Companion: Liz Shaw
Written by: Don Houghton
Directed by: Douglas Camfield (& Barry Letts)
Background & Significance: Once Doctor Who's format changed at the start of its 7th season, script editor Terrence Dicks was looking for ways to make the show's new format conceit (aliens arrive on Earth; The Doctor teams up with UNIT to fight them) work without it getting too stale and repetitive. How many times can you see aliens land on Earth and them attempt a take over without it actually feeling like a tired, awful conceit?
Spearhead From Space" and "Ambassadors of Death." "Inferno" (like "Silurians" before it) takes a slightly different tact.
Written by Don Houghton and being the twilight story "directed" by Douglas Camfield before his brief return during the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, "Inferno" is perhaps most famous for being "that one story about the alternate/parallel universe where everything is topsy turvy." It's heralded as a classic and considered not just one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time, but also the best Jon Pertwee story of all time in the Mighty 200 poll. So it's got... a reputation. And yet it's still not exactly perfect. Camfield had to bow out a few episodes into production leaving new producer Barry Letts to step in and pick up the slack based on Camfield's extensive notes.
Still though. Parallel universe! That's something, eh?
So let's get to it!
The thing about “Inferno” that’s so interesting is that this early on in the story there’s not a whole hell of a lot that is happening or hinting at greater/future plans for the rest of the story. The majority of this episode focuses on building out the world of the drill and what have you. And there’s an ensemble here isn’t there? We’ve got The Doctor, Benton, The Brigadier, and Liz. And on our guest-star Drill team we have Professor “the bad guy” Stahlman, Petra (Stahlman’s assistant) Williams, Sir Keith “safety concerns” Gold (as played by the delightful Christopher Benjamin), and Greg “drilling expert” Sutton. And it’s a lot of dancing around the edges, setting up the dynamics, showing what’s up and going on with this story and its world so far.
That said, there is interesting stuff here. It’s an episode that takes its time being methodical in setting up all the chess pieces on the board. And that doesn’t make it so different than the first episode of “Morbius”. Now, it’s nowhere near as good or awesome as “Morbius”, but it still kinda works. The dynamics are all thrown around. It’s one thing to see Stahlman be evil, but it’s another thing entirely to see Petra almost succumb to Sutton’s whims, followed by a decision that she is loyal to Stahlman regardless of what she thinks of him. So her interest in Sutton knows bounds and her loyalty to Stahlman is the defining factor of her as a character.
And then there’s the Primords. And yeah, I’ll just call them Primords right off the bat, because why not.
Honestly, the Primords are the obligatory monster of this story. They’re around to build the tension and give The Doctor a pressing need to fight something. Monstery to keep the stakes raised high. That’s unfair, I think. This story doesn’t need Primords to make things more interesting, or at least, the Primords are the bit of this that I’m easily the least interested in. All it does is snarl and posture and threaten. Whatever. Yes, it’s important for later but it’s clearly tacked on at the tail end of this episode to give us something to come back to in episode two. Not only that, but it’s a rubbish cliffhanger because we’ve already seen the monster before this. It was peeking around a corner that one time. So this is just false stakes or whatever.
Finally, I must admit I love seeing The Doctor here. There’s a comfort to his role in UNIT, a good mood if you will, that chains directly from the events at the end of “Ambassadors of Death”. I love the way he weaves in and out of the drilling narrative, clearly stuck in his own escapades (all console related) but showing up in the drilling narrative just long enough to remind Stahlman (every time, I might add) that while Stahlman might hold an iron grip over everyone around him, he sure as frak don’t hold a grip over The Doctor and The Doctor sees right through his ways. It’s quintessential Pertwee and exactly what you want to see at the start of a seven-parter. Because what’s going to stop him from stopping Stahlman?
So we’re left with an episode that’s really just marking time. And it’s fine. It’s much weaker than episode one because it doesn’t really get us to any new ground outside of the green canister bit. Stahlman is still running around and being a total jackass/pompous ass (and I mean total jackass/pompous ass). Why no one deems it right to stop him is absolutely beyond me. That people aren’t trusting The Doctor when The Doctor is trying to report him for misdeeds is hilarious and inaccurate because he’s clearly up to no good and clearly kinda a dick. Someone stop him, for god’s sakes.
Really, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to actual moments where we could/should stop him. Maybe it’s the moment one of the scientists turns into a crazy deranged monster and gets shot through the heart twice and then doesn’t die for like a few minutes. Or maybe it’s the bit where he knows that three people have died in the span of just a few hours and his response is “faster, faster”. Clearly he doesn’t worry about any potential fines or citations or getting sued. Nor does he seem to care for himself, what with the way he grabs the canister without ANY PROTECTIVE GLOVES.
