Before the Cataclysm (Inferno)


It’s May 9th, 1970. Between now and June 20th, Henry Marrow will be killed in North Carolina in a racist hate crime, two will die when police fire into a crowd at a demonstration at Jackson State University, a fourteen-year old fan will die after being struck in the head by a foul ball at a Major League Baseball game, eleven will die in Israel in a Palestinian terrorist attack, six when a plane crashes into an Interstate Highway in Florida. In addition, E.M. Forster will die of a stroke, Abraham Maslow will die of a heart attack, and unnumbered people will die in the ongoing Vietnam War whilst the world slides ever closer to the eschaton. Also, Inferno airs.

With Inferno, Doctor Who proffers a startling sense of lucidity, presenting a world in which drilling for energy sources destroys the world. That it is allegorized through an over the top “they dug too deep” narrative is of course a hedge, but only in the sense of doing the bare minimum necessary to pass this off as children’s entertainment. Within the pit of near universal awfulness that is Doctor Who fandom, this sense of apocalyptic frenzy is taken to make this a “serious,” “epic” story widely praised as a high point of its era. As Philip Sandifer has noted, this is puzzling given that the story is a semi-coherently plotted jumble, but it’s easy enough to see why fans are so seduced. Inferno may not function as a story, but Doctor Who has gotten by on nothing save for sheer verve before and will do so again. And the truth is, this is an unusual bit of verve.

What’s interesting is not simply the world being destroyed, although this is a relatively rare occurence for Doctor Who, but rather episodes five and six, in which the characters on the fascist parallel Earth spend the whole time aware that their planet is doomed and figuring out what to do with this news. This provides a sense of apocalyptic dread, yes, but what’s more interesting is simply the emotional content—the specific ways in which characters react to the impending end of the world. 

Obviously, this is a 1970s sci-fi adventure story and not some Peak Television drama about people moodily staring off into the middle distance, although the confusion is understandable given how the speaking cast is basically all middle-aged white men. Regardless, the emotional content is not long on subtle depths; this is not a piece of television where much is to be gained talking about “interiority.” This isn’t about the complex psychology of the doomed, but rather about staking out a moral position about lost causes.

The key dispute within Eyepatch World is over whether and how to prioritize returning the Doctor to Eyeball World so that he can save it. On one side is the Brigade Leader, who faces the end of the world with an insistence that the Doctor try to save him. This is portrayed as selfish cowardice, in contrast to Greg Sutton, the paragon of resolute masculinity (who, notably, is portrayed as a political dissident) who immediately sides with the Doctor’s “save another world” argument. The swing vote becomes Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw, who has spent several episodes being slowly tempted towards the Doctor’s point of view, and who ultimately shoots the Brigade Leader to allow the Doctor to escape. The overall message is clear: in the face of a lost cause one must make a heroic stand to save what can be saved.

It’s not a bad message by any means. Certainly it’s more persuasive than banal fatalism. And yet there’s a strange hollowness to it as well that cannot quite be ignored—a sense that the deck has been quietly stacked to ensure that the heroic and tragic last stand is the only viable outcome. The most flagrant moment here comes after the fact, in the final episode when the Doctor gets his famed “so free will is not an illusion after all” line. Several things about this line are incredible, none of which are its basic quality, but the most striking is that it’s completely unjustified by anything in the previous four episodes.

The Doctor’s contention appears to be that because events in Eyepatch World played out differently than Eyeball World, free will must exist. But this in no way follows from anything observed. Perhaps if the two universes had been identical save for some crucial decision in the course of this story we might conclude that free will exists, but in such starkly different universes as these, all we’ve really shown is that dramatically different starting conditions can lead to dramatically different results. Given such different circumstances as “a fascist Earth” and “not a fascist Earth,” one doesn’t need to involve free will to explain things turning out differently. Indeed, the circumstance that prompts the Doctor to proclaim free will’s existence—the survival of Sir Keith—does not actually appear to come down to free will. There’s no decision in Eyeball World that allows Sir Keith to survive where he did not in Eyepatch World. It appears to be something more akin to a blind contingency.

Even more damning than the differences between the worlds, however, are the similarities. Simply put, if free will is not an illusion then it’s pretty difficult to explain why the same basic group of people should be at the same big scientific project in two different universes. The idea that the world could change enough that the royal family is executed by a fascist regime but that Elizabeth Shaw, John Benton, Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, Professor Stahlman, Petra Williams, Greg Sutton, and Keith Gold would still all come together in the same place and the same time does not suggest the existence of free will—it suggests that huge aspects of the universe are actually fundamentally and necessarily the same across timelines. Heck, the fact that all of these people are alive and have the same names is pretty stunning—apparently the universes run so similarly that the same sets of people have sex on the same days in each universe, and that the same sperm fertilizes the same egg in each case. This isn’t so much an argument for free will as definitive proof of its non-existence. 

