One of the working titles for Inferno which always stuck in my mind was The Mo-Hole Project, because it sounded so odd. It is actually a reference to Don Houghton’s inspiration for this story, Project Mohole, a US drilling project in Mexico which started in 1957 and was abandoned in 1966. If a project that had already been abandoned doesn’t seem particularly topical, there were actually fears at the time about another attempt to dig deep into the Earth, this time a Russian one. Drilling began on the Kola Superdeep Borehole while Inferno was broadcasting, on 24th May 1970, and eventually reached 40,230 feet (about seven and a half miles), which is still the deepest artificial hole in the Earth. Still a good way off the fictional 20 miles of Inferno, but it is quite understandable how this could have sparked off worries in a similar way to artificial body parts inspiring the Cybermen, or the rise of the computer age inspiring The War Machines.
A story about a drilling project means a story set in another scientific base, and with things going wrong. We also get another project leader who ignores the Doctor’s attempts to shut the place down and avert the danger, which has been the repeated theme of the season and also shows the extent to which the first Pertwee season was written as Troughton era stories transplanted to modern-day Earth. The obstructive base commander losing his mind is very much a Second Doctor trick, but it translates well to a contemporary scientific establishment.
Then something happens that sets Inferno apart from any other Doctor Who story, and is the reason for its popularity: the Doctor goes off and has the same adventure all over again, in a parallel universe. Superficially this is a marvellous excuse for the regulars to play different versions of their usual characters, and they clearly have a blast with that. I suppose one could say that a trick was missed by not including a parallel Doctor, but it would have derailed the narrative too much, because the Doctor’s failure to save the planet has to stem from the differences in the parallel world. Without that, it would just be a whole lot of (very entertaining) padding.
So the big question the season has thrown up, particularly at the end of The Silurians, is why the Doctor is working with this genocidal organisation. In The Ambassadors of Death he gave UNIT another chance and managed to get everyone working together to save the day, UNIT and the aliens. So he showed they were worth a second chance because good things could be achieved by working with them. Inferno throws UNIT into sharp contrast with a regime that the Doctor really couldn’t work with. The Brigade-Leader is a self-serving coward, living in a fascist state. Interestingly the fascist state is also a republic, which is probably little more than an attempt to make things different. The message that a Britain without royalty is an evil one is probably accidental. This is a parallel Britain run along the lines of Nazi Germany, an exploration of what might have happened if Oswold Mosley and the BUF had achieved mass support. The reason the Doctor cannot gain any support and therefore save the planet is that adherence to the chain of command is too ingrained. Almost every character’s differences in the parallel world plays into this and adds up to the Doctor’s failure, but probably the most significant are Petra and Greg.
They are clearly two characters who are destined to be together. The attraction is there in both universes. But in the parallel world it is suppressed, and Petra is focussed solely on getting on with her job and following orders. In the “real” world it is Petra who is key to stopping Stahlman. The return of Sir Keith is a contributing factor, but he admits that he lacks the power to stop the drilling. It might seem like the Doctor’s victory in the real world stems from something that is nothing to do with any kind of a lesson learned from the parallel one: Stahlman embracing his Primord side. The Doctor is in fact particularly useless at this point, going round like a mad thing. But the reason Stahlman does this is that he knows he has lost. It is quite clear before he slimes himself up that Petra is going to overrule him, so his act is one of desperation and rage. In the parallel world Petra is too obedient to provide a genuine threat to Stahlman. It’s a parable about what happens when people unthinkingly follow orders, which is a good approach to a story about a parallel fascist world.
But before all that happens we get the shock of seeing the planet die, and the Doctor lose. It’s a stunning moment. The powerful are brought down and exposed as insecure and cowardly (the Brig). Hidden, suppressed qualities come to the surface (Liz). Love blossoms amongst horror. The Doctor is powerless to stop his favourite planet from burning. This is a moment that will haunt him. It’s not surprising. RP
The view from across the pond:
Remember that job offer you turned down? Do you remember when that relationship ended when you were not ready for it? How about that time that lovely young lady told you to call her when you were in the neighborhood but you didn’t because you thought she was just saying that to be nice? In the vast pantheon of Doctor Who stories, there are seldom tales of parallel universes, which is weird, because with all the contradictions in the show, we could be in alternate timelines weekly! By the rebooted era, David Tennant’s Doctor does find himself in a parallel earth but he and the viewer see it strictly on its own path; we do not see a comparable Earth from our universe to compare against. But in 1970, while Jon Pertwee was still in his first season as the Doctor, he encountered just such a parallel and we had an opportunity to see how events played out in both universes.
