, but the pumps are running. Looking ahead to the remainder of Davison's run, while there are some duds coming, I don't think it's until "The Twin Dilemma" that we truly feel the absence of firmament.

Unfortunately, we might be able to make a case for Colin Baker's best story being the one where he plays Commander Maxil carrying around an ostentatiously feathered helmet to keep it getting knocked off whenever he traverses a doorway. We adore Colin Baker though, so we won't say he's come to kill Doctor Who, only to shoot the Doctor.

That's not to say the criticisms leveled against this story are without merit. Only that the spirit of fun still animates the series. Maybe it's the cast's delight (well, the lucky ones, anyways) at travelling to Amsterdam for the location shooting that buoys things. As with "City of Death," the location is mostly for running around in; still, the fact that the signs on the shops they're running by are in another language by itself breathes a little energy of difference into the proceedings. Proceedings which otherwise generally involve running around in corridors on Gallifrey. There's a lot of running in this one.

Oh, and I guess we need to acknowledge that Tegan's back. What a remarkable coincidence. The Doctor's facial expression at the end when she announces we're stuck with her pretty much sums things up.

Going to back to Gallifrey for some palace intrigue, the return of Omega, location shooting, this should all be highlight reel stuff. Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity to be so much better. Who decided, for example, Omega's henchman should be an armored chicken? One of Omega's less successful attempts at psychosynthesis, indeed.

As usual, Sandifer's criticism is insightful and, if we accept the argument, thoroughly damning. He does a brilliant job supplying what this episode could have done to work as proper Doctor Who:
So what the story needs, more than anything in the world, is a dramatic hook that allows  its three narrative levels to function in parallel. There needs to be something that operates similarly in the tourist horror, the political intrigue, and the basic cosmic arc of the universe. You can take your pick on what. It barely matters, just so long as there’s something. The one that springs to mind for me as an obvious choice, at least, is the callousness of deflected responsibility. Because that’s at least a theme that’s just about there at every point in the story already. At the bottom of the totem pole you have the lack of interest or concern in Colin’s fate on the part of authorities who see him as just another careless tourist. On Gallifrey you have the callous willingness to let the Doctor die simply because it’s more convenient than other options. And on the grand scale you have the basic failure of the Time Lords to ever take responsibility for the sacrifices involved in their own creation vis-a-vis the abandoned Omega. And the way you end it is by having the people at the bottom of the chain finally take some responsibility for the situation at the top. You have the characters at the Amsterdam end of the story stepping up and doing what nobody else in the universe has been willing to do.
He even says the theme he proposes is "just about there". This story is every bit as tedious and useless as he argues it is if the theme is not at all there. Yes, they miss hanging the story on a theme the way they should, but I'd argue it's a near miss this, the ghost of it was there to be teased out. Should we, the viewer, have to do that? No. Again, this is not one the good ones. It's just not as abysmal as all that.

"Dragonfire" remains the story that I come back to as the one where the series is truly zombified. It's Doctor Who characters, setting, and dialogue slapped together with nothing but cynical, vacant pretension as the unifying theme. In that story, nothing works. What's on the screen is ... omnishambles.

"Dragonfire" isn't the tragic event, where survivors in a state of shock may not realize how bad things are. "Dragonfire" is well after the disaster ("The Twin Dilemma"), the rescue teams didn't come, they were only sirens we heard in the distance ("The Remembrance of the Daleks") of some other city being saved. Not ours. At "Dragonfire", we're not rebuilding -- we're propping wreckage against other wreckage, squatting in the mud in the gap between unsound structures, telling ourselves we'll survive, when in fact the water's tainted, we're out of food, and the wolves are coming ...

OK, I'm being melodramatic. It's just ... I really hate "Dragonfire" that much. "Arc of Infinity" can't have a 1 one on the 1 - 10 scale, as Sandifer scores it, unless "Dragonfire" is a -5, at best.

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