Doctor Who (Classic): S07E04 “Inferno”

Season 7
Directed by Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts
Written by Don Houghton

Hilariously, my half-finished draft of this review started with me commenting on how fast we had blown through this season and… whoops.  I won’t go into why I stopped writing them and I currently have no plans on restarting these (though I will be back for this season of NuWho) regularly, but honestly, just wanted to get this one done and out of the way.

As for the show itself, “Inferno” is the third straight of four total stories (the least number of stories in a season until Season 23 and its epic “The Trial of a Time Lord”) to be seven episodes long.  I’ve repeatedly gone into how this has been a transition season and one that has made big steps visually and narratively, but it is also important to note just how good it’s been even including the mediocre entry we left off on.

This time’s setting is a drilling site nicknamed The Inferno where a professor (Stahlman) obsessed with having no delays to his baby of a project rules over it.  He’s so determined, that he won’t settle for anything less than full steam ahead even as the issues start to come up, namely a pipe that is in need of repair.  The pipe starts leaking a mysterious gooey liquid that the idiot repairman touches.  It is unsurprisingly hot and messes with his hand and evidently his mind as he starts acting dazed and leaking liquid from the mouth, stumbling about before killing someone he comes across with a match cut.  He later starts growling and getting very hairy, the liquid containing Rogaine no doubt.  The wrench used for the murder too has turned red hot from the man as he radiates major amounts of heat and spreads along his infection or whatever to those he touched.

The Doctor just happened to arrive at that site beforehand having wanted to observe the first penetration of the Earth’s crust (and certainly not because he was doing some experiments on the side) and the episode draws attention to the fact that trouble seems to follow him.  The tension between The Doctor and the Brig stemming from “Doctor Who and the Silurians” is still obvious and remains prominent throughout the story.  It’s also become even more obvious how desperate The Doctor is to leave as he has constructed his own homemade TARDIS (or at least the console for it) and is obsessed himself with making it work.

According to the show, there is a bunch of gas below the Earth’s crust which will solve all world’s power demands.  Thankfully, reality has never thought to risk earthquakes or do anything dangerous to the ground even in the face of mounting evidence to obtain gas in order to deal with the demands of the world.  Completely ridiculous plot here.  Besides The Doctor who is serving as an adviser to the director of the project (to the chagrin of the professor), another drilling expert is brought in and who quickly starts to offer similar objections.

During the test, the infected man overloads the nuclear power powering the drill and The Doctor, who has been siphoning some of that power off, is sent into a freak-out of a scene as the screen distorts and blinks and his body stretches all over.  He’s only brought back from a limbo of some sort after Liz is able to kill the power.

Like the professor though, he is determined to continue regardless the consequences and manages to fire up his homemade TARDIS again.  This time however, he disappears as the power has been shut off by an infected human and is transported to a mysterious other world.  This world is a parallel Earth where the Brigadier is now a “Brigade Leader” of the fascistic R.S.F. (Republican Security Forces) complete with badass scar covered by an eye patch, no mustache, and no knowledge of The Doctor.  The royals were executed in 1943 and the new government took over in its place. 

Liz now has dark brown hair and is a Section Leader, not a scientist, and all the scientists have a feel of Nazi scientists in behavior and appearance.  The only people who are all that similar are the director and the drilling consultant.  If anything, the director actually seems slightly less mad (and clean shaven which may be the cause).  The drilling project is still going on in that world with many of the same issues and the head of the project having been infected in the same hand as his prime counterpart.  Both professors are clearly going crazy as their bodies transform in secret.  They have been working on it for 11 years and have clearly lost all sanity as they become ever obsessed with finishing as quickly as possible.

While alt-world Fascists are obviously a pretty stock trope, they make for some more interesting characters and offer more opportunities for character interactions.  They give The Doctor even more of a chance to snark back at people while also allowing the adviser step into an even more clear role as the one voice of opposition to the government.  There’s still time spent in the main universe which is pretty unusual for these type stories, but the focus for much of the show after The Doctor heads over is the mirror universe.

After things inevitably go tits up when they break through the crust, earthquakes are felt through England and the outside gets intolerably hot and they are all sealed in while the infected all eventually change into GEICO cavemen looking assholes who grow stronger from the heat.  It’s fascinating watching the structure of their dictatorship break down under pressure and arguably the optimism in assuming that some would even switch to acting generously once it did.  The Doctor is only able to escape thanks to the efforts of alt-Liz and alt-assistant lady (Petra) who stop The Brigade Leader from forcing The Doctor to take them to his home world.  I get his urgency since his own is being drowned in lava/jam, but clearly you can’t exist alongside your alt-universe versions (which raises the questions about whether there is a Doctor in this universe and why was NuWho able to get away with it?).

The show builds up a lot of suspense and mystery over the first four episodes as to what will happen when the drill breaks through.  The alt universe twist was possibly intended as padding since it does just re-hit plenty of the same beats, but it differs enough to make them more intriguing and keep the tension up while adding more possible clues.  There never is an explanation given for why the liquid does what it does or even what it is.  The story is simply a “he tampered in god’s domain” situation that everyone is just eager to bury and move on from.  There’s a bit of a lack of closure from it, but there’s something compelling and fitting for this story about the show leaving it all a mystery.

It’s also a bit of a disappointment that when disaster is narrowly averted by The Doctor in the prime universe, it wasn’t exactly by using any acquired knowledge.  Heck, The Brig’s point about The Doctor’s testing sending him away at an inopportune time only slowing down the fix is a good one.  It raises a lot of possibilities for future stories about how they can manage without him and how much worlds suffer if The Doctor isn’t there to sort shit out.

