Originally transmitted: 09/05/1970 – 20/06/1970
Writer: Don Houghton
Director: Douglas Camfield, Barry Letts
Reviewed by Jez Strickley
When I think about a typical UNIT story line a number of key constituents come to mind: monsters on the doorstep; a mad scientist; an equally mad project which threatens the Earth; lots of explosions; and the Havoc stunt team. Now, perhaps these staples are more typical of early-1970s UNIT than mid-1970s UNIT; and it’s certainly true that once the Doctor’s exile is lifted, the dynamics between UNIT and its scientific advisor begin to shift ground. But for all that, the above items remain, at least for me, a sort of shopping list for a traditional UNIT outing. And for sure Season Seven’s finale, Inferno, ticks all the above boxes in quite some style.
The basic narrative behind Inferno is fairly straightforward: an obsessed scientist seeks to tap into the geothermal power of the Earth by penetrating the planet’s fragile crust. The Doctor and UNIT are on scene to monitor things and, before you know it, all hell is let loose by way of the dangerously-unbalanced Professor Stahlman; his potentially planet-shattering drill; and a decidedly unpleasant oozing substance released by the drilling process. This last danger provides a Jekyll and Hyde-style diversion as, upon skin contact, it gradually transforms its unsuspecting victim into a Primord: a super-heated creature with frightening physical strength.
I think Inferno has it all: a solid plot; first-rate stunt work; excellent location filming; and an increasingly strong rapport between the newly-arrived Third Doctor and his UNIT colleagues. Importantly, over the coming seasons this last component would quickly move from one of utilitarian cooperation to genuine friendship. Inferno – like the rest of Season Seven – lies closer to the former than the latter, and is all the better for it.
And that’s about it – isn’t it? Well, aside from the above script-writing must-haves, there also happens to be the appearance of a major plot device previously unseen in Doctor Who – a parallel Earth, complete with its very own Professor Stahlman and said drill. No more is this simply a tale of environmental vandalism and scientific hubris. Now it’s dabbling in the theory of multiverses.
For fans of Who post-2005 this is a well-known device. In recent years it’s given us an alternate genesis story for the Cybermen in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (2006); the Cult of Skaro versus yet more Cybermen in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2006); a Doctor-lite Donna-heavy diversion by way of the terrific Turn Left (2008); and yet another Dalek-based series finale in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (2008). Indeed, for today’s younger generation of Whovians the multiverses concept is commonplace. Back in the day, however, it was a decidedly rare animal.
I must admit I really like the idea of parallel worlds (and who wasn’t happy to see a Daleks versus Cybermen stand-off in Doomsday?), but I’m less than impressed by Russell T. Davies repetitive use of it. I think it’s been overplayed and, more importantly, it’s tended to leave the door open for some rather contrived story telling. But that’s for another article. Thankfully, Inferno is made of sterner stuff.
Shipwrecked on a parallel Earth, the Doctor discovers his trusty UNIT comrades’ parallel selves are equally caught up in the machinations of Professor Stahlman – but that’s as far as the similarities go. UNIT’s best are now unashamed servitors to a dreadful fascist state, as far removed from the values of the Brigadier and company as you could possibly imagine.
And what a makeover this presents in terms of the various recurring characters. The gentlemanly Sergeant Benton becomes a jackbooted thug; Liz Shaw is reduced to parroting the dogma of the state; and, perhaps worst of all, the Brigadier is a detestable bully, and a cowardly one at that.
All of which gives this story its edge; it’s not typical UNIT fare, despite ably dolling out all the regular ingredients. When you think about how the UNIT set-up became increasingly cosy over the years, you may find yourself conjuring up images of the Brigadier being ribbed over his kilt in Terror of the Zygons (1975); Benton being reduced to a baby in The Time Monster (1973); or any number of friendly altercations between Jon Pertwee’s dandy Time Lord and Nicholas Courtney’s unflappable officer. But if you watch Inferno I’m afraid you’ll be in for a surprise. This UNIT installment is the raw deal, warts and all. On the down side it’s perhaps an episode or two too long, but for all its episodic excess it makes for powerful viewing. And I can’t recommend it highly enough.