Doctor Who: Inferno Review

UNIT is providing security cover for a scientific project which is attempting to drill through the Earth’s crust and to unlock hitherto untapped energy sources. In charge of the project is Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley) . His dream project has become an obsession, and he is riding roughshod over his assistants, civil servant Sir Keith Gold (Christopher Benjamin) and over all safety guidelines. Moreover, a strange green liquid has begun to leak from the drill-head, causing anyone who touches it to devolve into vicious heat-seeking monsters (Primords, as they are called in the credits though not in the dialogue). The Doctor soon suspects that Stahlman is meddling with forces beyond anyone’s control…

Doctor Who gravitates towards one of two poles: aimed more at adults, not afraid to be tense and scary on one hand, the more fantastical, light-hearted and kid-friendly on the other. Sometimes it is both within the same story. Inferno, written by Don Houghton, is a fine example of the former tendency, to which most of Season Seven was tending. With ideas pilfered from Quatermass II (the nasty slime that infects on touch) and from real life (the Moho Project of the 1960s, which attempted to drill down to the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, Moho for short, the point where the Earth’s solid crust met the magma mantle underneath), Inferno would have made a tense, tight four-parter in itself. However the outgoing producers, Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant, had continued the previous Season’s trend to unusual serial lengths (including an eight-parter and a ten-parter) as a cost-saving measure and Season Seven had a four-parter followed by three seven-parters. This practice was soon abandoned by the incoming team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, and – apart from the Colin Baker Trial of a Time Lord, fourteen episodes but arguably made up of three fours and a two joined together - Inferno was the last serial to be made longer than six parts. But what to fill that extra story space with? The answer to that question is the making of this serial. It’s hardly a spoiler to Who fans, but anyone who doesn’t know the premise of Inferno and wishes to come to this story entirely fresh should skip to “The DVD” below.

At the cliffhanger of Episode 2, The Brigadier and Liz Shaw watch as the Doctor and the TARDIS console (the original prop, making its farewell appearance) disappear before their eyes. Where’s he gone? The answer is, to Warp Two, an alternative Britain under a fascist dictatorship. There, Stahlman’s Project is further advanced, and instead of UNIT cover we have the Republican Security Force led by Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart, minus moustache and with an eyepatch. The Deadly Assassin is listed as the Doctor’s only companionless story, but for four episodes of Inferno that’s effectively the case. Former allies – the Brigadier, Liz, Sergeant Benton – are now their darker alter egos. The stakes suddenly become higher – friendly characters can die (or their Warp Two equivalents at least), and – in the utterly terrifying cliffhanger to Episode 6, the world can end with no hope of salvation. The regular cast really rise to the occasion, with Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John clearly having a field day playing their regular characters’ darker sides, and John Levene doing his best work as first kindly Warp One Benton, thuggish Warp Two Benton and finally a Primord. There’s solid work from the guest cast, including two actors whose best-known Who roles were elsewhere: Derek Newark (who was Caveman Za in the first ever serial) and Christopher Benjamin (later to play Jago in The Talons of Weng-Chiang). Douglas Camfield’s direction is strong, and not let down by his becoming ill after doing all the location work and the studio sessions for the first two episodes. Barry Letts stepped in, uncredited, for the remaining five episodes. Particularly noticeable is the use of sound, something not usual considering the lo-fi sets this serial was made to be viewed on. Through much of the serial we hear the drilling in the background, which causes the characters to raise their voices and racks up the tension: when we get a scene with no background noise, it comes as a jolt.

If the likes of City of Death are your idea of Who at its closest to perfection, you may find Inferno a bit too grim and unremittingly tense for your liking, especially if you find Pertwee’s Doctor too domineering and patriarchal. Even though anyone buying the DVD is hardly likely to replicate the original esperience of watching it an episode at a time at weekly intervals, it is probably best taking in, like most of the longer serials, no more than two or three episodes at once. Inferno is an ending rather than a beginning: Liz Shaw left and Jo Grant came in, there was a regular villain in The Master, and eventually the Doctor went back into space again. The harder-edged tone of Series Seven was softened, and didn’t really return until the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, Tom Baker’s first three seasons. I’ve written enough times on this site that I consider those eras high points in the series’ history, and Inferno epitomises that tone perfectly.

Inferno arrives on DVD from 2 Entertain in a two-disc set, encoded for Regions 2 and 4. All seven episodes and the commentary are on the first disc, with the remaining extras on the second.

