|Sometimes Wikipedia picks the weirdest frames as its
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.