Doctor Who Project: Inferno

I slipped sideways.

The Time Lords may have banished the Doctor to Earth, but they didn’t specify which Earth precisely, allowing Don Houghton’s “Inferno” (Story Production Code DDD) to transport our time traveller to a parallel Earth where the biggest difference is that the Brigadier has no mustache. Oh, and in this other dimension England happens to be fascist, too.

Yes, Brigade Leader!

The story starts innocently enough, with the Doctor mooching nuclear power from a massive drilling project that aims to tap “Stahlman’s Gas,” a powerful energy source trapped just under Earth’s crust. He’s bent on jump-starting the TARDIS console, which he’s had installed in a pre-fab garage near the drilling site. Apparently he believes that with an independent power source, he can use the console itself to travel through space and time, defeating the Time Lords’ ignition lock. And it works, after a fashion, briefly propelling him, well, somewhere, and allowing Jon Pertwee to ham it up for the cameras again during a scene of dematerialization gone awry.

Dimensional Travel

As for the drilling project, the stage seems set for a standard bureaucratic showdown between an officious administrator and a scientist bent on fulfilling his life’s ambitions, as seen most recently in “Doctor Who and the Silurians.” Almost immediately, the dangers of the drilling project manifest themselves when a rigger is exposed to a green goo leaking from a drill pipe. The viscous viridian substance rapidly de-evolves him into a slavering, primordial being (shades, again, of “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” where encounters with the old lizards trigger a mental retrogression, with hints of the sentient seaweed from “Fury from the Deep” for good measure). Once the lead scientist, Stahlman, accidentally infects himself with the goo, the story seems set on its rails: the goo is dangerous and threatens everyone, so naturally the Doctor will step in and stop the drilling. But after being confronted with evidence of some strangeness afoot, including a a vial of the goo itself and Stahlman’s increasing derangement, the Doctor petulantly focuses his efforts instead on getting more power for his pet project.

And the goo isn’t even the real problem. In a neat bit of subverted expectations, Houghton manages to make green-skinned pseudo-werewolves into mere set dressing, because the planet is about to explode.

The end of (an) Earth

Though never fully explained, once the Inferno project taps through the Earth’s crust and releases “Stahlman’s Gas,” the planet essentially catches on fire. And the only way the Doctor realizes the danger is, um, after the planet catches on fire. Thankfully (?), though, it’s not his Earth. A power surge during one of his console experiments pushes him through a dimensional barrier; he travels not through time or space but to the exact same time and space on a different Earth.

Shifting the story to a parallel Earth provides Houghton the freedom to have the Doctor fail. Though the Doctor feels uneasy about Stahlman’s plan—the oft-sabotaged computer in this story beeps its protestations constantly—his expectation is of a minor, localized disaster, and, given that he’s imprisoned by the Republican Security Force (the UNIT of its world), he’s hampered in even stopping that. It’s not until the drill has cracked the Earth’s crust that the Doctor cognizes the process has doomed the planet. By seeing the parallel Earth in the throes of annihilation, he gains the necessary insight to save his Earth from destruction, if only he can get back there before it’s too late.

One could uncharitably say that running through the same plot twice helps stretch the story to its seven episodes, but in truth the parallel plot construction allows for an economy of narrative that gives characterizations a chance to shine. Other than the Doctor, each speaking part has a counterpart in the parallel Earth, distinguished by a change in hair, clothing and/or title. We don’t need to be introduced to the characters again in the parallel Earth, so we gain a better insight into both versions by their actions and attitudes, with the suggestion that there’s some essential characteristic that every version of oneself shares across dimensions. (And Brigadier/Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart doesn’t come across well by this implication, with the fascist version shown to be quite craven when facing death.)

When Petra Met Greg

As it has for all of the Third Doctor’s stories thus far, the plot hinges on the heroicism of technical competence, here given form not in the figures of Liz Shaw or the Doctor but rather in the star-crossed lovers Greg Sutton and Petra Williams (Derek Newark and Sheila Dunn). In both worlds, they manage save the day through their ability to hotwire nuclear reactors and jury-rig coolant pipes, all while resisting the demands of their cultural and social conditioning. Granted, the Doctor does much of the heavy plot lifting, but the struggle between these two to understand their attraction to one another while trying to serve different masters and prevent total disaster gives the story an emotional center, particularly in the parallel fascist setting. Their self-sacrifice enables the Doctor to escape the doomed Earth and return to his own in time to prevent (again, with the help of Sutton and Williams) the drill from cracking the planet open.