I also quite enjoy The Doctor’s ambivalence here. He couldn’t possibly care less about what’s going on in the mining operation. What interests him is his own scientific research. He’s only at this facility to continue his experiments powering the TARDIS console with Stahlman’s nuclear power. And he’s blinded by anything that isn’t that. He turns on the power even though he’s not allowed to (and sure, that’s never stopped The Doctor before, but sure) with next to no regard for the actual safety concerns of the drilling operations. Well. That’s not true. He cares. It’s just that there’s more pressing concerns of his. And why waste your time dealing with something that no one’s going to move on? The Brigadier cares, but not enough to pull rank and shut everything down.
Given that, doesn’t that just mean that The Doctor is not so different from Stahlman? Both men are terribly driven and blinded by the consequences of their actions. They just focus on their work. And in that I find it fantastic to see the two of them mirrored so effectively. I love the rivalry between them, and the fact that The Doctor recklessly scarpers off to wherever it is he’s off to at the end of this episode with wanton disregard for Liz (his own assistant) and The Brigadier (the guy who’s technically his boss but who never really tells him no). It’s bonkers bananas. And I love that the two of them are so tunnel-visioned that they clearly don’t notice the actions of the other. Or much really care enough to actively get them to stop.
But all that is about to change.
So after a quick start to the episode in which Liz and The Brigadier wonder where the hell The Doctor went and how the hell they’re going to get The Doctor back now that Stahlman has turned off all the power to The Doctor’s hut, stranding The Doctor in this new parallel universe.
And what of this parallel universe? Well, it’s got all the makings of a lovely time, doesn’t it? The Brigadier (or rather, his alternate universe counterpart The Brigade Leader has no mustache and is clean shaven, while instead of being… well… two-eyed he has an eye patch over his eye and one big ol’ gnarly scar running down his face. Liz’s hair is neither red, nor down, colored dark instead and in something of a bob. Stahlman and Petra wear solid white (Stahlman’s outfit includes badass sunglasses to show we’re kinda sorta in the future a little. There’s more guns. The ambiance is darker.
Only that’s not really what happened, is it? Camfield became ill at the rehearsals for this episode and removed himself from the progress leading to Barry Letts to step in and take over the studio shootings based on Camfield’s copious planning and notes. As such, Letts is actually the ghost director for this and the rest of the episodes of this story. So what we’re looking at here is technically Letts behind the camera orchestrating an attempt at Camfield’s vision. Camfield did, of course, direct the location shooting (which was all done prior to his withdrawal) so that’s clearly all him. And honestly, he did a hell of a job on it. Not just the action, but the reveal of Liz Shaw is absolutely stunning. The hand cam, the turn around, the drawing on The Doctor. It’s all superb.
It’s interesting then that suddenly The Doctor is much more gung ho about stopping the drilling process in this world. But why? Why here? Why now? Perhaps it’s because he thinks of this world as just another science experiment, or at least, the fruits of his labor. If it weren’t for his curiosity he wouldn’t be in this predicament. Or, even better, if he weren’t so curious about what was on the other side of the divide this entire universe wouldn’t exist. Knowledge makes things factual and real in ways our imaginations kinda can’t.
That said, the cliffhanger is bland. “Are you gonna come with me?” is not a good place for the show to be moving forward. Give us something new or some badass reveal or something. Don’t sit me in the middle of another “will The Doctor get out of this?” It’s pathetic, and lame by comparison to the urgency of the rest of the episode.
With this episode Houghton takes the opportunity to explore the various facets of all the differences between the different characters. Specifically, here, we get a construction of a relationship between Liz Shaw and The Doctor. Liz, as The Doctor points out, had a vague interest in physics when she was in school but chose a different career path, leading her to her position as Section Leader. And indeed, you could argue that as Section Leader, Infernoverse Liz is more successful than our Liz. She’s a commander of many troops. Yes, she reports to the Brigadier but she’s… professionally more successful than Liz. Liz is “just a scientist”.
What The Doctor digs at is that there’s an aspect of Infernoverse Liz that’s discontent. That this world is a bleaker and sadder place than she gives it credit for. And it gets to her. You can tell. Already this is a start for a good relationship between The Doctor and Infernoverse Liz.
