Go Down Go Down Go Down Go Down (Inferno)

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It's May 9, 1970. Norman Greenbaum continues to be at number one. More alarmingly, at number two is the England World Cup Squad with "Back Home," the first of many post-1966 humiliations England's national football team would suffer. Worse, a week later the England World Cup Squad takes number one, holding it for three weeks. It's unseated by "Yellow River" by Christie, a song in the classic "soldier returning home" subgenre. This lasts a week before Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" plays us out of season seven. The Hollies, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tom Jones, The Moody Blues, Fleetwood Mac, and The Supremes also chart.

Since The Ambassadors of Death wrapped, the most obvious news story is the Kent State Massacre. This is because 2/3 of my readers are Americans, and mistake inspiring a really good Neil Young song with mattering. All Kent State amounts to is a confirmation that the hippie/anti-war movement was successfully so marginalized that affixing bayonets, advancing towards them, and shooting them dead is not entirely outside of the mainstream. More interesting for us is actually something like Thor Heyerdahl setting sail with a papyrus boat called Ra II to try to prove that it was theoretically possible for the ancient Egyptians to have influenced the design sensibilities of South American civilizations. This is proper 1970s stuff - bewilderingly overreaching theories of human development held together by sticky tape and charisma.

But perhaps most interesting for our purposes, two days before the final episode of this story aired, the UK held a general election in which, in a shock result, Harold Wilson's Labour government fell and Tory Edward Heath became Prime Minister. Exactly why Wilson went down is a matter of debate, with theories ranging from the fairly improbable (that England did poorly in the World Cup) to the quite likely (a raft of poor economic data doing in the not actively unpopular but not particularly popular Labour government), to the marginal and frankly disturbing (Tories were fired up following Enoch Powell's River of Blood speech, discussed here). We'll track the consequences of this through most of the Pertwee era, with one particular consequence taking us all the way through 1990.

While on television... this one's interesting. Somewhat surprisingly, the Doctor Who Magazine Mighty 200 poll ranks this as the best Pertwee story. Given that I can't even see how you'd argue it as the best story of season seven, this is a bit of a surprise. Tat Wood suggests that people are more enamored with the idea of Inferno than they are with the actual episodes, and I suspect this is more or less on target.

The biggest problem that Inferno appears to have when you start watching it is a crushing sense that we've seen this before. Here we are after two seven part adventures set in scientific installations where mysterious things were afoot, and what do we get? Another scientific installation with mysterious deaths and monsters. Another idiotic leader who will insist on ignoring the Doctor until it's too late. In other words, we have, at the start, seemingly the exact same setup as what we've been watching, at this point, for fourteen weeks. It's been over three months since we've seen anything else on Doctor Who - longer than the entire run of a season of the BBC Wales version.

This would be one thing if Doctor Who had a deep reserve of interesting ideas to match up with its scientific installations. After all, even in the depths of Troughton-era Base Under Siege Mania, the show had more variety in location. Season five had the decency to set the exact same story in a frozen tomb, a monastery, a scientific installation, the London Underground, an offshore drilling platform, and a space station. That sort of variety in executing the same story over and over again seems now like something to be longed for. Perhaps most alarmingly, the first three stories of season seven each nearly exactly tracked one of the three Quatermass serials. Spearhead From Space was visibly modeled on Quatermass II, The Silurians is a dead-ringer for Quatermass and the Pit, and The Ambassadors of Death is a revamp of the original Quatermass Experiment. Suddenly, without any more Nigel Kneale serials to rip off, the series seems to be staggering.

Of course, both of the previous efforts in season seven have had some real depth to the idea. The Silurians was a story where the monsters were plausibly right. The Ambassadors of Death was a story where the monsters weren't actually monsters. Both of these are interesting ideas that can just about sustain seven episode explorations on their own merits, and the fact that both are set at a scientific base (in practice neither has to be) is incidental. And where you fall on Inferno comes down, roughly speaking, to whether you believe Inferno has one too.

To those who idolize this story, its central twist of, at the start of episode three, shunting the Doctor into a parallel universe where everyone is fascist for four episodes where the same crisis is happening only at a more advanced stage is a stroke of sheer genius. Seeing the story unfold with alternate universe versions of the same characters and then seeing this alternate world actually and cataclysmically end before the Doctor gets back to the real world to try to save the crisis builds suspense, and is a brilliant way to get the show to push to bigger stakes than it should be able to by actually destroying the planet and killing everyone.

And described like that, you can see it. But what, exactly, are you seeing? That is to say, why is it compelling to put the Doctor opposite a fascist alternate universe version of UNIT? Phrased like that, the answer seems obvious - the reason you do that is to play off exaggerated versions of the existing tensions between the Doctor and UNIT. Since the problem the Doctor normally has with UNIT is that he's an iconoclast and UNIT is the military, an even more militaristic version of UNIT gives the Doctor a problem with strong resonances with the rest of the series. And inevitably, we're back in the problem left to us by the end of The Silurians - why the hell does the Doctor work with these people? But on the surface, this story looks like it can actually provide some sort of an answer (as Ambassadors partially did by showing how Doctor/UNIT cooperation could look).

The problem, basically, is that despite setting up a great premise, this story fails to deliver on the actual promise of the premise. See, in order to get the two universes thing to work, the story has to hinge on the difference between the two worlds. If the story is going to have the Doctor fail to save the fascist world then save the real world, there has to be a reason why the fascist world can't be saved - one that presumably sheds light on what it is about UNIT that can and should be saved. Which is to say, as Chekov pointed out, if you have a set of fascist doppelgangers in the first act, you need their fascism to be central to the resolution in the third. If you're going to go through with the massive set piece of making all the regular characters fascist, that should probably matter.

