Up to this point, Doctor Who had been a show that stuck to the rules. There were unspoken rules that a Who story wasn't allowed to break. The Doctor always had to win, you couldn't kill him or destroy the TARDIS. The Doctor's companions were goodies so they couldn't be killed either. But Inferno changed all of that.
In 1970, Jon Pertwee's first year as the Doctor pushed the boundaries. Stranding him on Earth, the Doctor was unable to fly away in the TARDIS and he was forced to work for UNIT. And although the Doctor got on with his companion Liz Shaw, his relationship with the Brigadier was still a little frosty at this point, their opposing methods of dealing with alien threats coming to ahead in The Silurians.
But Inferno is the definite gem of Pertwee's first year and his era as a whole. Initially, it doesn't anything different that we haven't seen before. It gives us a Quatermass storyline with a mad professor who is trying to dig his way to the centre of the earth but instead unleashes monsters into his organisation before becoming one himself. But what Inferno then does is takes the Doctor and the TARDIS and shunts him into a different universe. In this parallel world, Britain is fascist, no one knows him or trusts him and every problem in the real world is even worse in this one. His friends become is enemies, the Brigadier is particularly dangerous in this new world and for the first time ever, the Doctor loses. He loses very badly as he fails to save the new world and everyone on it dies horribly in fire. But luckily, the Doctor is in time to save our world.
Inferno is far from flawless as there are one or two plot points that don't stand up under close inspection and there are a few draggy moments in the middle, a problem which affects all the seven part Doctor Who adventures. But there are plenty of moments that more than compensate for those faults with a shocking mid story twist and excellent action scenes that were another hallmark of the Pertwee era. There are also some thrillingly apocalyptic moments in the fifth and sixth episodes and Nicholas Courtney gives a stand out performance as, not only the Brigadier but the evil Brigade Leader who is written perfectly as an evil version of the original character.
The story opens with a usual opening for stories from this time, the Doctor and his friends already observing a scientific operation. This scientific operation sees a scientist drilling to centre of the Earth to try and find a new source of energy, something that he will call Stahlman's Gas. The Brigadier is there to provide security while the Doctor is there because the Brigadier asked him. But the Doctor has an ulterior motive, he plans to use the nuclear energy they are already using to power up his TARDIS to give it enough power to take him away again. This plan pits him against the leader of the project, Professor Stahlman who resents the Doctor's presence because the man is already unhinged. Stahlman is intent on speeding things up as the drilling comes to a close despite the warnings from the Doctor and the project computer.
But the Doctor isn't the only one who is concerned with the Professor obsessiveness, the mild mannered, Sir Keith Gold hires a well known oil rigger called Sutton to keep an eye on things and to pull the plug on the project should things get too dangerous. But Stahlman is one of those who uses authority as a weapon and has let power go to his head. He is too arrogant to see the warning signs. He is so right about finding a new source of power under the Earth's crust that nothing is going to stop him and he is oblivious to what is going wrong around him.
Members of his staff are going insane and killing each other, using weapons that remain scorching hot even after their use. A strange green slime has begun to show up around the building and infects anyone who touches it, turning them into green zombie like creatures who look like something from a Romero flick who screech and behave like wild animals. And then there are the eventual earthquakes that the drilling is going to cause. The Doctor already knows that something is going to go wrong when he hears a strange screaming coming from below the earth. But that screaming is something he has heard before, during the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.
By the second episode all the plot points are in position. People are turning into things called Primords who begin to kill people a lot more frequently. And the Doctor, Sir Keith and Sutton are trying to stop Stahlman and Sutton tries to win round Stahlman's assistant, Petra Williams who is torn between doing what is right and being right by her boss. Eventually, the Doctor catches Stahlman sabotaging his own computer to stop it from showing safety warnings but Stahlman denies everything when he is questioned over it and orders the Doctor be removed from the base. With plenty of back-stabbing and intrigue, this story wouldn't work in the four episode format, luckily though, it last for seven episodes and it shapes up to be a great little thriller.
But it is the Doctor who does something stupid. Angered by Stahlman, the Doctor attempts to leave and switches back on the nuclear supply he is using from the base that Stahlman had turned off. During one final attempt to get the TARDIS working again, Stahlman once again switches off the power supply which sends the TARDIS into another universe.
