Doctor Who: Inferno SE (DVD)

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Tom Baker might be the ‘definitive article’ as the Doctor, and David Tennant for me the best actor to have played the role (with the dearly departing Matt Smith a commendably close runner-up) but as far as I’m concerned my emotional ‘favourite’ actor in the role will forever be the the one who was in the role when I first watched the show as a young child – Jon Pertwee.

“Inferno” was the final serial from Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor and is the story after “The Ambassadors of Death”, which I reviewed about seven months ago when it made its bow on DVD. This was very much an experimental, transitionary year for the show as new producer Barry Letts decided to make it more serious, realistic and Earth-bound, and the Doctor closer to a Quatermass figure than the cosmic hobo of yesteryear. For me this produced one of the best-ever years of Classic Who with some top-notch stories, and judging from the way that current showrunner Steven Moffat has riffed off themes, ideas and even aliens from that year’s serials I’d say I’m not alone.

However the format change did soon develop a very big problem: take away the TARDIS and the Doctor’s ability to go anywhere in the universe and things can get very repetitive very quickly. In “Inferno” for example, we have a misguided piece of cutting edge science go disastrously wrong and unleash a deadly danger from primordial times from deep within the earth that threatens to wipe out all life as we know it. Sound familiar? It would have done at the time, since just two months previously the Doctor had been encountering the Silurians for the first time in very similar circumstances. There are some big cosmetic differences of course – in “Inferno” the menace isn’t intelligent reptiles but a nasty green sludge that has catastrophic physical effects on both humans and the world’s atmosphere when released – but stylistically the story is very close. Even the aforementioned serial that came in between – “Ambassadors” – was visually rather too similar, largely located on a single set depicting a scientific research centre. It was clear the show needed some fresh ideas, and it would get them in the following season.

But that’s in the future: firstly there’s “Inferno”, a story very highly regarded by fans and even named as his personal favourite show by actor Nicholas Courtney, who played Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. That’s because the one innovation that “Inferno” has is the first (and to my knowledge possibly only) use of a parallel/alternative universe in Classic Who. Of course Doctor Who didn’t innovate this idea – three years previously Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” universe had explored just this idea – but it was still a departure for the British series and you can tell that they’re worried about how to handle it so that viewers can get their heads wrapped around such an off-the-wall idea. The transition between the two universes is conveyed rather charmingly by an out-of-focus disco ball spinning either to the right or left, which reassures you that no license fee money was ever wasted on unnecessary ‘special’ effects in Classic Who.

The early episodes introduce the premise of a mining project that is seeking to penetrate the Earth’s crust in pursuit of a limitless source of new power. The director of the project, Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley), is a dictatorial egomaniac obsessed with succeeding at any cost and as soon as possible who takes a derisory view of the health and safety concerns of his assistant Petra Williams (Sheila Dunn), facility manager Sir Keith Gold (Christopher Benjamin), mining consultant (Greg Sutton) and the Doctor himself. Then an accident with the disabled TARDIS console projects the Doctor into the similar-but-different alternate universe in which the drilling is slightly more advanced, so that we get to see the consequences of Stahlman’s heedless rush – a nightmarish end to the world which even the Doctor is powerless to stop. Pretty bleak stuff!

eyepatchThe alternate universe is often described as an ‘evil’ counterpart to the normal one, but in fact this isn’t really the case. The supporting cast (Stahlman, Petra, Greg, Sir Keith) don’t really act significantly differently between the two universes. There are certainly big shifts to the regular cast that we already know well, however: the Brigadier becomes the swaggering, eye-patch wearing bully with the title Brigade-Leader, cheerful Sergeant Benton (John Levene) becomes thuggish Platoon Under-Leader Benton, and the Doctor’s assistant Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John) is now the dark-haired Section-Leader Shaw, all of them working not for the benign UNIT but for the British Republican Security Forces, the Gestapo-like wing of a fascist regime that swept to power in the UK in World War 2 and swiftly dispatched the Royal Family. But rather than being inherently ‘evil, it’s more a case that the personalities of our old friends have been warped by their upbringing in this twisted reality, so that the Brigade-Leader thinking nothing of signing a death warrant for the Doctor’s summary execution if the situation demands it simply because he is a ‘good’ soldier in both universes.

This allows Courtney, Levene and John great latitude to create entirely new characters for themselves, so it’s no wonder that they liked this serial so much. They re all really good in their new roles too, as is is the guest cast. As the situation in the alternate universe grows increasingly bad and a Lord of the Flies reversion occurs that throws everyone – even our trusted regular friends and companions – into open conflict, with one even succumbing to the toxic green sludge that reverts the victim to a primitive snarling form of life in which the sufferer gets green skin paint and a werewolf fright-wig and side whiskers.

primordEven though we know these are not really our ‘regulars’ per se, it’s still an uncomfortable, disturbing and frankly distressing experience to go through, especially thanks to a fabulously pervasive sound design that starts with the always-present throbbing of the drill head growing louder and more suffocating, and then later managing effectively to convey the end of the world through a non-stop cacophony of off-screen bangs, crashes, eruptions and explosions that together with the growing hysteria of the performances really does sell the whole nightmare situation in a way that frankly must have been borderline acceptable for young children watching at the time.

