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Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Infinite Quest was originally broadcast in weekly instalments on Totally Doctor Who in 2007.

… And then I’ll have my revenge! Revenge! REVENGE!

– just in case you didn’t get that Baltazar was evil

The Infinite Quest is a 45-minute animated episode of Doctor Who that was broadcast as part of Totally Doctor Who in 2007, during the third season of the revived show. It was written by Alan Barnes, who has written a number of Big Finish audio plays for Doctor Who, and was directed by Gary Russell. The animation was produced by Cosgrave Hall, who animated the missing episodes of The Invasion for its 2006 DVD release. So there’s a fairly considerable amount of talent involved in this project, which is notable as not only the first full-length animated Doctor Who episode to be broadcast on television, but is the first fully serialised story to be told since the show was revived. It was originally broadcast in chunks of three-and-a-half minutes.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

Of course, due to that structure, the episode bombs along. It leaps straight into the action and never really stops to catch its breath. In fact, you could argue that there’s really at least three separate stories here, as the plot keeps moving quickly in order to justify the cliffhanger that ends each instalment. Things are constantly changing – the characters, the locale, the back story. One minute Martha and the Doctor are fighting oil pirates, and the next they are on some alien prison planet. It moves phenomenally fast, and Barnes and Russell deserve a great deal of credit for the fact that it all winds up making even the slightest bit of sense.

That said, The Infinite Quest is going to feel a little shallow. It moves so quickly from one plot point to the next that it’s easy to lose track – however, things shift so rapidly that it’s only a minute or two until things start making sense again. To be fair, the revived series brought with it a great sense of pace and energy – telling a story in forty-five minutes that would have taken four episodes in classic Doctor Who – but there is a limit to how fast and how zippy you can make something. There comes a point where you really have to slow down. At times, The Infinite Quest feels like Doctor Who on a sugar rush. Which is not a bad thing, even if it’s not quite filling.

The pieces come together...

The pieces come together…

Which, I suppose, is not the worst problem to have. It’s better to have too much going on, instead of too little. But there is enough material here for three episodes. Not necessarily three great episodes, but three fun pulpy run-around adventures featuring pirates, giant insects and robot prison guards. Given that Doctor Who hadn’t left Earth (or some variation) until the previous season’s The Impossible Planet, it seems a waste of such alien and exotic locales to cram them into a single rapid-moving story without enough room to develop.

As a result, the plotting falls a little flat, feeling more like a collection of short supplemental features instead of a single episode. For example, the war between humanity and a race of insects is reduced to trite cliché. Given how well The Ark in Space did a similar concept, or even how shrewd bug-in-space films like Starship Troopers had been, it seems more than a bit superficial. The bugs claim to be oppressed, then the Doctor meets a human and it turns out to be the opposite way around but don’t worry! – because the Doctor can do a pirate impression and it’s all okay!

He's animated lately...

He’s animated lately…

Similarly, the revelation about what had been going on inside the prison might have had a bit more weight if we’d had a bit more time to develop it, or a bit more character development. After all, a criminal breaking into prison is a fantastic high-concept, and it looks like it might have worked for a nice slow-boil “something is wrong here” mystery – but instead it just sort of happens. Again, I can imagine a fascinating full-length live-action episode that could have made something of this.

Still, it’s the format. The story has to be structured as a series of three-and-a-half minute adventures that form one large story. So a “quest” adventure makes sense. In fact, it’s so obvious that Martha understands what is happening as soon as a clue in four parts is mentioned. “And find all four, you find the Infinite? Are we going on a quest?” That said, it does make her mockery of the Master in The Last of the Time Lords seem a bit harsh. “A gun in four parts” can’t seem that much more ridiculous, right?



So, it’s tight and it’s compact – effectively an attempt to reduce the whole Key to Time season down to one episode. It works surprisingly well, even if it’s often through the force of sheer momentum. You could argue that the very obvious Douglas Adams influence felt here (right down to a similarly-design pirate captain) foreshadow the heavy influence of Adams on the fourth season of the show – which, of course, opened with an homage to Starship Titanic.

It seems a shame that being animated and airing as part of Totally Doctor Who means that the show loses a great deal of the Doctor’s ambiguity. Tennant’s Tenth Doctor feels positively neutered here – something that’s all the more obvious when Tennant does his angry!Doctor voice, but the show refuses to acknowledge any real ambiguity or amorality. On the other hand, The Infinite Quest does do a good job demonstrating the companion’s role as his conscience.

