Listen to that! It’s the sound of the planet screaming out its rage!
While accompanying U.N.I.T and the Brigadier, the Doctor investigates an attempt by Professor Stahlman to drill through the Earth’s crust. The drill begins to leak a green liquid which turns anyone who touches it into a primaeval creature with a lust for heat. The Doctor accidentally ends up in a parallel universe whilst experimenting with a partially repaired TARDIS console, and finds the project more advanced than in his universe, and antagonistic alter-egos of his friends.
Inferno brings Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor to a fantastic finale. It fantastically evokes the feeling of a disaster movie, and despite being a seven-parter, it doesn’t feel as though there is a lot of filler here. The cast also seem like they are having a lot of fun with the dual roles the story demands of them here, and the story rather excellently shows that there are parts of each character reflected in their alternate universe selves. The Primords, some shaky make-up aside, make for a great opponent for the Doctor, seeming practically unstoppable at times, and there are some great guest performances.
Due to the fact that the director’s chair was inhabited by two directors, I want to praise the fact that the story feels very coherent narratively and that you cannot notice the join, as it were. Letts attributes this to Douglas Camfield’s meticulous preparation for directing the story, which he simply followed, however, I feel it deserves praise. As mentioned above, this is a story which has a fantastic frenetic pace to it and there is a sense of impending disaster which looms over the majority of the running time. There is brief exposition covered in the first episode, covering the basic premise of the experiment and the fact that there are concerns about Stahlman overlooking concerns from Sir Keith, causing him to bring in inspectors, such as Greg Sutton. From this point on, the story really speeds through the gears superbly without really stopping for breath. I like how subtle Stahlman’s transformation into a Primord is portrayed by music cues and it is slower than the other transformations that we see. There are a number of fight scenes which take place high up on gantries and you can really feel the danger and stakes. I love the story and the idea of the Doctor becoming trapped in a parallel universe which is running slightly ahead and Don Houghton deserves a lot of credit for this story.
The guest cast here are largely magnificent. Olaf Pooley plays the reckless and arrogant two versions of Stahlman superbly and it is a really lovely performance from the actor, frustrated with the interference of Gold, the Doctor and Sutton into his life’s work. It is a shame that he has little to do later on as he transforms into the Primord, but what we do see of him if great. Derek Newark and Christopher Benjamin are equally superb as Greg Sutton and Sir Keith Gold, and Sheila Dunn is also good, although I prefer her alternative universe version of her character to the version in the Doctor’s universe. The original version seems a bit bland, perhaps because she is only Stahlman’s assistant rather than being a doctor in her own right in the alternate universe, but Dunn does do the best with the material she is given to work with. The relationship between the ‘original’ and parallel Sutton and Petra is a bit shaky in places but the two good enough chemistry to allow you to overlook this. The story really makes the most of this cast, and allows the majority of them to stretch their acting muscles and it does seem as though they make the most of this opportunity. Some of the characters are more different than others, with the two Greg Suttons being quite similar, however, there is a feeling that his dissent has more potential to get him in trouble in a parallel universe. Petra also seems much more willing to listen to the Doctor’s concerns from his arrival than her counterpart in the Doctor’s universe.
“Pompous, self-opinionated idiot”, I think you said, Doctor.
Yes, well, we don’t want to hold a grudge for a few hasty words, do we? No, not after all the years we’ve worked together. Now come along, my dear fellow. Put on a smile…
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the Third Doctor
The core cast of the Doctor, the Brigadier, Liz and Benton are also great. There are some lovely moments which establish that the Doctor and the Brigadier do have some form of a relationship, for instance, the scene in the first part where the Doctor tries to spot the Brigadier in the photograph on his desk, which also acts as foreshadowing for us seeing the moustache-less Brigade Leader. Additionally, when the Brigadier walks in on the Doctor threatening Professor Stahlman, the Doctor respects him enough to unhand the Professor and temporarily disappear from Central Control. Courtney and Caroline John seem to really enjoy their parallel selves, and Courtney, in particular, deserves credit for making the Brigade Leader so completely unlikeable. It is really jarring when he does the distinctive chair turn, one of many high points in a great story and we do see similarities between these two versions, especially when he is barking orders to Benton. Liz’s counterpart is slightly softer, with the Doctor able to play on the similarities between Section Leader Shaw and Liz, especially the fact that the Section Leader had the opportunity to study science at Cambridge. Moments like this, and when Gold survives the car accident meant to kill him in the Doctor’s universe stress the importance of free will. Benton doesn’t have very much to do except for order troops around in both universes, but his transformation scene into a Primord is a really horrifying piece of body horror. Benton is perhaps the most expendable of the core cast, so it makes sense that he would be the one chosen by the production team to undergo the transformation, but it does help to bring home the threat packed by the Primords.
