Following a lost weekend cataloguing chairs, I’ve decided to return to my favourite pastime, which is actually watching my favourite television programmes and writing about them ‘in the moment’. Unlike Stahlman’s robot drill, don’t expect any kind of deep excavation, but expect a review based on a man who presses pause about 200 times during a single story. This allows me to praise the contributions of cast and crew, while simultaneously destroying the magic of watching the serial.
I’ve decided to start this occasional foray into Doctor Who, with my favourite story.
“Who is that man?”
That was the question I asked my parents. It was the mid-eighties, and I was around six or seven years of age. I’d liked Doctor Who for a good few years before I ventured into my local library. I stumbled upon the Target novelisation, and it was the cover that grabbed me. It posed more questions than answers. Who was that man on the circular walkway? What was happening to him? I was really into Doctor Who by this time, but this was the point where I understood that old, vintage, unreachable, unwatched Doctor Who could be really, really scary.
The man kept popping up again and again. 1986, and there he was in the Doctor Who Magazine archive (Issue 114, the one with the Chris Achilleos illustration of ‘The Web of Fear’). Then again with each DVD release and audiobook. This minor character seemed to become the signature image of ‘Inferno’. A quite right too, it’s a great, atmospheric photo.
And it was another eight years or so before I got to see the episode in question, and realise that the man was as scary as I thought he would be. But I’ll save that for episode seven.
And here I am, aged 42, and ‘Inferno’ remains the only Doctor Who story that scares this man baby.
But there is so much more to it than that. Because ‘Inferno’ might be one of the most beautifully symmetrical Doctor Who stories of them all, and some of the lesser thought of episodes might be some of the best.
So I’ve dusted off the special edition DVD, and watched Toby Hadoke fall off a platform. And I’ve made sure it’s a rainy day – ‘Inferno’ should always be watched on a rainy day.
Let’s get started.
For a story that is defined by its soundtrack, it’s only right that ‘Inferno’ starts loudly, with the chug of Bessie’s engine, and the roar of Jon Pertwee’s ‘La donna è mobile‘. It’s interesting to see how Pertwee is introduced at the beginning of each new story of his first season. ‘Spearhead from Space’, starts with a search for shoes and an “Unhand me Madame” played for laughs.
‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ starts with a mumbled song underneath Bessie “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”
‘The Ambassadors of Death’ starts with some comic hide and seek between The Doctor and Liz.
But it is ‘Inferno’, where Pertwee announces himself as the star. It’s as though he has cut through the cold location air, decided that he is the ultimate Doctor, and his penchant for big loud sing alongs in rehearsals should translate onto the screen.
And for a story of parallels and similarities, we move from Bessie’s loud, raucous journey from right to left, to the complete opposite – quieter, slower, and left to right.
The journey in question is the focal point of this first episode – Harry Slocum.
For all the roar and bluster of the opening 30 seconds or so, the first real ‘note’ in the soundtrack of ‘Inferno’, is at the point where the ‘workers whistle’ stops, the bike is put down, and we hear, just for a few seconds, the sound of a distant industrial noice, ascending and descending. It says a lot. It’s not just about the setting and situation, but about the tone of the story. The sound is bleak, cold, ominous. The sun might be shining, and there might be the hint of a green field in the background, but the sound speaks of approaching danger, and perhaps more characteristically of ‘Inferno’, that there’s no such thing as silence.
Yet the most charming element of ‘Inferno’ might be at this early point. Doctor Who is not a show that has done ‘chummy banter’ that well. And the “Hullo John” scene is a case in point. It’s not that it’s badly acted, it’s just impossible to perform, unless you are Ted Glen saying “Hullo Pat” to Postman Pat, 11 years later. I think it’s the jovial smack that Slocum delivers to Bromley’s torso that is the culprit. I like to think it is a portent of an ever bigger slap that the rigger will deliver to his technician chum later in this episode.
Oh and a silly little detail (cos that what you’ve signed up for, right?) As Slocum and Bromley meet, in the background is a brick bunker. Bromley will emerge from its doorway in episode 2, as he watches Liz from afar.
On videotape, we are firmly in season seven territory – that of the white lab coat. It cements my view that Pertwee’s first season is the one with the biggest laundry bill of all time.
There’s a nice little shot as Stahlman walks into the frame, not looking best pleased with Sir Keith Gold’s intervention. But my eye is drawn to Shelia Dunn as Petra, who delivers some excellent awkward expressions, and a fabulous knowing look to Sir Keith as Stahlman walks out of shot. Loyal as she is, she is clearly very aware.