In 1970, the idea of a parallel universe wasn't exactly somewhere you would expect Doctor Who to go. And while parallel universe stories are a staple in science-fiction it wasn't something the show had done before. Watching this episode, it is easy to draw comparisons between Inferno and the Star Trek Original Series story, Mirror, Mirror. But looking back on it, it wasn't a storyline that the show could have done before the Doctor was exiled to Earth as every story took him to a different planet, it was what the show needed to do rather than give us the more scientific storylines that the established show in the 1970's could. It was unthinkable in 1960's Doctor Who to take the main characters somewhere so completely different. Somewhere where the fascist regime had executed the royal family, somewhere where the population of the world are split into groups. Somewhere were the phrase, Unity is strength, graces every propaganda poster.
What we don't get, probably because the BBC considered it too near the knuckle for the time, was too much information about this new world. It is heavily implied that it is a timeline were the Nazis one World War II. How this timeline came about isn't given to us but if it were, it would about the Doctor trying to fix it. I'm glad that this isn't what the story is about and the drilling project is the main problem in both universes. Like Mirror, Mirror, the parallel universe is a way to shake up our favourite characters as the Doctor confronts people he knows, or knows in the different universe and we see how the new relationships develop.
How the 'normal' person lives, is shown to the audience through the different version of the Doctor's companion, Liz Shaw. Sporting, knee high black boots and black hair as opposed to her dark blonde hairdo, his Liz Shaw, Liz-2, is harsher and more treacherous than the proper Liz. But somehow, the Doctor manages to get through to Liz-2 by correctly guessing that once upon a time, she wanted to be a scientist, a free thinker, someone who didn't want to be ruled over by an iron fist. It takes much of his time in this new world for him to do it but somehow, the Doctor manages to break her out of her shell as she emerges as a thoughtful, good natured person that has had to try and survive in a darker than dark world. Also, actress Caroline John does an amazing job as both Liz's' and she gives one of the best performances in this story. It is such a shame that Caroline John is no longer with us, a light went out in the Doctor Who universe when she passed away and watching this classic episodes, knowing she is no longer with us makes us miss her terribly.
The Brigadier is a lot different from Liz-2 though he isn't all that different from his real world counterpart. In the real world he is hard-nosed, officious and manages to get under the Doctor's nose at any given moment. But he has a great sense of humour that emerges sometimes when it doesn't interfere with his work. But the Brigade Leader has spent all of his career, bullying and threatening people to get where he is and working for a government that has done the same has completely destroyed his soul.
Sutton2 is still as anti-authoritarian as he is in the real world but there is a shocking haunted quality about him as his knows that his beliefs could earn him a bullet in the back in this dangerous world. Petra is a little different as she eventually betrays Stahlman in this world and joins Sutton2 and his plans. Stahlman is little different to the real version of him except that he doesn't have a beard. He is still obsessed with accelerating the drilling which can lead to some slow scenes.
What this story needed was for someone to sabotage Inferno somehow, around episode four. Either the Doctor or Sutton2 would have done the trick as this would have cut down the more repetitious scenes and given us some much needed action in those later episodes.
Even more disturbing in this episode is the revelation that the scientists in the project are slave labour, probably grad students! But the Doctor eventually realises that for his world to live, this one has to die so he can get back and save the real world. We come back to the dilemma that the First Doctor faced in The Aztecs, history can be changed.
Appropriately though, for all of Stahlman's 'old women' comments, it is the women in this story who save the day. The Doctor is only semi-conscious from his trip back to the real world and he utters a few words to Liz who then persuades Petra to help her switch off the computers. It isn't early enough to stop people from having been turned into Primords though as a couple appear to menace Liz, Petra and everyone else in the control room but they are saved by the Doctor.
But the slightly rushed ending isn't the thing that is wrong with this story. It is that Stahlman goes back into the reactor room and tries to restart everything and threatening the world after everything the Doctor has seen and done to save it, it just feels like it was trying to take the story back to the beginning a little.
But there is a lot to love in this story. It is apocalyptic, shown through the Primord-Zombie creatures which stalk the grounds of every land mass on the planet. And we literally see the world die! And they die horribly! For something from Doctor Who, it is surprisingly bleak, but it is all the better for it. One question that will linger with you after you have finished this story though is that, why, if it is lava that is turning everyone into monsters, are the Primords green? Who thought, "Oh, lets have green werewolves?"!