Far from being limited to telling a narrow range of stories, the production team of the time has imagination on its side that’s seen it deliver an excellent Season 7, in fact so far in the Pertwee era there has been more story variation than in Season 5, where the Doctor had free reign of time and space. All the writers need is imagination and determination, give or take inspiration by Quatermass. Inferno follows the trend of trying to avoid an alien invasion without changing the setting and utililising UNIT, presenting us this time with a parallel universe, with twists on the characters we know (with the new larger cast probably being the reason we haven’t had a parallel universe story yet).
There are shades of the Troughton era, particularly Fury from the Deep, in the early episodes, where we are introduced to some characters, working for a drilling project which is supposed to penetrate the Earth’s crust to find a new energy source. Professor Stahlman is the arrogant top man, one of the best of the line of obstructive base commanders, because rather than simply a plot device to slow the story down, he provides antagonism for the early episodes, which are essential because they set the scene allowing us to spot the differences and similarities in the parallel universe later on. Also, his attitude and insecurity are a joy to watch – he’s threatened by even the presence of someone who will challenge him and prefers to assert his authority by demeaning them rather than responding to their actual opinions. He’s also unusual because until his death the only problems the base has to solve under his watch are ones he has created himself through his unwillingness to listen to anyone.
Other base personnel include Sir Keith Gold, a bureaucrat who repeatedly tries and fails to get Stahlman to listen to him, but always remains patient and friendly, a likeable character, as well as drilling expert Greg Sutton, a hardworking but down-to-Earth chap who is a little more prone to losing his rag, and Miss Petra, the assistant to Stahlman played quite unmemorably by Sheila Dunn. Fortunately it’s not too many people to get to know as the familiar UNIT crew fill out the rest of the cast.
I’ve been surprised by Jon Pertwee’s performances and particularly the characterisation of the Doctor in this season. He might later be angrier and standoffish before being softened by Jo, but in the company of Liz, he doesn’t need to extend an olive branch as she works more on his level. That’s how I rationalise it anyway. Here, the Doctor is using the drilling project’s nuclear reactor to experiment on the TARDIS console, hoping to get it to work.
The first two episodes see the story plodding along competently if unremarkably. Even though we haven’t got to the parallel universe bit yet, the story doesn’t feel like it’s lacking something, as we have a murder investigation, and a mystery of people turning green and burning anything they touch, alongside the rising tensions between the base personnel as the drill penetrates deeper and Stahlman refuses to take safety precautions, all enough to carry a typical Doctor Who story. The sound of the drilling never stops and it creates a feeling of unease because there aren’t any quiet, safe moments. And that’s just at the start, when the story is at its least intense.
The turning point comes as the Doctor activates the console as the drilling is accelerated. The Doctor and the console both vanish (as strangely does Bessie), reappearing the next episode in apparently the same hut where he just was. Something isn’t right. His sonic screwdriver fails to open the door and his equipment is gone. The Doctor drives Bessie outside but is shot at by soldiers including Benton, and has to evade them in a chase. Not many stories take a u-turn of this magnitude, and it always has me on the edge of my seat, this has the added bonus of being a u-turn that elevates an already good story into classic territory. Not that I put it all down to the mere presence of the parallel universe plotline, because the execution is flawless – we’re drip-fed revelations about this new world and provided with action and mystery in the meantime. It manages to increase the tension, and it’s not like the story wasn’t tense before. The Doctor does take a strangely long time to realise that he isn’t where he was, but it’s worth it for his amused and baffled reactions to the Brigadier and Liz’s “ridiculous getup”s.
The Doctor is captured and brought before the Brigade Leader, the Brigadier’s counterpart with an eyepatch (is that a British version of Spock with the goatee?). A Republic rules Britain and the Royal family have been executed, and the Brig and his men are overseeing the drilling project, which is more advanced here. What makes it compelling is purely cosmetic – I’m not bothered about the drilling or anything like that, I just want to see familiar characters behaving out-of-character, and the Doctor’s hilarious reactions as he denies being a spy and realises where he is, then tries in vain to explain himself. After the opening interrogation scene, most of the revelations are out of the way however, and we’re left with people facing the same problem they are facing in the real universe. It’s a bit disappointing actually because the first half of Episode3 was something of a rollercoaster and now things are almost back to normal, with the added handicap of the Doctor not being trusted and in a cell limiting the story. What started out as the best plot twist ever has got old fast.
