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7x04. Inferno
Writer: Don Houghton
Directors: Douglas Camfield & Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The cutting-edge drilling project of the obsessive Professor Stahlman draws suspicion when several staff members and UNIT soldiers are transformed into savage werewolf-like creatures ("Primords") who commit a series of assaults and murders. The Doctor, who is also still working on repairs to the TARDIS, is accidentally transported to a parallel dimension, where Britain is ruled by a fascist dictator and where the Doctor witnesses the horrible outcome of the drilling project: the release of uncontrollable energies from inside the Earth that destroy the planet. Returned to his own dimension, the Doctor finds that he has only a short time to avert a similar outcome.

Review: If I had to describe "Inferno" in one word, it would be "intense." After taking the first two episodes to establish the cast of characters and the fact that Professor Stahlman's drilling project is heading in a dangerous direction, writer Don Houghton's script kicks into high gear with the Doctor's arrival in the parallel universe and rarely lets up. The serial delivers fast-paced action, complex and subtle characterization, physical and psychological terror, and even the end of the world, putting the still relatively new Third Doctor through his toughest ordeal yet and resulting in a story that succeeds at a number of different levels.

Before I start dissecting plot, character, and subtext, I should first say that "Inferno" represents the series' high point thus far in terms of production quality. The interior of the drilling facility is a very well-designed set, with the numerous extras in lab coats and the ever-present background hum of the drill adding to the realism and to the ominous sense of approaching danger. Episodes 5 and 6, as the alternate Earth heads towards its inevitable demise, set a new standard for on-screen horror and chaos on Doctor Who: earthquakes mercilessly toss the characters about, an oppressive red glow settles over the atmosphere, and Benton suffers an agonizing transformation into a Primord. The Primords emit inhuman shrieks as they attack with increasing frequency, coming off almost like biblical portents of the apocalypse, their barely-human appearance conveying the sense that the natural order is not merely being destroyed, but twisted into something perverse and bestial. To put it simply, this a supremely effective rendering that actually justifies a line like, "Listen to that! It's the sound of this planet screaming its rage!" Delivered by the Doctor as the drill achieves its fateful goal of penetrating through the Earth's crust, it could have come off as overwrought, but after seeing the planet's screaming rage let loose, we realize that he has it exactly right.

"Inferno" probably could have been a success on spectacle alone, but there's much more to it than that. The universe of fascist Britain offers some unique insights into the characters themselves as well as the circumstances that have shaped them. Many have remarked on Nicholas Courtney's skill in making the Brigade Leader of the alternate universe convincingly cruel, selfish, and generally unlikeable. His tendency towards intimidation and violence as a means to get his way is complemented by his small-mindedness, at first insisting that "if this place goes up, we go with it," but later proving himself a coward when he realizes his superiors are not going to save him. He is by far the most frightened at the prospect of his own death, he nearly murders Sutton in a loss of temper, and he threatens to kill the Doctor if he will not take him back to his own universe. One might read the Brigade Leader's temperament (and that of an equally nasty alternate Benton) as implying that inside every military officer lurks a fascist sympathizer, but I don't think that's the point. Rather, I think the Brigade Leader is simply a product of his fascist society, which values the raw exercise of hierarchical power and which enables him to feel powerful himself without granting him any real control or responsibility over anything, the result being that he descends into despair and rage when he can no longer rely on those above him. By contrast, the Brigadier of the Doctor's universe, who has more autonomy in how he runs UNIT, exercises considerably more patience in dealing with the situation at the drilling facility. When he does finally read Benton off for failing to bring a stubborn Stahlman to his office as requested, he tells Benton to "show some initiative" -- precisely the last thing anyone wants from a low-level military officer in a fascist regime. Though he values precise command structure and obedience to orders like any military officer would, he is still the product of a democratic society that values individualism and prefers persuasion to coercion.

