DOCTOR WHO – Inferno. Episode 5

They’ve only gone and blown the bloody world up!

Let’s find out how Doctor Who depicts a dying Earth.


We have penetration zero!”  The camera shakes and suddenly all the extras make a run for it.  It’s a big moment, in that it shifts the narrative of ‘Inferno’ away from the operation itself, and more towards a small group of people trying to navigate their way through an unnavigable situation.

The pace is quick.  Sutton immediately attempts to cap the bore, and there is an interesting collection of model shots, including the drill head with what looks like a ceiling (I rub my chin and ponder how there is never enough ceilings in Doctor Who), and the first model work depicting the exterior of Project Inferno, which looks slightly ropey, if I’m honest. It’s something about the frame rate of the film, perhaps?  

But it is inside the drill head where it is all kicking off.  Moments earlier we got our last glimpse of Stahlmann as we know him, disappearing down the corridor with a survival suit.  The Doctor’s line “Somehow I don’t think he feels the heat as we do” is another cracking line, and Olaf Pooley’s reaction is intriguing, in that it doesn’t convey one thing or another. But there is just enough to suggest that he isn’t in full control of his own mind.

I can’t think of a scene where the soundtrack is so unremittingly intense and powerful as the fight in the drill head.  It’s Doctor Who at its most suffocating, and makes me feel like I’m right in there with them. In fact the sound of the drill head almost distorts in the mix, and I applaud this.

Sure, the clobbering dished out by Stahlmann is reassuringly theatrical (I’m guessing Olaf Pooley didn’t want to take part in the somersaults), however the way he walks towards Sutton in an agitated manner, and the desire to remove his headpiece and drag him towards the green goo is really scary, and mimics the frenetic movements of the proto-Primords..  

The Doctor and Sutton escape, but the heat shield closes. The roar is still deafening, and mixed seamlessly with the ‘Battle Theme’.  And with good reason, as Stahlmann drags one of the unconscious technicians and aggressively rubs his face into the green goo. 

The actor in question is Keith Ashley, who is always recognisable thanks to his jet black floppy hair in various stories.

He can be seen (and not seen) in Doctor Who on many occasions. Including being on the receiving end of Tom Baker in ‘The Seeds of Doom’ and elsewhere in ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ as the butler, Loris.

I’m watching this scene, and trying to think of another moment in the history of Doctor Who that is so brutal and visceral. 

Let’s take some obvious examples, such as the fight between The Doctor and Goth at the end of episode three of ‘The Deadly Assassin’.  Sure it’s violent, and there is blood, sweat and murky water.  But there is also the re-assurance of Dudley Simpson’s score. The realistic looking fisticuffs – while rare in Doctor Who – is exactly how you would expect them to be.  As a scene, it plays to the classic conventions of action in film and television. 

Forward to 1985, and in another season noted for its violence, we have acid baths and death by cyanide.  Here, the violence feels like a hangover of the 1970’s, where grizzly demises are softened by a punchline at the end, and those who die are identifiable as people who might cause the Doctor’s death in turn. 

The tone of violence offered in ‘Inferno’, is characterised by aggression that is often directed at those within the vicinity – often innocent people – who are not trying to cause the Doctor harm. The violence is portrayed in a frenzied, uncontrollable and uncompromising manner.  Look at the position that Stahlman has the technician in a vice like grip – it’s pure animal, and the aggression in which the technicians face is rubbed into the green goo.

And, in terms of composition, the uncompromising pose of aggressor/victim, reminds me of a highly atmospheric shot in ‘The Waters of Mars’.

Tonally, it’s fascinating to watch, and also to understand the different modes of violence and horror that has got Doctor Who into trouble over the decades.  Knowing that the following story would cause controversy through its use of psychological and symbolic violence, and ‘Inferno’ would emerge unscathed, is really interesting.  The line is a fluctuating, shifting boundary, and like the weather, impossible to predict.  