But for all the goodness, there is wanton evil. The Brigadier is a bastard in this and doesn’t give a sweet damn who The Doctor is. He’s going to give everything he’s got to settling this Doctor situation once and for all. It doesn’t matter if The Doctor is lying. It must be settled. And that puts The Brigadier as a totem of fascism for the story. It’s interesting because without a Doctor to be his friend we get that The Brigaider is a much colder, eviler soldier than he was in our timeline. And is that down to The Doctor I wonder? Did their experiences with The Yeti and the Cybermen really change him that much? Allow him to laugh and smile and think that sometimes the world is a little bit mad? And perhaps this Brigadier is just a bit blind to that way of thinking.
But seriously, I love how the majority of shots featuring The Brigade Leader in this are of the left (eyepatch) side of his face. It highlights his lack of humanity and how much of his self-depricating style has been lost in the wake of the Infernoverse.
And I love that The Doctor is still fighting here. Now he’s in the Infernoverse you can tell that Pertwee is just giving him more life and more purpose. This is a problem he can deal with. It’s a problem he can work around and get around. But he’s a little scared of what’s going on. The way he backs off from the Primord in the cell is hair-raising because you don’t expect The Doctor to get scared at something so easily, do you. But he has reason. The way that Primord moves those bars is… messed up.
He wants to breach the Earth’s crust.
We know this is bad. But it’s also that this, the worst thing that could possibly happen in the story, is happening on a parallel dimension where ANYTHING could happen (again, they could blow up the world if they wanted to because quite frankly this isn’t “our world”), the worst is now possible and perhaps inevitable. Now we’re about to see what happens when the worst happens. And when The Doctor does inevitably get back to our world (because that’s what’s going to happen or rather SPOILERS) it’ll be with the terrible knowledge of what happens when the worst happens.
What’s not to love?
The solution, of course, is to have one interfere with the other. As soon as the drill penetrates the earth’s crust it throws everyone about willy-nilly and leads to a panic in which everyone flees the facility. The Doctor is reprieved from getting shot. But perhaps more importantly it mean that Houghton and co are moving forward with this drilling storyline and going (basically) all in on it. And in fact The Doctor even says as much. This world is ending. There is no hope. It’s hell on earth as the power of the earth’s core is unleashed to the surface.
It’s suitably apocalyptic, and of course, that coincides with the fact that this episode sees the entire cast of extras disappear from the facility, leaving us with only The Doctor, The Brigade Leader, Section Leader Shaw, Stahlman (sorta), Sutton, and Petra.
The result hits home the bleakness of the situation. What was just in the previous episode a booming scientific research facility is now suddenly a wasteland devoid of life. Yeah, it saves on money to not have so many extras, but it also gets the point across that this is the world now. And it paints a picture of the world we don’t see. Much of this episode spends its time in the facility and we don’t see the chaos outside. We don’t see the panic in the streets or the streets devoid of panic as everyone clutches their loved ones to them.
Again, this is the thing that Doctor Who does best. Just the hint at scope allows the creative team behind the show to paint a picture in the imagination of the extra-diegetic world outside of what’s actually happening on screen. We’ll see even more of this in the next episode, but it works shockingly well here, and it makes our heroes’ situation that much more dire. Outside of what The Doctor tells us (that it’s over, that this world is doomed, that we need to bail and get back to his universe that perhaps one universe might be saved), this shows us something specific. The Brigade Leader and Section Leader Shaw (and Sutton and Petra) are all trying to hold the world up with tape while the whole thing comes crashing to the ground. It makes everyone look desperate and quixotic.
Now I like this turning into a monster story. It’s total kitsch/camp in the best of ways. There’s nothing like watching Benton turn into one of these werewolves or even seeing him get dragged over to one as it touches him and starts to transform him? It’s total fun. But more than that, it gives our heroes something to do, something to fight against. It gives them hope in a weird way, doesn’t it? At least when they’re fighting against werewolves there’s the possibility that they might be able to score a small victory. Only it’s probable they won’t, isn’t it? This goop (whatever it is) has the power to transform any person into a werewolf with even the slightest touch. And the werewolves can convert whoever with a touch. And they’re remarkably difficult to kill.
And yet, they’re still going to try and fight. Because that’s what they do.
Before I jump away from this, though, I suppose I should mention how incredibly silly this whole storyline is. And I’m not even talking about the bit where it’s silly to think the Earth’s core erupts out of the Earth and devours the Earth (I mean, lol, that’s not coming). No. I’m talking about the idea that there’s this goop that’s red hot that’s buried in the earth’s crust that is leaking from the earth and that can devolve/transform humans into “Primords” (these werewolf creatures). It’s remarkably, impossibly silly. But it’s also the same sorta logic as “space sickness”. One of the ideas of the Space Program in the 1960s (or at least, the Soviets DID think this at one point) was that space was [essentially] full of cooties, specifically space cooties, and that if you ever went out into space you would be infected and if you ever came back to earth you would potentially infect the entire earth.
