TV EYE: Classic Who Overload (Part 5)

Okay, it’s been a slightly odd week for me. A combination of anniversaries have left me feeling a tad melancholy, I’ve been swept off my feet by a broadside of work, and I’m also still in one of those frustrating grey areas where I could get news that’s either exceptionally wonderful or kinda disappointing at a moment’s notice. And so, naturally, my reaction is to write some more about Doctor Who. Brace yourselves…

ARC OF INFINITY

I have a major fondness for Classic Who. I can forgive it a lot – even the true classics have a few shaky moments (Talons of Weng-Chiang has the giant rat, Caves of Androzani has the Magma creature – the list goes on…), and sometimes you can get stories that really only have a few effective elements, but are still fun in there own way.

But then, there’s Arc of Infinity.

It’s the first story of the 20th Season – a big anniversary season for Who – and it’s one I hadn’t seen since its broadcast in 1983. And there’s a reason for that, because Season 20 is one of the slightly duller spots of Who’s history – there are some nice moments (some in Mawdryn Undead, some in Enlightenment, and one genuinely impressive story in Snakedance) but an awful lot of blandness, and Arc of Infinity is as bland as it gets. It’s a bit of a culture shock watching this after having recently watched The Leisure Hive, which – two years before Arc of Infinity – opened JNT’s realm in an explosion of style and glossiness. Little did we know that two years later we’d be getting a bloke in a very embarrassing costume that crosses H.R. Giger’s Alien with Road Runner, and a version of the Doctor’s home planet that turns what was previously a place of crumbling grandeur and majesty into a lot of grey corridors and what looks like an airport departure lounge. The story… well, it’s one of those points where Who started on the slippery slope towards prizing continuity above all else, and it’s also a very good example of how the show would simultaneously worship its own history, but then suck it dry of any of the grandeur and style it had in the first place. It’s easy to see why Who’s fortunes started plummeting in the Eighties, with stories like this that basically involve a tremendous number of scenes of people spouting technobabble at each other while wearing very silly hats. The plot is borderline meaningless to anyone who doesn’t know Who mythology – an ancient Time Lord stuck in an alternate universe attempts to use the Doctor as a means of crossing into ours, and the Gallifreyan High Council’s reaction is to execute the Doctor – meanwhile Tegan Jovanka, the companion who was unceremoniously forgotten at the end of Time Flight happens to get involved when the ancient Time Lord turns out to be – for reasons which have more to do with producer John Nathan Turner wanting some foreign filming – executing a large chunk of his plan in Amsterdam. There’s a traitor, and lots of horrifically glitzy costumes, and some rather dreary radiophonic music, and the whole thing just sits there, refusing to come to life or pull off any of the magic that who can do so well. It’s also yet another example of how the then-Script Editor Eric Saward really didn’t get the Doctor Who ethos, as he seems to get the Doctor wielding a gun at any available moment.

To be honest, Arc of Infinity isn’t completely dreadful – future Sixth Doctor Colin Baker is good value as Gallifreyan guard Maxel, getting to shoot his predecessor (and also having to cope with one of the silliest hats I’ve ever seen), and Sarah Sutton actually gets a few moments to give a decent performance. The overcrowded TARDIS of seasons 19 and 20 rarely did anyone any favours, and one of the nice things about the Big Finish run of audio stories is that they can expand on lots of stuff that the Eighties got wrong – like giving Sixth Doctor Colin Baker a chance to shine properly, and also showing that the teaming of Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton on their own could have been really rather effective if it had been given the right material. But Arc of Infinity really wasn’t it – and Tegan’s return is so contrived as to be basically pointless. It all ends up with one of the least exciting chase sequences ever filmed, proving that Amsterdam really doesn’t have anything other than canals and streets and not much else. I have an odd fondness for the admittedly dreadful Time Flight if only for its absurd ambition – but Arc of Infinity simply assumes that everyone will find this exciting without ever giving us a reason to. And what should have been a damn good yarn is instead a danger sign of exactly how self-indulgent and messy the show was eventually going to get. I still have plenty of issues with RTD’s approach to New Who – but I think I’d almost rather cope with his occasionally nonsensical excesses than have to sit through Arc of Infinity again…

CARNIVAL OF MONSTERS

And then, as a complete flipside to Arc of Infinity, here’s Who at its most colourful, inventive and fun. The Pertwee era has its ups and downs, and I have to admit that despite there being some good stories in there, the ones I like the most are in Pertwee’s first season in 1970 – gritty, edgy stories like Spearhead from Space or Inferno. Later on, things get a little cosy, and there are some phenomenally dull six-parters (like Colony in Space), and by the time we get to 1974 and Pertwee’s last season, it’s very obviously a show in need of a shot in the arm (which it would receive thanks to the arrival of Tom Baker and Phillip Hinchcliffe). But there’s still plenty of fun to be had, and Carnival of Monsters is a whole bag of fun in the way that only Who could carry off. The set-up is gloriously insane – the TARDIS lands on a 1920s passenger boat in the Indian Ocean, only they soon find out that they’re actually in one of the enclosed and miniaturised environments of a Miniscope, a multi-dimensional zoo that’s being carted around the galaxy by a dodgy showman and his slightly unwilling female sidekick. Throw in a pair of bureaucratic and plotting aliens, and a set of actually rather well-executed monsters in the voracious Drashigs, and you’ve got a story that isn’t quite perfect but rattles along at such a wonderful pace that it’s impossible not to be swept along by it. It’s written by Robert Holmes, the best writer of the original series bar none, and it’s packed full of his wonderful dialogue and trademark double-acts – he understood how to get Who to work properly, and to make it play as an extended sleight-of-hand trick, with the result that Carnival of Monsters is one of the very best completely standalone Who stories (it was my first view of Jon Pertwee in a 1981 repeat season, and was a perfect choice), and a brilliant example of exactly why Who just isn’t like any other TV show. Yes, there are some creaky moments, but they rush past quickly, and the end result is a story that’s almost guaranteed to leave me with a smile on my face, from the genuinely fun interplay between the Doctor and Jo Grant (with Katy Manning in a rare story where she’s actually allowed to be pretty resourceful on her own), to the nutty costume design (from future Oscar-winner James Acheson) and the groovy set design. Bright, bold, and colourful – I loved it when I was seven, and after getting it on DVD I was happy to find that I still do.

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More soon….

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