Eye of the Giant
Face of the Enemy
|Dates||May 9, 1970 -
Jun. 20, 1970
With Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John, John Levene.
Written by Don Houghton. Script-editted by Terrance Dicks.
Directed by Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts).
Produced by Barry Letts.
|Synopsis: Attempting to repair the TARDIS, the Doctor slips sideways in time and witnesses the global catastrophe that he was fighting to prevent.|
A Review by Michael Hickerson 30/1/03
One of the common criticisms lobbed at the Pertwee years is that most of the stories over four episodes are padded in order to make them longer than they need to be. So, it's interesting to see that in the first season of the third Doctor's tenure, we have three of the longest stories of his era -- seven episode each. And of the three seven part stories, two of them are extremely strong and popular among the fans. The first is Doctor Who and the Silurians and the other is Inferno.
Make no mistake though -- Inferno is a story with a lot of padding. It's got four episodes of it as a matter of fact. But what sets Inferno apart from other stories that have padding is what is done with the padding.
The subtle brilliance of Inferno is that it sets up a situation which could result in the destruction of the world as we know it. It puts the ball in motion, creating a situation and a series of events in the first two episdoes that could, quite possibly, spiral out of control. The story then takes a side-step for four episodes and shows us the possible consequences of the actions set in motion in the first two parts. The Doctor slips sideways in time and finds a universe that is eerily parallel to our own. And in doing this, we get to see the end of the events played out on screen in the first two episodes -- we literally get to see the destruction of the world as we know it. Yes, it's a parallel universe, but it's still one that has followed a similiar course of events to the one we've just seen. Because of this, the final episode has a sense of urgency and drama to it -- we know the Doctor must stop the drilling project in time or else the world will literally go to hell in a handbasket.
It's padding. But it's damn good padding. And it certainly enhances the story on a lot of levels rather than feeling like we're running down the umpteenth corridor in the story.
One of the reasons that four episodes of padding work so well is that we actually come to care about the characters in the alternate universe. There is just enough of the characters we know and love -- the Brigadier, Liz Shaw and even Benton -- there to make us feel some bit of sympathy for them when they perish as the story goes along. Also, we get a supporting cast that works well in both universes. I actually like Greg in both universes and Petra comes across very well also. Professor Stahlman certainly works well, though it's interesting to see that he makes the same mistakes in both universes -- thus leading to the destruction of one world and the near destruction of another.
The link holding all this together is the Doctor. And Pertwee is at his most masterful as Doctor here. There are some light moments in here -- the Doctor attemping to make light of his capture and being locked up, his barbs with Stahlman, etc. But the real show comes as Pertwee shows the Doctor as being confused by what has happened and then slowly becoming more and more self assured as he reaches a possible solution. I like this third Doctor -- one who seemed more like a character with faults and foibles. It works very well and it's a great testament to Pertwee that he can carry off having the Doctor be self-assured on the surface but all the while horrified by what he's seeing (we get confirmation of this two stories later in Mind of Evil).
All in all, Inferno is just one of those stories where everything comes together and works very well. Certainly, it's easy to see why it's fondly remembered as one of the great Pertwee stories. And I think it also shows that you can do good things with long stories -- you just have to know a way to use the extra time to enhance the story you're telling rather than just spending that time wandering around in circles.
All that said, I don't think Inferno is the perfect Pertwee story. It does have some flaws. Episodes six and seven drag a bit -- Petra's repairing the nuclear power controls and the Doctor's coma being two of the bigger glaring things. Also, I just can't buy Benton as a hard-nosed soldier in the alternate universe. John Levene tries hard to sell it, but I always find myself reminded of the scene with Sarah Jane Smith in Robot and how warm Benton was. Levene is good but he just can't carry off menacing as well as you'd like. (Or at least not as compared to Nicholas Courtney who relishes the Brigade Leader).
But these are minor points in what is, quite frankly, essential Pertwee. Inferno is seven episodes of pure viewing pleasure -- even if it does drag a bit at the end.
A Review by Will Berridge 26/2/03
Fact 1: This story is, in my own oh-so subjective view, the best story of the Pertwee era by a distance. Fact 2: I don’t like the Pertwee Era very much. It’s full of bland incidental characters (the entire guest casts of Planet of the Daleks and Frontier in Space do spring to mind), especially caricatured civil servants (Brownrose, Chinn, Walker…), and tedious moralising (The Mutants and Colony in Space are particular offenders). Then there’s annoying CSO (just about every story), appalling monster design (they should have given up on Dinosaurs after The Silurians…), and generic plotlines (yes, I do have it in for Planet of the Daleks). There’s also one truly awful companion for the middle three seasons (Yes, this judgement is entirely based on Jo Grant’s scream. And most of her scenes with King Peladon in the Curse of Peladon) and inventive dialogue didn’t really appear till the Tom Baker era in any great abundance. When I want to compare something favourably, I generally refer to a Pertwee era story.
Phew. For someone who abhors ranting, I took great pleasure in doing that.
Fortunately, Inferno doesn’t suffer from any of these afflictions, with the obvious exception of the odd bit of CSO here and there. And the anti-CSO part of my tirade was completely spurious and put there to make the list more impressive anyway - I never used to notice when I was little (for little, read about 13 or less).
Starting on a minor point, this story is unique in the Dr Who canon as being the only story in which a civil servant is favourably portrayed. In that Sir Keith Gold isn’t completely pompous and self interested, even in the facist universe (assuming his death in this parallel world was brought about for similar reasons to his near death in the real one). Unfortunately, Stahlman still takes the mickey out of him with all his canteen remarks, and he seems to have all the potential of getting things done of your average civil servant (‘Unless I can have conclusive proof of an emergency situation…’). Of the rest of the guest cast (which isn’t too large, considering there are two versions of almost everyone), only Petra Williams is a bit bland, and even she has the odd good moment, standing up to the Brigade leader. Stahlman (German for ‘Stalin’) comes across well as cantankerous old git and is also perfectly adequate as a Bond villain with an extra ‘n’ on his name (why does this happen? Why? Why?) in the nasty universe. The cantankerous git version provides much opportunity for verbal sparring with Johnny P. Sutton does have the odd fast-forwardable moment with Petra (‘perhaps I could…borrow you for a while?’) but redeems himself by losing his temper with fascism in the ‘other’ world. The ‘toy soldiers’ moment, with the silly mockery of their salute, is great.
