Friday, July 28, 2006

 

Doctor Who – Inferno

A pretty good little Doctor Who story is out on DVD this week – 1976’s The Hand of Fear. With so many features on them, we’ve only just finished watching last month’s release which, appropriately for the current heatwave, was Inferno. From 1970, early in Jon Pertwee’s time as the Third Doctor, it’s the nearest Doctor Who ever got to a full-blooded disaster movie. This two-disc DVD has some impressive extras, but it’s mainly the gripping story of an attempt to drill deep into the Earth for new energy while the Doctor’s flung sideways in time to a fascist Britain.

“If you break through the Earth’s crust now, you’ll release forces you never dreamed could exist. Listen to that! That’s the sound of this planet screaming out its rage!”
For me his passion in delivering those lines at one of the story’s cliffhangers is Jon Pertwee’s finest moment as the Doctor. He’s the tall one with the fluffy white hair and swirling cape, exiled to Earth and getting all establishment alongside the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (that is, the army, but a teeny bit more liberal), and I tend to have rather mixed feelings about him. Here, though, he’s terrific, matching up to the intensity of the story. Like the later, more brightly-coloured The Green Death, this is an environmental fable before such things were fashionable, though it’s less concerned with looking at the issues behind alternative energy than with making a horror story.

Britain’s energy crisis – no, that’s not a new issue – is to be solved by an alternative power source from deep inside the Earth, discovered by the typically unpleasant Professor Stahlman (yes, he’s even got his name from an eeevil job lot) and named with typical modesty as Stahlman’s Gas. With his project nicknamed ‘The Inferno,’ you won’t be surprised to learn this turns out to be a bad idea. You might be more surprised to learn it’s rather intelligently written and strikingly well directed, and mostly looks terrific. However, it’s not because of the disaster that this story is so frequently raved about, but because the Doctor spends half the story stuck in an alternative Britain where all his friends are fascists. While ‘our’ 1970 is showing its age a bit, the fascist scenes still have complete conviction. Ironically, if you remember the Brigadier and his friendly UNIT soldiers, this is where you see them at their best. And, as it’s a double-disc release, it’s a double-length review, too. No fainting at the back, there! I’m having enough difficulty keeping going in this heat as it is…

The DVD

Before I look at the story in depth and to provide a gap in case you don’t want it spoiled for you, what’s the whole double-disc package like? Well, as usual with Doctor Who there’s something far better than a bare-bones release. Back in the days before home video, the BBC used to destroy a lot of their programmes once they were no longer selling them to other stations. As a result, there are still large gaps in 1960s Doctor Who, though once into colour in the ’70s the series was more fortunate. Because a lot of countries switched to colour later, all that’s missing are a few episodes where the BBC chucked out the colour originals, but kept black and white prints for sale. You might notice the picture on Inferno looks slightly softer than usual, but it’s far better than the VHS available a few years ago, and better still than the monochrome prints the BBC had before that. Yes, they’ve lovingly cleaned up the picture and even restored the colour, so it’s difficult to realise what a state it had been in. The DVD cover makes good use of colour as well, a fiery photomontage featuring the Doctor hanging off a wall and the brooding, eye-patched face of the alternative universe’s Brigadier… Though adding in a mutated technician on a gantry, too, makes it just that little bit too busy and it would have been better off without it (after all, that picture alone was good enough to be turned into the cover painting of the novel).

