Inferno [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my 50th birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #77)


Starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.
Companion:  Caroline John as Liz Shaw.
Recurring Characters: Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and John Levene as Sgt. Benton.
Written by Don Houghton.  Directed by Douglas Camfield (and an uncredited Barry Letts, the show’s producer, filling in when Camfield was unwell)

Format:  7 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  May – June 1970 (Episodes 19-25 of Season 7)

Like The Robots of Death, this is a Doctor Who story that I’ve been particularly itching to see again. For whatever reason, it’s not available on iTunes, so I decided to spend some Christmas money on the DVD. Not only was it the last story of the season, it also was the last story to feature Caroline John as a regular character, and the final story of its length. Indeed, even though Trial of a Time Lord had more episodes, Inferno was the last story to tell a single narrative over more than six episodes.

Spoilers Ahead!

Inferno is a solid story all the way around, but it’s one element in particular that really makes it memorable, and that’s the four episodes or so that take the Doctor to a parallel universe–the first time Doctor Who has opened up that can of worms. This aspect of the story turns Inferno into something of a cautionary tale, possibly about environmental abuse. It was too late to save one world, but if we change our ways, maybe we can save our own.

All the “evil” versions of the supporting cast are a lot of fun, and they give a chance for the regulars to stretch their wings a bit. Nicholas Courtney is especially memorable as Brigade Leader Stewart–cruel and narrow-minded, and yet on some level understandable and relatable as he fights for his own survival.

Courtney demonstrates impressive range in his twin portrayals, with the two Stewarts being the only doppelgangers who are genuinely, significantly different from each other. Olaf Pooley is suitably obsessed in both realities, and other character like Sutton and Petra are all only slightly tweaked. Even Caroline John’s Liz Shaw, while looking quite different, is called upon by the script to ultimately behave quite similarly. Courtney’s character is on the one that really sells the idea that we’re in a place that is different from our normal domain. His eye-patch is not quite as iconic at communicating “evil” as Spock’s beard from a similarly-themed Star Trek episode, but it’s pretty close.

The “main” plot of the story, with the ooze from underground which turns people into monsters, is solid Doctor Who fare, but unremarkable. The creature work is fine, but what is going on is never really explained.

People are turning into savage monsters, but which co-operate by instinct or design to perform complex mechanical operations which will allow more of their kind to propagate. Very clever primitive creatures! It’s never suggested that there is any kind of malevolent intelligence behind this–it seems to just be a natural phenomenon. Apparently, in Doctor Who, the earth itself wants to kill us.

Until the incredible conclusion of Episode 6 when the whole world gets destroyed–one of the best cliffhangers in the show’s history–there is a surprising dearth of “good guy” deaths in the parallel world. Sutton, Petra and Liz all survive until the final moments, and Christopher Benjamin’s Sir Keith Gold is killed off-screen before the Doctor even arrives. Nonetheless the show’s horror-quotient is fulfilled by the gruesome image of evil-Benton being caught and dragged off to his doom by the creatures.

It’s a shocking and effective sequence, if one can look past the dated effects (something that classic-Who always challenges us to do).

After that, Inferno delivers an interesting coda, with the Doctor apparently breaking free of the Time Lord’s bondage and getting out into the universe again, only to find himself plopped into a garbage dump.

The sequence gives him the chance to have a temporary goodbye with Liz–fortuitous since none was forthcoming with the character’s abrupt departure–and to briefly have it out with the Brigadier, with whom there had been tensions all season. The story ends with the Doctor suitably chagrined, setting the stage for the friendlier relationship that we’ll see in forthcoming seasons.

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