So, let's ask at what points the Doctor could possibly have saved the alternate universe. The main one - about the only one, actually, where the Doctor seems to be approaching a convincing account of why they should stop drilling - is when the Doctor exposes the fact that Stahlman has an injured hand because he's slowly mutating into a Primord. Except that because apparently nobody in the alternate universe has any idea what's going on with the Primords, nobody much cares about this.

In other words, the reason the alternate world gets destroyed is purely down to the fact that they don't know about the Primords and thus don't go "Ooh, you're right, our chief scientist is turning into a monster, maybe we should stop listening to him." Which can be argued to be down to the fact that our world had the Doctor investigating earlier and figuring out the Primords, which is why it can be saved. But this makes the entire center section tedious again - the only reason it gets destroyed is something we already know about. The Doctor doesn't have to go to the fascist world to figure it out, and so there's no point in the fascist world. All the Doctor has to do is get back and everything will be fine - the entire trip sideways was just a stalling tactic.

But, the Inferno defender retorts, that's not the only difference. In the fascist world, Sir Keith gets murdered whereas in the real world he survives, and episode seven makes it clear that this is central to why there's hope for the real world. The story becomes about a noble secondary character. OK. That works. The only problem is that while the script may assert that Sir Keith's survival matters, Sir Keith has nothing to contribute to the actual resolution of the story. His presence is irrelevant to the climactic scene.

Perhaps most bewilderingly, though, neither does the fact that the Doctor knows Stahlman is infected. Astonishingly, upon returning to the real world, the Doctor's course of action is to run around like a lunatic so that even the Brigaider thinks he's lost it instead of explaining what's going on or, perhaps most obviously, revealing Stahlman's infection here where people know about Primords and are reasonably likely to appreciate that the man whose hand is turning bright green might be a problem. Instead the resolution comes when Stahlman himself helpfully blows the situation by, after he is locked in a room, turned into a Primord, and has the drill running so nobody can stop it, walking out of the room so everyone knows he's a monster and starts disregarding his orders.

Put another way, nothing whatsoever that the Doctor learns in the course of the four episodes spent in the alternate universe matters in the slightest when it comes to saving the real world. The four episodes dealing with the fascist alternate Earth only pad out the story. They have no consequences. All they do is redo the plot of the other three episodes, this time with fascists. It's possibly the most cynical piece of padding we've seen yet in Doctor Who - an excuse to interrupt one story by telling the exact same story in the middle.

Except it's actually even worse than that, because for the second time in four stories we have an ending that sells out the show. The Doctor declares that the Brigadier sometimes reminds him of his other self - i.e. accuses the Brigadier of being in some sense implicitly a fascist. It's a stinging critique, in part because it gets at what should have been the point of the story - what is or isn't the difference between a fascist UNIT and the real one. Except that moments after it's made the Doctor slinks back into the hanger having inadvertently teleported the TARDIS console to a trash heap, and does a sort of aw shucks of course we're still friends routine with the Brigadier, with the joke being how quickly the Doctor sold out his indignant critique of the Brigadier when it was convenient to him. So the Doctor's a hypocrite and it's silly to ask whether the parallels between the military and fascism amount to anything. This is not what one hoped for when the anarchist Doctor was sent to Earth.

The only thing saving these episodes, effectively, is the fact that the actors are having a blast. Not just the supporting cast, though they are excellent. Derek Newark and Sheila Dunn get their teeth into a romantic subplot, with Newark doing a wonderful job of throwing his testosterone around. Olaf Pooley is a more mixed bag as Stahlman, though this may be down to the fact that the script requires Stahlman to be a barely motivated psychopath through the entire story and to never do anything but complain until he turns into a Primord. And, of course, mention has to go to John Levene, reprising the role of Benton for the third time, although his role in The Ambassadors of Death was minor. Still, the show has enough confidence in his recognition to give him an extended Primord transformation scene, and John Levine (who, we should remember, started as an actor in a Yeti costume) clearly gets a kick out of getting to do what's basically a werewolf scene.

No, the real acting prizes in this one go to Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John, and Jon Pertwee, who more or less singlehandedly keep the story afloat for the four parallel universe episodes. Courtney is sublime as Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart, switching the confident and slightly caricaturish understatement of the Brigadier out for an overconfident slightly caricaturish overstatement and playing, essentially, the Nazi soldier Brigadier instead of the British one. Hints of the hilarious military bravado of Bret Vyon pop up again here.

Caroline John, on the other hand, enjoys the fact that the writer appears to have understood her character (so there's at least one thing Houghton does better than Hulke), playing Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw with an appealing humanism. She starts the part as far to the villainous side as Courtney, but slowly brings flickers of her normal character back into the role until her final act of shooting Lethbridge-Stewart so the Doctor can escape pays off. Unfortunately, the fact that Houghton is the first person to manage to write Liz the same way Holmes did means that it's too little too late - John is effective here, but a season in there's nothing to grab onto with Liz. The slow transformation back into "our" Liz carries no impact if we haven't been sold on our Liz. John does brilliantly, but as turns out to be the effective epitaph for her character, she was wasted on the part.

