“Compared to the forces you people have unleashed, an atomic blast would be like a summer breeze!”
The threat of doom and world-ending catastrophe pervades “Inferno”, the final story of season seven. This is my second favorite serial of the entire original Doctor Who series. It is an outstanding production, and a tremendously effective, tension-filled story, even after I’ve seen it half a dozen times.
It’s often interesting in life to speculate “how things might have been”, and “Inferno” indulges in just such a scenario. On a basic level, it’s a reasonably engaging story about a near-disastrous project to drill through the crust of the Earth in the name of finding an alternative energy source. It’s the story of the driven and nearly-obsessed Professor Stahlman who is determined to prove his theories correct, with an utter disregard for the consequences and opinions of others. It’s the story of the Doctor attempting to stop the inevitable disaster and also to repair his TARDIS so that he can escape his exile. And while all three of these plot ideas would have combined to make a fairly good four-parter on their own, what makes this story really stand out is the addition of the Doctor’s trip to a parallel Earth where the threatened disaster actually occurs. It’s rare that Doctor Who shows us the threatened disaster that is nearly always threatened if the Doctor fails. “The Silurians” goes some way in this regard by showing the victims of the plague, illustrating what would happen en masse if the Silurians were to prevail. “Inferno” takes it a step further and actually shows the beginning of the Earth’s destruction.
For two episodes the viewer is treated to encounters with humans mutated by the green slime brought up from under the Earth, and to constant warnings about the dangers of the project. We get to know the characters and the threats. Then in episode three the “show not tell” principle kicks in and the viewer is transported with the Doctor to an Earth which is similar enough to the one he just left to make the differences disturbing. We’re actually able to see the predicted death and destruction that result from project Inferno, leading to a tense final episode back in “our” world where the Doctor tries to stop it all from happening a second time. The final episode wouldn’t be nearly as tense as it is if we hadn’t seen the disaster which is about to occur, and “Inferno” wouldn’t be half the story it is without the parallel Earth storyline.
Time travel stories where the Nazis win the second world war are a bit cliched in sci-fi, but the concept is used well here. The Nazis and indeed the war are never mentioned. England is portrayed as a fascist state, a quote unquote “republic” with no real freedoms. The story doesn’t dwell on the implications of this situation, it simply exists and the Doctor has to deal with it. He has no safe refuge and no allies in authority to fall back on for support. He cannot simply leave the project to look for safety since not only the TARDIS console but the power source needed to make it work are there. He is as trapped as he’s ever been, marooned on a doomed planet, and from the moment he arrives in the storage hut, he is never out of danger. There is no refuge from the Republican Security Forces, from the Primords or from the Earth itself.
The situation certainly brings out the best in the third Doctor. While he can be childish and bad-tempered at times, here he’s at his determined, defiant best, whether standing up to the Brigade Leader, facing down Stahlmann or holding off a horde of Primords armed with only a fire extinguisher. He’s kind and sympathetic to Petra Williams when she is unable to get the nuclear power through, even though it surely means his death. He risks his life trying to help people who were trying to kill him, and forms an easy friendship with Greg Sutton, a fellow rebel who is certainly a kindred spirit. Jon Pertwee’s performance here has to be one of the best of his tenure, easily conveying the stress and sometimes desperation of the situation.
While I’m on the subject of acting, it would be remiss not to mention the other regulars, namely Caroline John, John Levene and Nicholas Courtney. All of them get to stretch their range a bit, particularly Levene who goes from the affable Sergeant Benton to the bullying thug Platoon Under-Leader Benton. Caroline John distinguishes Liz from Section Leader Elizabeth rather well, helped by the wig which visually changes her appearance and silhouette. It’s easy to forget that I’m watching a single actress sometimes. Courtney too is quite visually different with his lack of moustache and eye patch. Evil duplicates of good characters may be another sci-fi cliche, but again, it’s very effective in this story.
The audio landscape of this story contributes immensely to its overall atmosphere. The sound of the drill is always there in the background, sometimes quite loud, painting a picture where there are no visuals available. I imagine a modern film with polished CGI would show us images of the actual drill boring away through solid rock, but Doctor Who in 1970 didn’t have that option. And it isn’t necessary, truth be told. Other sounds paint clear pictures as well, from the shrill alarm whenever a problem occurs at the drillhead, to the bubbly, screechy sound breathing sound of the Primords, to the rhythmic thumping boots on pavement whenever the RSF are on the march. I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed the sound effects quite so much in other stories, but perhaps it’s a result of the way the musical score is used sparingly and the sound effects play a larger role. Or perhaps it’s the effect of recording this story on cassette tape before I had a VCR and re-listening to it multiple times so that the soundtrack is more familiar to me than the pictures. In any case, the music, while effective, is rather hard to describe. It’s not necessarily pleasing to the ear or even particularly tuneful in most cases. There are numerous stings that accompany moments of danger, and an extended passage here and there, such as the Doctor’s flight in Bessie when he’s just entered the parallel world. Some of the music reminds me of kettle drums, with lots of bass, meant perhaps to reflect the low rumbling of the Earth as it comes apart in episodes five and six. The musical score is also unique to this story, as far as I can tell.
Prior to this review, it had been a long time since I’d seen the episodic version of “Inferno”. I’ve recently watched the restored story on DVD, but at the time of my marathon I had to resort to my old off-air copy that’s spliced together into movie format. I can almost always (assuming I have the time) watch the story from start to finish, with no episode breaks, and not get bored, or feel as though I’ve been watching padding. “Inferno” may be slow-paced compared with modern-day Doctor Who, but every scene is worth seeing and serves a purpose other than filling time.
Any flaws? No, not really. A lack of explanation for the Primords perhaps. Possibly some inconsistency in their portrayal. The technician in episode two scorches the wall he’s leaning against, but the fully-developed Primords who grab Benton in episode five don’t seem to burn him. The red filter used for the exterior shots in episode six is put in place a little late in a few shots. Minor, minor things that I only noticed after viewing the story multiple times, which in no way detract from it. I count the cut radio scene in the DVD as a flaw, but it’s one of the few missteps the Restoration Team have taken.
In the final analysis, it’s hard not to give the story ten out of ten, something I rarely do. It’s not quite perfect, but any problems it has are overcome by other areas of the production, so I’ll give it a best of the best rating. An excellent story, complimented by solid acting, music and direction all around. It’s certainly an example of the program at it’s finest.