To Inferno, with Love

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Guest contributor Shane Spangler on the 1970 classic.

It’s official! On May 27, BBC Worldwide will release a special edition of my favourite (and the favourite of many others, apparently!) Doctor Who episode of all time: the amazing, seven-part 1970 serial Inferno. To celebrate this upcoming release, and since it’s only a few short days until Valentine’s Day, I am writing a love letter, extolling the virtues of this marvellous show, starring Jon Pertwee in his fourth outing as the Doctor. Yes, from the moment the opening titles spin away into stock footage of a real volcano, over which the words “Inferno, by Don Houghton, Episode 1” appear, and then melt away into the bubbling lava background, to the final moments of a giggling Liz Shaw, played by the excellent (and sadly departed) Caroline John, Inferno is a masterpiece.

I won’t dwell on the plot of Inferno here – that has already been outlined very well in an earlier article about the 1970 Who season. Instead, I will concentrate on the various aspects of this show which, in my opinion, represents Doctor Who at its absolute best.

What makes Inferno work so well is that it can be appreciated on many levels. Visually, it’s a treat. The location scenes are tightly directed by the late, great Douglas Camfield, who chose each grotesque shot of the bleak oil refinery with great care. Enormous, weathered tangles of pipe spew steam and smoke, smokestacks and dilapidated outbuildings loom oppressively in the background. High catwalks, rusty gantries and filthy, open staircases connect fifty-foot tall “gasometers”, over which Camfield sends his cast members scrambling to great effect. Even the worn-out TARDIS console prop seems to echo the atmosphere of decay and ruin, as the dirty central column rises and falls irregularly, with the shattered remains of its internal mechanism jiggling ominously while an out-of-shot stage hand forces the thing up and down by hand.

When Camfield fell ill halfway through the studio recording, producer Barry Letts took over as director, and it does show – the studio shots are less dramatic, and there are fewer extreme close-ups – but it doesn’t detract from the overall piece. There is an intensity and a realism to Inferno that won’t be seen again until, perhaps, Genesis of the Daleks, five years later. In Inferno, the viewer feels that, for once, the Doctor’s life is truly in deadly danger. Even the whimsical “La donna è mobile” aria, badly sung by the Doctor in the opening scene, has a weightiness to it, as it foreshadows the departure of the magnificent Liz Shaw somewhere between the end of Inferno and the beginning of Terror of the Autons.

Speaking of sound, Inferno is acoustically brilliant too, which is interesting, as no music was specifically composed for it. As with most of the episodes he directed, Douglas Camfield chose not to enlist Dudley Simpson to score Inferno. Instead, he picked out several stock tracks of electronic music by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, among others. These are used to superb effect. Derbyshire’s cheekily-titled “Delian Mode” sets an atmosphere of tension and danger, while her “Blue Veils and Golden Sands” points up Stahlman’s momentary descent into madness as he ransacks the Brigadier’s office. For lack of the proper titles, I’ll just name them here as the abstract “primord theme”, haunting “green ooze” theme, pointillist “Bonnie & Clyde-style chase” theme as the Doctor tries to outrun the RSF snipers in Bessie, and tense “fugitive” theme as the Doctor hides from his fascist pursuers, all beautifully underscore the relentless and carefully crafted building of tension in the direction. The timelessness of the soundtrack also keeps Inferno feeling fresh, even though it is over 43 years since the show was made.

Philosophically, and from the point of view of the “New Physics”, Inferno is interesting because, through the plot element of parallel worlds, the show explores the “many Universe” theory, in which our choices shape our world, while our alternative choices (the things we might have done, but didn’t) could, and do, create new worlds that exist parallel to ours. Scientifically, Inferno is intriguing also, because writer Don Houghton based the main plot upon real-life scientific experiments in Russia and the United States in the 1960s, which involved drilling through the Earth’s crust.

From a casting point of view, Inferno is a positive triumph. There isn’t a weak performance in the whole show, from the regulars to the extras, to the stunt team. Olaf Pooley plays the main villain, Dr. Erik Stahlman, with a cold, calculating reserve that thinly covers his megalomania and his fanatical desire to complete his project, even if it means sacrificing every human on the planet. Derek Newark, (a.k.a. Za the Caveman in An Unearthly Child) plays the gruff oil rig consultant beautifully, and his love interest, Dr. Petra Williams, is played by Sheila Dunn, Director Douglas Camfield’s real-life wife, who turns in an excellent performance as a somewhat fragile scientist who becomes stronger during the course of the story. Christopher Benjamin (who would later create the immortal character of Henry Gordon Jago in Talons of Weng-Chiang, and the similar Colonel Hugh Curbishly in The Unicorn and the Wasp) plays the long-suffering Sir Keith Gold with real pathos.