And it’s a far cry from the previous scene in the drill head, where the summersaults and clobbering of Sutton and Stahlmann with a metal bar is delivered in a more theatrical manner.  With the exception of that fight and a handful of other moments, Inferno’s brand of action, tonally teeters on the limit of what Doctor Who, the 5.40pm adventure for kids and grown ups alike, can realistically get away with.  

The Brigade Leader reports tremors across the country, and we get our first understanding that the impact of this project will be felt far, far, beyond the thick walls of the installation.  The Doctor offers the prognosis, and Sutton translates it into a language any audience will understand – it’s doomsday.  

Bromley reappears, and it’s occurring to me that the Primords are the symbol of doomsday. This is a ‘monster’ that represents the Earth warning humankind to stop getting ideas above their station, and the visual representation of the planets screaming rage.  

Clearly Bromley has found his way out of the cells.  It’s the last appearance of the half stage Primords until episode 7.  Bigger, hairier things are awaiting…

Things are getting even more shouty now.  Sutton attempts to make his bid for freedom, while the Brigade Leader attempts to seal the compound.  There is talk of the precious dictator, and toy soldiers.  The dialogue works for me, as it captures the absolute futility of it all.

But through it all, Petra is starting to show her true potential as a character, quietly attempting to fix the computer, while almost everyone else shouts their way through proceedings.  I’m enjoying the fact that all the willy waving has come to nothing – in fact it has resulted in the end of the world – and we have a character who the entire group will now look towards to help them through the next two episodes.  

Although for Sutton, he’s just interested in getting his end away. And who can blame him, the world is about to end.  The scene contains a nice little nod to one of Inferno’s continual themes – finding free will in a world of fixed expectations and patterns.  

When Inferno was released on DVD, it was a surprise to see the disappearance of the deleted scene of Jon Pertwee as radio announcer.  I totally understand that it wasn’t part of the original edit, but it’s still a pity.  The scene does hint of a wider world in a similar way that Martha suggests to De Vries that they escape to Plymouth in ‘The Stones of Blood’.  However Barry Letts was correct in his fears that the audience would recognise the voice. But I still expect to hear it.

Oh, and yes I did look up ‘Eastchester’. Near New York. And I definitely know about Plymouth. I live there, for my sins.

Talk turns to the TARDIS, and with that, the first signs of the Brigade Leader’s hysteria.  It’s nicely portrayed, starting with a more hushed delivery and a very fixed stare directed at the Doctor.  

The Doctor demonstrates the TARDIS console in the hut.

Meanwhile Benton passes the time merrily indulging in some drill practice. It’s apt, as a reminder of the controlled, driven parallel world.

We’re almost two thirds of the way through, and the other big threat (aside the the trifling destruction of the planet) is about to play out.  

It’s a scene that works because we know what is coming. And it’s all so…inevitable.  

Initially there are five Primords.  These ‘fully’ mutated versions are often mocked, or recognised as the weakest aspect of the serial.   Jon Pertwee is on record as saying he wan’t impressed.  And perhaps that was the moment where the star – forevermore – consigned the Primords to ‘crap’ monster.  

But I’m not one who subscribes to this.  The make up is actually quite complex, and they retain a scare factor in their ability to run quickly, and being capable of tactical behaviour. When Benton is infected by Shahlmann’s hand, I love the look of the smiling, satisfied Primord next to him.  

But there is a point where a single moment can result in a lifetime reputation, and it is the final shot in Benton’s transformation.  The Camfield directed sequence was working really well.  On a DVD documentary, there is a glorious behind the scenes shot of Camfield mimicking the performance that John Levene would give. The final result is chilling. 

But, it’s just one single shot that we remember.  Yes it’s the teeth, but it’s also just a little bit too much rage.  Proof that it’s such a fine line.  

And what of those inside the Primord make up? Dave Carter is instantly recognisable from ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ and ‘The Android Invasion’ but he’s done alright for himself elsewhere too. I’m going to choose his appearance in Jason King a couple of years later.