It’s been suggested by many reviewers, and is probably true that, this story could have functioned perfectly adequately as a four parter minus focusing only on one dimension. Hopefully they didn’t mean to imply it should have been, as this would just be economy for its own sake, and deprive us of what is not a four-episode piece of padding, but a marvellous story in its own rights. And the great thing about an alternative version of the earth is that you can do whatever you want with it - including blowing it to bits! After all those years of imminent worldwide devastation being inexplicably averted by a mildly philanthropic space traveller in a blue box, it finally happens! Well sort of. But the characters of Greg, Petra and to some extent Liz are still as sympathetic as their equivalents in our dimension to show there is some good in a world about to disappear in a holocaust, and there’s some terribly good footage of eruptions, lava flowing and so on. Eps 3-6 are also a stunning indictment on the character of the Brigadier. It’s clearly implied that the characters of the parallel universe are the same individuals in different circumstances (for instance, the fascist Liz studied science like our Liz but went into the army because it’s the done thing for up and coming individuals in a fascist regime). This is quite worrying for the Brig, as even when it’s clear the world about to erupt in an all-consuming conflagration, his alter ego doesn’t display a single redeeming feature. Instead he keeps on bullying people, shouting orders, and even descends into a sickening chasm of despair and self pity which shows how much of a paper tiger he really is (this is particularly noticeable in his delivery of the line ‘we’ll all be…roasted alive’). This last trait would probably makes him the most believable villain of the Pertwee era, if it wasn’t the fact we know there couldn’t possibly be much of a link between him and the pompous but thoroughly harmless buffoon that it our real Brigadier. They do both use the line ‘I don’t like your tone’ on Liz Shaw, however, which shows how much they both like being in authority. He’s also stunningly acted, Nick Courtney effortlessly transforming his character into a vicious Nazi with some very fitting dialogue (‘but I don’t exist in your world!’ ‘then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you!’). Benton is similarly unrecognisable from his usual curmudgeonly self, saying ‘stop asking stupid questions’ and ‘your problem is you talk too much’ in that way you know you want to hate him.
Many people seem to think this story’s main detracting feature is the ‘Primords’ and I’m not to sure why. They weren’t too difficult to realise, with lots of hair and green facepaint, though there are a couple of annoying shots of Stahlman’s mutated corpse in the last episode where his unpainted neck is visible. The actors give them a great deal of life, moreover, with suitably feral growls and movements. It’s arguable that they’re superfluous to the plot but episodes 5 and 6 especially are made all the more tense for the fear or a monstrous hand punching its way through a window. It’s such a pity only Stahlman gets transformed in the (sadly anticlimactic, but saying a few interesting things about free will) last episode. In his solo effort to tear everybody in the central control apart, he goes out with more of a whimper than a bang, breaking one chair before getting fire extinguisher-ed.
What else? There isn’t a single bad cliffhanger, and the endings to episodes 5 and notably 4 are superb. I’ve no idea where the green slime could have come from, and one oblique reference to Krakatoa doesn’t help that much, but seeing as science is something I’ve always found confusing when something that blatantly and inexplicably contradicts it comes along I’m not to perturbed.
If you want to watch any one story to delude yourself the Pertwee Era wasn’t ‘retro’ after all, this is it. 9/10.
Is Inferno a classic? by Ross Scott 26/11/03
It is quite pointless to go on about the strengths of Inferno as other reviews here have adequately done this. So I have decided to address some of the story's flaws. In a review that has been submitted by another person on this story, they claim that if you think that this story is rubbish than you must be a fool. In my opinion this is a foolish comment in itself as the story contains so many flaws that it is quite reasonable for an intelligent person to come to the conclusion that this story is rubbish. In fact, it is arguable that any person who believes that Inferno has a good plot obviously would not know a good plot if they fell over one.
In Inferno, the viewer is led to believe that once a person comes into contact with the green slime they will be transformed into a primord and this process appears to occur at quite a rapid rate. This is interesting because when Stahlman becomes infected from touching the green slime in the heat resistant container his transformation into a primord appears to occur at a rate that is totally inconsistent with the other people that become infected. Stahlman's transformation is unusually slow and appears to take place in a different way for example all the others who become infected appear to go into some kind of trance and they never appear to regain consciousness but not Stahlman he appears to go into trance and than be able to come out of it. The reason for this is that the writer wants the character to stay around for as long as possible even if in the process it contradicts other parts of the story. If Stahlman's transformation into a primord had been consistent with the others that had been infected than he would have been removed from his position as the head of project Inferno much sooner and thus the story would not have been able to last for the duration of seven episodes. It is also interesting to note that a primord appears to have the ability to live even after its vital organs have been punctured by bullets because of the heat generated in its body. From a scientific perspective, how heat could possibly have this effect is anyone's guess and of course this story does not provide a reasonable explanation for it. It is also interesting to point out that Stahlman also has the ability to speak when he is a primord which is something that no other primord can do. The reason why he is able to do this is because the writer could not think of another way to get Petra to open the heat shield so that all the primords could then run around the place wreaking havoc.. So much for consistency but this has never been a quality that this story possesses.
I cannot also understand how come Petra runs back to tell everyone that she cannot repair the reactor only to then decide that she will go back and try to repair it again. Surely a person who is that dumb could not repair a reactor. Another interesting flaw in Inferno is why Sutton's equivalent in the parallel universe is pretty much the same as in the normal universe. None of the other main characters show such similarities so why does Sutton? Also if the green slime is suppose to be so hot that it breaks the glass of a heat resistant container than why when Slocum touches the slime does he not scream out in pain. Surely something that is generating that amount of heat would burn his hand terribly.
I could go on about the flaws in this story for about another 2000 words but by that time I would only be tired and you would be bored so I will not bother. So in my opinion, Inferno is certainly no classic. Overall, I would give Inferno 5/10. It can be enjoyable so long as you do not think about the plot.
Gosh golly wow! by Joe Ford 6/1/04
I guess I am biased because Inferno contains one moment that when I first saw made me shit my pants with fear, the one scene in the whole of the Doctor Who canon that terrified me like no other. I was absolutely gripped the first time I saw this at the tender age of sixteen and my Mum loved it too. We sat up and watched the first four episodes one evening and saved the last three for the next day. It was so shocking to my na├»ve eyes to see the world in such n irreparable state, a haunting metaphor for what we could allow it to become in some of our more recent conflicts, and I sat transfixed, thinking it was truly hopeless that the Doctor would escape. But then nasty characters like Section Leader Shaw and Petra start to help the Doctor, they want him to get away so he can stop this nightmare from ever happening. My heart warms to these people who are selflessly throwing away the last few hours of their life to help a man they have only just met. I like them. And in the astonishing climax to episode six they are all confronted with a bloody great mountain of lava, rolling down towards them to claim them all...
I turned the TV off. I was dumbfounded. So was my Mum. The Doctor had not saved the day; all those nice people had died horribly. It was a real eye opener for me to realise that not everybody can be saved and in this case, nobody.
And that is part of Inferno's greatest appeal; it allows Doctor Who to play about with the unexpected. Compared to the running around of the Troughton era to suddenly have this deeply serious, viciously atmospheric seven-part epic is a shock to the system. This isn't easy watching folks; it deals with some horribly sadistic characters and puts Jon Pertwee's frilly dandy through hell.
Shock moments abound, the Doctor, spun into some black vortex of hell, is spat out into what he thinks is his laboratory. But somebody has been messing around with his equipment, facist posters are plastered to the walls and UNIT soldiers are opening fire on him en masse! Suddenly he is confronted with Liz (with a HUGE wig!) pointing a gun at him, the Brigadier (complete with scar and eye patch) interrogating him and Benton abusing him. Uncomfortable viewing indeed, especially when compared with the fluffier Pertwee/UNIT stuff later. Another terrific surprise comes at the end of episode four when Penetration Zero is reached; an almighty earthquake reveals the impossible... the Doctor has not succeeded in stopping the disaster. And capping off the story with the aforementioned twist that all the alternative dimension characters are slaughtered most memorably and you have one of the best (and undeniably cruel) shock Pertwee stories.