And then there's Pertwee, who, forced onto the back foot and made, for the first time, to be in a situation where he doesn't understand what's going on, sparkles. But as with John, this starts to shed light on a problem developing with his take on the character. An interesting aspect of Pertwee's Doctor is that it is the first time the character of the Doctor was modeled directly on the actor. This is a bit surprising. Pertwee's reputation prior to Doctor Who was as a funny voice character actor. Usually hiding behind glasses, props, and/or wigs, Pertwee would take on a voice and disappear into a character part. The appeal of him was how many character parts he could do.

As was the case with Troughton, initially much of the thought went in directions that were too over the top. Just as Troughton was going to be a windjammer captain or (allegedly) going to be blacked up, apparently one of the original plans for Pertwee was that he was going to be a relaxed, suave sort who played flamenco guitar. But eventually the idea was hit upon that playing the Doctor as Jon Pertwee might work. (Pertwee, by all accounts, found this to be a tremendous acting challenge.)

The consequences of this are wide-ranging. A fair case can be made that part of the dip in reputation the Pertwee era suffered in the 90s came down to Pertwee's somewhat stiff and rehearsed manner at conventions as he appeared "in character" as the Doctor. Certainly the degree to which Pertwee simply handled almost all interviews with a set of rehearsed lines ("Yeti-in-the-loo" and all) and vaguely in character is somewhat oddly alienating to watch, even decades later. But another, and for our purposes here more significant consequence came up in terms of the writing.

See, Pertwee was effectively playing himself. But he was also the star. I don't mean to paint him as a prima donna (Oh, OK, I actually kind of do, given the frequency with which he apparently stormed off set and his insistence that the past Doctors be relegated firmly to guest star status in The Three Doctors), because the obvious consequence of this would likely have happened to any star in that circumstance. The inherent egoism of being the star is going to bleed into the part. And with Pertwee it rapidly did.

Look at the opening of Inferno, as he drives along in Bessie singing. It's a scene that assumes, unhesitatingly, that the viewer just likes watching Jon Pertwee as the Doctor for the sake of watching Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, doing Doctory things. And again, this isn't a problem either. Central to any love of Pertwee's Doctor is a love of his defiant, flamboyant self-confidence, and that comes right out of Pertwee's leading man charm. Pertwee's relish of being the leading man is literally poured into the part in the dashing action hero elements of the character.

And to be fair, Houghton puts that to good use - only Pertwee's unflappable Doctor could calmly debut his skill in Venusian karate with a sort of idle sense of "well of course you've never seen me use it before. It never came up." But on the whole, the problem with a Doctor defined by pure confidence is that you can't knock him off his game. As a result, Pertwee's Doctor is kept safe to a degree unseen in previous versions. Which is what's so nice about Houghton's setup - it's the first time we've really seen this Doctor off his guard and afraid. And it reveals something interesting about Pertwee as an actor.

For all that the heart of his Doctor is him finding a way to confidently project himself in front of a camera and reading someone else's lines, he's at his best when he's knocked off his game. Pertwee generally seems to want to play the part confident and in control. But when the script doesn't let him, the challenge pushes him to a new level. From here on out, one thing you'll notice throughout the Pertwee years is that when Pertwee is knocked off his game or given a problem to deal with, he does better than when he's left to his own devices.

But all of this should just show the root problem. It's not that the show needs to be carried by the actors. That happened in both the Hartnell and Troughton eras at times. But when it happened there, it happened towards the ends of their runs. The fourth story into a bold new direction for the show shouldn't be relying on the fact that its actors happen to really get their teeth into the conceit of part of the script to paper over the fact that the script has no ideas and no logic. Those fans who bewilderingly persist in thinking this is a better story than The Ambassadors of Death or Spearhead From Space (or really, if you don't hate the ending, The Silurians) tend to, I suspect, get caught up in the quality of the performances and to reconstruct a far richer and more interesting narrative than is on screen. And had the story they liked - the one where the alternate universe actually matters to the resolution and the story doesn't just wrap up based on the fact that were-Stahlman bursts out of the chamber at a different point in the plot in each universe - been the one that got made, they'd be right that it'd be one of the top stories of the Pertwee era.

But in reality, we see an era gasping for breath and visibly out of ideas that's already had to have its blushes saved by the actors bootstrapping the story into watchability. Something has to change. Thankfully, the general consensus of the viewing public is that there's something good here. Ratings are up, and the series, to many people's mild surprise, gets picked up for another year. Which, we should remember, was in real danger at the end of the Lloyd/Bryant/Sherwin era. The fact of the matter is, the season seven team saved the show from cancellation. This new idea may not be fully formed, but then, 26 episodes into Doctor Who itself the show was just through with The Keys of Marinus. It figured itself out. Maybe given a few months to think Barry Letts, having saved the show, can make it great again.

Comments

Spacewarp 5 years, 7 months ago

I've always thought that the success of this era of Doctor Who is down to the fact that Pertwee encapsulated (or possibly created) the archetypal early 70s SF/Fantasy leading man. Compare Tarot from Ace of Wands, Jason King from Department S, or even Jimi Hendrix's on-stage persona from a year before. The public of the time liked their leading men frock-coated, frilly-shirted, and cravatted, and Pertwee reflected the zeitgeist perfectly.

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zapruder313 5 years, 7 months ago

Since you rightly point out that the Troughton era often had "the same story in different locations", and since Season Seven has three "scientific installation with mysterious deaths and monsters" stories in a row, I eagerly await your thoughts on Season Eight: "Oh, look, it's the Master. Again."