Season 7 has been far and away the best and most consistent to date even with one dud of a serial.  The experiment of tethering The Doctor to one place was a success and proved that traveling in time and place was hardly what defined him.  The Third Doctor has still been recognizably The Doctor through his personality and behavior while the stories have remained quintessentially Doctor Who stories.  In fact, I think the tethering not only strengthened that definition, but it allowed the show to grow since it no longer had to focus on establishing a new world each time and allowed the writers to focus on the stories without concerning themselves with trying to make distinctive settings, settings which would define a significant portion of each story.

I also think the shorter season liked played a big part as there had to have been less of a requirement to just pump out episodes and alien races to go with them with all the extra time between season.  The show also avoiding any set of returning villains for the first season since its first which stopped them from getting mired in repeating the same plot beats (something mixing up the format also helped with) with villains of declining efficacy.

The cast also played a big part in the success this season.  I quite liked Liz and all she brought to the series.  She was an equal to The Doctor in many ways, but at the very least, she could hold her own.  In fact, both companions this time around were more or less stuck with The Doctor (and vice versa) and gave as much as they got.  Liz represented the aspect of the Third Doctor as a brilliant scientist while the Brig represented The Doctor’s insistence of always taking control of the situation.  The similarities set up greater conflict since that is going to happen when you get two similar people together and allowed their differences in approach to come into starker contrast.  While this isn’t the first time in regard to the former point since that was how Ian and Barbara came to the show, the latter point allowed for a more complex Doctor and some very fun interactions

The season seems to be setting itself up to wrap up this experiment as The Doctor gets ready to fire up his refined though still janky TARDIS and leave them for good.  He leaves telling Liz that he will miss her before calling the Brig a “pompous, self-opinionated idiot” and disappearing.  It would have been the ultimate badass departure, but I appreciated the comedic subversion as he only makes it a few seconds and a few yards away though into the dump.  His comeuppance is enough though to ease over the relationship between the two feuding men.

The lack of any real conclusion though causes some unintended consequences.  For the first time a companion disappears off-screen as this was Liz’s final appearance.  Apparently, the franchise would address it decades later in the novel The Scales of Injustice, but that is hardly the same thing, or a worthy send off.  I’m still looking forward to seeing how they will resolve to get him back in his TARDIS, but I wish she was sticking around for it.  Even with some ending stumbles, this still immediately enters the pantheon of my favorite Classic Who serials with its consistently compelling stories, humor, and premise.

Grade: A-
Season Grade: B

Stray Observations

– Barry Letts took over as the director of the studio scenes for Episodes 3-7 after Douglas Camfield suffered a heart attack.
– This serial was originally titled “The Mo-Hole Project” which would have far and away been the worst story title the show had come up with.
– I continue to enjoy watching the Doctor have fun with the story opening with The Doctor singing and driving Bessie.
– The visual downgrade continues with regard to this season.  It may not have been the best idea to start the show off with the best looking serial of the show’s run.
– The Doctor is still noticeably anti-computer, but I do appreciate that he at least sees there purpose and use here instead of just dismissing their outputs.
– The Doctor has apparently invented the garage door opener (though calling it the door holder) and it is a delight seeing how amazed everyone is by this creation.
– The Doctor’s Venusian karate looks an awful like a Vulcan technique in both execution and function
– There is probably something interesting to dissect in the fact that the fascist project is more advanced but is also structured so that stopping the project is impossible.  There is probably something even more interesting to discuss in the idea that both states got themselves to similar points with only an intervention from The Doctor saving themselves from certain self-inflicted disaster.  I ain’t touching that though.
– The two worlds are well differentiated, but the key to it all is Nicholas Courtney who just slips into the role of the Brigade Leader so naturally and so distinctly.  I can’t comment on where the Brigadier looks better with or without the mustache, but it certainly changes his look significantly
– “What did you expect, some kind of spaceship with Batman at the controls?”  Well I wasn’t, but now I want to see nothing more.  The Doctor and Batman flying through time and space fighting crime and solving mysteries sounds delightful as well, the two making for a perfect buddy comedy act.
– Between this and The Mandalorian finale, there’s just no respect for the heat  transferred by convection from lava.
– The crowbarred in love story between the expert and the assistant is thankfully mostly resolved off screen.  They worked so much better when anything between them was left as subtext.
– The mutants do get the name “Primords” which combined with their appearance seem to confirm that it was implied to have been regressing the humans.  Thank goodness they left that explanation out.
– I’m still not sure what this had to do with Krakatoa, but maybe if you just say the name a few more times it will all make sense.
– This is the final serial with a unique title card which was taken from footage also used in “The Enemy of the World”.
– This was also the final story to use the original TARDIS console.
– In another last, this was the end of using stock music to score the show.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: More of an inferred one.  While The Doctor and the Brigadier walk off together at the end, the knowledge that change is again coming to the show next season hangs over it.

Next Up:  As said before, it is going to be a while for Doctor Who (Classic).  If or when this series returns, we will move on to Season 8 with the far shorter “Terror of the Autons”.  You all only have to wait until January 1st for “Spyfall, Part 1”.  Will try to get the reviews up quicker this year (which should be easier since I don’t have to worry about getting out of work as soon as the episode starts), but for the first episode (and probably only the first but TBD), there will be live thread to serve as a placeholder.