And the performances are positively sublime, all the actors trying to make the story as uncomfortable as possible. Jon Pertwee gives his best ever performance in Inferno, a story that exploits his new regeneration in a way that the producers could not when he became more established (and in control). It is a story that sees the Doctor beaten, abused, threatened, forced on the run and disbelieved. Pertwee has to do some real acting for a change, trying desperately to convince the idiots that surround him the danger they are in. His "Listen to that! That's the sound of this planet screaming out its rage!" is such a powerful moment, he finally snaps after his disgraceful mis-treatment. And it is to Pertwee's credit that he manages to convince as the beaten down Doctor without ever losing his dignity or the viewers respect. He is still eccentric and gentlemanly despite all the rifle butts being shoved in his face.
But nothing could hold a candle to Nicholas Courtney's Brigade Leader. What a piece of work! He must have had such a ball playing the mirror image of the Brigadier; this cowardly, sadistic facist provides the story with its best moments. His initial interrogation scenes with the Doctor are a joy because of the Brigade Leaders serious lack of humour. Later when the world is on the brink of shrivelling up in one great river of molten lava we see the cracks appear in his armour and the spineless and desperate to escape Brigade Leader emerges. His scenes with Liz as she taunts his attempts to escape are deeply uncomfortable to watch, he is such a pathetic character you can't help but feel sorry for him. Plus he gets all the best lines... "What happened to the royal family?" "Executed! All of them!", "But don't you see I don't exist in your world!" "Then you won't feel the bullets when we shoot you!" Great stuff.
The burgeoning relationship between Greg Sutton and Petra Williams is another thing the story gets so right. This was a time in the show's history where they could afford to make a seven-part story and concentrate on character growth for the non-regulars. Season seven is quite unique in this sense; it takes a lot of time in fleshing out its characters and thus giving its stories a realistic flavour. And here, in the heart of all this chaos we see two people who cling to each other for comfort. Their initial dislike of each other is cute but it is after Penetration Zero, when the base is besieged by Primords and rocked by explosions that we see how much they really care for each other. One scene in episode five, when Petra realises that they have been left to die in the inferno and Greg holds her intimately and tells her it is better for them to face the truth, is astonishing in its maturity. And of course it also helps that Derek Newark and Sheila Dunn give highly engaging, believable performances.
I love the look of the story, so harsh and unpleasant on the eye. The exterior shots seemed to have been filmed in the bleakest looking part of Britain they could find with lots of industrial buildings providing plenty of rooftops and iron stairways to rush about and play with. The exteriors compliment this look offering lots of unflattering bleached colours, huge empty sets, lots of smoke and noise all contributing to the sense of anarchy and disruption. It may well be one of the ugliest looking Doctor Who stories of all time but unlike, say, The Sea Devils it matches the nasty scripts and helps to create an extremely disconcerting few hours of telly.
Who directed this story? Douglas Camfield? Barry Letts? Zippy from Rainbow? Given these possible options and the sheer quality of the end result I have to say Camfield, the only man who could possibly create something this realistically tense. He handles the alternative universe scene with a brutal touch, never shirking away from the horrible possibilities on offer. I love all the running about on location because it is all filmed with such style and concentration, lots of genuinely scary fight scenes between the Doctor and slavering primeval beasts, made all the more frightening because they are shot miles high on rooftops. The sequence with the Doctor first pursued by the UNIT fascists is unbearably exciting and fast paced. And all the exterior scenes are tightly shot, making the large sets as cramped and uncomfortable as possible. I just love the scenes with the Doctor and co rushing from room to room frightening away the Primords with his fire extinguisher... you feel as though the characters really are in an impossible situation.
My mate Rob Matthews said to me lately he didn't feel the Pertwee stories had much momentum and I had to agree with him, stories such as The Sea Devils and Colony in Space moved so ponderously (read: incredibly dull). But Inferno is the exception to the rule (because there is always ONE), a story that rushes past with an incredible pace and excitement, the tension mounting and mounting until BOOM, the story explodes in episode five and things go from bad to worse before BLAST everyone is wiped out! You can't ask for a more powerful (and satisfying) ending than that! But wait, there is still an episode to go and this is the only place where Inferno fails, after the climatic events of episode six anything that came after would feel like a let down. Watching that episode in isolation it is still thoughtfully written and superbly acted but it unfortunately follows on from that speechlessly brilliant end to the alternative universe sequence.
Doctor Who claimed to be terribly frightening in its early years but lets be honest by today's standards it only reached such aspirations on rare occasions. Inferno was one of those occasions, a story that refused to compromise its scary bits or tone them down. It produced a society on the brink of collapse and took the brave option and made us watch it fall. It is powerful, engaging viewing, treating its characters with respect and offering the viewer a great deal of excitement.
And as a portent of nuclear disaster it is absolutely terrifying.
A class act.
A Review by Brian May 15/4/04
"If this place goes up, we'll all go up with it!"This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it's all about!
-- Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart, episode 3
Inferno is a wonderful reminder of just how great Doctor Who can be. If ever you're disillusioned with any facet of the show, may I recommend these seven episodes to restore your faith in the greatest television series of all time. A typical Earth in danger story - a staple of the third Doctor's exile years - is transformed into something special. A combination of excellent writing, direction, acting and high production values helps to make Inferno a very human, heart wrenching, tragic, horrific and breathtaking tale.
At seven episodes you'd think this would be excessively padded. Well, it isn't. Parts one and two are perhaps the slowest, but only due to the necessity of building up the story - however they never drag. Episode three features an eight minute chase as the Doctor is hounded by the RSF troops - but whereas such a scene would normally lead to fanboy cries of "Pertwee indulgence!", this grips from the beginning and doesn't let go. The rest of this episode, and the following one, are laden with a disturbing, oppressive atmosphere, as the Doctor is trapped in a ghastly parody of the planet he loves, with close friends subverted in an Orwellian nightmare. Episodes five and six fly past, the heart pumping tension becoming unbearable as the Doctor races against time in this now doomed world, in an attempt to try and at least save one version of the Earth. Episode seven is quieter - after what just came before, it's a relief - but the underlying tension is there, for we know the Doctor still has to prevent the inevitable catastrophe while the authorities block him and UNIT soldiers lead him away.
Phew! It's a real adrenalin rush, which only lets up at the very end.
Jon Pertwee is on top form as the Doctor, now the definitive exile, desperate to escape. He displays signs of selfishness and arrogance, although he's not as obnoxious as in later stories (especially season 8). I love his jibes at Stahlman who, frankly, deserves them! However his voice-over as the radio announcer in episode 5 is rather silly and was rightly left out of the original televised version - it should have remained that way for the video release. Nicholas Courtney puts in what is perhaps his best performance; his alternate role, the Brigade Leader, is a ruthless, calculating and frightening figure. However he's also magnificent as the good old Brigadier. One of my favourite moments with him is in episode six, when he "motivates" to Benton to bring in Professor Stahlman - his bellowed "A CHANCE TO USE YOUR INITIATIVE, SERGEANT!" is one of his finest moments, as is the brief smile he allows himself after his subordinate scurries out. Caroline John and John Levene are both excellent, especially so in their parallel roles - it's good to see Benton not so criminally underused as he normally is. The other performances are also of a high standard - with the possible exception of Sheila Dunn as Petra. She's a bit stilted but, oddly enough, is very good as her Dr Williams persona. Even smaller roles such as sentries are well portrayed.
