Inferno (1970 United Kingdom)

This was the final story in Jon Pertwee’s debut season and, although slow, it is the best of a series that, whilst an improvement on latter period Patrick Troughton, seemed a bit stilted and somewhat stuck. Not least because after a ruling by the Time Lords, Pertwee is stuck on earth to help Unit (a hush-hush military brigade headed by the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) and there is no time travel. This gave the whole 1970 season a ‘Quatermass’ vibe that is very cosy and British. The story concerns a mission at a research station to bore through the earth’s crust with a view to harnessing what lies beneath as a form of cheap energy.

At the head of the mission is the brilliant, stubborn to the point of being pig-headed Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley). He is assisted by lots of extras in white coats as well as the efficient blonde Petra (Sheila Dunn) and a man drafted in from the oil trade, Greg (Derek Newark). Stahlman’s boss is, nominally, the man from the ministry Sir Keith played by one of England’s finest character actors of the day Christopher Benjamin. Unit are around as security and the Doctor has tagged along so that he can get use of the nuclear reactor that he hopes will power his Tardis and therefore get round the Time Lords’ ruling. A man is killed by a technician who has become infected by a substance that has leaked into the facility and so Unit are deployed. The Doctor is curious about what is going on and as usual points out the failings of the project and again as was usual the project leader falls out with him.

The Doctor takes the huff and leaves Stahlman and co to their own devices and tries out his Tardis console. His experiments initially prove unsuccessful and also dangerous but eventually he gets things moving. He arrives in a facility that is superficially similar to the one he left but when he goes to explore he finds it’s very different. He had left behind Britain of 1970 and arrived in a Britain of 1970 that is a totalitarian one. Here Unit is headed by an eye patch wearing Brigade Leader, and in which the Doctor’s own assistant Liz ( Caroline John) is now dark-haired and black booted . The project conducted by Stahlman is more advanced than in the original world and is headed for eventual disaster. The Doctor realizes this quickly but is aware that he needs to get back to the world he came from to prevent a catastrophe there. He is able to get the reluctant assistance of the Brigade Leader, Liz, Petra and Greg in this mission and eventually gets back to the ‘real’ 1970 to save the day. Lucky for the Earth!

Although 7 parts is quite long there is not much fat on this story and whilst some of the effects are a bit ropey the sets look convincingly drab. The constant sound of the giant drilling device gives this an eerie, almost nightmarish quality. The cliffhangers at the end of each episode are all good and at least two (end of 4 and 6) are amongst the best of any era of the show. The plot twist of entering a parallel time continuum is one of the cleverer ideas Doctor Who ever had, and the differences as well as similarities, between the characters of the two worlds are well done. The final episode probably carries the only real ‘fat’ in the story: the doctor being arrested after he tries to vandalize the project, then escaping feels like something added just to make the episode long enough. And although I rarely like final shots that show characters laughing at what they are seeing, the final scene of the Doc and Brigadier falling out then making up, whilst Liz laughs at them, is a nice way to finish off the drama.

There are other faults. Stahlman is like almost every other male scientist the Doctor comes across a maniac and a stupid one at that. The Primords – the name given to those who touch the green poison that is leaking into the facility are realized very well. The crazed werewolf makeup gets the thumbs up from me. One glaring weakness concerns the Aussie character named Greg. He is great in the parallel world, but in the real world he does not actually do anything except fancy Petra. The real problem though is that the story is never followed up. I cannot imagine the Pertwee Doctor – a man greedy for knowledge – would never bother investigating the possibilities of parallel universes more. And this is the final episode for Liz, who was always one of the more underrated companions. Liz was the only companion who worked properly alongside the doctor, and she is never in awe of him. Back to Inferno, it may not be perfect but it has deep impact on viewers – arguably the best of the whole Pertwee era.


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