Written by Don Houghton, directed by Christopher Barry (and Barry Letts)
Transmitted 9 May – 20 June 1970
As fossil fuels dwindle, the human race of the near future finds itself in dire need of alternate fuel resources. Professor Stahlman has found a nearly unlimited and untapped source of power hidden just underneath the planet’s crust that he has dubbed ‘Stahlman’s gas.’ The British government theorizes that it could provide the country with independence from foreign oil and set the nation as a world power once more, Unfortunately for all, the forces that Stahlman is tapping into are far more than anyone realizes and threaten to reduce the planet to atoms after reducing the population into mindless monsters.
Project Inferno falls under the protection of U.N.I.T. and the Doctor has been especially called in for his expert opinion, much to Stahlman’s displeasure. He seems to be inundated with a sea of specialists and advisers who cannot understand that this is his project to run as he pleases. Stahlman happens to be running it like a labor camp and refuses to listen to an expert pulled from an oil rig in Kuwait, the hard-nosed Greg Sutton, when it is pointed out that at the rate it is running, the rig will explode from shear stress.
The Doctor, anxious to get his TARDIS working again, is leeching off some of the installation’s power to run a few tests on the console which he has somehow removed from the TARDIS interior. The tests prove eventful but dangerous, as the Doctor finds himself traveling not in time and space, but into another dimension. In this other realm, things are similar yet completely different. Project Inferno exists in the parallel world, but is far more advanced thanks to the precision of a Fascist regime overlooking the entire country.
Not only must the Doctor get back to his own reality, he must attempt to save not one world but two from total annihilation.
Inferno falls at the tail end of the eventful seventh series of Doctor Who that saw the program endure several changes and narrowly escape from the jaws of cancellation. The arrival of a new actor in the title role, comedic actor Jon Pertwee was accompanied with vibrant color and a new status quot hearkening back to one of the biggest inspirations on Doctor Who, the Quatermass Experiment. Exiled on Earth, the Doctor defended the population from strange threats alongside a branch of the military called U.N.I.T. No longer was the Doctor a cosmic hobo, he was transformed into a daring and dashing adventurer. The stories were more sophisticated and the dangers less fantastic. It was a new age for Doctor Who.
As a finale, Inferno often gets overlooked in favor of other stories such as Spearhead from Space (one of my all time faves) and the Silurians. As series seven consists almost entirely of seven part stories, it is a hard slog to get through for a modern viewer, but I cannot stress enough how vital this period is for the program. Inferno is commonly viewed as an alternate reality story with Nazis and werewolves but there’s a lot to love about this adventure that make it a classic not to be missed.
For one thing, the stunt work, cinematography and music are amazing. The tune that plays while the Doctor narrowly steers Bessie away from a hail of gunfire in the alternate reality is just incredible. The shots acquired on top of the oil refinery and along its exterior alleys are very good and present a solid world for the story to take place in rather than a quarry or sound stage. Finally, the climactic death scene of a primord plummeting to his death is stunning even by today’s standards, especially when one realizes that a few cardboard boxes were the only things breaking the fall!
At this point on the program, Jon Pertwee and Caroline John had developed a strong rapport. As his assistant Liz Shaw, John was clever, courageous and not afraid to speak her mind when she knew better. In many ways she grounded the Doctor and called him out as the tinkerer that he often was. For instance, with the knowledge of time travel removed from his mind, the Doctor might as well have been randomly pressing buttons on the TARDIS console, and Liz suspected that this was the case.
As the situation deteriorates in Project Inferno with Stahlman refusing to observe safety precautions, a strange liquid infects one of the staff, transforming him into a primeval beast intent on killing and destroying anything it comes across. The setting of the oil refinery is absolutely splendid and grants a certain kind of legitimate danger and thrill to the production. While he is famous for his love of action and military background, Pertwee was deathly afraid of heights, yet he dared filming scenes in nail-biting altitudes in order to maintain believability.
Just four stories into to the third Doctor’s era, the character in this story is still very much an outsider who would jump at the first chance to escape his life on Earth. When Stahlman refuses to listen to his warnings, he dismisses the matter out of pique and decides instead to tinker with his machinery. This is rather surprising since one would expect the Doctor to halt any attempt to bring about Armageddon, but he seems content to give up and let Stahlman prove how wrong he is. After all, this is not his race, time or planet. As such, it is necessary for the Doctor to travel to a similar yet different reality to learn the importance of human life and the role that he plays in defending it.
The Doctor endures a series of humiliations as he mistakes individuals that he knew as friends only to find that in this parallel world they are enemies. By today’s standards the execution is a bit too pat, with the ‘evil’ Professor Stahlman wearing sunglasses and a high collared white uniform like some missing Bond villain, but you can’t deny the dramatic impact that the situation has on the Doctor.
Ordinarily it’s the Doctor who holds all the answers and is relied upon to save the day, but in this case he is called out as a crackpot and ignored until it is too late and the world goes up in flames. So great is the horror of this experience, that he later relives it in the Mind of Evil when confronted with his greatest fears.
The parallel world is filled with jack-booted soldiers marching along to a totalitarian government where one is a cog in a grander machine rather than an individual. This is a common enough theme that pops up in other classic stories such as Genesis of the Daleks, but it is the fact that familiar characters are twisted into this world that makes it so effective. Seeing the Brigadier transformed not just into a eye-patch wearing baddie but a devious cowardly bully is both sad and terrifying. When the evil Brigade Leader learns that his planet actually is going to be over-run by primeval creatures then explode, he nearly collapses into a child with a gun, threatening everyone in hopes that he can somehow survive.
In sharp contrast, both the alternate Liz Shaw and Greg Sutton rise to the occasion and help the Doctor escape to warn the alternate Earth, even though it means that they will still die in the conflagration. The story seems to be saying something about strength of character, but I shudder to think what this could mean for Lethbridge-Stewart. Is he just an eye patch and false mustache away from becoming a maniac??
Once the Doctor arrives back in his true reality, the story kind of circles around waiting to conclude. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of telling the same story from different angles. We know that the Doctor will succeed and we already know what he is up against, so there is some drop in dramatic tension there. As director Douglas Camfield fell ill from heart troubles, Barry Letts was called in to take over for the remainder which mainly features lots of dry ice and green-skinned irradiated werewolves.
That said, it actually does get dicey when the installation is over-run with beasties and the klaxons are blaring a warning that is far too late. The Doctor defuses the situation and, with Sutton’s help, stops the drilling thereby saving humanity.
The following year would see still more change as a new companion, recurring villain and change in pace arrived, making Doctor Who into more of a comic book superhero than a daring adventurer. This meant that the Cambridge-educated Liz Shaw had to go, a loss that is still grieved by many fans as she was finally a voice of reason and intelligence (albeit dressed on jackboots and a mini-skirt). As it happens, Caroline John was pregnant during the period and could not have returned in any case, but she still bears a grudge for being called ‘too clever by half’ by script editor Terrance Dicks.
Nevertheless, Inferno marked the end of an era when the Doctor was an alien among humans, working to save a people that he didn’t relate to, defending the entire planet from doom with nothing more than a vintage roadster and nerves of steel (and a sonic screwdriver). I have the fondest regards for the seventh series and think of it as one of the many Golden Eras of the program. Next year will see the release of the Ambassadors of Death and the series will be complete, allowing fans to finally re-live a time when Doctor Who was struggling back to its place as a national institution watched by families everywhere, either alongside each other or from behind the sofa.
Buy Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space
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I Am the Doctor: Jon Pertwee's Final Memoir