DOCTOR WHO – Inferno. Episode 6

Earlier on doomsday.

The Doctor has managed to gather a small band of rebels together, complete with a character who has his own selfish reasons for sticking together. Together they are trying to survive in an oppressive universe.

Blake would have been proud. But then he never was very bright.


I’ve just noticed that, with this episode, Jon Pertwee is starting to breathe more heavily, illustrating the rise in the heat.  Of course, all of this is undone by the air conditioning scene, where the stage hand out of shot must be indulging in some heavy breathing of his own.  

As the action switches back to central control, it’s the Brigade Leader who raises the alarm – an inability to breathe.  It’s quite a disturbing moment, and Nicholas Courtney delivers it with an air of the pathetic.  It’s excellent stuff, as is the dispassionate reply from the Doctor “Stop talking so much”.  

Doctor Who, “the cheap and cheerful show that grown ups and children adore” has a rich history of low budget solutions to high concept situations. 

The simple device of adding a filter over the camera lens is one of the best of all.  The results are excellent, and as the first true sign of insubordination against the increasingly impotent Brigade Leader plays out, it’s clear that the world is literally going up in flames.  Terrifying stuff. 

Sutton notes that the “natives are getting restless“.  A frequent analysis of ‘Inferno’ waxes lyrical about the parallel universe, and puts down the Primords, more often than not due to the fact that they are not adequately explained, or that the fully regressed breasts look a little bit cod.

This is the point where I want to explain why the Primords are not the weak ‘tacked on’ element of ‘Inferno’, but why they are, in fact, the best thing in the story.  The central premise is centred around the mystery of the undiscovered, and the hurry to tap into it, to satisfy Stahlman’s arrogance, and the political thirst for new unlimited power.  Don Houghton recalls his research into the attempts in the 1960’s to drill into the Mohorovičić discontinuity.  It’s not the drilling that is the driver of ‘Inferno’, but what lurks underneath. Houghton notes the mystery surrounding the cancellation of the project,  

Perhaps this jars with the idea that audiences at large are used to having things explained to them, and often fandom tends to slate elements of a story that do not offer a satisfactory explanation.  Of course, there are exceptions, such as ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Sapphire and Steel’, where we know the rules of engagement, even if we don’t have the answers.

We only get glimpses of what the Primords are actually about, such as a retrogression of the body cells, or an eruption at Krakatoa.  For me, that is all that is needed – anything more is a sell out.  The Primords work on a conceptual level, reminding the protagonists and audience, that there are things in the world that should not be tampered with.  Their rage, and primal instinct to infect others, is a mirror of the uncontrollable, undiscovered, untapped nature of the Earth itself. May we never discover more about them, on television at least.

And they are terrifying, more because of the concept, rather than because you can see their false teeth. The final shot of Benton’s transformation might break the spell, but within a a few minutes, it’s all forgotten. As mentioned in the last episode, perhaps it was the interview with Jon Pertwee, where he laments the Primords, that consigned the mutants to ‘crap monster’ status. These star actors, they carry some clout, they do.

Back on our Earth, the Brig lets rip.  And poor old Benton is on the receiving end.  “A chance to use your initiative” always seems to imply that the Sergeant is perhaps a bit more ambitious off screen, than we might give him credit for.  Nonetheless his RSM credentials are another few years away yet.  

And there’s a nice little scene between Liz and Sutton, who delivers a wonderful guilty laugh when his attempts to open the doors are rumbled by Miss Shaw.  It’s also a testament to the work of the restoration team, that the interference on the video print is so well restored, that I’m still looking out for it to this very day.  

Oh, and it’s quiet!  There is, for once, no ambient sound outside.  

And there are lovely little nods, such as “ape like minions” that work, knowing as we do the events on the parallel world.  

I’m always grateful for my favourite science fiction introducing me to certain words and terms.  Blake’s 7 taught me ’triumvirate’ and Doctor Who brought ‘powder keg’ into my consciousness.  

Of greater note is the distinct increase in sweat on our merry band of characters, as half way through the episode, the action switches from central control, and towards the nuclear switch room, which we’ve not seen since Wyatt and Bromley were ominously slumped against the wall in episode two.  

The first earthquake hits, and the look on Caroline John’s face perfectly sells this seismic moment to the audience.  

I clearly remember watching the following scene.  The Brigade Leader puts pressure on Dr. WIlliams whose voice starts to crack under the pressure.  I remember reading an interview somewhere about how Shelia Dunn must have been under considerable pressure herself, performing an intense role, knowing that her husband was unwell either at hospital or at home.  Regardless of the timing or reality, it’s always been a scene that I read based on real life circumstances as much as acting prowess.  

Oh look at these shots of the Primords.  Loud, red hot, and utterly disturbing.  

In fact this shot looks almost animated, thanks to the red glow. For a moment I digressed, trying to work out how many of Inferno’s cast (or should I say Camfield’s rep) had been immortalised in animated form? I have Dunn, Levene, Randall, Courtney, and (in a teaser for ‘The Invasion’, and ‘The Macra Terror’) Fairbairn.

So far.