The series regulars and guest stars have the additional challenge of portraying both “our Earth” versions, and the “parallel Earth” versions of their characters. Because of the “Nazis-won-the-war” parallel world plot element, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, and John Levene, get a chance to play their regular characters as villains – and EVERYBODY DIES. Benton mutates into a “primord”, Lethbridge-Stewart gets shot in the back by Elizabeth Shaw, who in turn gets burned alive along with Petra Williams and Greg Sutton, as a lava flow engulfs the Quonset hut in which the Doctor’s badly damaged TARDIS console is struggling to dematerialize. The stunt men die spectacularly over and over, and a couple of them even get a few lines, and they get them right every time.

Though Pertwee is not “my Doctor,” (that would be Tom Baker), his brilliant performance in Inferno foreshadows the eccentricity, quirky humor and explosive energy of his successor. In fact, in this story, Pertwee gives what is arguably the finest performance of his five-year stint, and perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the Doctor by any actor, period. We see him clearly as an alien, anti-establishment figure, apparently willing to abandon the Earth to the tender mercies of the mad scientist Stahlman, for the sake of a few “megga volts” (sic) from the nuclear reactor to power the crippled TARDIS console. He’s a Romantic, flirting shamelessly, Tennant-style, with the kinky, jack-booted, mini-skirted fascist version of Liz Shaw (and she doesn’t half enjoy it.)

Pertwee is, by turns, brave, frightened, confused, impudent, comical, desperate, introspective, wise and heroic, and the moment he looks Nicholas Courtney’s terrified Brigade Leader in the (one) eye as he refuses to save his life must certainly stand as one of the more poignant scenes of Doctor Who in the whole of its 50-year run. The final three minutes of Episode 6 are so tightly constructed, they could belong to a “New-Who” episode. Director Douglas Camfield slams together a series of quick shots of the exploding drillhead, the mutated face of Benton, the slack-jawed horror on the faces of the doomed technicians, a terrified soldier running through smoke and falling ash with his uniform in tatters, to Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw’s face reflecting the glow of an approaching wall of red-hot lava, as she urges the Doctor to “go now!” – to the Doctor helplessly grappling with the TARDIS controls, to Petra’s scream as the ragtag bunch of doomed humans turn about, just in time to see the approaching river of lava as it engulfs them. Without a doubt, this must rank among the strongest cliffhangers in the history of serial television.

What’s that you say? Weak points? Plot holes? Yes, yes, yes. There are a few weak points. The fully mutated Primords look a bit silly, and their “back humps” look like the pillows they are. The main “computer” resembles one of those three-dimensional shape puzzles for infants, and the drillhead control room set has lighted walls that flash rhythmically: white when everything is OK, and red when there is a life-threatening emergency. (If only real life had flashing walls – think of the guesswork it would save on first dates and interviews.) And, if the Royal Family had been executed during World War II in the parallel world, how could Sir Keith Gold have a knighthood? Then there’s the wooden chair that surreptitiously appears in Episode 7, just in time for the mutated Stahlman to break it over the Doctor’s back, and then wave the broken bits around as he succumbs to the CO2 from the fire extinguishers.

Also, we have spontaneous sonic screwdriver generation – the Doctor takes it with him to the parallel world, but it somehow duplicates itself in “our” Liz Shaw’s purse. And then there’s Liz’s hair. Was “our” Liz dyeing her hair red the whole time, or was the fascist Liz dyeing her hair brown? (Maybe the parallel-world Dictator allowed extra primping time for military hotties.) And, with just 35 seconds of drilling to go, wouldn’t the enormous pressures everybody has been moaning about have been sufficient to blast through the remaining few inches of earth, hence dooming “our” version of the planet also? And really, after the explosive episode 6, episode 7 seems somehow lackluster by comparison. But for goodness’ sake – all these minor shortcomings vanish in the wake of the excellence of Inferno’s strengths.

I have watched Inferno at least 100 times since I first saw it in 1985 on American Public Television as a ten-year-old. I own the 2006 DVD release, the 1990s VHS box set, and my 1985 off-air VHS tape from PBS, and I stand poised to buy the Special Edition the instant it becomes available. To all fans, especially the new fans of Doctor Who, I urge you: make 2013 the year that you allow yourself to fall in love with Inferno as well.