This is not a small point either, at least in terms of the story’s moral point. The existence of free will is a fundamental predicate to the heroic last stand that gets advocated—the sense that in extremis, what matters are individual decisions and choices, and a sense of personal virtue. More to the point, the notion of free will and of heroic narrative underpins the entire tradition of liberal capitalism out of which this catastrophe (and more to the point the real-world catastrophes it most directly allegorizes) arises. Most obviously, it’s behind Stahlman’s maniacal zeal to, as a latter proponent of the ideology put it, drill baby drill. Stahlman is in pursuit of individual glory as the genius originator of the project whose name will be upon the energy source the project yields. He wants to be a hero of the sort that is only possible in a world where free will is not only believed in but fetishized as the heart of what is human.

This ugly fact leaves Inferno trapped in a strange position where it must furiously disavow any suggestion that individualist liberalism is to blame for what it’s depicting while also remaining silent on the very possibility that it might be lest the fact that it obviously is become evident. The Doctor’s non-sequitur invocation of free will is the most obvious part of this ball-hiding project, but its extreme visibility is the tipoff that it cannot be the bulk of it. 

No, the larger displacement comes around the entire business of a fascist alternate universe, which allows Inferno to construct an account of the end of the world that’s tacitly explanatory. But, as Sandifer notes, it really is entirely tacit. There’s never an apparent reason Eyepatch World is so far ahead of Eyeball World in the drilling—fascism just seems inherently slightly more efficient. The world doesn’t end because of fascism. Actually, virtually nothing happens because of fascism except that Caroline John gets to wear a wig and Nicholas Courtney gets to wear an eyepatch. The detail that Eyepatch World is fascist is catchy and high concept, but it’s flavoring—a particularly ornate version of using fascism as a generic way of flagging “these are the bad guys” instead of a substantive engagement.

To extend Sandifer’s observation into the realm of actual usefulness, not only does the fascism not matter to the resolution of the story, it doesn’t actually matter to Eyepatch World. There’s a little bit of sketching of the background—the execution of the royal family (which is bewilderingly suggested to be the thing standing between Britain and authoritarianism)—but there’s no real sense of how this world works. There’s a supreme leader of some sort, and a single tolerated political party, but this is in no way an exploration of a fascist Earth, and its idea of what our main characters would be like under fascism is so cartoonish as to, well, consist of slapping an eyepatch on Nicholas Courtney.

Perhaps the world will end in a fascist inferno. Certainly we’ve got both of the requisite ingredients in distressing quantities. But the truth is that either term is more than capable of existing on its own. The fash-adjacent governments of the contemporary world are doing more than their share to speed climatological apocalypse, yes, but blaming late-stage accelerationism for a catastrophe that was caused and nurtured by the basic operations of capitalism is disingenuous. The two are, in reality, unrelated.

And yet for all of this, there’s a strange prescience to this. Inferno comes ever so slightly too early to plausibly be about climate change—concerns existed about global warming, but were not quite penetrating popular consciousness enough to inspire a Doctor Who story. (Indeed, the popular conception still trended more towards global cooling as the direction of the catastrophe.) But this doesn’t mean that Inferno is not at its core ecological—the Doctor’s line about the planet crying out its rage makes it clear that this is about the environment, even if it’s coincidental how well its components map onto the environmental concerns of a half-century later. That it juxtaposes these with fascism, however timidly, adds to the sense of uncanny prescience. That this is all illusory, covering up a story that’s running on pure bluster and intensity, is a criticism, yes, but the illusion remains shockingly convincing even when you see through it.

In the end, however, it is the Doctor’s line about the planet’s rage that stands out most vividly. It positions the end of the world not simply as a human error, but as an act of planetary revenge. It’s not that humanity breaks the planet, but that they cross a line and the planet simply swats them (and life itself) down. It’s here that the “dug too deep” iconography starts to feel substantive, with the Earth treated as a jealous entity that, when a boundary is crossed, lashes back with brutal fury. There’s a touch of cosmic horror here—the uncontrollable and dehumanizing transformation of people into monsters is played more as a straight monster movie than as body or psychological horror (although there is the obligatory “look in horror at your glowing green hand” sequence), but it wouldn’t be out of place there. The notion of a cosmos that is disinterestedly hostile to human life is implicit underneath all of this.

And it is here that the story veers closest to any sort of substance or honesty. The reality is that we are trapped on a rock surrounded by an infinitude of deadly vacuum—the most perfect and enclosed prison it is possible to imagine. There’s no way out, the temperature is rising, and we’re in the hands of cartoonish fascists stomping around in the pursuit of their own delicate egos. Inferno may lack anything to say about this state of affairs, but there’s something to be said for the value of simply reporting the world as it is.