Extras include two 35-minute documentaries, the first a hugely informative one on the making of Inferno, ‘Can You Hear The Earth Scream?’ It’s quite well put together, despite the odd error, but in need of an actor with a richer voice and more confident delivery for the voiceover (sounds like somewhere they cut corners to keep within budget. I wouldn’t do it again). The other’s on the early years of UNIT, and also pretty impressive, with an engaging set of interviews. Between them and the full-length commentary track on all the episodes (not one of the most scintillating), you’ll learn several times that villainous Professor Stahlman, actor Olaf Pooley, didn’t like his monster make-up, and feel for the late Douglas Camfield, who worked so hard directing this story he put himself in hospital. Widely regarded as the old series’ best director and the only one who regularly had such a huge impact on his stories I’d not blush to call an auteur, he was hugely talented but sometimes a bit too macho for me. When he suffered heart problems, producer Barry Letts took over; I tend to think of him as all right, but lacking a hard edge, yet through some strange alchemy he finished off Mr Camfield’s work tremendously well. I also felt for poor Caroline John, who plays the Doctor’s assistant Dr Liz Shaw, or “Miss Shaw” as she was invariably known in these high days of Who sexism. Told she was to be ‘let go’ (though she’d already planned to leave) because, essentially, her character was too intelligent and she was too tall for Mr Pertwee to ‘protect’, she still seems insecure about whether she was any good. For most of the reasons the producer thought she was unsuitable, ever since I was a small boy reading about her in books I’ve loved this strong, independent character, and growing up to see her on screen she’s won me over completely. Should you ever meet her, do tell her that she’s appreciated.

This story also contains possibly the single most often-told Doctor Who anecdote. The Brigadier’s cold alternate self, Brigade-Leader Lethbridge-Stewart, wears no moustache but has an eyepatch across a long duelling scar. Filming his first scene, he swung round in his chair to reveal himself – only to see all the other actors facing him with eyepatches of their own. Actor Nicholas Courtney carried on without batting his single visible eyelid, while the pranksters corpsed at their own humour. I don’t know how I first came across that story, but, boy, there have been a lot of references to it over the years, and I’m glad to say it’s told twice here to keep it alive for future generations, in person in a documentary and in on-screen notes across the appropriate episode. These factual notes are a third way to watch the whole story through, usually the last we come to (after ‘story’ and ‘commentary’), and a bit of a lottery. They’re always informative, though written alternately by two different chaps, and while they both know their stuff, one has a fluid and amusing writing style but the other would have justified this story’s working title of ‘Operation Mole-Bore’. Fortunately, this time round the text is by Martin Wiggins and consistently engaging to read.

Add to that quite a few other extras, including a deleted scene with Jon Pertwee as a sort of Lord Haw-Haw, a photo gallery and even a pdf of the 1971 Doctor Who Annual (hurrah, one of those I don’t have, though not a great set of stories), and it’s well worth getting hold of, even if it weren’t for…

The Story (Spoilers)

There were four Doctor Who stories in 1970, the series’ first year in colour, and they’re probably the series’ most consistently high-quality run (creating a problem, in some ways, for the Third Doctor’s time in that only a couple of stories in his remaining four years could match up to any of these four). All four are pretty top-notch, though not absolutely to my taste; I like Doctor Who in fairly large part because it’s about an anti-establishment lead who travels anywhere in time and space doing whatever he wants to do, and there’s always going to be something a bit limiting about being exiled to Earth and hanging around with soldiers. Inferno’s one of the three coming in at an enormous seven episodes, too, leading to one of the silliest criticisms from fans, that they’re too long by definition because of some arbitrary running time. As if there’s some rule in drama that all stories have an identical perfect length. I’ve read long novels that feel like too much has been left out, and read short stories that could do with cutting down. Here, two of these seven-part stories certainly justify their length, while the other almost treats each episode as a separate mini-epic, and all three of them wear their episode count better than most of the later Jon Pertwee stories that weigh in at six parts and tend to feel slow and bloated on it.

Most reviewers tend to think Inferno’s the highlight of that year. Well, I think it’s terribly good, but I’d rate a couple of the others higher. It’s a strong story with much to recommend it – two great unexpected elements (the alternative Earth and the result of the Project there), a couple of truly great cliffhangers (though a couple of rather abrupt others that suggest the director’s looked at his watch and said, ‘Cue monster – end’), all accompanied by unsettling Radiophonic noises rather than music and with an unrelenting pace right up until the final episode… Where, sad to say, it all falls to pieces a bit. Still, points for the confidence that it was going to be good enough to risk having a character say of the drilling, “There’s never been a bore like this one!” and for no-one watching to agree.