The Doctor asks Sutton whether he expected to see Batman at the controls of the TARDIS. Oddly, it broke the spell of Doctor Who’s fictional universe for a brief moment. The Beatles, Batman, and a couple of years later, Clangers, just serve to remind me that it’s fun to have these little nods to culture thrown into the mix, for those who enjoy that type of thing. And after all, if there is any character whose ‘KAPOW’ or ‘THWACK’ type graphics would work well on, it is Sutton’s physicality. I can imagine Sutton and Duggan in a Parisian restaurant somewhere, with a ton of smashed red wine bottles, and shattered dreams.

The earthquakes continue, and again it is down to Caroline John to convey them to the audience.  This time it is even more chilling as Elizabeth tries to suggest it’s all just a normal thing for the benefit of the hysterical Brigade Leader.  This is such good stuff.  

And the tension is ramped up as Dr. Williams is unable to switch the power through.  It’s suddenly a race against time.  

This is aided by a typically Doctor Who shot of two characters staring off into middle distance.  It’s quick to set up, economical to direct, and in the case of Peter Grimwade, a good opportunity to fill out the running time when a 1982 studio session doesn’t quite capture all the material required.  

Stahlmann is gunned down, but we know that bullets aren’t always enough. To this day I’m convinced that there’s a hint of skin to skin contact as he knocks the fire extinguisher out of Elizabeth’s hand.  Can you imagine that, a primordial Elizabeth Shaw – it would have been incredible.  And pockets of fandom would have hated it – “a woman Primord?”  I can see the dreary “NotMyPrimord” hashtag on Twitter.  

On location, the Mirrorlon is brought out, and even the CSO sky outside of the Doctor’s hut is given a orange hue.  

I indulged in some Primord spotting. I’m guessing on film, we have Levene, Pat Gorman, and Walter Henry. Henry has popped up a lot over the years, even in Blake’s 7 as one of Zukan’s technicians. But I’ve gone for a rather fine cameo as an exuberant TV floor manager in The Persuaders – ‘The Time the Place’.

Kudos to Courtney, as he utters the words “roasted alive” with absolute conviction.  For all his fame within Doctor Who I still find him fascinating, someone who appeared to let the demons get the better of his confidence, peaking on a gravel pit while recording ‘Terror of the Autons’. 

There’s only five minutes left of this episode, but there is still so much to cram in.  A fight, a last ditch attempt, a shoot out, and the end of the world.  

Let’s start with the fight.  

We know the Nicholas Courtney was not fond of this scene, but somehow it shows up the pathethic nature of the Brigade Leader, against the surly Sutton.  The climactic moment where Sutton goes in for the final thwack, accompanied by the sound of an earthquake, is perfectly aligned by the Doctor’s “Listen to that!  Do you want to end your live fighting like animals?”  It’s another layer of desperation and regression that is at the heart of ‘Inferno’.  

Then the last ditch attempt to get a power through.  It’s filler perhaps, but it references neatly the fact that the wiring was almost finished when they all had to get out of the switch room.  

Oh, right in the crown jewels!  Let’s hope Olaf Pooley was wearing his cricketing box.  

The power comes through, but my mind is drawn to how brilliant the following shot is.  The end of the world is nigh, yet there stands the Brigade Leader, single minded to the very end, with the dictator shoulder to shoulder behind him.  

But it’s Elizabeth, perhaps aptly, who finally throws off her militaristic conditioning, and commits the final altruistic act, in the name of science.  The Doctor has his chance.  

The inevitable has arrived – the end of the world.  It’s a masterclass of low budget impact. There’s the sound of wolves, model work, stock footage and careful sequencing of shots. Where Camfield shoots original footage, it is more poignant and heartbreaking than outright terrifying. The mutated Benton stops and the primordial instinct is broken, as he cuts a worried look off camera. A RSF solider, runs across the landscape, but the only option left to him is the wall of lava directly in his path, but the standout shot is the two workers, sat passive, motionless and paralysed, as the apocalypse plays out around them.

I’ve really come to care about the Doctor’s little band of rebels.  I noted in episode 5 that there was still a chance for them – Doctor Who is a story of hope, most of the time.  But in this episode we know they are doomed.   And it’s the way that Dr. Williams screams out for Greg, who offers no words, simply a tight embrace as the lava rolls towards them.  


Phowar.  That was exhausting.  

The pace is fast, the action quick, the sweat, the shouting, the running. In fact, there were times where I was making connections between this episode and the final part of ‘The Caves of Androzani’ which felt similar in tone, just replace lava with boiling mud.  And of course, that was directed by someone who was influenced by Douglas Camfield.  

It’s a reminder of how unique ‘Inferno’ is – it’s a risky enterprise blowing up the world, but an effective one.  The acting is top notch, and there is a weird feeling that the scenes mimic the realities of studio recording – a race against time to achieve something before the clock runs down and the power is lost…

In narrative terms, this episode might be one of the shallowest, as 90% of it is a run around (albeit a great one) as the gang escape the beasts, and try to help the Doctor return to our Earth. But the 10% at the end, and the overall depiction of a world nearing its end, is unique and jarring. It’s interesting to note that I watched this episode for the first time around 25 years ago, but watching it now, with the very real ecological crisis that exists, means that seeing this unfold on screen seems more plausible than ever before.  

I’m really looking forward to the final episode. It’s going to be weird to be back on ‘our’ Earth.

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