I've always regarded The Master as an exercise in profound tedium (alleviated to some extent in the Pertwee era by Delgado's truly charismatic performance), and I'm half hoping against hope for one of your wonderful "have you ever thought about it like this?" moments to redeem the character for me . . .

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Carey 5 years, 7 months ago

Hmmm, I'd say that the prime reason for contrasting the two worlds and how what is learnt in one solves (or at least indicates the solution to) the problems of the other is one of humanity and its ability to choose. It is the romantic subplot between Petra and Greg that is important in 'our' world, as it makes Petra question her superiors motives earlier. The suppression of it contributes to the ending of the 'other' world. Similarly, the contrast between Liz Shaw's choice to be a scientist and being drafted into the security services is also a prime motivator. Even Stahlman's decent into a monster is about free will versus determinism, as he is infected by the primordial liquid which removes his ability to choose and makes him hurry the decent all the more.

I'm surprised you dislike this story, as I do think, even though I agree it isn't the best story of season seven, it does deserve its accolades precisely because it's paean to free will and choice. In the fascist world, there is no choice, and thus the world ends. In ours, we survive because of it, as represented by the catalyst of the Doctor.

Good review, though.

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Sean Daugherty 5 years, 7 months ago

I mostly agree with Carey above. I do think that it's the best of season seven (and of the Pertwee era), and you even hit upon the reason before mostly dismissing it. The central tension (identified by Carey) between free will and choice, illustrated in the difference between the fascist alternate Britain and "our" world gives us one of the few times in the Pertwee era where the characters actually matter.

Petra, Greg, Sir Keith, Stahlman, the entire supporting cast are all played quite well, as are the series regulars in Pertwee, Shaw, and Courtney. But part of the reason why they carry themselves so well here is because they have a script where they really matter. Indeed, they have a script where they *need* to matter: the Primords aren't scene-stealing monsters, and the setting is deliberately familiar. The story is about its characters and how they interact and respond to the threat facing them.

That's a fairly rare approach for Doctor Who throughout the entire classic run, and it's practically the only example in the entire Pertwee era. And in that respect, Inferno is not only an excellent story, but one that presages the show's 2005 revival in a key way.

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

It's also perhaps one of Doctor Who's few attempts at the disaster movie set up. The facist world episodes have a tension and desperateness that you don't find elsewhere in the series. The direction of this story is brilliant, as are the actors. I'm usually a script man myself and episode 7 is a let-down after the episodes before it but I do think Inferno is a wonderful exercise in suspense and high stakes. It's extremely watchable and easy to get caught up in it. And, as you've pointed out, Jon Pertwee gives one of his best performances. I can't see why showcasing the range of your lead early into his tenure is a bad thing and I don't quite understand what you're getting at there.

I prefer The Ambassadors of Death (my favourite Pertwee) but I am a big fan of Inferno. I've never watched the stories in order so under that scrutinu perhaps it is a bit samey but the joy of watching in retrospect is that you can assess a story on its own merits if you like as well as enjoying it in context. On the other hand, I've always found Spearhead rather boring and plotless, especially as the entire story seems to be packed into episode 4.

I really enjoy reading this blog and I'm impressed you've got this far! I can already tell your take on the Pertwee years is going to be very interesting and entertaining.

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Matthew Celestis 5 years, 7 months ago

Yes, Inferno is an overrated story. The fascist world does not really go anywhere and the primords are thrown in just because somebody thought the story needed a monster.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

But looking through it, the free will argument - though one I should have mentioned in the piece, you're right - doesn't hold up either. Nobody's choices actually matter. After all the buildup of seeing the alternate world, it comes down to the fact that Stahlman happens to emerge from the chamber as a Primord and tip everyone off that they should definitely 100% stop the drilling. If the story were about free will, there would need to be some choice made differently by a character in each world that ends up making the difference.

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Sean Daugherty 5 years, 7 months ago

With the utmost respect, I'm not sure I accept your reading of the ending. By that point, we've already seen how the story plays out on the fascistic earth, where, crucially, Stahlmann doesn't have to do anything to ensure the apocalyptic conclusion. He turns into a Primord there, to be sure, but he hardly needs to start attacking the personnel there to ensure that the drilling reaches its point of no return. No one, except the Doctor, seriously attempts to avoid that fate. The Brigade Leader, Section Leader Shaw, and Petra are "just following orders", Sutton clearly disapproves but doesn't dare do anything much more than grouse, and Sir Keith is dead. Stahlmann's regression into a Primord is incidental to the tragedy unfolding.

That's simply not true back in the "real" world. For one thing, Sir Keith is already on the verge of demanding that the drilling be stopped. He's vacillating a bit, but the outcome seems pretty clear, since even Stahlman's supposed allies (Petra and the Brigadier, mainly) have basically determined that he is at least unstable, if not actively malicious. When Stahlman orders everyone out of the drill room, we're seeing a key difference between the two worlds. Unlike the alternate universe Stahlmann, who only devolves into a Primord after the drill penetrates the crust, "our" Stahlman grabs a handful of slime and basically lathers himself up with up (charming image, that).