The remainder of Episodes 3 and 4 see the pace starting to slow, but the writer and director desperately trying to maintain the atmosphere of the earlier episodes. The Doctor is interrogated by the Brigade Leader but stands by his story that he is from another universe. I can see the actors are enjoying getting the chance to play it a little differently than usual and are appropriately throwing themselves into the role – I’m surprised how hateable Nick Courtney can be when he tries – but after a while the questioning gets tiresome because it never seems to go anywhere, time just ticks by as the project approaches penetration zero, which the Doctor is desperate to prevent as it will have catastrophic consequences. The only thing that actually happens in Episode 4 is the Doctor escaping from his cell and reaching the control room, allowing us a cracking cliffhanger where he realises he’s too late to stop it and tells the staff to listen as the Earth screams out its rage. An intense performance by Pertwee, though he does have to shout to be heard over the noise of the drill. A great moment but it only disguises the fact that he doesn’t actually accomplish anything while he’s there.
With the parallel universe doomed, the characters react to the Doctor’s warning that they’re going to die, while he tries to get back to the TARDIS console and return home. I didn’t like Episodes 5 and 6 much, to be honest. Apart from the novelty of seeing the Earth destroyed and how different characters react to impending doom, it’s far too drawn out, over two episodes, and there’s some repetitiveness – Greg Sutton’s whole part in the story seems to consist of the same two arguments with Stahlman and the Brigade Leader, repeated over and over, just with more shouting each time. Sir Keith is dead in the parallel universe although I’m not sure why as I would have liked to have seen his reactions to events. Some interest was added by the Primords – the creatures people transform into when they touch the green slime the drill has picked up – but the story could have done without them and been better, by combining Episodes 5 and 6 and focusing on the human characters.
It’s almost worth it for the last parallel universe scene – the Brigade Leader threatening the Doctor at gunpoint, demanding that he take them all with him using the TARDIS console, followed by Liz shooting the Brig. I really felt the desperation of the characters, and their method of coping with certain death seemed believable.
Episode 7 is a strange one. The events playing out we’ve already seen, because they’re a repeat of the parallel universe events in Episode 4, with penetration zero approaching. The conclusion could be dramatically unsatisfying – the Doctor simply convinces them to stop drilling – no villains, no monsters save for the Primord Stahlman, and it’s something that’s over and done very quickly. To pad out the episode, the Doctor is incapacitated and delirious for quite a while, and the Brigadier suddenly obeys the orders of Stahlman and tries to keep the Doctor out of the control room. It just about works out because when the drilling is stopped it’s a huge relief, and I liked the last scene, where Sir Keith returns, having come close to suffering the same fate as the other Sir Keith, and the Doctor tries to use the TARDIS console again only to materialise in the rubbish tip. After an unremittingly tense story (or at least one that tried to be such) I enjoyed the lighthearted last scene, particularly as it’s the last we ever see of Liz.
Yep, Liz leaves, replaced by Jo in the next story after an off-screen departure. I’ve liked Liz as a character, but I can see why she was replaced – she’s too smart. I think if there is only one companion they should embody all the essential traits of a companion, while in Zoe’s case Jamie was there too, and two companions can share the essentials between them to provide the balance. I think this would become even more apparent if Liz has ventured to an alien planet with the Doctor, as much as I’d loved to have seen that.
Inferno… a Doctor Who classic? I would have said so the first time I watched it, all seven episodes in a row, the tension sustained to the end. Now, I see the better qualities of the earlier episodes, and the repetitiveness of the later ones. The best thing about the parallel universe and the characters is exploring how they’re different – if we’re going to see a traditional Doctor Who plot, I want to it to be with the characters I know and love. I found myself delighted whenever it cut back to the normal universe because I could see what the characters I actually cared about were up to. I still liked the parallel universe plotline, but the novelty didn’t last long.
Horror quotient – Season 7 is a strange one to judge, especially coming after the Troughton era which was pure behind-the-sofa television most of the time. There’s plenty here that could be scary, but it’s not presented to scare, it’s presented to be dramatic, which is different.
Comedy quotient – A few moments, but nothing big.
Drama quotient – Now you’re talking! This story probably has the longest stretch of dramatic tension in any Doctor Who, barely letting up till the end. It’s probably the reason so many fans love it.
A great story, but the parallel universe plotline doesn’t stay interesting for long, certainly not four episodes. The repetitiveness and the shouting gets annoying after a while but there are just as many understated, reflective moments that make it worth it.