But seriously, this whole thing with the Primords is remarkably silly, but not unwelcome. I just like bitching about the “science” of this.
It does bother me, though, that like… there’s a paranoia to this. And maybe I’m just reading too much into what Houghton seems to be saying in this. But it’s the idea that there’s danger in the unknown regions of the unexplored, danger in things that make no sense to have danger. Why would drilling deep into the Earth’s crust be such a bad thing? I mean, besides the fact that there’s really no reason to. What we’re kinda seeing is The Earth fighting back, just like the idea of “space sickness” is no different than space telling you “don’t go there”. Because you can’t fight this shit. You can’t fight primordial ooze or The Earth’s crust. You live here. You can’t find space. We live there. You know? It’s kinda frustrating to think that the politics of this story say “don’t do [scientific whatever]” because it’s scary out there.
I mean, and perhaps that’s not what it’s saying, but that’s what I take from it and it puts the sourest of tastes in my mouth.
This episode sees him enact that plan and what we get is a very methodical, well-orchestrated execution of that plan. It doesn’t completely work (Petra doesn’t get the power working the first time and has to run back and rewire in what feels (inevitably) like a bit more padding until it’s time for the episode’s cliffhanger. As a point, though, it’s a relatively minor point and DOES actually feature the “final end” for Infernoverse Stahlman, so I suppose that helps the argument in favor for it somewhat. AND it gives The Brigade Leader the opportunity to refill his gun with bullets, although how the hell he was able to do that despite doing nothing but hanging out with The Doctor and Section Leader Shaw is completely beyond me.
And really, what isn’t to love here? It’s nothing short of an absolute triumph. From the second The Brigade Leader, Section Leader Shaw, and Petra escape from the facility and burst out into the outside world I can’t help but be struck by the aesthetic. Everything’s undergone a yellow-orange tinge to convey just how fast the planet seems to be cooking itself alive. So visually it’s stunning, but also from a sound design point (that’s right, let’s talk sound design) all we hear are the nearing eruptions as the world starts to tear itself apart and the slow, ominous tones of what sounds like bass as the end gets nearer and nearer. It’s remarkably bleak and shocking and a far cry from The Doctor driving along in Bessie “La-La-ing” his way through opera.
That’s the thing about this story though. It’s a fascinating look at people who know it’s over and don’t really seem to realize it. I mean, they do. They know the world is ending, but it’s the same thing where it’s like… until it actually ends you can’t really fathom the thing actually happening. There are just some things our brains cannot really comprehend. And so our rag-tag band of folk run around trying to save The Doctor, which gives them a focus of what they can do so they don’t have to think about the forthcoming oblivion that’s going to destroy the lives of them, their friends, and everything they’ve ever known or come into contact with.
Because they blow up the world.
That’s it for the Infernoverse. Fare thee well, fascist England! It’s over. We see the world collapsing, panic, tears, screaming as the world erupts into chaos as the earth starts to tear itself apart. And that’s it for them isn’t it? That’s the point of the last bit of this. The Doctor lost and his noble thought experiment was fucking destroyed by his inability to save it. And that’s possible because this world mostly doesn’t matter, so they can blow it up. But it’s still an entire world. It’s still jarring to watch. This is the world we inhabited for four episodes.
And now it’s obliterated. And completely destroyed. And I’m eating it up with a spoon.
What’s interesting about the way this episode starts is how it almost buries the lead about the end of episode six. Yes, it makes a call back to the previous episode and we watch the destruction of the Infernoverse again. But the next thing we see is The Doctor on the floor of the hut with the TARDIS console to one side and Bessie to the other. So he made it back. Back yes, but there’s a very Oz feel about it. It feels like he went over the rainbow and came back and is waking up from some horrible nightmare (wake up being a relative term because he doesn’t really wake up until we’re almost halfway through the episode) and if there wasn’t an entire subplot in the mining storyline over the past few episodes, there’d be a question over whether or not The Doctor even went into the parallel universe or if the whole thing took place in his mind.
That said, this episode comes across feeling much more subdued than the last one, which is not exactly a surprise. Last episode was the final episode in a massive four-part story about how a few people didn’t listen to a crazy person and it resulted in the world cracking like an egg. It was done artfully and masterfully and was all built up to get to a certain point in which the stakes were as high as they could possibly be. Here the stakes are the same, but there’s not the same sense of urgency. Not only will the story not, you know, blow up the world, but they also did that already. They’d have to top that, and they’d have top it within the next twenty minutes, which, quite, frankly, is not going to happen, and subconsciously I think we know it.