This is, as presented, a deliberate action, borne of frustration. He's lost, or at least believes himself to have lost. His actions in this scene are a hail mary pass: he first tries to prevent anyone from being able to stop the drilling, and then lashes out in primal (literally) anger. Yes, it's the revelation that he's been infected that finally pushes everyone over the edge into stopping the drill. But it's not a decision that comes out of nowhere, and it may not even be a factor at all. After all, it's not like the fact that there are Primords running around is unknown to the characters at this point, and that Stahlman is now one of them doesn't seemingly change the dynamic at all. Sir Keith's order to stop the drilling is a choice of which Stahlman's transformation is, at best, a single factor among many. The choice he makes (and that most of the other characters have made previously) is what separates the "free will" universe from the "fascist" universe, not Stahlman's rampage.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

Sean - I love your take on the final episode, but I can find little when watching the episode that persuades me that your take was shared by the people making it. Which gets at my point - it's not that Inferno is bad. It's quite watchable. It's just that it has a reputation that seems to me well in excess of its quality. People less love Inferno than they love what Inferno could have been and almost was. Perhaps it only needed a fine tuning, as you suggest, but it definitely needed something.

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Gavin 5 years, 7 months ago

I think that these may be some of the reasons why the story is well-remembered.

1) The actors. But not just their performances. This one comes up whenever they're asked which stories they remember fondly. (Because when an actor says something is good, this tends to mean that he or she is good in it.) This sort of thing pushes a story towards canonization as one of the all-time best. Pertwee selected it as one of his top three for The Pertwee Years, as close to official canonization as one could imagine.

2) Childhood memory privileges iconic moments over overall plot (see also Tomb of the Cybermen). Especially when striking moments coincide with cliffhangers, as they often do in Inferno. The last two, in particular, are among the best "tune in next week" bits in all of Doctor Who.

3) The fondly remembered stories are often those that cohere well with other aspects of boys' adventure stories from the period. (I'd argue that, once Verity Lambert goes, DW increasingly becomes not a children's show, but a show for boys. Certainly, most of those who grew up to self-identify as fans were boys.)

For UNIT (= British soldiers running around shooting at things), the touchstone is the Second World War, whose presence in the imagination of British boys in the '60s and '70s is hard to overstate. (For an American, edit out both superheroes and Westerns and put "Englander schwein!" in their place.) I've enjoyed this blog's connections between Doctor Who and the Top 10, but I have a sneaking suspicion that, alas, Valiant is sometimes a more relevant point of comparison. (For the Troughton era, the Eagle. The Moonbase is pure Dan Dare.)

And nowhere is WWII more relevant to the Pertwee era than in Inferno.

4) Much of the nostalgic rhetoric surrounding fond memories of Doctor Who is conservative: the family gathering around the television every Saturday afternoon after the football, just before supper, etc.. (Doctor Who gets namechecked in Life on Mars. This is no accident, I think.)

Let me quickly stress that I don't mean this as a criticism, just a description. (I loved Life on Mars.)

Also, this is small-"c" conservative, which is quite compatible with being not just left-wing but (in some ways) very left-wing. A Very British Coup is shot through with this stuff.

Once again, Inferno coheres well. It's a deeply small-"c" conservative story. (Which, to repeat, doesn't mean it can't be left-wing in some ways. Inferno shares a lot of common ground with The Green Death.)

One of the main markers of wrongness about the Republic is that it is a republic, that it's killed the Royal Family. As a statement about fascism, this is historically odd. Fascism is notoriously hard to define, but presumably Mussolini's Italy has to count.

But the Republic isn't just marked as fascist, it's also marked as "post-revolution" (not a specifically Communist one, obviously - a sort of generic revolution or coup), and taps into older Burkean worries that society, absent certain stable "givens", might unravel and people would completely lose their moral bearings.

For my money, that's what's going on with the Brigade Leader. He seems to me to have little common with the Brigadier beyond his rank, position, and a certain officiousness. In particular, the single most stable component of the Brigadier's characterization is unflappable physical courage.

Obviously, one doesn't have to agree with the story, but this is what I think its politics are. As such, I tend to think that the final scene raises the possibility that UNIT is the RSF preciselyin order to deny it, and say that the Doctor didn't really mean it. Robert Holmes, I suspect, observed that scene closely. The characterization of the Doctor in Terror of the Autons builds directly off it.

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Sean Daugherty 5 years, 7 months ago

Fair enough, although I don't believe that I'm making as great a leap in interpretation as you suggest. And I should correct myself: based on this discussion, I just sat down to watch episode 7, and realized that I wrongly stated above that it was Sir Keith who gave the order to stop the drilling. He doesn't: as he explains, only Stahlman has the authority to issue such an order. It's Petra who intervenes to stop it, and the Doctor and Sutton who manage to halt its momentum.

It's directly between Sir Keith's admission that he can't override Stahlman and Petra's stopping the machinery that Stahlman attacks, but the scene, crucially, works just as well if Stahlman is left out of the picture entirely, since it literally changes nothing. Petra is already convinced that Stahlman's in the wrong beforehand, and Sir Keith's authority isn't changed afterward. I don't think this is accidental, and I think that's why I don't have the problem that you appear to have with the ending. I suspect we'll just have to agree to disagree here, though.

And since I didn't say so before, thanks for the excellent review here, and I'm greatly looking forward to your take on the next four Pertwee seasons (probably one of my least favorite periods in the show's history).

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Adeodatus 5 years, 7 months ago

I've always thought "Silurians" was by far the best of season 7. There are just too many points in "Inferno" where I want to go and make a cup of tea - because, as you say, it's really just the same story, twice.