I’ve said before that Pertwee’s era is a bit of a slog because the stories pushed on longer than they should have. While I stand behind this for a number of his era, Inferno happens to be one of the best stories of the classic series. Barring The Three Doctors, I put Inferno as Pertwee’s finest. Now, Star Trek’s second season gave its most impressive episode with “Mirror, Mirror”, where Kirk and crew find themselves in an alternate universe where the Federation has been replaced by the Empire. Spock even gets a little pointed goatee. (Technically a Van Dyke, if we’re being exact, but everyone calls it a goatee, so who am I to argue with the vox populi?) What we see is a “flip side”, where good is bad, and everything has been turned on its head. While Trek may have gotten there first, it didn’t necessarily do it better.
Inferno looks at the terrifying possibility of an experiment gone wrong. It does not flip everything, though. Professor Stahlmann, played by Olaf Pooley, is missing the “l” from his first name in both universes, portraying an officious oaf in both worlds. He is totally obsessed with seeing his plans come to fruition even when things go horribly wrong. There is no “flip side” to him; he’s cranky in both. By contrast, Greg Sutton is a reasonable man in both universes. So we are not seeing a mirror-mirror universe; we are seeing a “what might have been” universe where many people are exactly the same as their alternate counterparts. That’s not to say we don’t get the Spock-like inversion. In fact, it’s done brilliantly with Liz and the Brigadier. Liz is ruthless, aggressive and in no way the scientist we’ve come to know and respect. When the Doctor first encounters her… well, actually we wonder how he knew it was her from behind since she has short dark hair, whereas the version he knew was a long-haired blonde, but it’s an alarming moment. The look on her face is totally alien to the Liz we know. It’s an impressive performance by Caroline John. Brigade Leader is a powerful dictator of a man making Spock’s alter-ego blush. He’s scary and in place of the mustache, he is clean shaven, scarred and wearing an eye-patch (most fans know that story, so I won’t recount it here). Courtney does an incredible job portraying this brute with uncanny ability. (Courtney was a master so his talent is unsurprising!) The Doctor has no alternate in this universe. If the Time Lords even exist at all, maybe the Doctor never left Gallifrey. In any event, he has not been captured and exiled so he is an anomaly. This chilling dialogue between the Brigade Leader and the Doctor sums up both characters well:
Brigade Leader: When we know who you are, the real interrogation will begin.
Doctor: But I don’t exist in your world!
Brigade Leader: Then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you.
The Brigade Leader delivers that line with perfect clarity and sincerity. There is no middle ground with him and it’s scary!
The Doctor slips between the two universes with a camera effect that is mildly comical as Pertwee’s versatile face distorts more than usual, but the otherworldly event is alarming enough that the distortion does not come across as funny. Finding himself in this parallel world he realizes he’s too late to stop the events. He, and the audience, see what happens when events go wrong. It’s a chilling image seeing the lava flowing towards the trapped group. Add to that fear the idea that the Brigade Leader does not want to allow the Doctor to escape and the tension mounts. In Doctor Who, we eventually see an “alternate timeline” with much greater ease with Tom Baker’s Doctor in The Pyramids of Mars, when he casually pops forward to show Sarah Jane a possible outcome should Sutekh succeed. For whatever reason, it’s easy for him even though we are looking at a possible world. Pertwee’s Doctor is deeply disturbed by what he sees but it’s no different than what his later incarnation experiences. Still, we are given emotional investment here by getting to know the characters and it does make a difference, for us and the Doctor.
The strangest part of Inferno is the “primords”. These are supposed to be some form of regressed primordial being but they look more like werewolves than anything primordial. I say, as though I’ve been there… But they give a monster-of-the-week without taking away anything so I’m willing to ignore their appearance and accept them for what they are and they do an impressive thing. Most importantly, being little more than animals, they cannot be reasoned with. It adds that magnificent fear factor that the Doctor won’t be able to negotiate his way out of this one. And then there’s the sound they make which is marvelously strange. Kudos to the production crew on basically every level of this story.
I may never have the desire to spread green goo on my face like some of the humans in this story, but that’s what makes the world go ‘round. I can at least accept that Inferno is a truly incredible story giving us a What if… scenario unrivaled in classic Doctor Who. The Doctor scores both a win and a loss in one single episode and it’s arguably for the same people. It’s intelligent science fiction and it can’t help but make us wonder… what if things had turned out differently?
I wonder… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Terror of the Autons