Written by:
Don Houghton
Directed by: Douglas Camfield/Barry Letts
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1970
Video Availability: Try

The only story from his debut season that Jon could actually pronounce, I won't make any predictions about where Inferno stands in the rankings as I've done that before and frequently been surprised on reviewings.

Similarities with the final story of season six are noticeable with the title sequence, which has the title/episode/author credits ran over film stock. There is some iffy exposition here and there ("Professor Stahlman, as Executive Director…") but generally this is a superior work, with excellent direction, boom mikes notwithstanding. Just look at the killing of the site worker by the infected man, a special bit of horror elevated by the use of hand-held cameras. The fact that it cuts away before we see the blow shows that the storytelling was still paramount with the Letts production team. An Eric Saward story would have had close-ups of his brains smashed in. Combine this with one of my favourite scores and you have a classy Who story indeed.

In many ways the serial presages all that was to undermine the Pertwee era. Whereas the third Doctor's persona was arrogant, he was still likeable because he was a peaceful intellect. Here, however, he first displays the time-filling tendency of physical violence, which undermines the character greatly. It's lazy writing and cheap television, as would be the overuse of the sonic screwdriver, which makes its Pertwee debut here. Note also the Brigadier-Benton banter, something that is acceptable here, but would soon grow rapidly out of control in time for the tenth anniversary. Greg Sutton is oddly likeable as the sexist pig, though what a manly stud is doing wearing a multi-coloured necktie is anyone's guess.

I've banged on about how topical the middle two stories of season seven are. Spearhead was fun, but shallow and, in a modern context, meaningless. And so, we come to Inferno. A story about greed and oil, with experts being recalled from Kuwait? Hmmmm……. Yet for a season that also cautions against facism, then Inferno is the only story to feature a non-Caucasian actor, and that's as an extra with the single line "okay, sir".

Perhaps the only real complaint with this first instalment is the appallingly cheap backdrop used to convince us (or not) that the Doctor's workshop is on the site. This is coupled with Jon's hall of mirrors routine, which I used to find quite eerie, but, with his comical expressions and rematerialisation on his ass is more comic than anything. But a good episode all the same.
* * * * ˝

"That noise he was making," says the Brigadier of the infected worker, "I've never heard anything like that before." This seems odd as I realised this time that they'd used the same sound as the psycho Cyberman from The Invasion. Not a criticism, just an observation - if something works, then why not reuse it?

The violence I spoke about earlier sees its first appearance here. How disturbing to see the Doctor say his subject could be "permanently paralysed." And isn't the term Venusian Karate childish? One criticism I do have of Inferno is that it's the most comic book like of the four. An easy lead-in to season eight, whereas the others actually passed as research establishments, this one always looks like a set.

And that's it I'm afraid. I was enjoying it so much I forgot to take notes…
* * * * ˝

I've never really understood why the Doctor risks travelling on the console alone, nor how he can. Or how it transports Bessie for that matter. This is also the story with probably the highest amount of boom mike shadows in the series' history, something I'd never really noticed before.

The idea that all of the Doctor's friends should be in the same point in space is a stretch, but is quite fun. While Liz in a miniskirt is painfully reminiscent of The Two Ronnies' "The Worm That Turned" and lacks depth, it is kind of entertaining. And, while gimmicky here, it's strange that the nature of parallel universes was something the series only returned to once. Yet with Courtney and John giving below-par acting performances, then there's a very tangible sense of high camp that threatens to overcome the whole venture.

Fittingly for a story with the first Havoc credit, there's a chase sequence that lasts for over four minutes. Again, I have to stress that all these things are not bad in themselves here - it's just that their diluting and saturation in later Pertwee stories would be. Inferno is a great story, but it's also the one that first sows the seeds of mainstream mediocrity.
* * * ˝

A better episode this one, though Jon's almost constant lip-stroking, ear-scratching antics display worrying signs of his later acting apathy. Another thing I'd never clicked with before was the countdown clocks in both realities. In "our" reality they've got over 48 hours left, yet in the Inferno one they're down to 35.

Plot-wise, virtually no progression is made here, though I did enjoy it greatly. And, while the majority of the episode coasts along with any real incident, the high drama of the cliffhanger makes it the best of the season. "That'ss the sssssound of thisss planet ssssscreaming out itsssss rage!"
* * * *

The scene where Jon does a not very well disguised voice on the radio is shown here, something that was omitted from original UK broadcasts, but shown overseas and retained on the VHS release. There's clearly some narrative jiggery-pokery going on here, as the story is so naturally coming to an end that I assumed UK Gold had cut some of it out and we were on episode six already. The coda back in "our" reality I can understand, but the rest of it is clearly a six part story given one episode too many. And I normally like John Levene, but his "evil" yokel accent and transformation into a green dog are some of the most embarrassing elements of the season.
* * * ˝

Episode six, and all the plot elements that could easily have been resolved last time are still being stretched out. It's entertaining, though, and isn't bad padding by any means. How does the "real" Liz have the sonic screwdriver when Jon crossed over with it though?

The scenes of the dying Earth are superb, even if the Primords (not identified by that name on screen) are cartoonish and at odds with the rather serious tone of the story. This is actually symptomatic of the serial as a whole - it tries to be a serious endeavour, but impressive location work and serious performances contrast badly with green werewolves and regulars hamming up their parts. And note that I've not even mentioned the glittery mirrorball that divides scenes between dimensions. What a groovy scene!

This would probably be a four-star episode were it not for the ridiculous girly slap-fest between Greg and the Brig. And it does beg the question as to where the Doctor was in this reality - still on Gallifrey, perhaps? The cliffhanger is strong, but I was concerned for the actors' safety being so near to all that lava…
* * * ˝

For the average Doctor Who story I'm sure music doesn't really matter much at all. It's just there, hardly noticed, neither really detracting or enhancing your enjoyment. Yet some can grate and reduce a story (Death to the Daleks, Attack of the Cybermen, Keff McCulloch) while others have such a lovely score it actually becomes one of the most rewarding elements. (Season 18, City of Death, Revelation of the Daleks…) I put Inferno in this latter category, its off-centre appeal largely established by the ethereal score.

In a neat parallel the Brigadier tells Liz he doesn't like her tone - something that the Brigade Leader had told her counterpart the preceding episode. Her response of "I don't care for yours much, either!" is a decent bow-out for Liz, finally verbalising the underlying resentment she's felt towards him all season.

While this is a good last episode, it must be noted that it really comes down to another Pertwee ending - reversing the systems isn't too much of a stretch from the neutron flow. Freudians might like to watch the story again, the tale of a scientist with a very big drill who constantly insists on penetration.

Some last observations - look out for the black extra who clearly hasn't got a clue what he's supposed to be doing in one of the later scenes and looks everywhere in vain. Obviously being one of a handful of black actors in 70s Who overwhelmed him. And remember - if ever you make a mistake, it could be a lulu!
* * * *

Superficially the most appealing season seven story, Inferno is pacey and involving. Yet the parallel universe plot is, narratively speaking, a gimmick, and it lacks the depth and realism of the middle two stories. It's still stronger than Ambassadors, though doesn't have as much to say as The Silurians. A great story all the same.
* * * *