It starts at a sprawling and impressive industrial complex, and pretty much stays there throughout, which gives an air of claustrophobia despite the place’s size. UNIT, formed to fight alien and unusual menaces to humanity, is rather peculiarly in charge of policing this alternative energy project, almost as if they know that within a few minutes greenish goo will start leaking from the centre of the Earth and mutating men into psychotic Primordial monsters. What are the odds, eh? Unusually, the most sympathetic character is Sir Keith Gold, the civil servant nominally second in charge (from this point in the series, anyone to do with the government tends to be a buffoon or a villain, or both) to Professor Stahlman, who’s an ill-tempered autocrat even before he gets a slight touch of the goo. The big advantage of Stahlman is, of course, that he gets even the likes of me firmly rooting for this most arrogant of Doctors, as Jon Pertwee’s version at last meets someone so utterly rude and objectionable that he seems fine in comparison.

A character clearly meant to be sympathetic but who I have to fight back my own Primordial psychopathy towards is Greg Sutton, well-played but from a rotten script as the bluff oil rigger called in to give advice that won’t be heeded. No, that side of him’s fine. The problem’s that, on meeting Stahlman’s PA Petra Williams, he immediately hits on her in the least subtle way, then when she notes she actually has work to do, he turns to Sir Keith with an “I’d say I’ve just been snubbed, wouldn’t you?” I’m amazed he’s not just been decked, after all but asking her ‘Get your jugs out, love.’ I’m only thankful that the lead sexist git in this story isn’t the Doctor, as it will be for much of Mr Pertwee’s reign; though the series is often damned unfairly for sexism, the early ’70s is the only period where it really is dreadfully sexist, probably because of a backlash against rising feminism. Despite being set ‘a few years in the future’ at the time, this 1970 has dated, along with the ‘safe, dependable’ power source for the drilling, which is of course nuclear. Ironically, though he’s rude to everyone in almost as repetitive a way as Greg is macho, Stahlman is the only man who doesn’t patronise the women.

Anyway, before long the odd goo-infected technician or soldier has gone greenish-blue in the face and a little hairy, and started screeching. One of the few failures of the direction is that we see a couple of these Primordial mutants well before the first cliffhanger, which – consisting entirely of a shock ‘reveal’ of a mutant – is rather lame as a result. No such complaints, though, when they go chasing around the scarily tall gantries and gasometers, which all looks absolutely stunning. By Episode Three, there’s a thrilling chase sequence, the first big action scene for this ‘man of action’ Doctor with a fight on a car and then up high, and when a mutant is shot from the top of a building and topples to the ground… Phew. It was, in fact, a record-breaking stunt fall of the type you usually only get in Bond movies, co-ordinated by the excitingly-named stunt team credited at the time as providing “Action by HAVOC” (Richard still wishes that the alternate universe had credited “Havoc by ACTION”).

Meanwhile, Professor Stahlman has been refusing to listen to advice and accelerating the drilling to a dangerous speed. When the Doctor catches him sabotaging his own computer to prevent the safety readings getting out, Stahlman’s response is just to cry “That man should be locked up!” You can see him gagging to be in a fascist state. Bit of a clue, there. Alternatively, you can see him as a playground bully who doesn’t like it when the Doctor stands up to him, and cuts off the power to the Doctor’s own experiments in a fit of pique. Oh, yes. Well, the Doctor gets bored just striding about the place being supercilious, so he’s been trying to get his disabled TARDIS to work. Rather improbably, he’s only using the control console from his time-space machine at the moment (imagine flying, not a spaceship, but a desk; a bit chilly without windows and things), presumably to save money on sets, but he gets it working enough to fling him to Earth, just not our Earth, and get stuck there without power.

The Other Earth (Spoilers)

At this point, of course, it all becomes rather less influenced by Quatermass and more by 1984 and the sort of sci-fi tales of parallel worlds also borrowed by Star Trek’s Mirror, Mirror. If it seems familiar, it’s not a device Doctor Who used very often, but it does crop up again in a fairly major way in the two Cyberman stories that have just been in the new series and, before that, in the late ’80s when Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor (several of his stories have direct nods to Inferno). Oddly enough, I recently decided to watch a Jon Pertwee and a Sylvester McCoy story back-to-back, thinking of each, ‘I’ve not seen this in ages and I remember it as fair-to-middling but quite fun,’ only to find my opinion of one sharply rising and the other sharply declining. But that’s another story (or two).

