Doctor Who and the Arc of Infinity

Arc of Infinity

Story 123 Written by Johnny Byrne, directed by Ron Jones
Transmitted: 3 – 12 January 1983

The High Council of Time Lords sits in judgement over all existence, an all-powerful society devoted to guarding the frail web of time and the sanctity of the space-time continuum, the price of their great power came at a price. The brilliant Time Lord scientist Omega discovered unlimited energy by harnessing a dying star that became known as the Eye of Harmony. In the process, Omega plummeted into the black hole and was thought lost forever. Determined to escape from his exile, Omega has found a fellow conspirator in the high council of Gallifrey who sympathizes with the mythical figure’s plight. Formed by anti-matter, Omega can only return to the positively charged universe by harnessing the Arc of Infinity, a source of quad radiation that would shield his form. The Doctor is chosen as the ideal basis on which to create a stable host body, at the cost of his very life.

For the 20th anniversary of Doctor Who, John Nathan-Turner had the notion that each adventure would hearken back to the mythology of the series’ past. Starting with a story that brought back the connection to Gallifrey and the Time Lords, Arc of Infinity also sees the return of now Lord President Borusa (seen in both Deadly Assassin and Invasion of Time) and of course Omega, the villain introduced in the Three Doctors, Arc of Infinity should be a glossy event of a story… but it is rather dull. It’s also quizzically weird in plot ideas.

The TARDIS is ensnared in the Arc of Infinity where the Doctor is singled out and attacked by a unique energy called quad radiation. He is then recalled to Gallifrey where he is imprisoned for reasons he can’t understand. Tegan’s cousin Colin and his bachelor pal Robin are stumbling through Amsterdam without passports. Uh… what do these things have to do with each other??? Using the imprint taken from the Doctor’s passing through the quad radiation, Omega materializes in Amsterdam… where Robin and Colin just happen to have camped… and he kidnaps Colin. Robin freaks out and wanders around like a crazy person until he manages to talk Colin’s cousin (who just happens to be Tegan) into believing him.


This story is often cited as significant for the first appearance of Colin Baker (later to be the Sixth incarnation of the Doctor). Baker comes off as a jackbooted thug, under-playing his signature ‘bigger than life’ persona that he would be known for later. Colin Baker had desperately wanted to plat the part of the Doctor when the Fourth Doctor Tom Baker ended his run, but had to wait a few years to make his debut. Jokingly, the actor has referred to this initial casting as the man who shoots the Doctor as the ideal way to have gotten his job, by killing the competition.

The ‘murder-mystery’ style plot is knee-capped by techno jargon and the aforementioned switching in locations and laughably lucky coincidences. The reliance on the audience understanding concepts that have not been seen in almost a decade such as Gallifrey, Omega and the Matrix is also unfortunate as none of them are explained well enough to have the impact that they should have. For even the most devoted fan at the time, these things would only be knowable from Target novelizations as the home video market was in its infancy and repeats were rare.

The actions switch between mind-numbing Gallifrey (without Robert Holmes’ writing to make use of this idea by making it into a corrupt civilization, a visit to the Doctor’s home is a snooze-fest) and Amsterdam where Tegan and Robin investigate Colin’s disappearance like junior detectives. It is unclear what is going on as Omega’s scheme is interrupted by the obsession with location filming. The action picks up in the final part when the Doctor and Omega come face to face and the chase sequence that has been stretched over four installments earns its much-needed reason for being.

Peter Davison seems to be one of the few actors interested in the drama of the situation that surrounds the return of Omega, but the fact that so many characters are left mumbling plot details makes him appear over-anxious. Once again, the Doctor screams the facts that no one will listen to, is kept from solving the problem by the authority figures and swans in at the eleventh hour to save the day. This was essentially Peter Davison’s idea of how he would play the Doctor and the justification behind the all beige costume that he wore. He would hover in the background gathering details and only take action in the end.

When the Doctor is executed and secretly imprisoned into the Matrix by Omega and his secret conspirator, things get interesting but the real action picks up when the Doctor is given a free hand in stopping Omega leading to the moving confrontation with, well, himself, after Omega obtains the Doctor’s form.

The Davison era is riddled with high concept stories such as Kinda and Enlightenment and raygun-toting action such as Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks. Each has its pluses and minuses (in my opinion Frontios perfectly combines the two), but in many cases the story buckles under the weight of the concepts rather than being supported by it. Arc of Infinity is a prime example of this when many scenes fail to make an impression because I have no idea what is going on.

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Arc of Infinity is one of those stories that was written from a shopping list of demands assembled by John Nathan-Turner including Amsterdam, Gallifrey, the return of Omega and Tegan rejoining the cast. Therefore it may come as no surprise that it comes off as a comedy of errors. The TARDIS just happens to pass through a pathway straight into Omega’s domain, Tegan’s cousin just happens to be in Amsterdam and just happens to stumble into the same crypt that Omega materializes into… etc. None of it makes a lick of sense.

Interviewed for the DVD release, writer Johnny Byrne explained the meaning that he found in the setting of Amsterdam; all that power laying beneath the city fit in with the needs of Omega, for instance. Additionally the author of the Big Finish audio play Omega Nev Fountain has lots to say about the character of the ‘villain’ and his decaying sense of self in each appearance. In The Three Doctors, Omega was a power mad angry God-like being, but in Arc of Infinity he is a shattered visage, desperate for existence. In the audio play he encounters the legacy that he has left behind and is horrified to learn that he is without a home. All of this is inspired and interesting, but it fails to change the end result – a garbled mess of a story.

Even so, there is a lot to like about Arc of Infinity. Peter Davison is in great form and his double-act as Omega wearing the Doctor’s form is tragic and touching. Fans often point to the moment in which Omega watches the calliope as one of the more impressive scenes in his work on the program. The pairing of the Doctor and Nyssa works quite well and Davison often points to his interaction with Sarah Sutton as his favorite Doctor-Companion match. Yet there is so little for Nyssa to that she eventually disappears into the sub plot. Janet Fielding is once again in superb shape as Tegan and keeps the Doctor on his toes at all times, but one has to ask that after an entire year’s worth of adventures in which she demanded to be brought back home that ended with a bum’s rush out of the TARDIS, why would she be so eager to come back??

The chicken monster gets a lot of flack, but the costumes of Arc of Infinity and creature designs are actually very good. Sadly, the production value fluctuates so much that Omega has a squeaky wooden cupboard door in his TARDIS and Gallifrey looks less like a perfect civilization and more like a furniture showroom in which sofas and glass topped coffee tables are placed in every hallway… hallways that presumably lead nowhere! So much of Arc of Infinity is made up of running up and down the same hallway dressed up differently that the change in location to Amsterdam is just another place to run around in. I wager that if one removed the running scenes from Arc of Infinity, it would be a one part story in which the Doctor dies (twice), Omega goes site-seeing and is killed and Tegan squeezes through the TARDIS doors.

But… you’ve got to laugh, don’t you? Arc of Infinity was the first of a celebration of Doctor Who’s 20th year on TV. Something of a mis-step, it is nevertheless a step back to the Pertwee era when Time Lords, celestial phenomena and power-mad god-like villains were argued with reason and compassion. Of course since this was in the Eric Saward era, the bad guy got zapped in the end.

Davison, Sutton and Fielding had planned to swap out the ray gun prop used to disperse Omega with a ‘personal massage device’ but the ever demanding filming schedule prevented the prank.

Who knew Davo was so naughty?


Click to order Dr Who Peter Davison Bust


Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity on DVD

Doctor Who the Handbook: The Fifth Doctor

Doctor Who: A Celebration; Two Decades Through Time and Space

Dr. Who: The Best Of Doctor Who, Volume 1: The Five Doctors

One thought on “Doctor Who and the Arc of Infinity

  1. Ah, Arse of Infinity, I was just thinking about that (and Season 20 as a whole) a few days ago. It’s an odd story that like Byrne’s later execrable Warriors of the Deep tries to be a sequel to earlier stories and to have more depth yet fails at both objectives due to the garbled plot, ham-fisted characterisation, and a lack of understanding of what made those earlier stories *work*. What we are left with is something well-intentioned but ultimately pretentious and pretty terrible. I think it’s worth pointing out that The Three Doctors had actually been repeated as part of the Five Faces of Doctor Who prior to Season 19 (which is when I saw it) so at least some people not around in 1973 would have known who Omega was, tho’ he looks much better here in his snazzy biomechanical suit.
    An interesting thing to ponder is how influential The Deadly Assassin was, obviously Invasion of Time was a rather unsatisfactory attempt at a follow-up (and immediately muddled things up not least in terms of what the Matrix actually *was*) but the JN-T era continually referred to it and ripped it off both implicitly and explicitly between 1981 and 1986 to little good. Arc is ostensibly a Three Doctors sequel but note the story beats taken from Assassin: the Doctor facing death on Gallifrey, infiltration of the Matrix, Time Lord traitor and assassin, the Chancellery Guard as idiot bully boys, the Time Lords being rather ineffectual, the Doctor in the Matrix etc. Suspicious. That Assassin elements had turned up in Keeper of Traken and Logopolis and would *again* in The Five Doctors and Trial of a Time Lord et al suggests someone had an obsession with it. Most important is the fact that all of these follow-up imitations were so *poorly* done and, as you write, Arc is just *dull*. Not only does Byrne not really explain what the Matrix is, he doesn’t even get it right much as the other writers don’t. And why exactly does Tegan return? By the Ergon’s chicken legs is this story deeply flawed!
    P. S. Dinah Sheridan (Flavia) has died. RIP.


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