Inferno was a victim of the BBC’s junking policy of the 1970s and all its colour PAL videotapes were wiped. 16mm black-and-white telerecordings were still kept though (and don’t forget that in 1970 the great majority of the audience would have been watching in monochrome anyway). However, 525-line colour NTSC tapes were returned from Canada. The earlier DVD release of The Claws of Axos was the first to use Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC), or converting back to PAL material which only exists as NTSC-to-PAL conversions. Needless to say, short of an original PAL tape turning up, this is as good as these episodes are ever likely to look, particularly on interlaced-scan viewing equipment such as most TV sets. On progressive-scan equipment – such as a PC monitor – it’s grainier and softer and the line structure is more visible. On the other hand, this was never intended to be viewed in these circumstances. Owners of HD-ready sets won’t be using this DVD to show off their equipment, but I’m glad it’s available when so much vintage TV (including, don’t forget, 108 1960s Who episodes) is probably lost forever. For further details of the restoration of this serial, I refer you to the Restoration Team’s website.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and has been well restored. Given the prominent role background noise has in this story, the track is particularly well balanced. Incidentally, there’s no specially-composed incidental music for this serial, only stock pieces from the Radiophonic Workshop.

The audio commentary participants are Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks, Nicholas Courtney, with separately-recorded words from John Levene, who talks over most of Episodes 2 and 5. As ever, this is a good-natured chat from people who clearly know each other very well, an enjoyable and informative listen. Equally informative are the information subtitles provided by Martin Wiggins. Subtitles are also provided for the serial itself and the extras on Disc Two but not for the commentary. There are six chapter stops per episode.

We haven’t quite finished with the first disc, as it contains an Easter Egg. Start up Episode 7 and go backwards to the very start of the title, and you’ll see the studio countdown clock for that episode.

Compared to other DVDs, such as this one’s immediate predecessor Genesis of the Daleks, this may be a little lighter on extras. That’s partly due to the higher proportion of principals who are no longer alive (or alive but presumably unavailable, as with Olaf Pooley and Christopher Benjamin). However, on Disc Two the main featurette, “Can You Hear the Earth Scream?” (34:49) features all the commentary participants plus Caroline John, actor Ian Fairbairn and stunt arranger and actor Derek Ware. It’s as well-assembled as you might expect.

The second featurette is “The UNIT Family: Part One” (35:37), which traces UNIT from its beginnings in the Troughton era with The Web of Fear and particularly The Invasion, before becoming a regular part of the serial with the Doctor’s exile on Earth and Pertwee’s opening serial Spearhead from Space. UNIT was the creation of then producer Derrick Sherwin, who is interviewed along with Letts, Dicks, Courtney, John, Levene and Ware. Given that most of Web of Fear (not to mention The Daleks’ Master Plan, which features when Courtney discusses how he was cast) is missing, some moments are represented by stills rather than clips. This is Part One, which takes the story up to the end of Series Seven and Inferno. Presumably Part Two will follow in due course, on an appropriate DVD.

Next up is “Visual Effects in Television”, subtitled “An Introduction to the Devices, Techniques and Operational Methods of the Visual Effects Department of BBC TV”. (6:02), a showreel for said department which includes model shots from two Who stories, Inferno and The Ambassadors of Death. There are also extracts from an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel, and the filming of a sequence from a missing episode of Doomwatch.

When Inferno was made, it included a short scene set in Warp Two where the characters listen to a radio announcer, played by a rather too obvious Jon Pertwee doing an impression of the traitorous wartime broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce). This scene was cut for UK transmission, but was included for overseas broadcast and video release. However, it’s cut again here to reflect the original story as broadcast, but included as a separate item – the scene in context runs 1:58 including some explanatory text at the beginning. Finally, the late Jon Pertwee makes an appearance from the Pertwee Years video, in which he describes his beginnings in the role and introduces the final episode of Inferno (2:45).

The remaining items are as usual for a Doctor Who DVD: a self-navigating stills gallery (6:12), and, as PDF files for those with DVD-ROM capabilities, a reproduction of the 1971 Doctor Who annual and the cuttings for Inferno from Radio Times. The latter includes a shot of Jon Pertwee at home with his family – including Sean Pertwee, age five and a half.

Disc Two also houses the second Easter Egg. Highlight "Next" on the first page of the menu then click left. Click on the green Doctor Who logo which appears and you have a "clean" (textless) version of the Inferno opening title sequence.

It’s fascinating what might have happened if future seasons had followed the lead of Season Seven. I doubt Mary Whitehouse would have liked it, though ironically it was Season Eight (and Terror of the Autons especially) which was more criticised for its levels of violence and horror. Most eras of Who have their fans and detractors both, but of the two types of story I’ve identified above, there are examples which are almost always regarded as classics, and Inferno is one of them. Once again, it comes to DVD in as good a shape as you can expect (given the fact that original materials don’t exist, only second-generation ones) with the usual well-chosen set of extras.

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