On this other Earth, greater efficiency means the drilling is a couple of days more advanced, but unfortunately ‘greater efficiency’ is synonymous with ‘fascist police state’, where cheery Sergeant Benton is a thug, Dr / Miss Shaw is a much better-dressed and impressively wigged security officer and Nick Courtney’s authoritative, unflappable but likeable Brigadier has become the very, very effective Brigade-Leader. Oh, and Stahlmann is… Exactly the same, save for an extra ‘N’ on his name and a shave. While ‘our’ 1970 hasn’t aged well, fascist chic stands the test of time rather better, and while it’s a thoroughly horrible place to be, by accident or design it’s suddenly no longer sexist (though I think I’m right in saying it’s all-white). Section-Leader Elizabeth Shaw gets far more respect from those around her than perpetually-demoted-from-her-doctorate-Miss Liz Shaw did, and instead of being the feeble ‘dollybird’ secretary in the vile blue wallpaper-pattern frock, Petra is now “Dr Williams” in the same white coat as the other scientists, Deputy Director of the Project and far better able to stand up for herself.

The scenes in the alternative universe are much-raved about and equally mocked after long familiarity, but really, they are brilliant. The Doctor tries to bluff his way around the new Republic (name-dropping the – executed – Royal Family goes down even less well than usual, after place-dropping Krakatoa in ‘our’ world), and while it’s entertaining to see this most establishment of Doctors suddenly very much on the wrong side of the authorities, before long you can’t help but take it soberly. We see him tortured, which is a shock and played dead straight, and he gets a chilling reply from the Brigade-Leader when he can’t prove his identity:
“But I don’t exist in your world!”

“Then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you.”
It’s a great line, with the performance utterly different to ‘our’ Brigadier and deeply unsettling. First he’s laid back, then an authoritarian bully, then finally goes to pieces with his world, and Nick Courtney does the acting of his life; Caroline John, too, is superb, getting recklessly charismatic with her own sort of swagger when freed up by her society’s disintegration (though, distractingly, she has a much better hairdo inside than on location). It’s difficult not to conclude that it’s so much better in this world – horrid, of course, but far more gripping.

Oh, yes, that social disintegration. Well, in the almost unbearably tense cliffhanger that closes Episode Four, the Doctor gives a desperate warning but is held at gunpoint as the countdown reaches penetration-zero. It’s utterly compelling, and from that moment, the series can do something it could never normally get away with: the world is doomed. There are earthquakes and lava as the Earth’s fury is unleashed, and gradually everyone comes to realise it and panic, with the impression that the dictatorship is doing much the same thing ‘outside’. In the apocalyptic heat, I even warm to Greg Sutton, who becomes impressively pessimistic as the heat overwhelms his knob and forces him to think with his brain instead. With the fascist state abandoning all at the site to die, Greg’s rebellious streak explodes into reckless put-downs and an angry mock-salute. He shoots his mouth off to so many people that he makes the Doctor’s case rather more persuasively than the Doctor does. Not that anyone much is listening, nor that it can do much good for his world…

It’s not just earthquakes and lava, though. In the heat and expanding gases, the infected staff mutate into full-on Primords, personifications of the planet’s rage or, as some might have it, shaggy dogs. Admittedly, they’re a bit cuddly for zombie werewolves, but it’s still very disturbing when Stahlmann forces a technician’s face into the slime or spreads it over his own, and when – on hearing his guttural calls – Petra shouts “He needs help!” Richard makes the more pertinent observation, “He needed help before. Now, he needs dogfood and flea powder.” Actually, thinking about it, my beloved didn’t take that completely seriously, but though Episode Five consists in retrospect entirely of Greg finding different ways to shout, ‘We’re all going to die!’ it moves at a hell of a pace. We get occasional flash-asides to the less advanced drilling in ‘our’ world, too, where I have to admit I found Stahlman’s accidentally ironic complaint that “I’m literally dragged from my work by one of your ape-like minions!” far too entertaining.