Peter Thompson seems to have accrued a good number of minor roles in the 1960’s and 70’s, including more contact with mysterious goo in Doomwatch – ‘The Plastic Eaters’. Looking at his IMDB credits, he appears to have moved to Australia in the mid 1970’s. It’s his role as ‘Bearded man at orgy’ in the sex education film ‘The ABC of Love and Sex: Australia Style’, that is the most intriguing – I wonder if he was painted green for the occasion? And yes I did look it up online, I was interested to work out what primordial nookie might look like. Let’s hope it’s the same Peter Thompson, otherwise I’m doing him (or someone else) a massive injustice!

Phillip Ryan, appears to the the one who featured in the Radio Times. Maybe? (If someone out there knows differently, let me know). He also appeared in the same Jason King episode as Dave Carter, and he gets to kickstart the Adam Adamant Lives episode ‘Death has a Thousand Faces’ where he promptly gets knocked off at a party.

And then there is Sir Pat Gorman. What more needs to be said?

My favourite moment of this section of the episode is where, in a split second decision, the Doctor pushes Sutton out of the way, and pulls out the wiring that was keeping the drill head screen open.  It’s such a tense moment, where a fraction can result in success or failure.  The moment where the Doctor can’t quite get his hands around the wires is really tense, and sells the whole scene.

Back on our Earth, Patterson (he of the wobbly driving) causes an accident involving his car, and Sir. Keith.  It’s a nice little role for Keith James, who enjoyed a 20 plus year career playing smaller roles. For his image, I’ve chosen a role as Shorty in a 1974 adaptation of ‘The Nine Tailors’, where he is pretty nimble with a cigarette. He also wrote an episode of Coronation Street – not bad for a chauffeur who can’t do his job properly.

It’s an important scene in the context of ‘Inferno’, but all I’m thinking is about the wonderfully ‘Z-Cars’ nature of it, with stage hands just out of shot, giving the car a gentle rock.  It’s perhaps the only time, the futuristic tale goes back to times past.  

As the glitter ball revolves back to the parallel Earth, we see the Primords gently swaying back and forth.   I remember witnessing this moment for the very first time.  I remember hearing the very last moments of the spinning drum sound effect – it sounded like screeching metal – and as the Primords blurred into view, I thought at this is a absolute pits for the Doctor.  He is aeons away from anything considered home, on a doomed planet, with no way out, unless he can convince a group of people in a facist society to do something that doesn’t adhere to the world they have grown up in.  Yes, as situations go, this is a bad one.  

And Stahlmann breaks the forth wall.  In fact it does feel like a distinctly Camfield directorial decision, although the would have been recovering at home by this point.  Perhaps the fact that it happens on video is what makes it more theatrical – but on film, he has everyone facing the camera at some point.  

And we end the episode with a hairy hand – one of those images that must have surely stuck with a generation of children.  

Episode 5 of ‘Inferno’, commences the third segment of this story. It’s signifiant in that it sets up the idea that entire planet – the Earth no less – can be destroyed. Yet Doctor Who is about hope, and I’ve always watched this episode with the idea that the Doctor – despite his prognosis of doomsday – will somehow save it. It needs another episode for us to see if he can. It’s another reason I don’t buy into the ‘Inferno can be a few episodes shorter’ argument.

It’s also the episode that sets up the remainder of ‘Inferno’, with the conflict surrounding episode 7 being established by us being witness to what is happening to the planet following penetration zero.

Finally it’s the episode where the narrative drive of Inferno is completely rewritten, from the determination to prevent the drilling, to the simple need to survive. The Primords add extra threat, without losing their mystery, but I’ll talk more about this in the next instalment, or should I say ‘in-Stahlmann-t’ – ah ha ha, ah ha ha ha.

Yeah, OK, I’ll get my coat.

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