Douglas Camfield, one of the show's best directors, doesn't disappoint here (and the transition to Barry Letts at the helm after Camfield fell ill is unnoticeable). There are terrific camera angles and editing - the gloomy location footage in the grounds of a refinery; the dizzying jump-cutting of shots during Stahlman's fits of disorientation; the reddish tint to the air in part six; and the apocalyptic scenes at the end of this episode, with images of ragged survivors I've only seen convincingly replicated in the excellent US telemovie The Day After, made 13 years after this. The modelwork is also extremely good - the exteriors of the complex as the explosions and fireballs rage at the beginning of episode five are not just impressive, they're spectacular. There's also exceptional stunt-work by Havoc.
The special sounds are, in my opinion, the piece de resistance in creating the mood of the story. The constant eerie noises and hums are appropriately primal and never fail to be unsettling and foreboding. The only use of music is in the chase in episode three, which is largely experimental (and from stock, I believe). The previous story, The Ambassadors of Death, is served by its wonderful score. Equally and oppositely, this adventure's atmosphere is realised to its fullest by the lack of music, and these special sounds instead.
There's also great dialogue, with gems like "Do you want to end your lives fighting like animals?"; "Free will is not an illusion after all!" and the great exchange between the Doctor and the Brigade Leader:
DOCTOR: "But I don't exist in your world!"There are countless others. Don Houghton's script sparkles with ingenuity. There are small touches, such as the repetition of conversations, with subtle variations, in the respective universes. For example, the Brigadier/Brigade Leader when he questions Stahlman(n) after the Doctor's accusations, and several moments between Greg Sutton and Petra. The Primords are a late addition, not in Houghton's original script, but they actually play an important part in the narrative, although Benton's transformation into one is marred by some ridiculous shots that should have been omitted.
BRIGADE LEADER: "Then you won't feel the bullets when we shoot you!"
The story is uncompromising and unrelenting. The parallel universe is an unoriginal concept in science fiction but the gloomy, 1984-like atmosphere adds to the unfolding drama. It's only after the penetration of the Earth's crust in episode five that the proper use of this locale is justified. The Doctor, the passionate defender of the Earth, realises that he cannot save his favourite planet. It may be a in a sideways dimension, parallel to the one he's familiar with, but - when all is said and done - it is the planet Earth. By episode six the characters - Section Leader Elisabeth Shaw, Petra and Greg in particular - have become more than endearing. In the first two episodes, Petra and Greg don't come under much scrutiny; it's while watching their alternate selves here that they are fleshed out. The knowledge that they will die, and the final, awful, moments of episode six when this is realised - are heartbreaking. It becomes a bittersweet experience in episode seven, when we return to normal, and see their "original" selves still alive, that the imperative to prevent the disaster is absolute. Their "happy ending" (leaving together) is joyous, but we still know that somewhere, in another reality, they have perished.
Inferno is a disaster movie by any other name - although it preceded the popular onslaught of this genre, with films like The Towering Inferno and Airport 1975, both of which were released in 1974, and The China Syndrome (which uncannily resembles this story) in 1979. There are also some outright attempts at horror - Slocum's attack on the technician in episode one; Stahlmann forcing the unconscious technician's face into the green goo, and - the scene that really gripped me - in episode four, when the Primord is about to attack the Doctor in his cell - just watch the creature's face as he slowly bends the bars. Brrrrrrr!!!!!
Inferno is excellent. It's an emotional, visceral, tragic (at times tear-jerking) and heart racing seven episodes. It's wonderful, beautiful, and is perhaps as good as Doctor Who gets. 10/10
Doctor Who does Sliding Doors by Thomas Cookson 23/2/06
I said recently in my Revenge of the Cybermen review that the plots of a lot of Doctor Who stories worked to a simple formula with a heavy pulp influence. But there were also episodes that broke the mould and experimented with more challenging ideas and narratives. Season 7 is considered to be perhaps Doctor Who's most challenging season, and Inferno is certainly a worthy conclusion of that season.
It seems whenever I get into reviewing an old series episode I keep using the new series as a reference point and a basis for comparison, mainly because the new series has entered the public consciousness far more vividly than the old series ever did. So what this episode gives us is some of the same sense of creeping horror and harrowing images that the new series has.
First of all, we have the Primords which we encounter at dotted points throughout the serial: savage, hairy Neanderthals who only a few moments ago were familiar characters chirping jokes and whistles and exchanging insults in such a human way but have transformed before our eyes. At first the encounters are brief, but they appear and attack again with increasing frequency as the story goes on. People may point to George A. Romero's zombies as inspiration, but these Primords can't even be stopped by bullets, and they don't even need to take a bite of someone, they just have to touch you to cause you to transform into one of them. In many ways they're just like the Empty Child from the new series - relentless and unreasoning and deadly to the touch, representing the fear of physical contact, with the added advantage of being savage and fast. The green slime too adds to the menace since no-one believes it is dangerous and foolishly touch it, and in doing so guaranteeing their infection; especially the arrogant and irritable Professor Stahlman who unwisely takes the Doctor's warnings as a dare.
But the Primords are really only the icing on the cake of the story. Indeed they are simply there to foul up the Doctor's attempts to save the planet which were futile all along anyway. From the moment the first-appearing Primord, who was once a cheerful soul called Harry Slocum, makes its first kill, the story has moved into far darker and bleaker territory than usual. The violence alone is more shocking and hard-hittingly brutal than usual as the Primord attacks the man with a hammer, and even though the camera pulls away, the suggested violence alone is gory enough. And after hearing the news of the unexplained death, the Doctor remarks grimly that "It's a nasty business - a murder without a motive!" and it is not like him to draw such a hopeless conclusion; usually the Doctor is quick to look for a motive for this kind of thing, with the belief that since we all possess a reasoning intelligence, then surely everyone has their reasons for committing violence and that people should always try to understand those motives. Instead he writes the murder off as something far too random, senseless and horrifying to even bear thinking about.
The Doctor begins in the common world of stiff upper lip work and bureaucracy which he has never been a fan of, and especially when the head of the drilling operations is an irritable git like Professor Stahlman. The Doctor's primary concern is getting his TARDIS to work, but he grows concerned at the computer warnings to cease the drilling immediately, predicting a disaster if the drilling continues. He is alarmed at Stahlman's relentless refusal to heed the warnings, because the professor is simply determined to complete the drilling and make himself famous. And soon the assertive and antagonistic bickering between the two men goes beyond a simple disagreement in politics to something more violent and volatile. And it's enough for the Doctor to turn his back and get to his TARDIS and hope it takes him away from this immaturity.
The character of Stahlman on a superficial level is the easily detestable bossy man in a suit: a character type that often obligatorily featured in the series, particularly during the Pertwee era. The kind of authority character that so many of the kids could enjoy seeing their most hated teachers and disapproving step-fathers in. But here he also portrays the ruthlessness of capitalism: the relentlessness and competitive machine, determined to succeed at all costs. When I first saw this episode at 17 years old, I had grown out of the adolescent understanding of politics, the teenage notion of being belligerent and needing to demonise and rebel against the government. My new understanding of politics at 17 made society seem like a safer place, with its layout of democracy, complexity and structure, security and institutions that were beneficial to the common people, and it didn't seem from that view that we could ever really be dragged to hell by any megalomaniacs or fringe mentalities. But this episode understood all that sociology and politics and still presented the possibility that one man in high power could take the initiative against the rules and that all the ministry that is meant to prevent him from doing so would be too busy with its own bureaucracy, sending and returning chain mail while he does what he likes and blows us all to kingdom come.
