Review: Doctor Who – Inferno (Special Edition) / Cert: PG / Director: Douglas Camfield, Barry Letts / Screenplay: Don Houghton / Starring: Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John, Olaf Pooley, Christopher Benjamin, John Levene, Derek Newark, Sheila Dunn / Release Date: May 27th
When the BBC were casting around looking for a possible replacement for Doctor Who at the end of the 1960s (the show’s ratings had started to tumble again towards the end of Patrick Troughton’s tenure and it looked as if the show had had its day), one of the suggestions put forward was to refashion Nigel Kneale’s 1950s science fiction hero Professor Quatermass into a character suitable for an ongoing weekly series. In the end the idea came to nothing and, in the absence of any other workable new proposals, Doctor Who was given another chance, Jon Pertwee was cast as the third Doctor, the show moved into colour production and… well, the rest is pretty much history. But elements of that 1970s Quatermass concept seem to have bled through into the four serials of Pertwee’s first series which, with the Doctor trapped on Earth and unable to access the secrets of the TARDIS, saw the Time Lord dealing with resolutely down-to-Earth dilemmas such as invading intelligences, resurrected reptiles, alien ambassadors and, in Inferno, the best of the bunch and one of the finest Doctor Who serials ever, mankind’s relentless pursuit of scientific advancement leading to the unleashing of a deadly primordial force and the possible destruction of the entire planet. This is Doctor Who at its grimmest and grittiest and, unusually for a seven-part serial, it’s consistently gripping, never seems overtly padded (although the ‘parallel dimension’ storyline was specifically added to stretch out the story’s running length) and, despite some slightly unconvincing rampaging monsters, is never knowingly childish. One of the cliffhangers – boiling lava rolling towards the Doctor and his gang trapped in a garage-cum-workshop in the ‘parallel dimension’ – remains seared into the memories of viewers who were terrified by it at the time.
UNIT (led by the redoubtable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) are providing security at ‘Inferno', a controversial drilling project seeking out subterranean pockets of Stahlman’s Gas (named after the ferociously determined scientist who discovered it) which could provide endless resources of cheap energy for the world. The Doctor’s there too, hoping to use the power from the project’s nuclear reactor to repair his incapacitated TARDIS. But sinister green gloop is seeping out from the drill pipes and it has an unpleasant transforming affect on anyone who comes into contact with it. The Doctor’s own experiments end up with the Time Lord being accidentally projected into a fascistic alternative Earth where the Inferno project has progressed much further and it quickly becomes evident that whilst it’s too late to save the parallel earth, the Doctor’s got his work cut out if he’s to find his way back to his own reality and prevent a similar fate befalling our own version of the Earth.
Inferno remains an eerie and powerful piece of television, even over four decades after it was made. There’s a reality to the production and genuine sense of unease throughout the serial, compounded by the constant background throb of the drilling mechanism itself and the cold, bleak industrial locations. The ‘parallel’ world is even worse, a ghastly militaristic regime populated by brutal, thuggish versions of the Doctor’s UNIT friends and colleagues and the drilling project itself is more like a labour camp than a scientific establishment. Great performances, dynamic direction (from Douglas Camfield, one of the original show’s best directors, who suffered a heart attack half way through the production) and a powerful, cautionary storyline married to Doctor Who at its most mature and unpatronising, Inferno is a terrific and terrifying tale and, with changes afoot to dilute the show’s formula, it was the last time Doctor Who would be this raw and uncompromising for many years.
Inferno was originally released on DVD in 2006 and advances in restoration technology in the intervening years have allowed for this sharper, sprightlier new release. It’s still not pinpoint sharp, however; some of the location sequences are slightly blurry and there’s some evidence of colour drop-out here and there, but this is as good as Inferno has looked, in colour, since it was screened in 1970 and probably as good as we’re ever going to get it. Augmented by a couple of new documentary features, Inferno is a must-have example of Doctor Who at something approaching its very best.
Extras: New to this release, ‘Hadoke vs HAVOC’ sees comedian and Who fan Toby Hadoke reunite the show’s 1970s stunt troop, and the latest in the ‘Doctor Forever’ strand looks at various doomed attempts to resurrect Doctor Who after the BBC washed their hands of it in 1989. The ‘making of’ documentary and ‘UNIT family’ features are holdovers from the original set, along with a few other bits and pieces and there’s an intriguing trailer for the forthcoming DVD release of the recently recoloured 1971 serial ‘Mind of Evil’. But that’s for next month…