Inferno is often held up by Doctor Who fans as not only one of the best stories of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, but simply one of the best stories in the show’s history. This handsome special edition makes it clear that the making of Inferno was by no means a smooth and easy process, but it resulted in a gripping and ambitious series of episodes.
A government-approved project to drill deep into the earth’s crust is disrupted when an engineer is mutated by a green slime leaking from the pipes. The Doctor is on hand, using some of the energy provided by the drilling in an attempt to revive the TARDIS console, and he advises the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) that the project be shut down immediately. However, Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley), the project’s leader, will not be moved and ignores all attempts to slow the driling. When The Doctor finds himself in a parallel universe, with fascist versions of the Brigadier and Liz Shaw (Caroline John), he realises that disaster is imminent in both worlds.
The most obvious criticism to be thrown at Inferno is that it’s a bit long. The story runs over seven episodes and there’s definitely a bit of padding going on. That being said, the script is excellent, Jon Pertwee is on terrific form and it’s extremely tense. You could argue that Inferno is the definitive Pertwee performance as the Doctor: swashbuckling but stern, impatient but with a twinkle in his eye. He gets a great chase sequence as he attempts to escape the military compound in Bessie, he gets to use his Venusian karate, and he sports his very fine cape.
Inferno comes from the era in which The Doctor found himself exile on Earth and is forced to deal with UNIT on a regular basis. It’s interesting to see that, even while lending his help, he’s still got one eye on escape. His need to get the TARDIS console working drives him to take some serious risks, and leads to his being stranded in the fascist universe where the Brigadier has an eyepatch and no moustache, and Liz isn’t blonde.
Interestingly, the documentary ‘Can You Hear the Earth Scream?’ reveals that one of Inferno‘s masterstrokes was a necessary piece of plotting to stretch the story out. Once The Doctor is transported to the alternate universe, Inferno really comes into its own. The evil fascist versions of the Brigadier and Liz allow Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney to show off their range and they have a great deal of fun doing so. Even John Levene’s Sergeant Benton gets a dastardly alternate. The switch occurs at exactly the right time, too, just as we’re beginning to get a bit bored of everyone shouting at the obviously insane Professor Stahlman but not actually stopping him. The episodes become increasingly dark as the Doctor becomes increasingly desperate in the face of torture and imprisonment. “That’s the sound of the planet screaming out its rage!” he bellows as things reach the point of no return.
The evil doubles also feel like they’re adding to an already strong cast, with Olaf Pooley giving a wonderfully loathsome turn as Stahlman, and Derek Newark and Sheila Dunn creating a couple to root for as the dutiful Petra and the boistrously bolshy Greg. The ensemble give such committed performances that it’s easy to overlook the rather naff mutant designs (green, growling, hirsute) and the fact that there is quite a lot of standing around and shouting. Caroline John is especially good in what would be her last Doctor Who appearance (until her cameo in The Five Doctors), and it serves as a reminder that the character didn’t really get a fair shake.
The ‘Can You Hear the Earth Scream?’ documentary finds most of the key players being very open about the issues that they had to face. They had to find a story that could stretch to the already-assigned seven episode order and director Douglas Camfield fell ill during shooting, forcing Barry Letts to step in and take the reins. Caroline John candidly admits that she wasn’t too keen about the direction that Liz was taking and that she was happy to leave when she did, although she’s enthusiastic about Evil Liz. It’s also lovely to see the late Nicholas Courtney, who also appears in the ‘The UNIT Family – Part One’, a 35 minute documentary about the evolution of UNIT, Sergeant Benton and the Brigadier.
One of the best things about these Special Editions are the new ‘Doctor Forever’ documentaries, and Inferno‘s instalment (‘Lost in the Dark Dimension’) is an informative and entertaining look at the disappeareance of Doctor Who without an official cancellation, and the attempts of fans and Doctor Who Magazine to bring it back. There’s also a commentary from Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks, Nicholas Courtney and John Levene, a documentary about the HAVOC stunt team presented by Toby Hadoke, a deleted scene, a visual effects promo film and a brief introduction by Jon Pertwee from the VHS release.
Gripping, well-written and with great performances, Inferno may move a little slowly at times but it’s definitely worth the effort.