Inferno was Jon Pertwee’s first ever season finale. The final story of season 7, the preceding three had gone some way to establishing the form the show was to take from there on. Having by now got used to UNIT and its members Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Dr Liz Shaw and Sergeant Benton the time had come to use this familiar setting to do something different and unsettling. What if these friends of the Doctor turned against him? That’s what Don Houghton sought to explore when he wrote Inferno.
Of course all the cliches are there. We have a mad scientist in the form of Stahlman brought to life by Olaf Pooley in an extremely memorable guest appearance. We have poorly-realised monsters in the form of the Primords. We have a scientific research base in the form of the so-called Project Inferno. We have the UNIT regulars. On paper it’s got all the ingredients for a good Pertwee story, in practice it turns out to be one of the best, if not THE best, Pertwee story ever made.
The main story on “our” Earth is nothing special. There’s the aforementioned Professor Stahlman trying to use a drill to mine for what he’s modestly called Stahlman’s Gas, which is believed to be a huge source of cheap energy, with UNIT on hand to oversee security. However this gas actually has an unfortunate side effect of turning anyone who touches it into some sort of murderous werewolf-like monster. What’s more, if the drill reaches too far underground and penetrates the Earth’s crust it causes the world to end in an unstoppable flow of lava.
That’s not the Doctor’s main concern, not initially at least. He’s still trying to get over his exile and hasn’t yet grown used to it. In this story we have him trying to power his TARDIS console using Inferno’s power supply – and it works! But this is where the story really excels because while he’s moving his TARDIS just a moment into the future someone disrupts the power so his TARDIS console stops working and he somehow ends up in a parallel dimension where the UK is ruled by a fascist dictator (who some sources identify as this alternate universe’s version of the Doctor since he shares a face with one of his declined options at the end of The War Games, in real life the face belongs to visual effects designer Jack Kine).
The alternate universe provides us with a fascinating look at what the Doctor’s UNIT colleagues would be like if they weren’t on his side. Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw is similar to Dr Liz Shaw but has no scientific background and is of the military instead. She’s not a pleasant person like “our” Liz and as such Caroline John claimed this was her favourite story to film because of it. Sadly this is her final story but at least she goes out on a high note. Even though we don’t get a goodbye scene with her. At least they got the goodbye for her replacement REALLY right so… there’s that.
Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart (not Brigadier this time) is still a stiff-upper-lipped soldier but he’s less courageous than the Brig we know and love; when it really comes down to it he’s a coward. Also he’s wearing an eyepatch (we all know the story about when they were filming, yes?) and has had a much-needed shave. This man is not a hero like “our” Brig then but he’s still very similar, a little too close for comfort to the real deal. The script does call attention to this in the final few minutes. In fact the final scene is incredibly touching in a subtle way.
DOCTOR: Brigadier, there are times when you strongly remind me of your other self. I shall leave at once.This is just such a lovely moment between the two of them. The Doctor and the Brigadier butt heads all the time (Silurians anyone?) but that’s what always happens between best friends. It’s putting these differences aside that makes a friendship last and the two of them demonstrate this perfectly here.
LIZ: In the TARDIS console?
LIZ: Oh, but Doctor, you can't.
DOCTOR: With the work that we did today, the TARDIS console is now fully operational.
BRIGADIER: We seem to have heard that before.
DOCTOR: Goodbye, Liz. I shall miss you, my dear. But I've had about all I can stand of this pompous, self-opinionated idiot here. (The Doctor and the console vanish.)
LIZ: Now see what you've done.
BRIGADIER: Well, I didn't know he'd go off like that. The man's so infernally touchy.
LIZ: Well, I shall be most interested to see how you get on without him, Brigadier.
BRIGADIER: May I remind you, Miss Shaw, that you're still a serving member of UNIT? I don't entirely care for your tone.
LIZ: I don't much care for yours either. No wonder the Doctor cleared off.
(There is an cough from the open doorway. There are stains on the Doctor's jacket.)
BRIGADIER: Welcome back.
LIZ: Where did you go?
DOCTOR: A few seconds forward in time, and a few hundred yards due east in space.
LIZ: The rubbish tip?
DOCTOR: The rubbish tip.
LIZ: Oh, dear.
DOCTOR: Er, Brigadier, my dear fellow, I wonder whether I could borrow a couple of your stalwart chaps to give me a hand in bringing the TARDIS back? It's landed in rather an inaccessible position.
BRIGADIER: Pompous, self-opinionated idiot, I believe you said, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Yes, well we don't want to bear a grudge for a few hasty words, do we? No, not after all the years that we've worked together.
It’s the parallel world aspect of Inferno that really gives it its main selling point though, because we get something that makes the story unique. We usually can expect the Doctor to tell someone what will happen if he fails but this time we actually get to see it for ourselves. The ending to episode 6 when the Doctor has not managed to succeed in stopping the drill and the world is destroyed in a big flaming lava flow is one of those harrowing moments that nobody who watches this story can ever forget and it ups the stakes for the final episode now we know what will happen to “our” world if the Doctor can’t make events play out differently. It keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. All those people you know – the Brig, Liz, Benton – they all die. Not a single one survives. The Doctor loses.
Of course he succeeds in the original world – but only with barely under a minute to spare!
Inferno is a brave story that dares to subvert expectations, to let the Doctor fail. As such it is a story unlike anything that we would see again in the entire history of the show. Not only is it the best of season seven, it's the best of Classic Who as a whole in my book.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.