On the endings of this, "Silurians" and "Spearhead": aren't these endings meant to emphasise how trapped the Doctor is on Earth, and how dependent on the Brigadier? "Spearhead"'s finally scene would formerly have been avoided by the Doctor quietly slipping away in the TARDIS before the cleaning-up had to be done. In "Silurians", you know the Doctor is going to have to sacrifice his ethical idealism, because he has no home to go back to except UNIT HQ. "Inferno" underlines this by actually having him attempt to escape with the TARDIS console, only to be humiliated in the attempt. I think the real cop-out is in the next season, where we see the Doctor suddenly much more at ease with UNIT: instead of working through his humiliation on-screen, we're asked to believe he's come to terms with it during the between-seasons break!

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Sean Daugherty 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm not sure we *should* take the final scene where the Doctor compares the Brigadier to the Brigade Leader, and, in that sense, I agree with Gavin that it's raised explicitly to be denied. It's an odd scene, and the Doctor doesn't come of sympathetically.

Comparing a brutal, immoral fascist like the Brigade Leader to the Brigadier could certainly be played as a stinging indictment of the show's current status quo. That would make sense in at the end of The Silurians, certainly. But look at what presages it here: the Doctor compares the Brigadier to a murdering sociopath because he asks (literally: he's not demanding or ordering) the Doctor to not run off. What a monster! The comparison is, frankly, offensive, and it would have been far more problematic if the Doctor hadn't recanted it almost immediately afterward.

The story has a rather complex (especially for the Pertwee era) take on authority figures. Obviously, the authority of the RSF is portrayed as a bad thing, but both UNIT and the government representatives in "our" world are deeply problematic, as well. Stahlman is obviously a lunatic, the Brigadier and company are slow to pick up on the danger at hand (as is already becoming a trend, admittedly), and Sir Keith means well, but is basically ineffectual.

This certainly isn't sharply-barbed criticism of the social order, to be sure. And the end product of comparing UNIT and the UK to the RSF and the RGB is inevitably going to come out in favor of the former. So it is, at least in that respect, an apologia for the status quo. But it's telling, I think, that the two most unambiguously heroic characters (the Doctor and Sutton) are the two characters who are continuously in conflict with authority. Part of that is simply a reflection of the basic premise of the show, but I don't think that's all of it, given how much subsequent episodes will move away from the "countercultural Doctor" motif.

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Sean Daugherty 5 years, 7 months ago

Adeodatus: the problem isn't that the Doctor's reactions are unrealistic, and you're right that he's being portrayed as basically dependent on the Brigadier and UNIT for the duration of his exile (though, to be fair, the dependency is mutual, given that UNIT rarely gets portrayed as particularly capable without the Doctor's help).

The problem (and I think Philip has mentioned this in the past, though I can't remember where) is that the writers are basically putting the Doctor in a situation for which a return to the status quo is unacceptable, or at least unsatisfying. If we see the Doctor as a character for whom genocide is a cardinal sin, one that cannot be forgiven easily, then having him forgive and forget that his current landlords are more than willing to engage in it is deeply unsatisfying. At best, it reduces the Doctor from the near-mythical figure he has been to a deeply cowed and meek pawn who has to sacrifice his principles to the practicalities of his survival on an alien planet. It would be one thing if the show were willing to explore that dynamic, but it never really does.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

Or even, for that matter, to sell that dynamic. The Doctor makes no visible effort to look for anything to do on Earth besides work for UNIT, giving the strong suggestion that it's the most natural thing in the world for him to do. Which is I think what many of the defenses of the Doctor working for UNIT misses. It's not that the Doctor working for the military is unnatural - he's done it repeatedly over the years. It's that the Doctor seeming to seek out the military ahead of other options that seems strange.

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Aaron 5 years, 7 months ago

Your analysis of Pertwee's Doctor as basically Pertwee playing himself is really interesting, as is your analysis that this Doctor is rarely, and can only rarely, be pushed into unfamiliar territory. Please please please please do the 3rd Doctor sections of Interference as a Time Can Be Rewritten right before Planet of the Spiders, because what Lawrence Miles is doing with the 3rd Doctor there is directly comparable to this point and is incredibly clever as a lens to see the differences between this era and the more complicated 8th Doctor era. Miles is showing the 3rd Doctor in an environment where his unflappable charm doesn't work, and his inability to deal with the situation like the 3rd Doctor normally does contributes to a sense of alienation that the audience feels along with the Doctor. It's quite brilliant, and it would link in directly to the points you are making here.

It'd also give you some material to talk about the place of books in Doctor Who fandom, because Miles is trying to subvert the idea that TV is primary canon by showing the books overrule that canon. Anyways, I know you've read it before so I hardly need to repeat what's awesome about it, but I hope that you'll cover it when we get to Dust.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 5 years, 7 months ago

One thing to say on behalf of Pertwee: he may have been a prima donna, but he could be very generous to the other actors. It's mentioned in several of the commentaries, when one of the other actors would flub their lines slightly, or even just play a scene less well than they wanted to, but slightly enough so that the cost-conscious director would decide to keep filming, and the actors didn't have enough clout to demand a retake, Pertwee would immediately and deliberately flub his own lines so badly that they'd have to reshoot the scene. Also, when the director wanted Liz on the Silurians to go crawling around in the cave in her miniskirt, and ignored her objections, Pertwee insisted that she receive the same caving suit as the other actors.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 5 years, 7 months ago

Gavin: "Doctor Who gets namechecked in Life on Mars. This is no accident, I think."

Well, of course the Master is going to remember the Doctor.

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Jesse 5 years, 7 months ago

It's that the Doctor seeming to seek out the military ahead of other options that seems strange.

