Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who (Classic): “Inferno”

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who (Classic): “Inferno”

“Inferno” (season 7, episodes 19-25. Originally broadcast May 9-June 20, 1970.)

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
—Robert Frost

Like most TV shows, Doctor Who has certain underlying, usually unspoken rules that a story isn’t allowed to break. Some are there to protect the series’ underlying concept: You can’t kill the Doctor or destroy the TARDIS, for instance. Others are there to keep things from getting too dark for a show that’s usually tried to stay family-friendly, such as: The Doctor’s companions are good people. And: The Doctor always wins in the end.

Season seven, Jon Pertwee’s first year as the Third Doctor, made a point of pushing at those boundaries, starting by grounding him on Earth, unable to fly the TARDIS and forced to work with an anti-alien military taskforce, UNIT. And although the Doctor gets along swimmingly with companion and fellow scientist Liz Shaw, his relationship with UNIT’s officious Brigadier was often frosty and even openly antagonistic, culminating in the finale to “The Silurians,” when the Brig bombed the possibly-peaceful hibernating title villains out of an understandable belief that they still posed a mortal threat to humanity no matter what the weirdo in the velvet cape and ruffles said about them.

“Inferno,” the closing story of season seven, has earned a mostly well-deserved reputation as one of the gems of its era, most famously for an audacious gimmick. The central thread of the story follows the Doctor through a fairly typical monster-heavy Doctor Who sci-fi thriller. It’s a combination of the disaster movie and the zombie movie—The Day The Earth Caught Fire meets Night Of The Living Dead, essentially—that merges well with the scientist-striving-against-alien-menaces flavor of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series which all of season seven borrowed heavily from. Midway through, though, the story literally jumps the tracks, as an unforeseen accident with the TARDIS shunts the Doctor into a parallel universe where Britain is fascist, nobody knows or trusts him, and every problem he has is far worse than it was before. And by doing so it gets to break two of the rules I mentioned above: First, the Doctor’s friends become his enemies, with the alternate Brig in particular proving to be a conniving, brutal bully. And second, the Doctor loses, and loses badly: Everyone but him dies horribly by fire, and the Earth itself is destroyed. But don’t worry, we’ve got a spare.

“Inferno” is far from flawless, with a few important story elements that don’t really stand up to close inspection, and the same draggy pacing in the middle that mars almost all Doctor Who serials longer than six parts. But the parts that do work more than make up for that—not just the shocking mid-story twist, but the impressively staged action scenes that were a hallmark of the early Pertwee era, a thrilling apocalyptic sequence in the fifth and sixth episodes, and a great performance by Nicholas Courtney as the eye-patched Brigade Leader, who’s all too easy to believe as an evil version of the stiff-necked but decent Brig.


The story begins with what, by this point in the season, had become a fairly standard opening: The Doctor and his UNIT comrades are observing a scientific project. This one, nicknamed Inferno, seeks to drill down past the Earth’s crust in search of a new energy source called “Stahlman’s gas.” The Brigadier is there to provide security, but he’s there mostly because the Doctor asked him to be. And the Doctor is there partly out of scientific curiosity, but he has an ulterior motive of his own: He plans to piggyback on the Inferno drill’s nuclear power source to power his own attempt to fix the TARDIS. (A project doomed to fail, of course, because the TARDIS isn’t broken, the Doctor is—as part of his Earth exile, the Time Lords have blocked his memory of how to fly his ship.) This puts him at loggerheads with the monomaniacal director of Inferno, Dr. Stahlman, who is obsessively concerned with ramping up the speed of his project. In fact, they probably wouldn’t have gotten along no matter what, since Stahlman is unpleasantly abrasive and considers anyone who questions him an enemy, and the Doctor is a busybody with an arrogant streak of his own who loves to prove he’s the smartest one in the room.

But there are a few others who don’t share Stahlman’s insistence on pushing forward at all costs, including Inferno’s executive director, mild-mannered Sir Keith Gold, who hires a brash oil-rigger named Sutton as an expert voice to counteract Stahlman. Sutton and the Doctor both act as a brake on Stahlman, not just because they’re experienced enough to confront Stahlman with inconvenient facts, but because they have enough of a contrarian streak to confront him at all. Stahlman—perhaps significantly, his name means “steel man” in German—is one of those guys who uses his authority like a weapon, and lets even a little power go to his head. He’s probably spent many years trying to convince people he’s right about his crazy-sounding idea about vast reserves of energy below the Earth’s crust, and now that he’s so close to being proven right, he’s not going to let anything get in his way again, even the possibility that he might be wrong about what’s actually down there. So he insists on having his way no matter what unexpected events explode around them, dismissing anything that comes up as the petty concerns of “old women.”


