Season 20 of Doctor Who was intended to commemorate 20 years of the show – culminating in the anniversary special The Five Doctors. As part of the commemoration, the showrunners determined that each episode of the season would feature a returning villain from the show’s history – although they rather neatly circumvented the spirit of this by making the Black Guardian the notional villain for three of the six serials! For the opening serial the showrunners returned to the story and villain used ten years previously in The Three Doctors by resurrecting the character of Omega.
This story is noteworthy on several fronts – not least that the man soon to be appointed the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, appears as Commander Maxil of the Chancellery Guard, and gains notoriety by shooting the Doctor at the end of episode one (as it transpires, only stunning him). It did give way to a raft of humour that Baker got the role of Doctor by shooting the incumbent, but Baker does a perfectly believable job of playing an over zealous officer of the law – it was due to appearing on this serial that he eventually ended up invited to a party, ended up cracking endless jokes, and persuading showrunner John Nathan Turner that he should be the next Doctor. As many wise heads observed, it was perhaps not the most astute decision to base a major character casting on such limited criteria …
It is also noteworthy as the first of JNT’s overseas experiments. The gateway on Earth for the Arc is in Amsterdam, for no major plot reason other than to give the producers the excuse to do location shooting there. The aim was probably to live up to the excellent Parisian scenes of City of Death, and in fairness it works moderately well here, in contrast to later efforts in Planet of Fire and The Two Doctors (Lanzarotte and Spain respectively) – goodness knows what would have happened if JNT succeeded in producing the originally intended Season 23 and had filmed Yellow Fever and How to Cure It in Singapore.
And then there is the plot twist that Tegan was supposed to have left the TARDIS crew at the end of preceding serial Time-Flight (despite her three season contract) – but this was nothing more than a clever ruse to bring her back midway through this serial. As Tegan doesn’t reappear until Episode Three, the first two episodes give an excellent glimpse of what life might have been like if Nyssa had been the only companion in Season 19 – and I must admit I think it would have been more enjoyable than the overcrowded TARDIS (and to judge by Davison’s reaction to Tegan rejoining them, I think he shares the opinion!) Sarah Sutton is also thankfully rid of her traditional Traken costume and the more conventional outfit makes the story feel more like Doctor Who as usual.
And then we turn to the story itself. Omega is not dead (much like the way the Daleks, Cybermen, Master and Loch Ness Monster are never conclusively killed off) but trapped in a facet of the anti-matter universe. By connecting with the biological data of a Timelord (the Doctor) Omega plans to rejoin the matter universe – aided and abetted by a traitorous member of the High-Council. As you would expect, there is the usual twist of misdirections, characters who seem unpleasant but act with best intentions (and vice versa) and all the fun of Timelord politics. While Omega does escape into this universe, the Doctor tracks him to Amsterdam and uses a matter dispersal gun to banish him back into the anti-matter universe.
So … it’s not bad! It’s a clever plot, and if you ignore the utter superfluity of several plot aspects and characters it is an enjoyable storyline. I guess that is rather the point though – where this stories suffers is the degree to which you have to suspend disbelief, and at times have to work out exactly whom is doing what, and for what purpose. But in contrast to Time-Flight, the serial accompanying this story in the DVD boxset, Arc of Infinity is much more coherent and enjoyable – and in contrast to my attempted enjoyment watching the serial as a child on VHS, I found the DVD much easier to follow!