Unfortunately this exceptionally strong element is perched on top of a basic story premise (one man and his drill) that is simply too one-dimensional and uninteresting to support any real drama beyond endless “You must stop this!” “No I won’t, what are you going to do about it?” exchanges between the Doctor and Stahlman. It means that in the final episode after the alternate universe sojourn is over, there is nothing of interest remaining with which to carry the remaining 22 minutes. The script even makes a critical mistake by having the Doctor learn nothing of any practical use in the other universe that can help, so he just picks up his former “You must stop this!” shouting and tries smashing up a bit of equipment for good measure which merely succeeds in making him look like a raving lunatic to even his closest friends. Only the fortuitously-timed arrival of one of the green-skinned werewolves makes everyone think he might have a point and turn off the drill, but that would likely have happened even if the Doctor hadn’t been around. It makes the Doctor himself and the whole preceding six episodes seem rather pointless and the ending rather flat; but that happened a lot with these seven-part stories that invested so much energy in stretching their material to the length required (usually by inserting lot of Action By Havoc sequences) that by the end there was just exhausted relief at having made the distance and serials tended to collapse across the line in a dead faint rather than finishing with a rousing sprint.

The preceding serial “The Ambassadors with Death” also had a problem with its conclusion, but as you’ll recall if you read my review of that last year it had an even bigger technical issue: most of its episodes’ colour masters had been arbitrarily destroyed by the BBC archives years ago, leaving the DVD release team with a nightmare restoration job using sub-optimal secondary sources (a black-and-white 8mm safety print and colour NTSC off-air video recordings made by fans in North America.) Despite Herculean efforts by all concerned the end result was inevitably inconsistent and not up to usual Doctor Who DVD release quality. Sadly, the colour masters of all the episodes of “Inferno” also met the same fate, and I feared the worst when settling down to watch this for the first time in well over a decade – since the unrestored black-and-white version aired in omnibus form on Sunday mornings on satellite channel UK Gold in the 1990s.

In fact the secondary sources for “Inferno” were never as bad as they had been for “Ambassadors” and the serial had already been satisfactorily recoloured and released back in 2006 as an early example of the new ‘reverse standards conversion’ process. But given all the advances the team had been forced into making by working on the “Ambassadors”, they figured it was worth having a completely new crack at “Inferno” with the latest state-of-the-art methods. With all due respect to the new extras on a second disc that I haven’t yet got around to, it’s this new version that is the primary reason for the Special Edition DVD coming out. So how does it look?

The first episode still shows some of the symptoms of the underlying deficiencies of the NTSC colour source – pink clouds, inconsistency from scene-to-scene, the ghosting and bleeding of colour out of the ‘lines’ drawn by the black-and-white film master – and if you look closely at episode 2 then you can see subtle ‘banding’ of colours down the picture which tells you that this is not a first generation source. Even so, if the material matched these results throughout then it would be stellar and perfectly acceptable; but instead the results just get better and better. It got to the point where I literally had to go online and check to see whether I’d been wrong about all the original colour masters having been lost and whether it just wasn’t the first one or two episodes, because thereafter it’s so stunningly impressive than even I, arch-pedant about such things as I am, totally forgot about any issues. The detail is impressive and the colour is wonderfully naturalistic – in fact, perhaps too much so given that this is a 1970 serial when the BBC was still finding its way in colour broadcasting and typically erred on the side of the garish.

Yes, I really just did imply criticism than the result is too good, surely criticism that tells you that you’re on to a real winner. If you’re a Jon Pertwee fan – as I am – then this will surely be a must-buy even for those who invested in the original 2006 release of the story. Despite the pacing being much slower than today’s fare (you simply couldn’t have aired today’s hyper-kinetic stories in the 1970s, the audience would have thought you were mad) and the somewhat limp ending when the ideas and momentum ran out just a little too early, it’s still a remarkably gripping and tense serial – especially if you space out the episodes over a few days rather than binge-loading them all in one which tends to show up some of the weaknesses and repetitions that 1970s weekly serials employed.

If nothing else, “Inferno” will explain the origins of Doctor Who’s eyepatch equivalent of Star Trek’s trope of the ‘evil goatee’. Talking of which, you can clearly see the way that Barry Letts’ mind worked on this one. Having dabbled with the ‘evil’ counterparts of regular characters in this story, there was one notable alter ego absent from the parallel universe: no Dark Doctor. What would such a character be like, Letts must have wondered? From such musings came the character of the Master, introduced in the very next serial “Terror of the Autons” and a fixture in the show for years thereafter. His one defining visual motif? Why, an evil goatee of course. What goes around comes around.

Doctor Who: Inferno Special Edition was released on DVD on May 27 2013. The original release from 2006 is also still available and is currently cheaper.

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