To be fair, he only falls back on that after trying the alternative option of staying at a luxury hotel and going on quiz shows.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

Jesse wins this thread.

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Bill Reed 5 years, 7 months ago

This article really points out a lot of the same flaws I found in Inferno, a story everyone but me loves-- and I adore the Pertwee era, in general. But Spearhead and Ambassadors are far better, and more exciting.

Also, the Primords are stupid.

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Gnaeus 5 years, 7 months ago

First-time commenter, but I just want to say how much I'm enjoying reading this blog!

I'd take a slightly different tack on Inferno, being an avowed fan of it, but not of much of Pertwee - Silurians and Spearhead included (primarily because I think they're not very entertaining).

I don't think the point of the fascist universe is to contrast with 'our' universe, because I don't think this story is about what you're saying its about. I just don't think it's as complex as all that.

Rather, what I'd see it as being about is a criticism of aligning oneself ideologically. Stahlmann is obsessed with scientific progress, and it destroys him. The Brigade Leader is obsessed with the concept of the Doctor as an enemy. In the final scene, the Doctor becomes obsessed with the idea of the Brigadier - in each case, reality breaks through abruptly - as transformation into a primord for Stahlmann, as a gunshot wound for the Brigade Leader, and as landing in a rubbish tip for the Doctor.

It might also be taking the old theme of putting science on a pedestal, but I'm cagey of over interpreting this one.

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wwhyte 5 years, 7 months ago

I think there are two things that make Inferno great that you’re overlooking.

First, it simply does things differently. The parallel universe where things go wrong is new in Doctor Who, and not very common anywhere (because you need a baseline where the hero usually wins to make this work – so you can find this in serial adventures like comics but not so much in “literature” in general). So points for that.

But even more, points for simply being scary. You criticize Inferno because it doesn’t draw a clear distinction between what makes the fascist Earth die and our Earth live. But you can turn it around and say, that’s the point. For you, as a person in the UK in the early 70s, where because of nothing you did Germany was defeated, and now America and Russia are facing off with nuclear weapons and could decide to fight a nuclear war and there’s nothing you can do about it, there’s a compelling horror movie to be written about how things just ended up worse because that’s just how they ended up. And Inferno’s that horror movie. The UK just ended up Fascist because it just did. Because things can always be worse and there’s nothing you can do about it. And then the Fascist UK was the site of a project that resulted in the destruction of the Earth. Because things can always be worse and there’s nothing you can do about it. I think that’s the fear that Inferno talks to. Remember, this was just after rivers of blood, the complete antithesis of what Letts stood for (I’m never sure about Terrance Dicks politically, I suspect him of being an old Tory, but Letts’s sympathies are clear). Ted Heath’s government, though bumbling and corporatist, was seen by urban liberals as possible stalking horses for Powellite fascism. So the Fascist UK isn’t a fantasy, it’s something real. And it’s bad. And then things get worse.

I appreciate what you’re saying about the lack of thematic unity in Inferno, and how that weakens it. But I’d argue that the theme is: thank goodness we’re lucky enough to live in a world where individual people can make a difference, and where a renegade like the Doctor (and I’ll give you everything you’ve said about how the Doctor isn’t actually a renegade in this era, but I’ll ask you to give me that the series wants you to think that he is) is occasionally listened to.

And, as a powerless 13-year-old boy watching Doctor Who, isn’t that a really powerful message to hear?

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wwhyte 5 years, 7 months ago

Phrased like that, the answer seems obvious - the reason you do that is to play off exaggerated versions of the existing tensions between the Doctor and UNIT.

To summarize the summary of the summary: no, the reason you do it is because it's scary and real.

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wwhyte 5 years, 7 months ago

The Doctor declares that the Brigadier sometimes reminds him of his other self - i.e. accuses the Brigadier of being in some sense implicitly a fascist. It's a stinging critique, in part because it gets at what should have been the point of the story - what is or isn't the difference between a fascist UNIT and the real one.

Sorry, doing the multiple commenting thing again. One thing that (Google thinks) you've never brought up in Tardis Eruditorium is It Happened Here, 1966 the mockumentary about Nazi Britain. That's a key piece of British parallel-universe film making, and one I'm sure the Doctor Who team were familiar with. And its point is basically: once the Nazi victory happened, the Brits just shrugged their shoulders, cut their cloth to suit the wind, and got on with it. Parallel-universe Inferno makes most sense seen as a mass-market follow up to that: It Happened Here Too. Just be glad you avoided disaster. Do what you can and hope things turn out okay.

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John Seavey 5 years, 2 months ago

I think my primary source of disagreement with you is that you're looking for one Big Decision that separates the Doctor's world from the Fascist Earth. Instead, it's a series of dozens of tiny, incremental changes; Keith Gold isn't killed and Petra questions Stahlman more and the Doctor is a trusted figure and the Brigadier and Liz both behave as a brake on Stahlman rather than a subordinate to him and...and so on and so on. The reason our world isn't destroyed is because, to sum up, it's just a saner place. There isn't any one Big Obvious Divergence, it just is better everywhere you look.

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John Seavey 5 years, 2 months ago

Oh yes, and my secondary source of disagreement is that you're watching it right after another episode that does similar things (well, not right after...) and saying, "Hmm, this seems a bit like the Silurians at times." Which it may well be, but it's also not like 31 other seasons of Who. :)

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

Well, sure, but judging by the standards of its time cuts both ways sometimes.

