What’s your idea of Hell?
Actually, no – what’s your idea of Purgatory? An endless waiting zone where nothing is done that has any real effect, where you eat and are never satisfied, move and never get anywhere, where your life is always the same, where nothing ever changes, where you’re perpetually in a holding pattern of the same handful of motions…
Imagine that, but with added Heathrow Airport. Some of course would argue that that is Heathrow Airport. Jo Jones in this story by Sharon Bidwell, simply wants to leave Heathrow Airport on a flight to Mexico City, and then, through the normal operation of physics and jet propulsion…actually get there.
Escape from Heathrow wouldn’t seem like too much to ask, but Jo is trapped on the flight that never ends, looping back to all the joy of the departure lounge, customs, boarding, take-off and then – nothing, a sequence repeating time after time after time, making her increasingly exhausted by all the worst bits of international air travel, and rewarded with none of the fun bits, none of the arrival, adventure, ‘people to meet you and crush you in hugs’ bits that really make the journey worthwhile.
The interesting thing about The Infinite Today is the way Sharon Bidwell deals with the central conceit of the story – the recursive sequence of actions, and what they mean. We’re led, with Jo, to think that there’s probably alien skulduggery afoot, because after all, who else could be making her loop perpetually through half a flight to Mexico City, only to return her to Heathrow with the same group of passengers, the same flight crew, the same plane, while only she remains conscious that they’ve done this all before. Imagine being the only sober person, getting increasingly sober and cranky, in a plane full of happy drunk people. Welcome to Hell. Or Purgatory. Or, because this is Doctor Who, welcome to somewhere else entirely.
There’s a certain Groundhog Day delight in hearing Katy Manning recite Jo’s journey time after time, with the differences in start-points, the differences in actions, the ways in which Jo seeks to break free of the loop or even ride it out all the way to the end, but there’s also a degree of terror in the idea too, which is brought firmly to the fore the more Jo tries to exercise control over her own destiny – or even her own destination. It begins to feel more and more like a trap, a conscious effort to stop Jo ever reaching her journey’s end. Who’s behind it all? Why would they want to stop her getting to Mexico? What nefarious alien plot do they want her not to foil?
And what exactly does the Doctor have to do with it all? Not her usual, silly, beak-nosed, ruffle-shirted Doctor, but the other one, the one with the unending chin and the Easter Island forehead? The Bow-Tie Man. Come to that, how is it possible that he didn’t start out on her flight, but when everything else remains exactly the same, he can make his way into the loop, to talk to her, to calm her fear of non-flying and eternal non-arrival? What’s going on with her straightforward flight, and has the Bow-Tie Man finally gone too far?
The pleasure of Sharon Bidwell’s story is that it forces you round the loop along with Jo, while adding to the information that both Jo and you have in a series of breadcrumb-bites. That means you feel most intimately like you’re on the journey with Jo, rather than having a story about a journey read to you by Jo. That in turn makes for a more immersive feel than many a Short Trip, and there’s of course no better companion with whom to travel than Katy Manning, who here delivers Jo Jones with all the breadth of human emotion that that older version of the character has – irritation, exhaustion, confusion certainly, but always, at the base of it all, and probably after a good rummage through the impossible handbag of her soul, an utter conviction, a faith in both the nature of what the Doctor tells her, and her own ability to do what he needs her to do – even if that latter faith is only really rooted in the fact that he needs her to do things. She’s in it for the (ahem) long haul, is Jo Jones, and for all her youthful klutziness, she’s determined never to be found wanting if the Doctor needs her.
Here, he’s interfering, absolutely, and he needs her to stay on the loop until he tells her otherwise. There absolutely is alien skulduggery at work in this story – but it’s worth remembering that the Doctor, too, is an alien, who probably got top marks in skulduggery at school. Ask the Axons who he trapped, seemingly forever, in a handful of the very same heartbeats that time. The point is, nothing’s quite what it seems to be, and there are wheels within the wheels of Jo’s never-ending journey from Heathrow to Heathrow. By the end of it, you might well have moist eyes. You’ll certainly have a new and slightly morbid perspective on the burden of a time traveller, the knowledge they choose to have or not have, and what the having of it means in term of the web of time and observed fixed points in time. You’ll already have this fresh in your mind if you’ve seen Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror or The Haunting of Villa Diodati – the impact of one known, important life on the time stream, be it Tesla, or Shelley, or Josephine Jones – and The Infinite Today will give you a fresh-feeling take on those questions, from a slightly more sentimental Eleventh Doctor perspective.
A slightly more sentimental Eleventh Doctor perspective? Priceless on any day. A journey round and round in something-entirely-other-than circles with Jo Jones? Irresistible, always.
Please make sure your tray tables are stowed and your seatbacks are in the upright position. It’s time to take a journey – perhaps the journey of a lifetime – with Jo Jones one more time. Maybe you’ll never get to Mexico, but by the end of this story, you’ll recognise that the journey was the important thing all along. Tony Fyler