I was rather na´ve back then - so much so that I always found the reflection of politics in episodes of South Park to be a wild comical exaggeration of fringe politics, whereas nowadays I realise just how dead on target a lot of those episodes were in regards to the real political world. In my city of Preston they actually have banned Christmas events that celebrate Christianity because of fears of offending other faiths. On a grander topic I remember in the months of 2002 when all the talk of going to war with Iraq surfaced. The war in Iraq would be a year away but I could tell it was going to be inevitable even though there was no proof of the weapons of mass destruction, and a huge amount of the British population were against the advent of war, but the determined belligerence of our leaders made all of that immaterial - they were going to go to war and there was nothing we could do about it - democracy and power to the people didn't mean jack. And I remember wondering about why democracy and common sense hadn't done anything to prevent this and I became worried about the future consequences of the war and then once the war happened I just had to emotionally switch off to it because there was so much to it and there was nothing I could do about it anyway.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that democracy sucks, but at the moment it's the best system we've got going. The Doctor, on the other hand, has now found that his TARDIS has transported him to a parallel universe where fascism is preferred over democracy in Britain: "Unity is Strength", or so say the propaganda posters here. And this parallel universe is the source of much ominous and stark atmosphere, with brilliant doom-laden music added to the mix subtlely, as the Doctor is wandering in the deserted and alien location: he's still at the drillworks and yet it's not the same place he left. And even when he comes across other people he's immediately in danger as trigger happy soldiers are gunning for him before he has a chance to talk and the action spectacle begins. An action spectacle in which the Doctor's garishly yellow car he calls "Bessie" has never looked cooler as it drives at top speed, crashing through barriers and dodging bullets whilst the Doctor fights off soldiers and back seat drivers with his Aikido karate.
When the Doctor encounters his old friends, Lethbridge-Stewart and Liz Shaw, they are both completely different people; no longer a benevolent scientist, Liz Shaw is now a soldier, quick to draw her gun and in full Gestapo uniform (hmm, very kinky), whilst Lethbridge-Stewart is a crazed and sadistic tyrannical ruler of his own little corner, who sports an eyepatch which emphasises the malignant glare of his working eye. In this universe they've both lived completely different lives and become indoctrinated into serving and enforcing this fascist regime. At first it feels like a bit of a novelty episode, but as the four episodes set in, this parallel world goes on with such longevity and with such straight performances and ultimately no escape in sight and we realise that the familiar and safe that characterised these surroundings and their characters has well and truly been subverted and twisted into a solid and threatening form. The alternative Liz Shaw eventually comes round to the Doctor's side, but the Brigade Leader is vicious and rigidly determined to hold onto his power right till the very end. And it is frighteningly believeable that this cruel man is what the Brigadier we all knew and loved could have become, particularly at this point in the show where the Brigadier was still a rather edgy and shady character, and had not yet become softened by the years. He was one of the red herrings in The Web of Fear, but more importantly during Season 7 he had wiped out the Silurian race against the Doctor's wishes for a peaceful settlement, and therefore his alternative brutish character was very potential indeed, as a man who would obey orders and uphold the system, no matter how ruthless.
One thing that makes this story particularly distinctive amidst other Jon Pertwee stories is that it feels dangerous. It hasn't yet become the safe coziness of the UNIT "family" with the suave but inept bad guys and a laugh and a joke at the end of each story, which was miles away from the 1960's stories and their heavy drama and uncertain locations and suspect lead protagonist and orphaned companions and even dead companions. This story takes the Doctor into a world where he has no sanctuary and no allies. Usually the Doctor's method and solution in this kind of scenario involves evading capture, then letting himself get caught whereupon he finds himself chatting pleasantly with the leading heavy, whilst discreetly sabotaging the bad guy's operations or building his plot-device gadget to save the day. Here that kind of discretion and conversing is quickly abandoned by the Doctor as he panics his way through the situation, blowing his cover and screaming his appeal to the people, or outright attacking the consoles madly with a spanner. There is a wonderful sense of gritty desperation to this story, conveyed well by director Douglas Camfield, who also made desperate heroism and cinematic scope the trademarks of his other directing efforts on the classic stories The Daleks' Masterplan and The Seeds of Doom.
I'd say that this episode maintains its roots firmly in the 1960's feel of the Doctor Who episodes. Not only is it the last 7-parter of Doctor Who, but it carries the atmosphere and feel of the 1960's stories. What a lot of Doctor Who fans forget about the early years of Doctor Who, is that back then the show was actually very emotional, dealing with the loneliness of the traveller and mystery and uncertainty in the reality-bending and the warped, and of course the series frequently dealt poignantly with death, all done with very melodramatic conventions. Of course after this story, the series became dispassionate in its content, to the point that nowadays it is quite hard to convince people that the old series ever dealt with matters of the heart as well as the new series frequently does. When I say melodrama, I mean there was not only a lot of screaming and tears and melancholy music, but also a degree of the surrealist and expressive imagery. And in this story there is just something terribly unnatural and disturbing about doppelgangers and the hopelessness of the world the Doctor is in, about transgressing dimensions and uncharted underbelly regions of time and space, and about transformation and living dead, all aided by really low and discordant music, that convey an invisible, malignant presence of the very elements...
In a lot of episodes, there was often an obligatory off-hand reference by the Doctor to a previous adventure in history he had where he witnessed an historic event or socialised with a famous historical figure. But here, when the Doctor refers to witnessing the Krakatoa eruption and describes remembering a vaguely similar phenomenon, it really does convey a sense of ancient evil that has always existed beneath our feet and remained inscrutable. It also works as a moment of conveying the weary age of the world, and that given the global catastrophe that the Earth is now facing, perhaps our world really has had its time. Now to move us into spoiler territory, I will say that the Doctor fails to save the parallel universe world, and the sequence leading up to the apocalypse is the most convincing bit of television the program makers were ever responsible for. It really does make you feel the ground shaking beneath your feet with frightening frequency and force, and it is something inescapable and persistent throughout the locations, and the feel of perishing humidity is insidiously conveyed by a perpetual harsh yellow hue and murky red-toned outdoor filming. The performances really tie into the panic of the situation and the mortal awareness of these people is heartbreaking, and even the nastiest of characters exhibit their desperate pathos that dares you to turn your back on them in their final moments. Add to that some brief clips of distant people in the ruins of shelters, but unable to escape the thick heat and thunderous tremors, and some radio news reports of the worldwide effects and it really does make the terror of the situation feel global, with literally nowhere to run
The universe the Doctor has found himself in is a terrifying one and when we finally return to our own universe, we are so horrified by what we saw there that we never want to go back ever again. Because it is such a dark, savage and hopeless place. The same kind of nightmarish atmosphere of hell and chaos is created in the episode Genesis of the Daleks, and likewise the reason we are so disturbed and terrified by that environment is not because of the Primords or the fascist soldiers, but because ultimately it is a universe where even the Doctor can lose, where our world can end in fires and flames and even he cannot save a single one of us. This is arguably the peak of Doctor Who's terrifying power, and even managing to outshine other great chilling stories like Genesis of the Daleks, Horror of Fang Rock and The Empty Child.