I mean, I'm not saying the story is rubbish. It's not The Monster of Peladon or anything. But it's got a bizarrely over-inflated reputation. It's not Monster of Peladon. But it's not a massive classic either. As I said. It's not even obvious this is the best story of its season. It's a fine story. But its reputation is, I think, genuinely puzzling.

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tantalus1970 5 years, 1 month ago

I'd agree that it's over-rated and that it's over-rated because people remember the idea rather than the actual 7 episodes (which go on forever IMO). It's not bad, but not that good. Essentially, it's a B-movie at nearly twice the length.

However, although the regulars cited this story as a favourite, I'm not sure the supporting cast were having such a blast. The original director, Douglas Camfield, who cast them, and was Sheila Dunn's husband, had a heart attack partway through the filming and the studio sequences for the later episodes were directed by Letts. I suspect the strength of their performances was more due to the stress of not knowing whether Camfield was going to be OK.

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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 6 months ago

Philip Sandifer:
"what do we get? Another scientific installation with mysterious deaths and monsters."

This latest time around, I watched "SPEARHEAD" and went straight to the sequel, skipping all 3 7-parters.


"Put another way, nothing whatsoever that the Doctor learns in the course of the four episodes spent in the alternate universe matters in the slightest when it comes to saving the real world. The four episodes dealing with the fascist alternate Earth only pad out the story. They have no consequences."

I think that has always annoyed me. They drag out the alternate Earth thing for 4 WHOLE long painful episodes, right to the final moment when "Everybody dies!!!!!", and then, in episode 7, there's no call for it.

"INFERNO", as it happens, was the 1st WHO TV story I actually managed to see every episode of. (I missed "AMBASSADORS" parts 4-6, but did catch the ending.) Since it started the Pertwee run on PBS in the 80's (right after Davison's 3rd season, if memory serves), when only half his stories turned up, this means I've probably seen it more than any other Pertwee story. Future video playbacks may make up for that eventually.


"John does brilliantly, but as turns out to be the effective epitaph for her character, she was wasted on the part."

I really liked her as a character (in principle, anyway), as in my younger days, I admired "intelligent" women more than the airheaded screamers. Betts & Dicks would later cast her as "Laura Lyons" in their version of "HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES". A great scene is when Sherlock Holmes (Tom Baker) informs her "You've had a VERY CLOSE brush with death", as it turns out the mans who befriended her is actually the story's murderer. (Her character was actually killed in the Ian Richardson version a bit later, but she was played by a different actress in there. In that one, Laur'a husband, the artist, "Jeffrey" was framed for her murder. He was played by Brian Blessed! I just love anything with a Holmes connection in it.)



"eventually the idea was hit upon that playing the Doctor as Jon Pertwee might work. (Pertwee, by all accounts, found this to be a tremendous acting challenge.)"

FUNNY. Troughton, a "character" actor, played it with a lot of humor, while Pertwee, a "comedy" actor, played it deadly serious too much of the time. I didn't start to like him until he began to "lighten up".

Right after "INFERNO", Pertwee crossed paths with Geoffrey Bayldon in "THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD". Also with John Bennett, and Ingrid Pitt. Va-va-voom!

Don Houghton, meanwhile, would reunite Peter Cushing with HIS "Master", Christopher Lee, in "DRACULA A.D. 1972" and its sequel, "THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA". The latter, especially, had an "espionage thriller" feel to it, and feature future AVENGERS girl Joanna Lumley! (Va-va-voom!)

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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 6 months ago

Something no one's mentioned that has always bothered me about this story, frankly, is its premise. We're supposed to believe that just because someone drills a hole thru the Earth's crust, that this awful green stuff will come oozing out, people will turn into werewolves, and, further, earthquakes will happen, molten magma will begin pouring out, and, the WHOLE PLANET will be destroyed. Over ONE small hole?

I could almost see a section of England destroyed, but not the entire planet...

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Andrew McLean 4 years, 3 months ago

I'm very fond of this story, and indeed of season 7 as a whole, which is the strongest era of Pertwee's Doctor.

One thing about the free will discussion struck me when I was doing my own "watch all the stories in order" a few years back, as they were being shown on UKTV in Australia (which I also took as an excuse to track down various Virgin & BBC books I hadn't read, inserting them at the correct points).

When Pertwee is in the alternate universe he muses: "So free will isn't an illusion." This struck me as having a greater relevance to the series as a whole, not just this story. It came across to me as his personal revelation contrasting with the much-quoted line from The Aztecs - that history could indeed be changed, that every choice mattered and contributed to shaping the world.

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orfeo 3 years, 4 months ago

"See, in order to get the two universes thing to work, the story has to hinge on the difference between the two worlds."

Well, it does. As much as anything, it hinges on the extra time before penetration of the crust. That extra time doesn't result from anything we see, it hinges on all the tiny little differences BEFORE we ever see the parallel world. The differences that have created more caution and more questioning even with the over-the-top Professor in charge. The differences that mean dissension can't be met with overt threats of death.

And that extra time matters now because it gives more time for a whole host of characters to do a little more questioning, be a little more troubled.

"If the story is going to have the Doctor fail to save the fascist world then save the real world..."

I think you go wrong in trying to find a meaningful difference between the two worlds because you think it has to be about the Doctor learning things and saving things, and so your search for a difference is focused on the Doctor. But the Doctor didn't create the difference in the course of the drilling that already exists. There's no evidence that he's the cause of the drilling in 'our' world going more slowly.

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