What doesn’t help the world is how mad everyone is, and not in an Infernoverse way. At least with the Infernoverse it was understandable that the world would be topsy-turvy, but it’s amazing that everyone who’s working on the drilling project is down with whatever it is Stahlman is doing, or at least, they think it’s not bad enough that they have to depose him or get him out of the way. Sutton is proof of that. Sutton does a whole lotta talking about Stahlman and Stahlman’s insanity and how he’s gone around the bend, only he never does anything about it until it’s way too late and the world is almost destroyed.
The actual mechanics of it, though, don’t quite work out. Yes, The Doctor’s line of “So free will isn’t an illusion after all” is one that doesn’t quite hold water really. And even if it did, what about this world makes him think that what happens here is inevitable in any way? If free will wasn’t an illusion wouldn’t the parallel universe have not been the same? I mean, the parallel universe was a despotic, fascist nightmare. Surely that’s an indicator that we’re dealing with at least some version of a reality with a solid lack of predestination, yes? Because what does The Doctor even do here? Yes, he helps shut down the drill, but it’s not given much weight and it’s not like he learned a lot from the Infernoverse.
That disconnect really hurts this more than anything. Yes, it’s a seven part story, and the structure of it works remarkably well in theory: it’s a four part story in which the third part is its own contained four part story. On paper, that’s something that’s really exciting. The only problem is the framing device here and elsewhere is quite dull and uninteresting. It’s clear Houghton has no idea how to reconcile the two things, and even the thing that might work in this episode (The Doctor fights an on-the-loose-not-quite-Primord-yet Primord) don’t work because they don’t pay off anything. It’s not like The Doctor didn’t go up against that Primord initially. Or maybe it’s that that Primord was taken out by UNIT and here The Doctor totally handles it because he’s a bamf.
The one last aspect of this I’ll mention is the fact that The Doctor is operating his TARDIS console without it actually being in the TARDIS. Now, disregarding the question of “how the hell did they get the whole console out of the TARDIS doors (because dimensionally transcendental doesn’t explain doorjamb technology and if It did OH MY GOD COULD IT HELP ME MOVE), there’s an interesting dynamic that’s formed when the console is in the hut in the Infernoverse. I mean, doesn’t the console being in an enclosed space make the enclosed space feel like the TARDIS? So when The Doctor is hanging out in the Infernoverse and he finds a whole ‘nother dimension in there and (if you say that the hut doors aren’t the TARDIS’s exit in this case) The Infernoverse is just a construct of The TARDIS’s imagination.
Which makes me grin.
Now I know that's really a bullshit statement. Of course the conceit of the story is important to the story. And sure, it is. It's what makes this story so lauded and memorable. Doctor Who has only attempted one parallel universe story since this (and it took Nu-Who to do it), so it stands out for its uniqueness. But without that conceit and the novelty of it, what does this story do? It doesn't really break the bank, it doesn't try for anything out-of-this-world spectacular. Sure, it blows up the world but you can easily fold that into the conceit aspect of this episode. It's a phenomenal use of the conceit, yes, but it's also the most extreme and amazing example in a story populated by novelty or what have you.
But the reason that Courtney, John, and Pertwee are able to give it their all is because it feels like an insanely delightful, go-for-it story, and for four episodes that's exactly what this story is. The middle four episodes are about as rompy as Doctor Who ever gets and they're also about as good a romp as you can get from Doctor Who. The only problem is the actual a-story of the piece. The B-story with the Infernoverse is quite excellent. But every time The Doctor is in the A-story or we're dealing the A-story (that is to say, the stuff with our universe and not the Infernoverse) I want to turn it off. Quite simply, there's nothing there. It's generic and those three episodes really sour-bookend the other four. The other four episodes feel like they're something else entirely, full of a dark, ominous tone, manic energy, and real passion for the material. The A-story three feel bland, slow, and uninteresting by comparison.
It's real whiplash, it is.
So not my favorite Pertwee story and easily the weakest of its season. But it's terribly fun and watchable and even then that speaks more to the mostly-solid quality of the rest of the Pertwee era than it does reflect poorly on this story. Way less than the sum of its parts, but worth remembering as a classic if only for the middle four episodes, which are bonkers insane wonderful time.
Next Time!: 5th Doctor! Peri! A Magma Beast! Gun-running! Drug-smuggling! Spectrox and its Toxaemia! A Bastard-Off! Everyone dies! And so, so much more! "The Caves of Androzani"! Coming Next Tuesday!