I don't know about the skulls, but there are some cross bones on board...

I don’t know about the skulls, but there are some cross bones on board…

It’s something Martha very rarely got to do, seen as she was established as “the companion with the unreciprocated crush.” (Something that The Infinite Quest acknowledges when it shows Martha her “heart’s desire.”) Still, Martha gets to be the voice of reason, and The Infinite Quest seems to suggest that she is the reason that the Doctor doesn’t kill Baltazar at least twice. “Doctor, you can’t leave him,” she protests at the start. “Not to the rust.”

Towards the end, when the Doctor leaves Baltazar on a collapsing wreck, Martha comments, “I know he was rotten to the core, but still…” The Doctor politely replies, “Oh, I left him a way out.” Again, so much for this version of the Doctor as the man with “no second chances.” Given that Tennant’s Doctor has allowed villains to die for far less, the fact that The Infinite Quest feels the need to demonstrate that Baltazar survived feels a little too much like pandering.

Bugging me...

Bugging me…

I’m not suggesting that he should have killed Baltazar in cold blood or anything ridiculous like that, but the Doctor has done far crueller things on the live action television show, and there’s no reason to suspect that those watching The Infinite Quest weren’t familiar with that facet of the character. Similarly, the solution to the conflict between the bugs and the humans feels a little trite and convenient. “They are also living sentient beings that have a right to exist,” the Doctor explains, “if not here, then somewhere.”

It feels a little convenient that solving the problem is so easy – it undermines all the times the show has put the Doctor in a similar position with no easy way out. From the ease with which he improvises here, it seems strange that he can’t do it more often on the live-action show. Similarly, there’s a bit where we hear the Doctor has been sentenced to time in prison. The charges involve library fines and other jokes, but also “planetary demolition.”

Birds of a feather...

Birds of a feather…

It would be nice to see some other power challenge the Doctor’s moral authority, and Davies generally does great work exposing the problems with the Doctor. Davies’ finalés typically hinge on the Doctor being arrogant, or reckless, or just plain blind. He’s not afraid to call the character out. The fact that there might be some political entity with legitimate concerns about the Doctor’s knack for destroying planets or wiping out civilisations is a fascinating hook. Unfortunately, The Infinite Quest is just being flippant.

Still, there’s some nice ideas. I like the idea of the Doctor spending three years catching up to Martha, and earning some of that back with faster-than-light travel. (It makes a nice reversal.) I also like Baltazar’s fiendishly evil plan in the opening scene, “Every living being turned into diamonds.” It’s a great way to be both evil and fiscally prudent. It’s making your villainy work for you. And the image of oil rigs wandering the planet is an effective one.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

Actually, I love the fact that The Infinite Quest embraces a wider and more colourful universe than we’ve seen on the revived show so far. The wonders of animation are a major part of the reason. It costs as much to draw an alien jungle as a suburban housing estate, but it’s cheaper to film at one. Even if we rush around far too much, I am glad to see that sort of diversity returned to the show – a glimpse of something surreal and chaotic and beautiful.

The Infinite Quest is also fairly well animated – better animated than any of the other animated Doctor Who projects attempted. However, there’s a sense that the Tenth Doctor isn’t well suited to the format. Tennant is great. In fact, The Infinite Quest hopefully demonstrates that Tennant might make a great audio Doctor at some point in the very distant future. However, there is a limit to how much motion the BBC can animate – and that is always going to be less motion than the Tenth Doctor needs.

Rigged for trouble...

Rigged for trouble…

For example, there’s a small interlude at one point when the sonic screwdriver stops working at a pivotal point. The Doctor pauses to examine it, in an awkward moment. He cleans it and blows on it. After a second, he explains, embarrassed, “Sand in the mechanism.” It falls a little flat, because it’s so easy to see that sort of sequence in live-action – to see the Tenth Doctor looking a little embarrassed as he fidgets in your mind’s eye. There’s only so much an animated version of the character can convey.

Still, The Infinite Quest isn’t all bad. It’s an efficient, fast-paced adventure – so efficient and fast-paced that it has no time or energy to be anything else. There are worse problems to have, and it proves a fascinating experiment for the increasingly successful revival. It’s a shame that this didn’t quite become an annual tradition. It’s also a shame that the BBC apparently declined to include it on the third season DVD.

Hang on in there...

Hang on in there…

Still, if you can find it on television or available cheap, it’s well worth a look as a Doctor Who curiosity.

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