Oh Slocum! What have you done? You’ve only gone and set up seven episodes of body horror. That’s it Randall, arch those eyebrows, and Douglas, get that camera right in there for a BCU.
Fiction seems to be meeting fact, as Stahlman pushes his staff to drill faster, faster, faster. I can hear Camfield pushing the camera operators to go that little bit further and zoom into to the eyes – more, more, more!
And so it begins. The possession starts to take hold. In fact, it is a bit different to previous depictions of mind control. I’m thinking back to a couple of stories ago when the scientist was affected by the experiments at the Wenley Moor nuclear research facility. In that case there’s the usual disengaged behaviour, and a touch of anguish. But this time, there is a hint of attitude and aggression when Slocum says “Yesssss” and walks out of shot. It’s somewhat unnerving.
But not as unnerving as the location footage of Slocum staggering outside the facility. Sure, the handheld camera work and acting is spot on, but it’s the moment when he slouches against the railings, eyes rolled back in his head and salivating – it’s perhaps the most convincing depiction of possession until ‘The Waters of Mars’.
The juxtaposition of Slocum braining the technician, and Benton hammering the nail in the Brig’s office is rightly celebrated – straight out of the Eisenstein school of editing – it’s not just about the shots, but it’s about the collision.
In the complex, the Doctor walks into Lethbridge-Stewart’s office. Oh, there is so much to love about the look the Brigadier gives Benton for daring to smile. Looking back, it’s the first hint of a UNIT ‘family’. Fifth from the left, third row, eh? Hmmm, I suppose they hadn’t predicted the advent of DVD.
Splendid moustaches, all of them.
One of the things that stands out in season seven is the Doctor himself – slightly cold, aloof, and the most manipulative I have seen towards his UNIT friends. The Brigadier’s cynicism about the motives for the Doctor’s involvement in the project is fascinating. It’s a long way from the chumminess between the Brig and Troughton’s Doctor in ‘The Invasion’ – their relationship has come of age.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Sutton. It’s a long scene, with a ton of exposition, but I’m distracted by the need to shout the lines over the roar of the drilling. I seem to recall (I think on the production subtitles on ‘The Claws of Axos’) that around this time, sound effects were soon to stop being played into the studio as live. In the case of ‘Inferno’, I can’t see any other way of doing it – shouting over a silent studio must be pretty exhausting in terms of acting technique.
60 hours and counting. Interesting mix of typefaces on the countdown clock. Oooo, very progressive.
Sutton is introduced to Petra. My goodness, if you’re going to go for tedious sexism (even by the standards of the day) at least try to strike a hint of subtlety in the dialogue. Completely charmless.
Next up is Stahlman. This time the dialogue is spot on. Sutton is left with no other option than to whisper into Sir Keith’s ear “You’ve got problems“.
I like how the Doctor is introduced to Sutton as though he is one of the gang. The Doctor explicitly calls the place ‘The Inferno’ like he’s been hanging around with the workers, having crafty cigarettes behind the gasometers. Of course this would not happen in fact or fiction – as Douglas Camfield wrote, ‘YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED’.
Quick digression, as I look up who Stahlman is giving orders to. Shelia Knight doesn’t seem to have many credits, but can be seen in ‘The Tenth Planet’ alongside Wigner.
Back outside, all is quiet for once, apart from a bit of chirpy percussion for ‘cockerney’ Private Latimer. The soundtrack in question is Crazy Sounds No. 4 by Cecil Leuter AKA Roger Roger.
I paused the episode, and decided to look up the career of David Simeon. He’s done alright for himself over the years. Of course he is familiar as being one of the guests in ‘Fawlty Towers’ and of course, he puts in a very funny turn as TV reporter in ‘The Daemons’ a year after ‘Inferno’. So looking for some suitable images to put up on here, I’ve opted for another appearance as a TV reporter, interviewing Julian Glover in the Paul Temple episode ‘The Black Room’, also in 1970.
It’s a brave move showing a virtually identical background when jumping straight from film to CSO background. There’s not even a cutaway. Camfield just about gets away with it.
We’re two thirds of our way into the episode, and we finally get to see Liz Shaw. Even if there were some reservations behind the scenes, I always felt the on-screen chemistry between the Doctor and Liz was rooted in science, but also very caring and close. Out of Pertwee’s companions, she remains my favourite. There was little attempt to make her overtly glamorous, or kooky, or with a fixed agenda. She was a strong character in her own right, who created a little bubble with Pertwee, away from the military. And throughout season seven she struck a balance between caring and compassionate, and ‘just get on with it you dumb-arses’.