The best of the story, however, remains in fascist Britain. The two whole episodes of the Earth crashing to its inevitable destruction are stunning – it keeps building the tension instead of having blown it at the end of the countdown, as you might have expected. It’s partly the red filters over the camera, but largely the reactions of the characters to their doom that has your heart in your mouth. Every character, put to the test, blazes as brightly as the hellish heat haze now smothering every exterior shot as the world begins to burn. Elizabeth Shaw is beginning to believe the Doctor and want to help him get enough power to return to ‘our’ world and warn it; the Brigade-Leader is starting to believe he’s going to die, and losing it. “All right, Brigade-Leader, we’re still here,” she sails, facing him down superbly. The Doctor, incidentally, gets a rather distracting line about people who aren’t impressed by his flying table expecting a spaceship “with Batman at the controls,” which makes me wonder… Do they show Batman in a fascist state, then? Mind you, a huge, handy notice says ‘NUCLEAR REACTOR SWITCH ROOM,’ so perhaps the ’60s Batman really is shown there and inspired their signage. But it’s the tension between the fascist bully-boy who’s discovering his inner coward and the fascist torturer discovering her inner decency that really grab the attention: “Hysteria won’t help us.” “Nothing will help us! We’ll all be burnt. Alive.” Before long, he’s trying to shoot Greg, but his gun’s empty. “Brigade-Leader’s shooting blanks!” Richard pointed out. “Subtle metaphor.” Of course, he reloads in time to threaten the Doctor into taking him away, only to be shot in the back by Section-Leader Shaw. It’s still a shock to this day.

The (Anti-)Climax (Great Big Spoilers)

So, after six episodes of building doom, the Doctor narrowly escapes as the world is destroyed in a rush of lava, along with all the ‘alternate’ characters we’ve come to know. It’s one of the most effective sequences Doctor Who has ever produced, as just for once the Doctor loses and, yes, it’s the end of the world as a result. Unfortunately, after this climax of tension at the end of the penultimate episode, there’s nowhere much for the final episode back in ‘our’ world to go, and even with a built-in anti-climax it badly fumbles it. It’s simply quite badly written all of a sudden, to a much greater extent than most weak endings in Doctor Who.

The first thing that goes wrong is an intellectual problem (repeated in this year’s otherwise excellent season finale Doomsday, but it’s taken from here). Now, it’s rather nicely played, and it superficially seems to be a good little dramatic moment, but when the Doctor comes round after making it back he murmurs that there must be
“An infinity of universes, ergo an infinite number of choices… So free will is not an illusion after all. The pattern can be changed.”
I don’t want to get too intellectually demanding at the end of such a long review, but though it’s supposed to be rousing after the bleakness of the end of the world, this ‘infinite universes’ palaver as a justification for free will just doesn’t work. It’s not an answer to determinism, more a cop-out; if everything happens, then nothing matters. The Doctor both wins and loses all the time, and why bother doing anything if you know that one of the infinite yous will if you don’t? There’s a superb novel by Graham Dunstan Martin, Time-Slip, in which someone takes the ‘infinite worlds’ theory as foundation for a post-apocalyptic religion absolving God of blame. Of course, before long defendants are arguing that ‘If there are infinite possibilities, then every one must come true, so I might be the one of “me” that was forced to commit this murder to keep it infinite.’ Richard and I were surprised, then, to hear on the slightly dull commentary track (one speaker over-enthusiastic, one waspish, one cheery, one simply dull) that the producer and script editor of the time agreed with us. Why did they let the line go in, then?

The next problem is a dramatic one that suddenly becomes obvious after the end of the (other) world. I’m so used to the brilliant Doctor fixing things that it took me a long while to spot him fixing something he really shouldn’t have. Yes, because the obsessive Stahlman is rushing things, there’s an accident and the Doctor comes up with a repair in the alternate world that saves the drill breaking up, twenty miles down, that would irreparably wreck the Project. The same thing’s about to happen in ‘our’ world and the Doctor deliriously supplies the same solution here. In other words… You know this thing that’s going to destroy the world? Without the Doctor, it couldn’t have kept going. If he’d not been there, each time, the Project would have destroyed itself and the world been saved. Even if it only meant a long delay, before the government could put millions more in to have another go the Project Director would raise those tricky-to-ignore safety issues by becoming a rampaging werewolf, so it would have been off either way.