Individualism is perhaps best personified by Greg Sutton, who, ironically enough, is actually a little less likeable in the democratic universe, where he sometimes seems like a verbal bully (what makes *his* opinion so much more important, we might ask, in this society of equals?), than in the fascist universe, where his outspokenness is a refreshing sign of life amongst all the rigidity and conformism. He also seems to have the easiest time accepting the fact of his own imminent death when the Doctor explains that nothing can reverse the disintegration of the alternate Earth. Not only has he rejected the Brigade Leader's falsely comfortable view of the world that comes with being a cog in a totalitarian machine, but he's well aware that his refusal to suffer fools gladly might prompt the government to arrange an "accident" for him, and he doesn't really seem to care. He's used to living with the expectation that someone or something bigger and stronger is going to kill him, and it doesn't slow him down for a second when the Doctor enlists his help. Petra Williams, meanwhile, is a sort of Everywoman, reluctant to rock the boat but still capable of thinking for herself. She shows great courage and selflessness in the fascist universe by spending her last moments alive rigging up a complex power supply for the Doctor while the Primords attack and the world literally disintegrates around her, and she similarly acquits herself in the democratic universe when she realizes that Stahlman is out of control and refuses to continue following his dangerous instructions. The alternate version of Liz Shaw is also an intriguing case: she's just as capable of coercion and violence as the other "Republican Security Force" officers, but she does eventually come around to the notion of helping the Doctor. The critical moment for her, I think, is when the Doctor asks if she once studied physics before joining the military: Caroline John effectively and subtly conveys a crack in her aloof pose at this moment, as if he's awakened a repressed and carefully concealed longing for something more fulfilling than the cold and brutal existence of Section Leader Shaw.

The underlying theme of all this, as acknowledged by the Doctor in Episode 7, is that of the exercise and the limits of human free will. The limits are particularly evident in the fascist universe: the alternate versions of Lethbridge-Stewart, Liz Shaw, and Benton demonstrate that almost anyone who becomes part of a repressive regime's authority structure will absorb some of its values, in this case the notion that, as a propaganda poster says, "Unity Is Strength" -- and that disunity should simply be eliminated by force. "Inferno" also picks up on this theme to tackle mortality in a way that previous Doctor Who serials, despite the ever-present threats of death from one villain or another, really haven't. The slow unstoppable destruction of the alternate Earth and in particular the Brigade Leader's fear and panic reflect the grim fact that we cannot will our physical bodies to survive when certain inexorable forces are arrayed against us. It almost goes without saying that this entire scenario is not so much a serious and scientific attempt to understand the effects of drilling through the Earth's crust, but rather a metaphorical warning against the arrogance that would have us believe we can take on the forces of nature and win.

At the same time, free will, and a society more conducive to it, is a large part of what makes the difference between survival and catastrophe for the inhabitants of the Doctor's Earth. I don't know that there's any one single decision that alters the outcome, but we do see that, in the democratic universe, Stahlman's course of action is fiercely debated at every turn, the result being that Sir Keith Gold, Greg Sutton, the Brigadier, and finally even Petra Williams (who in this reality is not a scientist but Stahlman's personal assistant) grow increasingly skeptical and the stage is set for some last-minute emergency countermeasures. Another of the script's curious ironies, however, is that the choices made by the characters in the fascist universe are arguably even more important. It's unclear whether the inhabitants of democratic Britain, despite their skepticism of Stahlman, could have averted the impending disaster without the Doctor's help, and of course the Doctor could not have returned had not the alternate versions of Greg Sutton, Petra Williams, and Liz Shaw accepted their own fates and chosen to help the Doctor anyway. Even a horribly repressive structure does not completely destroy the better aspects of humanity, and they are able to act as individuals once they start to question their assumptions and the orders from their superiors (indeed, Section Leader Shaw even shoots the Brigade Leader to keep him from killing the Doctor).

