We are just a few months away from the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, and the BBC continues to roll out classic serials on DVD. As a Yank who is a fairly recent convert to the series, I am getting to know the various incarnations of the Doctor through these releases. In watching them, I find it interesting how often my opinions about the show, and the Doctors changes. A case in point is the new seven-part Inferno, which originally aired from May into June of 1970. Jon Pertwee stars as the Third Doctor, and with this serial, he has become my favorite Doctor.
The early ‘70s were a tough time for Doctor Who, as the show’s already meager budget was cut back even further. The solution was to have the Doctor exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, which reduced production costs considerably. There is no doubt that it is a strange situation to have a being who can travel through time and space at will trapped like this, but they made it work. Actually they more than made it work with Inferno, not only is it an excellent story, but we even get to see the end of the world.
The action begins at a guarded mountain location, where the Doctor and Liz Shaw (Caroline John) are observing a drilling operation. The Doctor is also working on the console of the TARDIS there. The drilling project has been code-named “The Inferno,” which is apt, as the idea is to drill into the center of the Earth to tap an energy source called "Stahlman‘s Gas." The warning signs that this is a very bad idea are evident early on. Shortly after the drilling starts, there is a huge earthquake, and an otherworldly sound that nobody had ever heard before. Nobody save the Doctor that is, who says he heard it once before, at Krakatoa.
The drill is being powered by nuclear energy, and when one of the hoses breaks, a green slime spills out. The workers who are exposed to this turn into mutant, primordial beasts, intent on murder. Yet with all of the trouble, and the unexplained deaths, Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley) will not consider stopping the mission. He is so intent on seeing it through, that he is caught sabotaging the warning system by the Doctor. Nobody will listen though, and what Stahlman says goes. Even if it leads to Armageddon.
As is revealed in one of the bonus features, it was the BBC’s austerity campaign that turned Inferno from a good Doctor Who story into a great one. Rather than airing two different four-part serials, they decided to end the season with one long one, the seven-part Inferno. To flesh out what was originally a four-parter, writer Don Houghton had the TARDIS console take the Doctor “sideways.” Thus the Doctor was sent to a parallel or alternate Earth. The time is about one hour in the future.
This is a great twist, reminiscent of the Star Trek Original Series episode “Mirror, Mirror,” where the alternate world is the “evil“ world. The drilling is creating unprecedented havoc there as well, although if the good Stahlman would not listen to reason, the bad one is even less interested. I love the details of this parallel world, where there are all kinds of little things that are just a bit off. It is especially fun to see the bad side of the Doctor’s companion Liz Shaw here too.
The Doctor is facing danger on all sides of this other world. Since nobody even knows him, they figure him for an enemy spy. He is to be executed, but manages to escape, only to run into the “promordials,” as the mutants are called. Then there is the drilling, which continues unabated. The Doctor figures that he might be able to power his TARDIS console with their nuclear power, to get back into our universe, but he needs help. Liz was a trusted companion before, but is very different here. The Doctor's charm, and knowledge of Liz' past come in quite handy though. I mentioned that we see the world blown up, and it happens just as the console dematerializes. We are left to wonder what the Doctor will run into back home.
This is probably a good place to stop describing the action, as there are still some intriguing twists for the Doctor and us to discover. I will mention that one of the great lines of the show comes at the end, when the Doctor surveys the scene and says with some surprise, “Free will is not an illusion at all.” Besides being a very good tale, I found myself riveted by Pertwee. His expressions and actions define the Third Doctor in a nearly tactile sense. I quite enjoyed Spearhead From Space, but he really clicked for me with Inferno.
Our friends at the BBC have loaded Inferno with extras, as a matter of fact, there is a full second DVD devoted to them. First up is “Can You Hear the Earth Scream?” a 35-minute making-of piece. For fans of the Third Doctor’s run, “The UNIT Family - Part One” (35 minutes) takes a look at the Earthbound Doctor’s “family” during his exile here. Another very strong extra is the penultimate installment of the five-part “Doctor Forever! - Lost in the Dark Dimension.” The 27-minute piece takes us up through the Who-related events in the years immediately preceding the successful relaunch of the show in 2005.
For those who enjoy the action and stunts of a good Doctor Who adventure, there is “Hadoke versus HAVOC” (27 minutes), in which presenter Tony Hadoke reunites surviving members of the HAVOC stunt team and trains them to perform a stunt himself. The remaining pieces are short bits, such as the “Visual Effects Promo Film” (6 minutes), a two-minute deleted scene, and the introduction to “The Pertwee Years” documentary (3 minutes). There is also a photo gallery, some PDF materials, and an audio commentary track.
One thing that I have found admirable about Doctor Who is the way they present “messages” without bludgeoning the viewer. In keeping with the spirit of the first Earth Day in 1970, the subtext of Inferno is the budding environmental movement. With all of the action, and the trip to the parallel world, the serial manages to get the point across without being annoying about it. For me, the real prize was in watching Jon Pertwee. Who knows, I may have a new favorite Doctor by November. But for now, he is the one.
Although I have barely scratched the surface in terms of watching nearly 50 years of Doctor Who, I have seen a few serials now. Inferno is definitely one of the better ones, and with all of the extras, this package is a sweet one.