John G. Wood 11 months ago

If there was ever a setting where the more extreme versions of the Gaia hypothesis make sense, it's the DW universe. It's already got intelligent stars, after all, so a planet swatting us for being naughty isn't much of a stretch.

Thanks for making the connection with the current situation - it's obvious once pointed out. Next time I watch Inferno I shall view it somewhat differently!

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Roderick T. Long 11 months ago

"Heck, the fact that all of these people are alive and have the same names is pretty stunning—apparently the universes run so similarly that the same sets of people have sex on the same days in each universe, and that the same sperm fertilizes the same egg in each case. This isn’t so much an argument for free will as definitive proof of its non-existence. "

Alternatively, there are zillions of timelines, and Eyepatch World is more easily accessible from ours than the others are precisely because those details are the same.

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Lambda 11 months ago

If I remember rightly, the Doctor gets taken off to the parallel world right after giving up on influencing the base world. So in the same way that the TARDIS keeps landing in places where there's stuff to be done, its console takes him to a nice, similar world in order to show him that it's actually really important?

And/or the TARDIS is a storytelling device in this story. Inferno is, after all, big on things which make no sense when you apply logical analysis but are close enough to making sense that you can fill the gaps through associations.

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Camestros Felapton 11 months ago

//(Indeed, the popular conception still trended more towards global cooling as the direction of the catastrophe.)//

I think the peak global cooling scaremongering was a few years later in mid 70s (e.g. 1974 Global warming was featured in early 70s sci-fi, the most cited example it's why Charlton Heston is sweaty all the time in Soylent Green (1973). I think it was more that a climatic shift was covered less in ecologically related fiction than 'pollution' more generally.

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prandeamus 11 months ago

Global cooling was often linked to Nuclear Winter hypotheses, wasn't it? Gigatons of bomb-created ash, low sunshine levels. Or maybe the theories drifted in that direction.

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Christopher Brown 11 months ago

Ironically, it's here in Dalek Eruditorum that I think you capture a sense of the good reasons people like this one so much :D (I'd vote that the best of the season, but I really, really love The Ambassadors of Death and wouldn't mind anyone arguing that that most underappreciated masterpiece was instead.)

No one ever mentions the actual reason why the drilling project ends differently in the two universes: in Eyepatch World, the technicians in the drill room are forced to stay in their positions on pain of death, and wind up turned into Primords who then flood the Project. In Eyeball World, the technicians are allowed to leave, meaning only Stahlman transforms. As you demonstrate in your essay above, the differing rules don't actually reflect a major ideological difference in the two timelines...but the idea that a world where human lives matter more than their labor will survive longer is a very nice sentiment, all the same.

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Lambda 11 months ago

It's not quite their labour. The brigade leader doesn't have a clue how important that is. It's about their obedience, their validation of his authority. It's along with how there are plenty of warnings about things generally in both universes which get mostly ignored because it's Stallman who is in charge, (and ruthless about maintaining that state of affairs in sabotaging the computer,) and the scenes with Benton pointlessly ordering his troops around while the world is shaking itself apart, plus the way he gets instantly primord-ified.

It's this close association between natural disaster and human behaviour which give the story much of its power. It's not just imagining a fictional Earth so you can imagine it getting destroyed for the impact. It connects that with the authority figures around our lives, and how they have the potential to destroy our personal worlds.

As far as liberalism goes, in Inferno, the world gets destroyed because the vast majority of the staff who know there are big problems don't have enough actual liberty to do anything about it. Which is actually a good criticism of liberal capitalism.

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Christopher Brown 11 months ago

Yet another great interpretation! It's almost like Inferno is a story full of riches far beyond the stupid grimdark stories it's often lumped with like Pyramids or Earthshock ;) (Androzani not included in that bunch, of course).

Random thought: Do the McCoy stories count as "dark" or "grimdark"? Stuff like Curse of Fenric is intense but I've never thought of them as being of the same super-serious bunch as Androzani, Inferno, and the not good Gun stories.

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CJM123 11 months ago

One thing I do like about Inferno is the subtle anti-military message. Every other character in the story is similar to their Eyeball world counterpart, even though they were raised Fascist. Even Jo becomes close to her normal role.

Only the Brigade Leader is totally Mirror Universe Evil. And that's because he and the Brigadeer are men defined by their military role. The Eyeball Brigadeer isn't good in Inferno, he just happens to be on the side of the British government. Different government, he's evil. Because the military aren't actually good in the UNIT era. They are just working for someone else.

Not super left-wing or progressive, but I'm not sure if the Doctor and soldiers work together long-term could go further than a story which suggests it would all be different easily.

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Kate Orman 9 months, 2 weeks ago

It's only just occurred to me that Eyepatch World is destroyed in a Flood (of magma).

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Mike Rooney 1 month, 2 weeks ago

I am amazed by the way you have explained things in this article. Pelle Pelle Jacket

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