Burn Baby Burn

Review of Inferno: SE (#54)

DVD Release Date: 11 Jun 13
Original Air Date: 09 May - 20 Jun 1970
Doctor/Companion: Three, Dr. Elizabeth "Liz" Shaw, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart
Stars: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney
Preceding Story: The Ambassadors of Death (Three, Liz, the Brigadier)
Succeeding Story: Terror of the Autons (Three, Jo, the Brigadier)

It seems strange to me that despite how much I love this serial, I've never actually given Inferno a proper review before. I count it among my Top 3 pre-Hiatus favorites and have recommended it often to those who want to try out new-to-them earlier Doctors (as long as they can handle a seven-part serial), so I was thrilled a few months ago to see it pop up on the list of upcoming Special Edition releases.

I was further thrilled when I realized June had seen the release of two stories written by Don Houghton (the other being The Mind of Evil). It's only as I've gotten more deeply entrenched in Whovian culture that I've paid attention to such details. (I used to watch television and simply take what I saw on screen as it came, passing judgment in terms of "I do/don't like this," but not paying the least attention to writers, directors, and such. Go figure.) But I feel the richer for it; I have a new appreciation for why MoE worked for me, knowing my fondness for Inferno.

So what's so hot (see what I did there?) about Inferno anyway? Well, for one thing, it throws in a beautiful idea not really seen in Doctor Who up to this point: that of an alternate universe. I love the way we get to see little personality differences between familiar characters and their counterparts in the parallel dimension. The supporting cast is brilliant, not least the stellar (if regrettably named) Olaf Pooley as Professor Stahlman. Despite some pretty "out there" plot developments, the whole cast plays everything straight, and you can't help believe in their experiences and reactions. If nothing else, the administrative red tape that ties Sir Keith Gold's hands from doing anything useful to prevent impending disaster adds a sense of (slightly depressing) realism.

I can also see why the more technically minded fans seem to love director Douglas Camfield's work (though producer Barry Letts unfortunately had to take over partway through, when Camfield had a heart attack). Some of the shots on location are especially tense. The writing doesn't hurt, either. I mean, really—who doesn't love a good countdown (twice!)? Further, the episode cliffhangers are consistently good. Frankly, it's about as "pace-y" as pre-Hiatus Who gets.

Another snippet I love is that the mechanism to get the Doctor into this disturbing, just-ahead-in-time, not-our-Earth dimension is a TARDIS accident. How often do we see the TARDIS go properly wrong? She goes unexpected times/places far more often than where the Doctor intends, but this is different; it's just the console, incompletely powered, and without all the relevant pieces in place (remember, at this stage, Three has been "exiled" to 1970s Earth and had the TARDIS's materialization codes removed from his mind by the Time Lords). To me, that's just a perfect set-up for an almost impeccable story.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Can You Hear the Earth Scream?
It's clear from content that this "making of" was included with the original DVD release; interviewees include Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John, and Barry Letts, all of whom have passed away within the last four years. Despite its age (nearly seven years), the piece stands up well, and gives the kind of behind-the-scenes insight we've come to expect.

Hadoke versus HAVOC
New this time around is comedian and well-known Whovian Toby Hadoke's interviews with some of the men who made up the stunt agency HAVOC, which did stunt work for the first few years of Pertwee's reign. Hadoke orchestrates a reunion, and convinces the stuntmen to help teach him how to do a stunt fall. As Inferno included the highest stunt fall ever done on television at the time, a tip of the hat to HAVOC here is well deserved.

Doctor Forever! - Lost in the Dark Dimension
During the Hiatus, there were often rumors and hopes about the show's return. One of the most painful stories for fans at the time, as it was an actual project that got so far as to begin some filming before getting canceled, was The Dark Dimension (sometimes known as Lost in the Dark Dimension). It was meant to be a direct-to-video film to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the show, but for various reasons—explored here—never came to fruition.

The UNIT Family - Part One
Also from the original release, this extra explores the role of UNIT on the show. It covers the period from UNIT's origins through Pertwee's first series. Part Two was included on Day of the Daleks, and Part Three is slated for inclusion with Terror of the Zygons, later this year.

Was there ever any doubt? Of course I recommend this to anyone interested in the Third Doctor (or any pre-Hiatus Who, for that matter). It's glorious. You should go find a copy as soon as you can. Just don't touch the green stuff.



I don't know why so many fans love this story, but they're all just plain wrong. It's not only the worst story of Season 7, but the worst Pertwee story of all time. (Oh, OK then, second worst if you include "The Ghosts of N-Space.")

Let's face it, "Inferno" is one of the dullest stories ever: "Stop the drilling." "No." "Stop the drilling." "No." "Stop the drilling." "No." etc. etc. for seven episodes.

Yes, there is the subplot about the parallel universe, which tries to liven things up, but it's obviously just padding. It doesn't affect the main story at all. (e.g. The Doctor doesn't learn anything in the parallel universe to help him stop the drilling back in the main universe.)

Yes, yes, I know it would've been different for viewers back in 1970, who might've thought the Doctor would remain stuck on the parallel world for future stories. (After all, the series had already changed its format with the "exile on Earth" arc, so anything was possible.) Unfortunately, I'm not in 1970, so I'm just left wondering how much longer I've got to put up with parallel universe rubbish before they get back to the real story!

