Friday, 20 April 2012

54: Inferno - A Countdown To Destruction

Written by: Don Houghton.
Companions: The Doctor, Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, Sergeant Benton.
Monsters/Villains: Primords.
Brief Synopsis: An experimental project drilling through the earth's crust - here and on a parallel world - goes terribly wrong.
Rating: 10/10.

I love Inferno and I thoroughly enjoyed rewatching it. This story has excellent intensity and pacing, a terrific cast, some memorable monsters and it marks the first story to ever use a parallel universe in Doctor Who. When the story was originally submitted by Don Houghton it was based solely around the real life drilling operation to penetrate the earth's crust: Project Mohole. Information on this project and why it was abandoned was never disclosed as it was top secret. It was this secrecy that Houghton developed as an inspiration for his story originally titled The Mo-Hole Project. Producer Barry Letts was concerned that the story was not enough to fill a seven-parter so Terrance Dicks suggest using a parallel universe motif. Houghton happily agreed, the story was eventually renamed Inferno and the rest, as they say, is history.

The last appearance of the original TARDIS console
used since the very first story in 1963.
The cast assembled is first rate. Christopher Benjamin makes his first appearance in Doctor Who as Sir Keith Gold (He later goes on to appear as Henry Gordon Jago in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and in the new series in The Unicorn and the Wasp). The role of Petra was given to Sheila Dunn (Who director Douglas Camfield's wife) after Kate O'Mara was not available to play the part. O'Mara would, years later, be cast as the Rani, a renegade Time Lord. The excellent Olaf Pooley played Stahlman and Derek Newark was cast as Greg Sutton who originally played Za in An Unearthly Child, the very first televised Doctor Who story. Pertwee also gives a fantastic performance.

Christopher Benjamin.
Olaf Pooley.

Derek Newark.
The Doctor is on the scene to act as an advisor on the project to penetrate the earth's crust and also to use the bases nuclear power generator for his experiments with fixing the TARDIS. During one of these jaunts the power is cut, drifting the Doctor, the TARDIS console and his car Bessie side-ways in time in to an alternate reality. Like Doctor Who And The Silurians the project, lead by Professor Stahlman, is dedicated to unearthing a new source of energy. This must clearly have been a contentious issue in the early seventies to have two stories in one season centred around it.

The first use of the Doctor's Venusian Aikido. Too violent? I don't think so.
The pacing is excellent as the narrative flips back and forward between the two realities (albeit with a rather unfortunate tin foil disco ball wipe-cut). The constant sound of the drill throughout adds to the drama making everyone have to almost shout to be heard. The whole story is a ticking countdown to  destruction and also boasts some of the best cliffhangers in the show's history; especially episode 6.

The episode 6 cliffhanger, arguably the best ever. 
The monsters are okay. Not the best, and possibly the only part of this story that doesn't stand up. The Primords start out Zombie-like and fairly subtle but unfortunately end up wolf-like or in Benton's case looking like the Cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz. I feel like the one thing that could improve this story is removing the Primords entirely. The story is strong enough on it's own and it's a shame the production team felt it required a monster-of-the-week.

Benton just wants some courage.
As I have said before Doctor Who as at it's best when turning familiar things in our everyday life sinister. Inferno succeeds in this with it's alternate reality twist. We get to see characters we have loved turned completely on their heads.

The RSF logo.
UNIT is replaced by the RSF (Republic Security Forces). In this alternate reality there isn't a constitutional monarchy in the UK but a Republic, the Brigade leader even states that the Royal Family were executed. We see kindly Sergeant or should I say Platoon Under Leader Benton firing at the Doctor, Section Leader Liz Shaw reporting on him, and most of all an eye-patch wearing, moustache-less Brigade Leader threaten and even try to kill the Time Lord. If that ain't scary I don't know what is.

Section Leader Liz Shaw and the Brigade Leader.
There is a strong undercurrent of Women's Liberation throughout Inferno. Sutton refers to Petra in a very derogatory way, asking if he might be able to "borrow her" to "dash off a few letters." She scolds him and reaffirms the importance of her position. In the alternate reality the tables are somewhat turned, and at least in Sutton's terms she is the powerful one and a Doctor. She is also the one who restores the power enabling the Doctor to return to his own reality. It is great to see a female character given such a vital plot point especially in the 1970's; without her the whole world would have been destroyed in both realities.

Sheila Dunn as Petra Williams.
After one of the tensest stories ever the disaster is averted with only 35 seconds to go. The shaft is to be filled in and the project is officially abandoned. Tired of trying to help the earth and having no one listen, the Doctor decides to leave in his, now fully functioning TARDIS. He says goodbye to Liz, calls the Brigadier a "pompous self-opinionated idiot" and thusly vanishes. Unfortunately the TARDIS isn't working properly and the Doctor reappears in a nearby rubbish tip. It's a comical end to an intense story but a poignant one. The Doctor and the Brigadier have learned from each other throughout this season. The Doctor hates to admit it but he needs the Brigadier and the Brigadier certainly needs him. The last shot of this story and this season is of Liz laughing and of course this would be Caroline John's last story. Although at first I was never that fond of her as a character, Liz Shaw as certainly proven herself in this story and I feel like she is leaving when she was just getting good.  She never got a leaving story which seems unfair, but she certainly went out on a bang with Inferno.

Goodbye Liz, I feel like we hardly knew you...
This is the end of season seven. The season in which we were first introduced to the Autons, the Silurians, some alien ambassadors and of course the Primords. We gained a companion and UNIT and the Brigadier and, of course, the novelty of colour. All the episodes from here on are extant so no more mourning the missing. My favourite story for this season has to be Doctor Who And The Silurians. I don't have a least favourite. Out of a possible 40 I scored season seven 34/40. Giving it the high average of 85/100, the best I've given a season so far. So this one is technically my favourite, so far. It was a short but perfectly formed season and it will certainly be hard to beat a score like that.

Join me next time for a new season, a new companion, the introduction of a very important character and the return of a certain plastic-based foe in Terror Of The Autons.

1 comment:

Alan Stevens said...

I also think "Inferno" is excellent. In fact, I'd say it's the best story of the Pertwee era. The only problem is the Primord wolf make-up. I don't think the Primord's should have been cut from the adventure, as they are an integral part of it (the story, after all, is partly about various characters descending into bestial savagery), however, the creatures could have been better directed. Douglas Camfield was the original director on this story, but then he fell ill, and Barry Letts took over. Camfield was later to criticise Lett's directing, saying that when the Primord's emerged, the studio lights should have been taken right down, so that they would have appeared shadowy, menacing creatures. Lett's, of course, didn't do that. Instead, he had all the lights full on, and then gave the Primord's loads of close-ups. It's not commonly known, but Lett's and Camfield fell out over it. In fact, Camfield never directed on Doctor Who again until Barry Lett's left the show as producer.