But of course there are some genuinely disquieting happenings around the Inferno project. To start with, there’s the sudden rash of brutal, seemingly motiveless murders. And the drill site, now only hours away from its objective, has started to dredge up a strange green slime that radiates immense heat. Worse, it may even be alive, and has the ability to infect anyone who touches it, turning them into violent, scorching-hot green shamblers who seem to have walked off the set of a George Romero movie, screeching weirdly and behaving like rabid animals. (They’re never named in the story itself, but they’re listed in the end credits as “Primords.”) And, of course, the final kicker, which won’t become fully apparent for a couple of episodes: Inferno has a side effect that makes oil fracking’s earthquake issues look like Jello wobbles. The Doctor already has an inkling how bad it could get, though: He tells the Brigadier he’s heard Primord screams before, during the famously destructive eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

By the end of the second episode, the mechanics of the plot seem to have gelled together. The Primord attacks are getting bolder and more frequent. The Doctor, Sir Keith, and Sutton form a loose opposition to Stahlman, with Sutton also trying to win over Stahlman’s assistant Petra Williams, who’s torn between loyalty to her boss and a growing difficulty in ignoring Inferno’s flaws. The Doctor catches Stahlman red-handed, sabotaging a computer that’s giving an inconvenient safety warning (the Doctor can’t prove it, but after this point he’s on to Stahlman), and in secret, Stahlman accidentally infects himself with the Primord slime. Things haven’t yet gotten as bad as they could get—that would happen in the third episode, assuming this was a four-parter, which, significantly, it isn’t—but this is shaping up to be a busy little thriller.


And then the Doctor goes and does something stupid. Angered by confrontations with Stahlman and the Brigadier that haven’t gone his way, he storms off to the TARDIS console, powers it up, and tries to fly away. But the Third Doctor, remember, can’t fly the TARDIS. He’s just arrogant and desperate enough to try it anyway, but of course it goes wrong. And if he thought the Brigadier was a control freak before, just wait until he finds out where he’s landed…

The disorienting effect that the parallel-universe subplot has on “Inferno” can hardly be overstated. In 1970, this just wasn’t a place you expected Doctor Who to go. Parallel-universe stories are a science fiction staple, of course, and I’m guessing this one was at least partly inspired by the classic 1967 “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek. But it’s not a concept Doctor Who could have done any earlier than it did, at the end of season seven, because the previous six seasons changed locations with every new story. There has to be a solid, familiar world for the characters—and the viewers—to get used to before you can yank it away from them and replace it with the nightmare version. In this case, that’s an England that was taken over in 1943 by fascists who executed the Royal Family and established a republic dominated, Big Brother-style, by a stern-faced leader whose image graces propaganda posters saying “UNITY IS STRENGTH.”


We don’t actually get much more detail about fascist Britain; it’s not even clear if this is a timeline where the Nazis won World War II, although that’s the implication. How this timeline got this way isn’t the point; if it were, the story would be about how the Doctor fixes it, but instead it’s presented as a done deal—the Inferno project remains the real threat in both universes. As in “Mirror, Mirror,” the parallel timeline is mostly a way to shake up the characters, confront the Doctor with darker versions of people he knows, or thinks he knows, and see how the new relationships play out. (Also, of course, it’s a way for the writers to let everything go straight to hell without consequences, since it’s not the “real” Earth that the Doctor fails to save.)

What is the essential personality of Liz Shaw, or the Brigadier, and are they as much changed for the worse as the rest of the world seems to be? It’s a subtle point, but the crucial factor seems to be whether the Earth-2 versions have kept the ability to think for themselves. Liz-2 is harsher and more treacherous than the one the Doctor knows best, but he gets through to her by correctly guessing that she also wanted to be a scientist once—a freethinker and not an agent of the state. It takes a while, but she breaks out of her shell and shows that her essentially good nature was hidden, not destroyed, by life in fascist Britain.