In many ways the destruction of the Earth represents a lot about our own mortality as individuals. Just like the death of the Earth, we can delay and hold back death, but ultimately it is inevitable that we will die, and this story really taps into that inevitability, and it is a frightening thought indeed that gives the episode its tremendous staying power. It is no wonder then that when Russell T. Davis did the new series with an "It's A Womderful Life" emotional approach in mind, he also used an "end of the world" story early on to convey that sense of life and mortality, as well as featuring a similar yellow lighting hue to convey an infectious humidity and adrenal rush and naked passions. In a lot of ways, this episode is also about people's lives: in dealing with the parallel universe concept, it actually is an episode about life choices and people being shaped by their past. It is also about human will against industrial or capitalist mechanisation: "An infinity of universes. Ergo an infinite number of choices. So free will is not an illusion!"
In terms of the flaws in this serial, there are a few. A lot of the physical combat scenes are actually very well done, particularly concerning the brutish violence of the savage Primords. However there is one sequence in the drillhead room where the Doctor is tackling several fascist personel with truncheons, and whilst I don't ordinarily subscribe to the attitude that the bad filmmaking effects in Doctor Who are part of the entertainment factor (since I consider that a very belittling attitude to the series that overlooks some pretty strong material), this is one sequence that does entertain me because it is so hilariously bad and mis-timed.
Another denting issue, is that within the emotional content of the episode is a rather contrived romance between two of the senior members of the drilling team, Greg and Petra, who share some argumentative romantic tension and both have torn loyalties over their leader Stahlman. When I said of the new series that the flirting scenes between Billie Piper and Bruno Langley turned my stomach, the romance here is decidedly worse, and there's a rather obnoxious anti-feminist attitude to it all. Greg, in masculine fashion behaves like he knows what's good for Petra, as though he knows her mind better than she knows her own, and coaxes and manipulates emotional responses from her to get her to show her feelings for him in a very masculine way of being heavy-handed and simultaneously emotionally detached and dismissive and really rather unpleasant way; the kind of way of getting an emotional response from a woman by telling her she has no heart, ergo she'll react emotionally just to prove you wrong, which I've often found a very bullying and interrogating way to treat someone; not only that but the story actually revels in his attitude and proves him to be right. Although the series was very anti-authoritarian in ideology, particularly in this story, it would be a few years yet before the show would acknowledge feminist women in a positive light by introducing the character of Sarah Jane Smith. This story actually suggests something of a link between feminism and Nazism: that there's supposedly little difference between the Hitler Youth reporting their parents every time they're overheard criticizing the government, and a professional woman putting every man on report who ever makes the slightest pass at her or calls her by a patronising pet name. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in that, but the attitude of the story on that front just feels heavy-handed.
There again, most of the really cringy material is relegated to the normal Earth settings, and in the parallel universe story the characters of Petra and Greg really do have a lot more grit, and the heavy-handed and verbally aggressive nature of their chemistry feels more realistic and effective at the backdrop of the repressive society they're in, being on a collision course with the end of the world, forcing them to admit their true feelings in their final moments. This eruption of emotions being squeezed out by these opposing pressures really works well. In any case I could hardly downgrade a story like this that much, as this is a story so brilliant it features a final countdown to disaster whilst the Doctor is in a coma.
This review refers to my old video format of the story, which is nowadays quite a rare buy. In recent months however, the BBC have finally made some belated sensible choices of DVD releases of stories that should have been released years ago - but better late than never. Recently they've released classics like City of Death, the Beginning box set, which includes the pilot episode and the very first Dalek story, and they've at last commisioned Genesis of the Daleks for release for March, to coincide with the run of Season 2, and this story is now scheduled to be released on DVD in June. So that's something to look forward to indeed.
A Review by Bob Brodman 31/1/07
This one is the classic Doctor Who story where the nature of time travel and slipping side-ways to parallel universes are explored in a new and interesting way. The regular cast enthusiastically does a great job with their alter-egos on the alternative earth and points out the question about how different we'd be if our situation was very different. The story does the rare feat of sustaining itself over all 7 episodes. As each episode ends I find myself wanting to see the next one right away. This probably works as well as it does because the episodes set on the parallel Earth work effectively as a story within the story.
Inferno reminds me of the excellent Quatermass serials. The basic premise is that there is a project to drill all of the way through the Earth's crust but that would unleash unforeseen dangers. One danger is the green ooze that transforms people into monsters. The second is that penetrating the crust will cause volcanic eruptions that would destroy the world. It works dramatically as a moral story, warning us not to tread where we do not understand the consequences of our actions. That there can be serious consequences to our actions was a new and important idea that wasn't dealt with by society prior to the 1970s.
It seems kind of odd to me when I realized that I have no problem with green ooze turning people into monsters but that drilling through the crust could destroy the earth seems silly. H.G. Wells believed that a science fiction story can contain a small number of places where the audience would need to suspend their beliefs without an explanation. For example the audience will accept that there are alien worlds and that they can be visited with a time and space machine without the need to explain how the machine works or evidence that life exists on other worlds. However, Wells understood that you can't expect the audience to do this too often so you need to explain them with science or technobabble. So I accept without an explanation that there is an ooze that we don't know about that if touched turns people into monsters. It's silly but I don't need an explanation for this plot devise. However, a hole in the ground resulting in the volcanic destruction of the entire earth needs an explanation because I know that it just isn't possible. If it was the case, then instead of nuclear bombs, we could use drills as a doomsday devise. Who needs to develop expensive WMDs when all that you need is oil drilling equipment to hold the world hostage? But if you get past this, then you'll enjoy a wonderfully crafted story.
One highlight is that they do an excellent job of building tension throughout all 7 episodes. The pace is masterful and allows the story to get more exciting as it goes on. I got the feeling that literally anything bad can happen in the final scenes on the doomed parallel earth. The contrast between the solution on the Orwellian alternate world and the solution on our world makes a strong point about the evils of fascism.
The visuals on the DVD hold up pretty well and the story seemed fresh to me. The monsters aren't great-looking but they are a small part of the story and they sufficiently show that the infected people aren't quite human any more.
Inferno has long been cited by many fans as being one of the best examples of Doctor Who. In my opinion, it is a top 20 story and probably the best of the Pertwee years. In addition I would highly recommend this as a good story for a newbie to classic Doctor Who.
3.5 out of four
A Haiku by Finn Clark Updated 3/5/20
Simple, but huge and gripping
A Review by Adrian Pocaro 4/8/08
I recently spied this DVD at my local Border's and, remembering that it was highly rated by fandom, and having seen all of one Pertwee story, I decided to give it a shot and took it in over the course of two stormy summer nights. While I was not disappointed, I can't see the "classic" in this, not quite.
I'll start with what works, and most of it does. I've never watched a seven part Who story before and never really thought that there was any filler here, despite what some have said. Personally, I like exposition and the time to get to know the guest characters. It makes their motivations much more real, unlike some of the new episodes where you have to fill in a lot of the blanks. Greg and Petra, for example, could have been cannon fodder or just plastic characters but over the course of the story one gets to see their relationship progress until the end, and it feels totally natural. Secondly, I am noticing a trend in some of the early to mid 70's stories that I like a great deal. It's a little hardcore, isn't it? Grittiness is also another word I would use. In all, it just seems so real and adult, and it reminds me of one of my all time favorites, The Seeds of Doom. Both had good fortune to by helmed by Director Douglas Camfield. I've read that the show diluted itself somewhat after this season, which is a damn shame. It should've always been like this.