There’s a promising moment as the Doctor pulls himself together and warns Sir Keith of disaster, haunted by having already seen it happen, but unfortunately everyone from that point acts in the way least calculated to stop the drilling. A victim of Stahlman causing an accident that nearly killed him, Sir Keith not only has begged ministerial authority to slow down, but should now be able to get the Professor arrested even without a fascist state. The only trouble is, he’s got no backbone to stand up to Stahlman. So, naturally, the Doctor goes off without listening to him and, abandoning brain altogether, just shouts at everyone to stop, then picks up a hammer to smash the place, after which even the friendly Brigadier looks embarrassed and accedes to Stahlman’s cry for two burly soldier boys. “You see, completely demented!” Sir Keith politely accuses Stahlman of attempted murder, and asks him to stop on the minister’s behalf. It might have been helpful to bring the odd policeman. “You can have as many inquiries as you like, Sir Keith – after we have penetrated the Earth’s crust.” He then orders everyone else out! Yes, the Doctor acts like a loony before the Professor does, and leaves it all to Sir Keith to be a wet fish. What timing. “I have no authority to intervene,” mumbles Sir Keith. But you do, you great haddock. That’s what you went to the minister for. Fortunately, just as Sir Keith is worrying about procedure and that there’s no proof, Stahlman handily transforms into a hairy, scary Primord. At long last, ‘our’ Petra does something and shuts it all down just in time, but, oh no, there’s a safety delay. Instead of ratcheting up the tension, though, the Doctor goes in to fix it, then comes out at ‘minus 35 seconds’ (35? 35? What sort of a number’s that? Have they never seen a Bond film?), without us seeing what he did, just like that. A bigger anti-climax is hard to imagine. Sir Keith, of course, now obeys the Doctor’s orders, the danger having passed.
“Sir Keith, I think you’d better give orders for that shaft to be filled in straight away.”

“I certainly will.”
It’s only happened because Stahlman chose the most convenient moment to stop his uncanny resistance to the green goo and metamorphose in front of everybody. There can’t be as much tension as when the Earth really is doomed earlier in the story anyway, and the Doctor’s got curiously little to do here: be unconscious, rant, be dragged off, then solve it all ‘off’ with a wave of his sonic screwdriver. Surely with Stahlman so repeatedly and ostentatiously bonkers, there’d be a case to relieve him or at least sit the man down? Yet, after no-one dared challenge how vital it all was, suddenly they unilaterally abandon the government’s multi-billion pound investment as if a switch has been thrown. It’s ironic that the ‘other universe’ seems more real than the one we’re used to, but at least there the Doctor persuaded people, albeit too late. Here, his crazy desperation is too crazy to be useful and not crazy enough to be heart-rending, but the inescapable problem is that the cast have rowed back from knowing they’re doomed, and it’s impossible to replace that drama. Then the threat is not just averted, as we knew it was bound to be, but averted in such an offhand way that we can’t help but feel cheated.

Oh, and Greg and Petra end up together. I know we’re meant to see it as ‘love will out’, but he comes over today as a boorish chauvinist ‘rightly’ winning over the ‘frigid’ woman instead. The one consolation is that the woman he drives off with at the end isn’t Liz. Don’t scoff. Think of the role Petra fills, and how several female companions have been written out (shudder). Liz Shaw’s last scene, instead, gives no hint that she’s leaving but just some ham-fisted ‘comedy’ to let us laugh about how jolly it’s all been. Hmm…

So, I think Inferno’s terrific. Just not quite all the way through. For once, Doctor Who does a dark, character-driven, metaphorical piece masquerading as an all-action disaster movie, and the tense, brutal ‘sidetrack’ has, of course, all the best bits. There’s a remarkable mix of claustrophobia inside and huge, high industrial scale outside that’s not matched anywhere else in the series, and as a huge plus, though we sometimes get to hear about societies on the brink of collapse this is the only one I can think of when the story kicks it over the edge and then lingers horribly on the pieces. It’s just a shame that the ‘pre-climax’ is so much more exciting than anything in the final 25 minutes; while the climaxes of so many Doctor Who stories are let-downs because they just blow everything up, this is a let-down because it doesn’t.

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