The Brigadier is another story. The one we already know is officious, hard-nosed, and gets under the Doctor’s skin merely by existing, but he’s an essentially good man underneath, with a sense of humor he keeps carefully hidden where it won’t interfere with his duty. The Brigade Leader, on the other hand, has spent his career using bullying and threats to get his way, working for a government that does the same thing, and it’s clearly destroyed his soul.

Sutton-2 is just as anti-authoritarian as the first one we meet, but he’s paid a high price for it—you can tell by the hunted look in his eyes that says he’s expecting a bullet to the back of his head any minute now, and yet he still stands up to Stahlman’s recklessness. It actually makes both Suttons more sympathetic: This is a man who won’t back down from doing what he thinks is right.


Stahlman, or I should say Stahlmann, with two Ns, is hardly different at all—no beard, and his name is now spelled more Teutonically, but he’s the same jerk he was before. This is actually something of a problem dramatically. For one thing, there’s no real story benefit to having him infected by the Primord slime, because it doesn’t change his behavior—arguably, it compels him to try to drill faster, but Stahlman was already so insanely committed to doing that anyway that nobody would even notice a change. And whether or not he’s under alien influence, Stahlman’s bullheadedness quickly becomes tiresome as the major motivating factor for keeping the Inferno drills running, especially stretched over seven episodes. It’s frustrating to watch people argue about how to make Stahlman see reason, since it’s clear very early on that Stahlman will never willingly back down. And yet even after the imminent doom becomes obvious, nobody tries using anything but diplomacy and kind words on the ornery old goat. So we get scene after scene that boils down to this:

STAHLMANN: I must drill faster!
EVERYONE ELSE: No, you mustn’t!
STAHLMANN: Yes, I must!
EVERYONE ELSE: No, you mustn’t!
STAHLMANN: You’re an old woman!
EVERYONE ELSE: Aw, jeez, you’re mean…


What the story needed, I think, was a character who actually tried to sabotage Inferno sometime around episode four—either the Doctor or Sutton would be the obvious choices. That would have morphed some of those repetitious talking scenes into concrete action, and it would have given Stahlman a clearer, more understandable motivation for doubling down and vowing to drill even faster than he was already.

Some of the differences between the two universes are drastically apparent—1984-style posters, evil Brig with eyepatch, jackbooted Liz Shaw. But the Inferno project itself is carrying on in much the same way, even though the fascist version’s scientists are slave labor (grad students, I suppose). Same location, same equipment, same personnel. But the key differences, the ones that actually change whether or not Inferno will destroy the world, are small, and so subtle that it’s hard to notice them. Again, they mostly have to do with freedom of thought, a point the Doctor makes when he realizes the very existence of two slightly different timelines means that history can, in fact, be changed, and at least one world can be saved. (If you recall, it’s an issue he’s been wrestling with since “The Aztecs” in season one.)


The most decisive difference, I think, is that Petra-1 is more receptive to Sutton’s objections and therefore less willing to blindly follow Stahlman, making her able to step in and countermand his orders in episode seven, just before it’s too late for Earth-1. (However, see the next paragraph….) Stahlmann’s monomaniacal drive is met with less resistance in the fascist universe because everyone there has been trained to follow orders without question. That simple change doesn’t, by itself, stop the first Stahlman, but it does help slow him down. Also, it’s strongly implied the fascist Stahlmann had Sir Keith murdered to keep the Inferno project on track. But on Earth-1, the guy he’s hired to do the job feels guilty and confesses to Sir Keith, switching sides. The fact that he then loses control of the car and crashes is a fake-out that we’re meant to think will kill Sir Keith the way his fascist-universe version was killed. But I think the key change is that the driver isn’t willing to obey Stahlman blindly or out of fear. Again, keeping Sir Keith in play doesn’t by itself stop Inferno, but it helps slow it down, buying time until someone can finally pull the emergency brake for real.

And appropriately enough given Stahlman’s repeated snide remarks about “old women” getting in his way, it’s finally the women in the story who save the day: The Doctor is still only semi-conscious from his trip between universes, but his dazed mumblings spur Liz to find Petra and convince her, at last, to go over Stahlman’s head and stop the drilling on her own authority. It’s small and subtle, but in the end, that is the effect that the fascist-world subplot has on the main story: Petra finally ignores her boss and does the right thing, saving the world.