So yes, the story is dark and gritty, which is how this DS9/BSG fan loves his science fiction. And Jon Pertwee does an incredible job as the Doctor. I've seen him in Spearhead From Space (when I was about 10) and not again until The Five Doctors but the scene in episode one where he's singing the opera to himself is just golden. I'm going to check out more of his stories. Liz Shaw is Dana Scully some twenty years ahead of her time, right down to the red hair. Of course, most of the story surrounds the Doctor interacting with her alternate self, so again I am looking forward to watching more from season 7 to really see this relationship grow.
The Primords were a mixed bag. Their realization is spot on and still holds up by today's standards, at least in my forgiving opinion. The noises they make were really chilling, but I never understood how a fire extinguisher could disable them but a gun had such little effect! What exactly was that green slime? How did it turn you into a Primord? A line or two in the right place could've answered those questions but we're left to just accept that it happens. Not that any of this really bothered me, it just begged for an explanation.
The alternate universe is chillingly realized. I'm not sure if the production had Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" in the mind when they wrote this but there is never anything wrong with stealing concepts from other sci-fi formats and adapting them. The alternate Brigadier is a creep, is ruthless in his delivery (everyone has mentioned THAT line already so I won't; but everyone is right), and I love how his true colors are exposed at the bitter end as he is powerless without his gun. Arguably, that's his only real weapon, even the wimpy scientist wipes the floor with him in part 6! Alternate Liz seems somewhat similar to regular Liz, someone who has had to compromise her values in order to function and survive in this fascist world and when that world comes to its end, she helps the Doctor in the name of the greater good. Nice stuff here. Stahlman in our universe is a typical mad scientist, which is pretty disappointing. If he's power mad and wants to rule the world, then make that obvious. If he's just greedy, and meglomianical, then make that obvious. But please, don't portray him as a scientist if he's willing to drown out his colleague's warnings by shouting at them and complaining about wasting time. Why is everyone so subservient to him? Why does Henry Gordon Jago (oops) I mean, Sir Keith, have to go all the way to London to have him shut down, when all he has to do is point to the computer information, Petra's reservations, Greg's reservations, and above all, the Doctor's? At least in the alternate universe, he's a Bond villian and, as such, more believable.
But those gripes are easily overlooked when you consider that this production looked great for being 1970 and old school Doctor Who (I refuse to consider it the "classic" series, as some of them were awful). The cruelty and sadism that the Doctor has to endure in the alternate world makes for a very nihilistic take on humanity but also a testament to the Doctor's heroism, as he tries to save these thugs anyway. I wish the new series would tread this ground once in a while (although Midnight comes close) and it's impressive to see what's possible in Doctor Who when it is in the hands of a great director, production staff on the top of their game, and a top notch (maybe overlooked?) Doctor. It's not perfect, but damn good anyway.
And did I mention the sound effects? Very well done. From the Primords, to the Doctor's door opening, to the background in the control center. Very well done. I can't wait to watch more from this season.
"You, sir, are a nitwit!" by Neil Clarke 21/12/08
Watching this after The Invasion, as part of a Doctor-by-Doctor miniseason, I was surprised - even given that story's influence on the season seven format - how unprecedented Inferno feels. The earth-exile concept is understandably taken for granted now, but given the relatively few contemporary-set sixties stories, it's quite a departure. Watched in order, after a selection of Hartnell and Troughton stories (I don't have the time or funds to do a full Time Team), it's almost like an alternative Doctor, or a reboot: a TARDIS-less, earth-bound kung fu dandy with a car and a whole military organisation backing him up. It couldn't be much further from the distrustful old man in his junkyard, could it? (Given all the changes in format, it even seems strange that the recognisable police box prop has been removed from the equation.)
Despite this gear change, I'm torn between whether season seven feels different from what's gone before - or just the same, but in colour. There's probably an argument for both views, but I think things are confused by the fact that there are precedents to season seven: The War Machines, The Web of Fear, The Invasion have similarities of style and approach - but weren't representative of the norm. What's different is tone: as Mike Morris points out, it was only the year before that Pat was battling Quarks on an alien planet; now it's zombies and fascist versions of his friends in a bleak industrial complex (a quirk that watching the series in order makes you appreciate).
It's a cliche to say that season seven is grittier, more adult, etc, but it's hard to avoid - the infected humans' grey-blue, Romero-zombie pallor is much more visceral than anything prior, especially without the light comedy relief of a character like Jamie taking the edge off. (It's certainly not the plots per se that have changed - Inferno as a story is quite basic: scientific research gone wrong, men into monsters - but it is elevated by its execution.)
There is a big perceived division within fandom between the sixties and the rest of the series, which, although superficial, is only really attributable to the transition from B&W to colour (there seems to be a lot of people who'd happily watch season seven onward, but not touch anything from the sixties). Apart from the fatuousness of this opinion, it's ironic how much cheaper and less attractive the programme looks in colour (especially emphasising the location/studio difference). It's probably the advent of colour that really makes this division seem a big deal (imagine if Troughton's last season had been in colour; the sixties-seventies/Second-Third Doctor division would seem a lot less absolute).
The Doctor himself almost doesn't feel like a continuation of the Doctor we know, and having him already established in a setting feels odd. However, by direct broadcast-order comparison to Doctors 1 and 2, he works excellently; a bastard, yes, but a cheery, breezy one. Love his opera cape, too. In fact, the simplicity of his "Sunday best" (or rather, relative simplicity, compared to later purple-silk-lined checked hunting capes) is appropriately iconic - only a slight but effective variation on the First and Second's costumes. (Given later contrasts, it's surprising how similar they all are: essentially the same "Edwardian" outfit of black jacket, cravat or bowtie, just the formal, hobo and dandy versions.)
Pertwee himself is a weird one: from the heights of the programme's seventies popularity, he is one of the "most classic" of the classic Doctors, but one who's experienced a backlash over his chauvinism and authoritarian arrogance. Whereas Tom (charisma, humour, danger - all at once!) is still perfectly acceptable to a modern audience, Pertwee has fallen out of favour. Unfortunately, this is one of those bits of fan "wisdom" which I've been swayed by - a shame, cos I love Pertwee, and the Third Doctor - so it's great to see him holding his own in such a brutal and unforgiving story. (He's brilliant playing it straight, isn't he?)
I've always loved Liz too: capable but long-suffering - and generally fab! (I like her little curtsey when the Doctor sonics the door open for her.) She's such a leap from the younger, more comic and less realistically-grounded Zoe and Jamie. (Although it's arguable that this is exactly one of the things which diminished this season's ratings; god forbid everything isn't as accessible as possible! Nothing changes, does it?) She's even an equal to the Brigadier in a way Jo or Sarah never are; he even calls her Liz.
Anyway, I absolutely love Doctor Who played straight, and it really doesn't get much grimmer than this, Androzani being an obvious exception - although Inferno has the advantage of being set in a recognisable world (or two); everything feels similarly inexorable here. It's also refreshing to have Doctor Who go fully apocalyptic, when understandably it's normally part of the programme's makeup for the Doctor to save the day (otherwise resulting in cop-outs like Last of the Time Lords).
Intercutting the doomed world with "our" world makes everything all the more horrific. The final cut from now-familiar characters, threatened by lava, to the Doctor lying on the floor in silence is particularly shocking because of what it doesn't spell out: all those characters have died horribly. And, despite helping the Doctor get back to save our world, they would have died anyway, so their deaths feel surprisingly nihilistic and meaningless. (The Fires of Pompeii notwithstanding - where all the sympathetic characters survive - RTD would never go this far.)