The last few minutes have been a succession of long, wordy scenes. So when we cut to a hairy hand creeping into shot, and the ultimate sound effect that accompanies Inferno – ‘Souls in Space‘ by Nikki St. George, it is a relief. The sound of souls lost to the green goo.
Slocum is reunited with the technician, Bromley (named as such in the closing credits, but known in the dialogue as John). This time Slocum gives him more than slap on the arm. It’s another unsettling shot, as we see the mutating rigger advancing behind the back of the technician.
As an aside, it took me ages to realise that this was Bromley on the phone, as I associate him looking menacing, with windswept hair in a freezing cold location. But here, actor Ian Fairbairn had clearly got the pocket comb out, just before Christopher D’Oyly John called “ACTION!”
As Slocum whacks up the power, the Doctor takes a tumble into another dimension. It’s really nicely filmed, especially the shots involving the original TARDIS console – its last hurrah.
And it’s good to see that, even early in this run, Jon Pertwee is looking after his back in the way that he lands.
As mentioned earlier, ‘Inferno’ needs continuous noise in order to function. The shrill tones of the unknown, quickly give way to Delia Derbyshire’s ‘The Delian Mode’, which in turn is abruptly cancelled out by the sound of sirens, and a drilling emergency.
Big shout out to the extra playing the technician in this four-shot. As Stahlman discusses the situation with Sir. Keith, he stares at the Professor with a look of contempt, like he’s plotting the assassination of his oppressor, and then as Stahlman barks out an order to him, he leans back with an air of mock indignation. I bet he is the centre of attention in the staff canteen.
The next two images, are perhaps a case of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ but is a subtle reminder of how Jon Pertwee could deliver real intensity, far removed from the traditional ‘Third Doctor’ characterisation. As the Brigadier hurries into shot to deliver the news that there has been another murder (a Private Collins, which apparently was never filmed – time just ran out) Pertwee delivers lines such as “Where was the body found” with a real focus, urgency and fixed expression that is easily forgotten when we think of his paternal, arrogant but ultimately likeable portrayal.
This intensity is reflected in the final scene, which feels hurried, like there is another countdown taking place, one where there is only 10 seconds to fit in everything before the credits roll. It’s always a race against time in ‘Inferno’.
By Inferno’s own standards, episode one might actually be one of the weakest of the story. I mean it is very good, but first episodes always have its own built in safety mechanism, usually making it immune to criticism. Many of the scenes are exceptionally long, and feel solely designed to fit in as much exposition as possible. It’s only when Liz flips the switch with a few minutes to go, that suddenly the episode skyrockets into life.
However the overall themes of ‘Inferno’ – contrasts, similarities and repetition, are there for this viewer to grab; the Doctor and Slocum’s parallel journeys at the start, Bromley and Slocum’s meeting that foreshadows another more violent confrontation later in the episode, the sideways slip in time, the wailing sirens that suggest things to come, the various collisions between characters that become the framework for the drama to unfold and, oh, that jump cut involving Slocum and Benton’s hammer.
In fact, the editing of this episode (and by this I include in-studio vision mixing) is a stand out. Camfield is rightly noted for his filmic tendencies, but in many ways this high impact editing feels right at home in season seven, which is a run of stories containing a lot of film sequences, and in the case of the three seven parters, helmed by directors who really gave their serials a distinctive, unique touch.
It’s also the episode that contains the most humour, for such a grim, clinical tale. However it’s one of the least successful facets of the episode, largely consisting of ‘banter’ rather than anything with substance or wit – the Doctor’s put downs towards Stahlman’s liver aside.
I first saw “Inferno” on a local PBS station in the early 1980s. I definitely agree with you, it is one of the most frightening Doctor Who stories ever made. And it’s not *just* the Primords who are frightening, although they definitely scared the heck out of me as a kid. It’s also the idea of Great Britain as a fascist dictatorship, with all of the familiar characters we know & love warped into cold, sadistic thugs. It’s the concept of the Doctor completely on his own, no TARDIS, no companion, no UNIT, no one and nothing to to help him, trapped in a dystopian nightmare. It’s the fact that the Doctor actually fails, and the Earth — okay, a parallel universe Earth, but still — gets destroyed, with billions of people dying a horrible, fiery death.
Excellent stuff. Always one of my two favourite classic series stories, the other being The Seeds of Doom (Camfield rocks).