Season 7@50. Over the past decade or so `Inferno` has gained in reputation amongst fans of the original series to the point where the story is now often cited as the finest Third Doctor adventure usurping the traditional poll topper `The Daemons`. I’m not sure I agree with this consensus to the point where I would pin it in fourth place in an admittedly very strong season. While there is a huge amount to enjoy about it and some great performances there is also a nagging sense of repetition about a lot of the dialogue. And this is before we get to the parallel world. As the third story in a row to be set around a scientific establishment there are similar scenes to its two predecessors in which authority figures clash with experts while the Doctor tries to get his view across. There is also carefully calibrated scientific or engineering work going on again for the third story in a row and, whisper it, this can be a little tedious. However these are often compensated for by the vigour of the production into which a cast hurl themselves with enthusiasm. By the time the story is running in two dimensions it has built up as much steam as the drilling process it is depicting and there is a genuinely thrilling denouement in the parallel world.
Narratively though the story does tread a lot of water with endless arguments about more or less the same thing between the leading characters while outside the Primords meander about murdering people with abandon. They are supposed to thrive in heat and radiation yet seem perfectly fine wandering about in the British winter weather for hours! For a storyline built around a countdown events seem to pay less attention to timescale than they should. Also, would any establishment allow anyone (even the Doctor) to cheerily siphon off his own supply of nuclear power for a project he keeps secret? Even the Brigadier doesn’t know what it is about.
While every effort seems to be made to convey the sheer power and technical detail of the drilling in a large set with plenty of extras what undermines this sterling work is the actual design. It lacks any sense of weight- the drilling pipes are flimsy and the directors seem to know this as they avoid focussing on them as much as they can. The whole set is too clean and those white columns with flashing lights appear to have been borrowed from Top of the Pops. What are they for?
I’m sure Don Houghton must have done his research but after we watched the slow, deliberate way space travel occurs and before that the slow, deliberate lowering of rods into a cyclotron the 1970 viewer might be excused for feeling its time to substitute realism for some melodrama. Barry Letts seems to agree with this as this is the last of what we might call the Derrick Sherwin model and you can see his successor’s love of more action orientated primary colours storytelling just beginning to peek through.
One aspect I do like is the Doctor’s somewhat selfish approach to trying to escape Earth. This links back to the first Doctor’s individualism and helps this incarnation be more than a do gooder. The parallel world scenario he thus finds himself in is a lot of fun and allows the cast to indulge themselves. Nick Courtney in particular is excellent as the imperious Brigade Leader. For a long time the parallel world plot was incorrectly believed to be a later addition. However it is surprising to discover that the Primords themselves were the element added late in the day as these seem integral to the plot.
The sound effect work is tremendously vivid with a constant throb of heavy engineering evident in all the scenes in the drilling control room meaning a lot of the dialogue has to be shouted. Whether this noise was pumped out on the set or added afterwards it adds much to the atmosphere of the story. On location too an ominous musical note adds tension. The Primords’ guttural snorting sound is disturbing but their look is somewhat rough and ready with what looks like hastily applied green paint, stick on bristles and ultimately a set of gnashers that do not move.
However there is no doubting the skill of the stunts and it is great to see convincing sequences in and around the base. The fall from the tower still takes your breath away and it was bold of Jon Pertwee to take on so much action work himself as he spends quite a time up on gantries and walkways with the stunt team playing Primords.
The chaos of what happens as the parallel world reaches Penetration Zero is vividly conveyed using thunderous noise, smoke, alarm sounds, colour filters and some good early CSO work. What this season does remind you- especially in this story and also `Ambassadors`- is how polite Doctor Who often was. From its tradition of urban antagonists with complicated plans to its polite disagreement between the Doctor and the Brigadier the series would lose its wild side as the Seventies went on, the odd flourish aside. This was essential to its commercial success of course; the ideas of this season’s stories are dark and unwelcoming. The genius of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks would be to make equally horrific concepts more viewer friendly. The series would not be unleashed so darkly again as it is here until Philip Hinchcliffe’s arrival five years later.
What the story does do is a rare early example of how time can used to present a different view on something. It’s the sort of thing Steven Moffatt would later go to town with (in his version the Doctor would probably land on the parallel Earth first) but the classic period of the show tended to tell linear stories. The parallel scenario allows the series for once to have its cake and eat it with the Doctor failing to stop the end of the world even if he saves ours. The storyline does have a good way of stretching the tension of both scenarios to the limit.
Also, the Doctor describes “the planet screaming out its rage” at one point and though unevenly portrayed (different people seem to de-evolve at different speeds) the idea could gave toyed with ideas of the planet having a consciousness.
Sometimes though it’s the small things that draw your attention amongst the maelstrom. Stahlman’s slow creeping infection, the tentative attraction between Greg and Petra, the different way characters react to Stahlman. This is a big, ambitious story but it is almost too big to pull off. There is so much hectic noise that the whole production seems to lack enough of those small things. So `Inferno` is good, for sure, but in my opinion not as good as the rest of this season.