Whether it's really different from what went before, or more of the same with a fresh lick of paint, this story is great; it certainly feels fresh and different (despite being a long-established part of the Doctor Who story). That's the exciting thing about watching the eras in order: the reminder that though they couldn't be more different, they form one overarching narrative all the same.
Inferno Revisited by Matthew Kresal 4/10/16
A little more than forty-five years ago, Doctor Who aired one of the most unique stories in its history. Coming at the end of Season Seven, Jon Pertwee's first year as the Third Doctor, Inferno in many ways is Season Seven's ultimate triumph. Not only that, it is perhaps not only amongst the best stories in all of Doctor Who but the best story of the entire Pertwee era.
Doctor Who's 1970 season was unique anyways, and it's something that plays into what makes Inferno the story that it is. Behind the scenes issues had led to the show becoming more Earthbound, with the Doctor being exiled and working alongside UNIT starting with Spearhead From Space. Throughout the two stories that followed, Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death, the series began exploring territory and elements that it hadn't touched on much before. These included moral ambiguity as well as the more familiar elements of mad scientists, monsters and odd happenings at scientific establishments that led to UNIT being called in. All of these had been successfully explored, and in Inferno they all came together yet again. This time though, what came out was something quite different from any other story before it either in Season Seven or the entire run of the series prior to that point.
At its heart perhaps, Inferno is a simple mad-scientist story. UNIT and the Doctor are yet again at a government-funded scientific project that is attempting to drill through the Earth's crust to penetrate pockets of Stahlman's Gas, which is theorized to be able to provide nearly cheap endless energy. The project, nicknamed "the inferno" by the technicians working upon it, is headed by a brilliant but egotistical Professor Stahlman who views virtually everyone around him with suspicion due to his belief they are trying to slow/ stop him and his project.
While the Doctor and Liz are there working on the TARDIS console in an attempt to get in working, the Brigadier and UNIT are investigating a series of strange events and deaths. Despite growing concerns, the project proceeds on, even when a mysterious green substance begins to ooze out of one of the drill's output pipers from deep within the Earth itself. Unable to stop the project and becoming increasingly confrontational with Stahlman, the Doctor's attempts to fix the TARDIS land him in a parallel universe where the project not only exists in a Fascist Britain along with familiar faces but is actually considerably ahead of the one he left behind.
While the story certainly moves along at a good pace, it's when the story reaches the parallel Fascist Britain that the story really picks up. Like the Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror (which had yet to air in the UK at the time), the story takes familiar characters and settings and gives them a delightful twist. Everyone but the Doctor is represented here, raging from an even more egotistical Professor Stahlman, Sergeant Benton as a despicable thug and Liz not as a brilliant scientist but the assistant to the worst one of all: the Brigadier (known in this world as the Brigade Leader). It is a world stripped of morality and these seemingly familiar characters embody that fact.
It's in the parallel world that we see some of the best work out of the regular cast. Pertwee's Doctor is often noted for being assertive and authoritative but, in an interesting precursor to what would happen to Tennant's Tenth Doctor in Midnight decades later, he seems unable to convince anyone to believe him upon his arrival. Indeed, part of what makes the middle episodes of the story so interesting is watching the Doctor try and deal with the situation, often struggling to do so as his usual combination of charm and authority fails miserably. All of which leads to some great moments both serious and comedic from Pertwee.
The real star of the story though might be Nicholas Courtney. Up until his passing in 2011, he would always cite this story as his favorite, and it isn't hard to see why. While he's legendary to Doctor Who fans for playing the Brigadier, it's really here that we get to see the man's acting chops. The Brigade Leader might look like the Brigadier, but he certainly isn't him: behind the eye-patch is a bully who is really nothing more then a coward at heart who struggles to deal with the situation once things go wrong and his troops all but desert him. As the Brigade Leader, Courtney loses all the charm and dry humor he brought to the Brigadier and plays a thoroughly nasty and likeable piece of work which helped to make the story all the more iconic.
Of course, it also features the monsters that are seemingly always present in Doctor Who. In this case, they are the Primords, people mutated back into something akin to our species primal ancestors thanks to a side effect of the green slime coming out thanks to the drill. It is perhaps appropriate that the slime turns both Stahlman (in both worlds) and Benton (in the Fascist world) into Primords. Both the Primords, as an overt monster, and the Fascist world counterparts, as the subtle monsters perhaps, represent the worst of human nature: our savage primal side in the Primords and our willingness to give into it in the Fascists. Both, along with Stahlman's ego, ultimately lead that world to self-destruction.
There's something else that separates Inferno from virtually every other Doctor Who story. It's something really simple: the Doctor doesn't save the world - or at least their world. Despite his best attempts, the forces he finds himself up against ultimately stop him from shutting down this version of the project in time. From that point on, the story becomes a race against time as the Doctor works to not only convince those around him to help him but also avoid the Primords so he can return to his own world. As he does so, the situation around them gets worse, and it all leads up to the cliffhanger of episode six where the Doctor desperately tries to get the TARIDS working as the complex (and by extension this Earth) is swallowed up by the forces unleashed. It is one of a handful of occasions in the entire history of the show that we are given an insight into the consequences if the Doctor doesn't succeed.
By doing that, the story is also able to avoid a major problem as well. Often when shows try and do parallel universe episodes, they ultimately become filler as nothing that happens during them will ultimately have any consequences for the "normal" characters. By showing the Doctor and the viewer what will happen in the parallel world, the story comes back to the "normal" universe in its final episode with tension that's been heightened rather than decreased. It also allows for moments, such as the Doctor's realization that Sir Keith Gold (Christopher Benjamin years before he played the ebullient Henry Gordon Jago in The Talons of Weng-Chiang) is still alive whereas he'd been killed prior to his arrival in the other world, to have greater effect, as it shows that events might possibly be changed. It's something that lends both hope and tension to the final episode.
The production values of the story are strong as well. The story's combined direction both from Douglas Camfield (who did the first two episodes and all the exterior film sequences before becoming ill) and producer Barry Letts (who directed all the interior scenes in the rest of the story) gives it an almost filmic quality despite it being set largely within a couple of buildings, though it's perhaps the filmed sequences which standout the best. There's some excellent costime design, especially when the story shifts over to the fascist parallel world. The Primords prove the old saying that "less is more" as the designers go for a simpler approach to them, using the fact that they're played by actors in make-up to their advantage, though the teeth more often than not look like exactly what they are rather than looking more natural. Last but not least is the music, which isn't much a score as a collection of stock music, some of which was composed by Delia Derbyshire. The music though was well picked, as it adds tension and atmosphere when it's used, which is sparingly. All of which makes Inferno one of the best-looking and least-dated Doctor Who stories of its time.
After Inferno aired, the series would never quite be the same again. By the time the next season started airing in January 1971, a number of changes would take place. Amongst the biggest changed was the exit of Liz Shaw without a proper goodbye and the addition to the various alien invasion/mad scientist plots in the form of a new Time Lord adversary called the Master. Inferno would be the last of the more adult-oriented Doctor Who with morally ambiguous plots and themes, and it would be the crowning triumph of the season that helped bring Doctor Who out of black and white and into color. It was, and remains, a story unlike any other in Doctor Who and the best story of the Pertwee era.