Out Pert-week heats up, as Matthew Kresal looks back at Inferno...
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 Jon Pertwee's first year as the Third Doctor, Inferno in many ways is Season Seven's ultimate triumph. As well as 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 anyway, 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 which 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 very cheap, nearly 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 it 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 thanks to Don Houghton's script and the combined direction of Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts, it's when Inferno 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 as well 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 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.
After Inferno aired, the series would never quite be the same again. By the time the next season began in January 1971, a number of changes would take place. Amongst the biggest was the exit 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.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.