I’m going to dedicate a paragraph to Jon Pertwee, as he is the one consistent throughout the story. This is the first time where we see the Third Doctor separated from his support network of the U.N.I.T. family, and his resourcefulness has to come to the fore. Pertwee is superb when he is outraged, and I love his delivery when he tells Stahlman that he is a nitwit – a really underrated word! There are small moments in Pertwee’s performance that I really like, such as stroking the TARDIS console with his hand, and he does seem to look at it with a great deal of affection, and when he says that he feels lost without his TARDIS to Liz early in the story, you utterly believe him. I’m not a fan of the moment where the Doctor tells the Brigadier what he thinks of him at the end of the final episode, but is nice to see his pompous bubble popped when his flight with the TARDIS goes wrong. Pertwee does probably have the most to do in this story, and his performance really does not disappoint.
Verdict: Inferno is a great first delve into the worlds of parallel universes from Doctor Who, with a story that really zips along nicely over a seven episode runtime. I love practically everything about this story. 10/10
Cast: Jon Pertwee (The Doctor), Caroline John (Liz Shaw/Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart/Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart), John Levene (Sergeant Benton/Platoon Under Leader Benton), Olaf Pooley (Professor Stahlman/Director Stahlman), Christopher Benjamin (Sir Keith Gold), Sheila Dunn (Petra Williams/Dr. Williams), Derek Newark (Greg Sutton), David Simeon (Private Latimer), Derek Ware (Private Wyatt), Walter Randall (Harry Slocum), Ian Fairbairn (Bromley), Roy Scammell (RSF Sentry), Keith James (Patterson), Dave Carter, Pat Gorman, Walter Henry, Philip Ryan and Peter Thompson (Primords)
Writer: Don Houghton
Director: Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts (Letts is uncredited)
Behind the Scenes
- Final appearance of Caroline John as Liz Shaw, and her departure is not depicted.
- This is the first Doctor Who story to cover the idea of parallel universes, as well as being the first story that Barry Letts had any say in commissioning and developing. He and script editor Terrance Dicks were concerned that Houghton’s story did not have enough to fill a seven part story, and so the Primords and scenes featuring Venusian aikido were added.
- Barry Letts directed the studio scenes for the final five episodes after director Douglas Camfield suffered a minor heart attack following completion of location shooting and studio footage for the first two episodes.
- Houghton based the story on attempts by both the Americans and the Russians to penetrate the Earth’s crust which was abandoned. As part of his research, Houghton attempted to find out why the American project, Project Mo-Hole, was stopped, but was unsuccessful as the information was classified.
- This marks the first appearance in Doctor of Christopher Benjamin, best known for playing Henry Gordon Jago in The Talons of Weng Chiang, and he has also appeared in The Unicorn and the Wasp. Derek Newark had previously appeared in An Unearthly Child and Ian Fairbairn had been in The Macra Terror and The Invasion and would go on to appear in The Seeds of Doom.
- The part of Petra was originally given to Kate O’Mara, who would go on to play the Rani against the Sixth and Seventh Doctor. Sheila Dunn, Douglas Camfield’s wife, was cast in the part instead.
- Caroline John enjoyed playing an evil version of her character, as she found the ‘good’ version of Liz quite boring to play. She was, however, uncomfortable with the scene in which she shoots the Brigade Leader as she was pregnant at the time. As a result, the gun is fired from out of shot.
- Nicholas Courtney was also fond of this story, stating that playing the Brigade Leader was his favourite thing he did on Doctor Who. He frequently recalled the scene where he turns around with the eye patch and scar to find the assembled cast and crew also wearing eye patches. Courtney proceeded to perform the whole scene without reacting.
- This story was so closely associated with Courtney that Steven Moffat wrote scenes where everyone was wearing eye patches in The Wedding of River Song as a posthumous tribute after his death in 2011.
- The final story to feature the original TARDIS console prop, which had been deteriorating for a while. The TARDIS console would reappear in The Claws of Axos, redesigned by Kenneth Sharp.
- The leader of the British Republic is seen in photographs in the alternative universe. The man in the pictures is BBC visuals effects designer Jack Kine, and is a homage to the images of the face of Big Brother in the BBC’s adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four being a picture of Roy Oxley, the BBC’s then head of television design.
Either the reveal of the Brigade Leader, or the cliffhanger at the end of Episode 6.
I keep telling you, Brigade Leader, that I don’t exist here!
Then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you.
Third Doctor and Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart