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Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

‘Inferno’ is considered one of the more memorable Jon Pertwee stories, in large part for its notable parallel-world gimmick. And yes, it is just a gimmick – the plot device is effective in its shock value, no doubt (yanking the rug out from us three episodes in!), but for all the story’s serious tone, it mainly just gives the UNIT regulars an opportunity to dress up and play the baddies for once. The ‘sideways slide’ actually has very little to do with the episode’s true plot – really, the sudden power cut to the TARDIS console could have been caused by anything, and happened in any story. And not only is the ‘slide’ a gimmick, it’s a red herring as well! It doesn’t explain what the green glop is, or how it turns people into Primords; all it does is show the Doctor what will happen if he doesn’t stop the Inferno drilling, which he was already trying to do anyway. (Ultimately, what’s causing the phenomenon is never really explained, and once the project is finally halted, the Doctor seems to lose whatever interest he might have had in the mystery.)

That said, ‘Inferno’ is still quite watchable, making up for what it lacks in brains with a serious and scary style, and an unusual realism. Like many Pertwee-era stories, this one is long, and yet for the most part it doesn’t feel it. The most notable and successful of the story’s elements has nothing to do with parallel universes – it’s the sound of the Inferno drill itself. Doctor Who is famous for over-extending itself – throughout its history, it’s tried to actually show us things like spacecrafts landing and giant monsters attacking, despite having just a tenth of the budget necessary to pull the effects off well (if that). And who am I kidding, this is certainly part of classic Who’s charm and evergreen appeal. Yet, it is extremely interesting to see the production team exercising the rare piece of aesthetic sleight of hand. And how well it works! The drill’s incessant, god-awful grinding, with the characters having to raise their voices to be heard above it, does more to convince us that there’s a giant machine just off-screen than any tightly shot model ever could. Sure, we don’t get to see the drill – we really don’t need to.

The Primord plotline is played very straight, and the fact that most of the characters are unaware of the mutations until late in the story adds an element of danger and menace. The episode’s horror elements, while subtle, are still quite effective. The Dog-faced Boy costumes are ultimately rather silly-looking, but in the early episodes the Primords (influenced possibly by Night of the Living Dead, but actually looking forward to later vicious-zombie movies) are quite scary and believable, especially given that the world in which they are an aberration feels so real to begin with. And personally, I find something quite sickening about how the mutating humans uncontrollably rub the green slime onto their faces – Olaf Pooley really seems to be relishing his ‘serving,’ and the effect is practically obscene. (Stahlman is a marvelous villain – in a series legendary for bad guys who want to take over the universe, this kind of petty monomaniac is refreshing and totally believable. He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur, exactly – he’s just the boss from hell.)

As for the parallel-continuum aspect, it’s of course fun in its way. Caroline John probably comes off the best – there’s something recognizably Liz Shaw-like inside her, but for the most part she’s frighteningly hard and steely. Nicholas Courtney has perhaps too much fun as the Brigade Leader – there’s a semi-foreign accent that comes and goes, and the shouting and crying are not much more than ordinary Who ham. But there are things to like about his performance as well – he and John play off each other beautifully in the interrogation sequence (“Name?”), and his posture as the Brigade Leader shows that it wasn’t just in the eighties that this actor started to pack on the pounds. (In other words, it reveals how much of Courtney’s trim bearing as the Brigadier is actually physical acting.)

As for the Doctor himself, Pertwee is like-ably crabby throughout; his up-yours responses to Stahlman’s pig-headedness are particularly well played. I’d forgotten just how serious the Third Doctor is – and, for as much as I do enjoy the ‘cosmic wisecracker’ approach taken by Tom Baker and some of the other actors, it’s nice to see a Doctor who can tell the Brigadier that he was at Krakatoa in 1883, and not play it for laughs. It’s kind of a spooky moment when Pertwee says he was there; we believe him, and for a moment we see the Doctor as others must see him – as a figure of bizarre mystery, full of tales which fly in the face of common sense, and yet which have the air of truth nonetheless.

All told, an entertaining story, well worth watching.