And talking of the parallel world, there's the Brigade-Leader. Yes, the eyepatch is a nice gimmick, but the character just plain doesn't work.

He's supposed to be the Brigadier's evil counterpart. However the real Brigadier was calmly ordering genocide less than a couple of months ago. The Brigade-Leader seems much more human in comparison, especially the way he panics when things start getting out of control, just like we would in his shoes. When it's much easier to identify with the evil counterpart, rather than the real character, you know something's wrong!

Finally, there's the moral of the story, that "So free will is not an illusion after all," line. But it doesn't make any sense in context.

The Doctor says it after learning the real Sir Keith Gold survived the crash which killed his parallel self. Does that mean the parallel Sir Keith chose to die of his own free will? If not, this suggests free will really is an illusion after all, since it can always be overridden by events out of our control. (But at least the line appeals to people who don't understand it but just like the fact the Doctor said something clever and philosophical.)

In short, the whole plotting, pacing, characterisation, and philosophy of Inferno is a total mess. It looks good, visually, but there's nothing of substance behind the surface. So why is it so popular? Are otherwise-intelligent people like you really to stupid to see all the faults?

By solar penguin (not verified)
PaulGreaves's picture

"Are otherwise-intelligent people like you really to stupid to see all the faults?"

Lucky for us you were here, otherwise us less-evolved specimens might have gone on forever thinking our opinions counted as much as everyone else's. Clearly our natural stupidity prevents us from realising you know better.

Comments like that are rude and unnecessary. You are entitled to your opinion but this is a blog that tries to stay polite and friendly. If you want to insult people, head on over to Gallifrey Base where they'll slug it out with you for as long as you want.

Sorry Marcia, I realise this is your place but my 11 year old daughter wouldn't behave like this (assuming of course that Solar Penguin is over 11)

By PaulGreaves --



mrfranklin's picture

Paul got here before me (I've been on holiday), but I've been intending to address your comments, solar penguin.

First, I do try to keep the tone here civil. I'm more than happy to have you tell me how vehemently you disagree with me, and make your arguments; it happens all the time. I respectfully request that in the future if you want to challenge my views you most definitely do so, but please leave the insults out of it.

Now let me get to your points, and address them in turn. At some level, yes, you could reduce the plot (as you have) to "stop the drilling" "no" ad nauseum. However, I choose to look at it differently, and see a broader story there.

First, as you note, there's the parallel universe. While the Doctor doesn't learn anything specifically to help him there, he does find out exactly what would happen if the drilling succeeded (without having to destroy the world we live in). That seems significant for the viewer, if not the Doctor. It shows us what the stakes really are.

I'm not sure even in 1970 that the viewers would really have believed he'd be stuck there forever. (Did any of us think he'd stay in Pete's World? Even if it was a new idea, that doesn't mean people would think the Doctor wouldn't find a way around it.) The interesting part for me comes in just where you seem to take umbrage: the alternate personalities.

To begin, I don't think the Brigade Leader is meant to be an "evil Brigadier"—I think he's just a different aspect of the same man. His experiences, his government, his whatever have all brought out different parts of his personality. I think the selfish coward is someone the Brigadier has buried far deeper inside than the Brigade Leader ever did, in part because the Brigadier can really believe in what UNIT does, as opposed to what the RSF represents, but it's still there somewhere. Similarly, the militaristic bent is perhaps closer to the surface of the Brigadier than we, the viewers, might like. It's why the Doctor is always butting heads with him.

That's why I personally find the entire parallel dimension thing so intriguing: what parts of any of us would manifest differently in different circumstances? Would the Brigadier have cracked and become that cowardly bastard ("just like we would in his shoes") if our world had been the one to be destroyed? I'm not entirely sure, and I like the way this serial makes me think along those lines.

As for the Doctor's "free will" speech, I'll grant you that it's a bit twee. On the other hand, I don't think it's as nonsensical in context as you make out. My interpretation has always been that the Doctor noted that since something was clearly different in the two universes (Sir Keith's death), that meant that (to put it in simple terms) the quantum mechanical "many worlds" hypothesis was valid. That is, for every moment in which more than one outcome is possible, every outcome does happen, leading to divergent universes. He was not, therefore, implying that in one case Sir Keith "chose" to die and not in the other; instead, he was using that difference as evidence of divergence. The Doctor thus deduced from Sir Keith's death that choices could be made (perhaps the driver swerved left instead of right—we don't know).

I happen to enjoy Inferno. Others may agree with you that it plods. All I can do is give my own opinions and recommendations, and just like any reviewer, readers can decide whether they more often agree with me or disagree. So if one reader loves what I hate, and hates what I love, they'll know to avoid what I recommend and vice versa. But as far as I'm concerned, that's what's great about Who: there's something for everyone, somewhere.

p.s. Before anyone thinks my upcoming post (to be published on the 24th) was written in response to solar penguin's comment, I want it known that I wrote it a week ago—well before this review of Inferno went up. I'm not trolling my own readers (at least not intentionally)!

By mrfranklin
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