Primarily a character study, then, “Inferno” nevertheless features much action and running around on location, with the Primords (so named by fandom) forever cornering the Doctor on top of oil tanks. The green-tinged, fur-lined beastmen receive almost no development. Though the Doctor claims to have heard their keening cry before, when he was at the Krakatoa eruption, there’s zero exploration of the linkage between the green goo and the depths of the Earth’s core. The story would have worked better, indeed, had the Primords been absent and more focus put on the conflict between technical authoritarianism (in the form of Stalhman) and practical rationality (portrayed by Sutton), with Williams as the intercessor between the two. As it stands, the Primords serve merely to extend the action by getting in the way every so often.

Sigh. The Primords again.

Needless to say, the Doctor does return to his own dimension and barely manages to stop the drilling process before the crust cracks. He doesn’t help matters by smashing up panels with a lead pipe once his protestations fail to sway the gathered technocrats in the drilling control center, but once he’s lead away by UNIT soldiers, he gets to employ Venusian karate moves that enable him to paralyze with a touch. (Star Trek and the Vulcan nerve pinch seem a particular referent here, as the American import had already been on the air in the UK for a year by this point in 1970.)

Venusian Karate!

The Doctor shows a continued focus on escaping Earth (any Earth, not just the doomed ones), even to the point of tricking Liz into leaving the area to continue his experiments with the TARDIS console uninterrupted. He lacks much sentimentality, being a very stoic sort when having to tell the parallel Earth’s Liz, Brigadier, Petra, and Greg that he needs to leave them behind—to transfer them between dimensions would, apparently, shatter the space-time continuum. His only true affection seems to be to the TARDIS itself:

Doctor: Without the TARDIS I feel rather lost, a stranger in a foreign land, a shipwrecked mariner.

There’s a palpable resentment on his part to being exiled; a natural feeling, to be sure, but the Third Doctor doesn’t seem to much like this planet or its inhabitants. The tonal shift provides a nice change of pace from the more ebullient Second Doctor, yet combining this mild misanthropy with a continued presence on Earth makes for an occasionally jarring experience. When he thinks he’s about to leave for good at the end of the story, he’s downright brutal to the Brigadier, and this time for no really good reason. His subsequent attempt to paper over his words comes across as, frankly, smarmy.

He does, however, provide in that moment the only goodbye that Liz Shaw will receive. As the first of many solo female companions to come, Caroline John leaves the series offscreen after this story. Her time with the Doctor proved that a single companion could work, particularly with a Doctor who takes up as much of the screen as Pertwee. As much as possible, the writers attempted to hew closely to the conception of Liz as a scientist first and foremost, and she held her own in that department with the Doctor. It’s a shame to see her leave without any fanfare.

A farewell to Liz

UNIT continues to be as inept as ever, failing to secure the Inferno compound even after a brutal murder. At least they can take some comfort in the fact that their parallel universe counterpart, the RSF, displays a similar degree of slapdash security and marksmanship. That said, the difference between the Brigadier and the Brigade Leader helps to sell the fascist parallel Earth quite nicely. The shock at seeing Lethbridge-Steward clean shaven with an eyepatch and scar, so similar and yet so different, drives home the concept of connected dimensions in a way that all the plot explanations provided do not.

Brigade Leader, if you please

After four Third Doctor stories, and four stories on Earth, the writers and production team have managed to make them all feel different and vital. Being trapped planetside has not proven an impediment to varied and energetic storytelling. Which is important, because they’re returning to the well as season eight begins, bringing back the plastic fantastic creatures from the season seven opener, along with a new friend we’ll be seeing quite a lot of as the years go by.

(Previous Story: The Ambassadors of Death)

(Next Story: Terror of the Autons)

Post 56 of the Doctor Who Project

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