Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Inferno"

Aired May 9 - June 20, 1970

7 Episodes

Story 54

Written by Don Houghton

Directed by Douglas Camfield



Synopsis

UNIT is providing security for a top secret experimental drilling project. Headed by the driven Professor Stahlman, the aim of the experiment is to penetrate the Earth's crust and ascertain the theoretical existence of a new source of energy dubbed "Stahlman's Gas." The project's executive director Sir Keith Gold has concerns regarding the safety of the project, but the obsessed Stahlman ignores them and pushes the timeline of the project well past the safety margins.

Gold's fears may be accurate, as the drill head begins oozing a strange green slime that transforms any who come into contact with it into violent primordial creatures that emit and crave extreme heat. While the Brigadier and the Doctor investigate, their concerns have no effect on Stahlman, who accelerates the drilling even further. 

During an experiment with the TARDIS console which utilizes the complex's power supply, the project suffers a power surge that catapults the Doctor into a parallel universe. There he finds England is a totalitarian state and he encounters dark versions of his friends. The Brigadier is a craven, petty fascist, Liz is not a scientist but a cooly efficient soldier, and Benton is a vicious thug.

Stahlman's project is at a more advanced stage here, nearly about to break through the crust. Though the Doctor desperately tries to prevent an apocalypse, he is ultimately unable to stave off catastrophe, and the parallel Earth destroys itself as the Doctor manages to escape back to his own universe.

Returning home, he tries to use the knowledge he gained in the doomed universe to prevent another disaster. Initially his warnings are dismissed, but once Stahlman himself is infected by the slime and transformed into a creature, the Doctor, Liz and UNIT manage to shut down the drilling in the nick of time.

Analysis


Season Seven’s greatness culminates in this, arguably the single greatest story of the Pertwee era and perhaps the series' greatest story up to this point. Everything about it works brilliantly. Unlike some other long stories, the scripts use the length to their advantage, utilizing the initial two episodes to establish the characters and ratchet up the tension. When the Doctor makes his trip to the parallel universe, things kick into high gear as we encounter dark reflections of characters that we have grown to like. Pertwee is fantastic as the Doctor realizes that there are worse things than being stuck on the Earth he knows. His dawning horror and shock at the roads people like Liz and the Brigadier could have taken are played wonderfully by Pertwee, as is his dogged determination to try and save this horrible place anyway.

The real achievement here is what the writer ultimately does with the parallel universe; namely, destroying it. The safer bet would have been to have the Doctor manage to save them, then use that knowledge back on “his” Earth. This would have allowed the production team to possibly revisit this fascinating place. However, they made instead the braver choice to show us what happens when the Doctor fails to save the day. The fact that he watches helplessly as an entire planet is destroyed is genuinely shocking, and it serves to elevate the stakes higher than any other story. We know what will happen if Stahlman isn’t stopped because we have actually seen it, and the result is seven episodes of thrilling, suspenseful, scary, perfect entertainment. As the story goes, Don Houghton brought the story about the drilling to the production team, who realized there wasn't enough story there to fill a seven-parter. Terrance Dicks reportedly came up with the idea of the parallel Earth, a stroke of brilliance that transforms the story utterly and makes it the classic it became.

The story is directed wonderfully by Douglas Camfield, who sadly fell ill during production, resulting in Barry Letts having to complete the story. There's great use of location filming, exceptional action sequences, and genuine pace and tension to every scene. The sparse use of score throughout the story allows the relentless sound of the drilling and the horrific growls of the creatures to infiltrate every scene. The flip-flopping back and forth from world to world would be distracting in other stories, but it's done perfectly here, with each cutaway serving a storytelling purpose and advancing the action. 

The performances of every single cast-member is superb here. Once again, we don't really have a moustache-twirling villain, but rather an obsessed and unbalanced antagonist whose demons overwhelm him as he loses control under the effects of the mysterious slime. We get interesting supporting characters like Petra and Greg, who share a tender and sweet love story, and Sir Keith, a civil servant interesting enough to drive whole scenes. The regulars all are excellent as well, with Nicholas Courtney clearly relishing the chance to play such a despicable version of the Brigadier, John Levene's Benton becoming an actual character finally, and Caroline John, in her final appearance, giving a superb performance as the dark Liz. She was leaving the series to have her first child, but the production team had already found that Liz was unsuitable as a companion. They felt having an adult, confident scientist resulted in a lack of audience identification. Pure rubbish, I say, as John was great throughout and her very competence allowed the production team to split the action and allow Liz to take a greater share of agency. 


After this story, it's hard to see how Doctor Who could feel this grown up or sophisticated again. Season Seven represents a real achievement for the series, a period of sustained innovation and sophistication that appealed not just to kids, but to adults as well. In fact, there isn't a story in the whole season that isn't superb, and Inferno is the crowning achievement. 



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