"Inferno" also features some good character work for the Doctor, who is proving both more proactive and more fallible than his two predecessors. His failure to broker a peace between humans and Silurians seems like peanuts to what he endures in the alternate universe, where, despite his insistent warnings to anyone who will listen (as well as anyone who won't) that they are headed for disaster, the entire world is destroyed. While he's not the type to dwell on all the lost lives, the experience has clearly affected him when he returns to his own universe and, at one point, just starts smashing a console in the drilling facility in what he must know is probably a futile gesture. I certainly can't imagine Hartnell reduced to such desperation; Troughton, maybe, but he never exuded the control and confidence of Pertwee's Doctor in the first place. At the same time, his refusal to take any of the people from the doomed alternate universe with him because it would damage the spacetime continuum reminds us that he is, after all, an alien, whose experience and knowledge far exceed ours. Under normal circumstances, he would try to save them all, even the loathsome Brigade Leader, but he's prepared to die himself (as he shows when he stares down the Brigade Leader's threat) and to let both worlds be destroyed rather than unleash a far greater disaster on the entire universe.

There's one aspect of the Doctor's characterization that I feel like "Inferno" doesn't quite handle properly, and that's the fact that the script actually seems to be implying a parallel between the Doctor and Stahlman at times. After all, the Doctor is conducting irresponsible experiments with the TARDIS that he knows might be dangerous, even deceiving Liz and telling her not to ask questions in order to obtain the necessary energy from the nuclear power source fueling the drilling facility. Later on, when the Brigadier expresses his irritation at the Doctor's absence during much of the crisis, he responds with a put-down that sounds similar to one of Stahlman's insults. Of course, the Doctor didn't know how critical the situation was about to become and thus thought he was only endangering himself, and he probably intended to return to the same time and place even if his experiment had worked. What's odd is that the script doesn't sidestep this issue entirely, but instead attempts to deal with it in the form of a joke. The Doctor walks off in a huff after arguing with the Brigadier, tries once more to operate the TARDIS, and materializes in the middle of a garbage dump, finding himself having to smooth things over when he realizes he's going to be around for a while after all. I suppose that's better than nothing, but it still seems like a bit of a cop-out.

That said, I realize that the series was being written for a family audience, and after all the preceding darkness and the recent downbeat ending to "The Silurians," I can understand why the writers might not want to push it too far. In any case, I have a rule that any serial that gives me this much to write about gets the benefit of the doubt, and given that "Inferno" does so many things right, I'm not inclined to be too harsh about the one thing it does wrong. This is another first-rate serial and possibly a new high-water mark for Doctor Who in general, and it's an appropriate finish to an excellent first season for a new Doctor and a new setting.

Other notes:

- I am, of course, not a scientist, and in truth I don't have the slightest clue what might happen if somebody drilled through the Earth's crust, but I'm assuming it wouldn't be anywhere near as cataclysmic as this, and I feel pretty safe in saying that there wouldn't be any green goo turning people into monsters.

- We learn from the Brigade Leader that the royal family was executed and this new regime installed in 1943, implying that it was an outcome of World War II. It's unclear whether fascist Britain is the product of defeat at the hands of the Axis powers or if they willingly destroyed their democracy because they thought it would be expedient to do so during wartime, but either possibility is intriguing.

- A small nitpick about the Doctor's insistence that he "doesn't exist" in the fascist universe. Why does he assume that to be the case simply because there isn't an alternate version of him present at the drilling facility? I can easily imagine that the First Doctor and Susan, had they arrived in a totalitarian Britain in 1963, would have high-tailed it out of there and vowed simply not to return to Earth. Then again, I suppose we can just attribute this to some advanced Time Lord understanding of alternate universes that would have been too complicated to explain.

- The effect used to signal a transition between one universe and another looks like an out-of-focus zoom on a disco ball. I guess a "Disco Inferno" joke here would be a little too easy?

- "Inferno" nicely avoids anti-intellectualism in its invocation of the "mad scientist." Stahlman's error is not trying to discover something new (in fact, his goal of providing an alternative energy source is laudable), but in ignoring the warnings of his advisors and his computer that his theories are unsound.

Rating: **** (out of four)

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