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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ Inferno (Season 7/ 1970)

April 27, 2013

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doctor_who_inferno

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Crossing over to the dark side: in the last serial of third incarnation Jon Pertwee’s opening season, The Doctor endured one his darkest and most disturbing but most thrilling adventures  

That shock of grey hair; that crow-like nose; that distinguished, tall frame; that aristocratic air and that awesome, if rather preposterous Edwardian get-up with all the frills… yes, it could only be Jon Pertwee’s take on the practically-perfect-in-every-way protagonist of Doctor Who.

For in this blog post, peeps, (the latest not only to celebrate that show’s 50th anniversary year, but also the third to focus on one sole, classic story from years past – check out the first two here and here), we’re taking a look at Inferno, arguably the serial in which Pertwee’s Doc era really first found its mojo and, thus, unarguably one of his and the show’s very best…

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Doctor: Jon Pertwee (The Third Doctor)

Companions: ‘The UNIT Family’ – specifically Caroline John (Dr Liz Shaw); Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart); John Levene (Sergeant Benton)

Villains: British Republican Security Forces (RSF) – specifically Nicholas Courtney (Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart); John Levene (Platoon Under Leader Benton); Olaf Pooley (Professor/ Director Stahlman); Primords (Dave Carter, Pat Gorman, Walter Henry, Philip Ryan and Peter Thompson)

Allies: Caroline John (RSF Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw); Derek Newark (Greg Sutton); Sheila Dunn (Petra Williams); Christopher Benjamin (Sir Keith Gold)

Writer: Don Houghton

Producer: Barry Letts

Script editor: Terrance Dicks

Director: Douglas Camfield and (uncredited for episodes 3-7) Barry Letts

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Season: Seven (fourth and last serial – comprising seven 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: May 9-June 20 1970 (weekly)

Total average viewers: 5.7 million

Previous serial: The Ambassadors Of Death

Next serial: Terror Of The Autons (Season 8)

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When we first see him this serial, The Doctor, now in his third guise (that of slightly lisping, patrician-dandy-action-man Jon Pertwee), is operatically ‘tra-lah-lahing’ as he drives along his natty pseudo-vintage motor vehicle ‘Bessie’. That’s because, although like a naughty schoolboy he’s recently been banished to Earth and the ‘secrets’ of the TARDIS taken from his mind by the masters of his Time Lord race (see previous season concluder The War Games), he’s not only found a suitable Earth-bound role for himself as scientific advisor to the UK arm of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT – an army-esque enterprise dealing with all manners of things strange; read: aliens), but he’s also managed to second himself to a project whereby he can work on the all-important console of his TARDIS so, defying the Time Lords, it may once more transport him through time and space as he wishes.

The project in question is a dynamic if unlikely Home Counties-based operation to drill down to the Earth’s core, where its director (the eccentric, short-tempered Professor Stahlman) believes pockets of great energy-boasting gas can be unlocked and brought to the surface. Trailing off power from the operation’s nuclear reactor then, The Doctor aims to boot up his TARDIS console and carry out several experiments with latest companion (his UNIT assistant) Dr Liz Shaw. That’s the plan anyway, but of course things soon go seriously awry.

For, as Stahlman stubbornly ramps up the speed of the drilling, a gloopy green goo spills over at the surface, infecting a worker and transforming him into a primordial-like creature (a ‘primord’), whom, obsessed with heat, powers up the nuclear generator further so things may become hotter faster. This he achieves, but just as The Doctor has fiddled with his TARDIS and begun his first experiment; the result being the huge power surge sends him and his console not into the past or future, but sideways through time – into an alternate universe.

To say this is bad news is putting it mildly. For, in this universe, the UNIT peeps instead belong to the British Republican Security Forces, a militia that maintains control through an iron fist for a non-monarchical, fascist Blighty. Immediately then, The Doc’s discovered and interrogated by a facially scarred and eye-patch-sporting Lethbridge-Stewart, with a stern Liz Shaw his right-hand woman. Our man explains himself and unsurprisingly isn’t believed, but also discovers that Stahlman and co. are further on with their drilling than in his universe. As the drama unfolds, during which (as in the reality we’re used to) Stahlman too becomes infected and slowly transforms into a primord, it becomes apparent to The Doc that when the awesome drill strikes the Earth’s core it won’t release handy gases, but instead unleash an almighty volcanic eruption, earthqukes and a general lava-driven destruction of the entire planet. Whoops!