The problem with this is, that’s not the climax of the story, though it should be. Instead, Stahlman immediately locks himself in the drill room and starts up the works again, re-threatening the world and essentially negating anything the Doctor actually learned from the whole parallel-universe experience.

There’s a lot about the Earth-2 section of “Inferno” that I love, particularly the genuinely unsettling chaos of the fifth and sixth episodes as the situation spirals out of control, with the Primord-zombie apocalypse arriving just a few minutes ahead of the monster waves of molten lava. It’s rare for Doctor Who to embrace such a straight-up horror-movie sense of utter doom. But in a way, the alternate universe just gets in the way of the main story. For one thing, the shift in the storyline distracts attention away from the fact that there’s no explanation given for what the green slime coming out of the drillsite actually is, or why it turns humans into green fire-werewolves. Is it intelligent? Does it have a goal, or is it just a purely destructive force? (And just from the standpoint of thematic consistency, wouldn’t it have made more sense if the Primords had been designed to look like, I don’t know, red lava creatures or something? Who thinks “Well, we need to create a monster that comes from underground” and comes up with a green werewolf?)


Stray observations

  • “Now listen to me, all of you! You are not to attempt to penetrate the Earths crust!” Boy, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve had to yell that at a crowd of people…
  • I love the fact that one of the ways “Inferno” shows the Doctor is a master of scientific gadgetry is that he’s built himself an automatic garage door opener.
  • At the end of “Inferno,” the Doctor lands the TARDIS console in a garbage heap in more ways than one: That scene was the final appearance of the original console prop built in 1963 for “An Unearthly Child.”
  • An earlier draft of the story made it more ambiguous as to whether the fascist universe was real or a hallucination caused by the Doctor’s accidental overloading of the TARDIS console. You can still see a ghost of the idea embedded in the finished version, I think, since not once but three times, the story switches between universes by showing the Doctor waking up, and the Brigadier even suggests to him that “perhaps youve had some sort of nightmare.” I think we can’t rule out the “it was all a dream” scenario 100 percent, but it may not matter: Since the Doctor doesn’t bring anything physical back with him to his own universe, the only issue may be whether the other universe is real to him.
  • Continuity issues “Inferno” raises: Does the Doctor himself exist in the fascist universe? It’s possible, but the fact that the Brigade Leader version of our Brig doesn’t know either the Doctor’s face or name suggests that if the Doctor does exist here, he’s had quite a different history, since the Second Doctor met the Brig twice even before Jon Pertwee took over the role.
  • And, a little more esoterically: If drilling into the Earth’s core causes a disaster like this, the Daleks were in for a very rude surprise if their plan to hollow out the Earth in “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” had succeeded.
  • Casting notes: Sheila Dunn, who plays Petra Williams, was the wife of “Inferno” director Douglas Camfield. Derek Newark, who plays Greg Sutton, was also in Doctor Who’s debut story “An Unearthly Child/100,000 BC” as the caveman Za. And Christopher Benjamin, Sir Keith here, was also Henry Gordon Jago in “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang” and Colonel Hugh in “The Unicorn And The Wasp.”
  • There’s an odd coincidental connection between “Inferno” and the last serial I reviewed, “The Reign Of Terror”: In both cases, the original director collapsed in the middle of filming and had to leave the production—Camfield, in this case, was replaced by producer Barry Letts.

• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):

• Sept. 14: The Fourth Doctor meets the savage Leela and comes face to face with, well, his own face, in 1977’s “The Face Of Evil.”


• Sept. 28: The Third Doctor says goodbye to Jo Grant and hello to giant mutant maggots in “The Green Death.” Hardly seems like a fair trade.

• Oct. 12: The Second Doctor meets Martians on an Arctic base in the newly restored 1967 story “The Ice Warriors,”


• Oct. 28: A look at a Doctor Who that might have been, with the animated 2003 tale “Scream Of The Shalka,” starring Richard E. Grant as a decidedly different Ninth Doctor than the one we’re all familiar with now.

• Future reviews should include “Terror Of The Zygons” and “The Tenth Planet,” both soon to be released on DVD. And I still plan, relatively soon, to visit something from each of the three seasons I haven’t yet written about, namely season four (probably “The Tenth Planet”), season 15 (probably “The Horror Of Fang Rock”, and season 23 (almost certainly “The Mysterious Planet”).