Again, with a pistol-toting Lethbridge-Stewart, he’s unable to prevent the inevitable, but when it comes he seeks other cohorts – a gradually turning Liz and the attracted-to-one-another Petra Williams (Stahlman’s assistant) and oil-man advisor Greg Sutton – to help him travel back to his universe (via power from the nuclear reactor) to prevent its destruction. Eventually, with a doomsday-facing Lethbridge-Stewart cowed and beaten, they pull it off, ensuring that once back in his universe The Doctor can pull together his versions of the Brig, Liz, Petra and Sutton to stop the drilling and put an end to the whole project.

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The rumour that Doctor Who was being lined up for cancellation after Second Doc Patrick Troughton’s final season (the sixth) is apparently all wrong – it was at the end of this season that the show could have been dust, had its colourised, Earth-bound reinvention with lead man Pertwee not been a success. But, frankly, how could it not have been when it climaxed with this serial?

Make no mistake, Inferno is a stonker of a Who story. It’s as pacy, shouty, thrilling and – in its way – as bleak and forbidding as the show’s ever got. After all, not only does the frock coat-wearer (and it’s a totally black frock-coat-and-tie-combo he sports here, by the way) face the potential imminent destruction of the entire world, but with the aid of the ‘alternate universe’ gambit the entire world actually is destroyed. You can’t get much bleaker than that.

And, despite the ever sprightly pacing and ominously growing threat throughout, it’s really the alternate universe aspect of Inferno that sets it apart from all other Who stories – well, aside maybe from the similarly alternate universe-featuring Tennant era The Rise Of The Cybermen/ The Age Of Steel double-header (2006), but then Inferno sets itself apart from these episodes too by being so good and executing the whole thing so damn well.

The dystopian miasma of this universe is so emotionally resonant for The Doctor – and us – because its underpinned and driven by nightmarish versions of the oh-so likable UNIT bods; chief among them a horrid alternative Lethbridge-Stewart. And much credit must go to Nicholas Courtney here; while the light-comedian Pertwee’s enjoying getting his teeth into some serious thesping for once, Courtney resists turning this Brig into a pantomime villain, instead conjuring up a cruel, crude bully whom becomes increasingly febrile as his world and, thus, his control unravels.

Credit too, of course, should go to directors Camfield (episodes 1 and 2) and Letts (episodes 3-7), whose skill ensures the thrilling pace and intensity rarely relent, especially as they didn’t actually collaborate on helming duties (see why below).

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Lumped with the decision of previous Who producers that the show should be made up of long serials (three of this season’s four stories are seven episodes long, including this one), producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks – the pair that could be said to have masterminded the highly successful Pertwee years – received a script for Inferno that was simply too short for all the episodes they needed. Inspired by real-life, ‘classified’ US and Soviet drilling-to-the-Earth’s-core projects, Don Houghton’s script required filling out, so Dicks came up with a now familiar sci-fi show concept – throw the protagonist into an alternate universe.

Directing-wise, the reason why Camfield only helmed the serial’s first two episodes and Letts had to replace him for the final four was because the former suffered a heart attack and had to be rushed to hospital. Letts, however, has claimed the other’s preparatory notes were so comprehensive he merely had to follow them in order successfully to direct the rest of the story (all interior shooting, as the exterior work had already been completed). Camfield received a full credit for direction, though, as Letts didn’t want anybody outside the production catching wind of the former’s illness and hampering his career (Camfield would be diagnosed with a heart condition and, in fact, died at the young age of 52). BBC rules of the time, too, insisted that only one person could receive credit for directing or writing a drama serial.

Disruption to the filming then was surprisingly minor, but it must have been tough for actress Sheila Dunn (Petra Williams), whom was Camfield’s wife; future Howard’s Way (1985-90) star Kate O’Mara had initially been lined up for that role but proved unavailable – eventually she would essay The Rani, the villainess Time Lord character, in The Mark Of The Rani (1985) and Time And The Rani (1987). Other cast notes worth mentioning are the fact Christopher Benjamin would memorably return to the series as Henry Gordon Jago in the classic story The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (1977), while Derek Newark (Greg Sutton) had previously played Stone Age tribe chieftain Za in the very first Who serial An Unearthly Child (1963) and, lest we forget, Inferno marked the final appearance of Caroline John and her character Liz Shaw. Fitting then that the serial’s final shot, following the climax of all the mayhem, is her smiling and laughing face. A nice way to go out for the popular Who alumnus whom sadly died last year.

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Next time: The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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