Monday, August 28, 2006


Doctor Who – Inferno (Alternate Universe Mix)

Cast your mind back a month to Britain sweltering under a heatwave. It’s difficult to believe, looking out this evening over the grey Thames linked to the grey sky by the grey rain. Almost as if it was some alternative dimension… (Wibbly-wobbly effect) Well, that’s perhaps the cheesiest daytime TV link I’ve ever written, but a month ago it was terribly hot and I was writing about the Doctor Who – Inferno DVD. Since then, I’ve been thinking about some related items: the Inferno novel; the Doctor Who Annual on the DVD in pdf form; and the Third Doctor’s whole character.

I’ve also had a look at some of the other Inferno reviews doing the rounds, and would recommend two in particular. Shaft! An Analysis of Inferno by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens (who I find it disturbingly easy to picture as the alternate Brigadier and Liz. Or even vice versa) is intelligent and thought-provoking, especially on the story as a round-up of the season and on free will versus fascism. Though their analysis of the roots the fascist Britain has in defeat is persuasive, I don’t quite go along with their revisionist take on the Brigadier and Benton – see what you think, though. The other is in Late and Tarry’s ever-reliable About Time series of books… Reliable at least in provoking a reaction, whether it’s exclaiming, ‘Brilliant! I’d never thought of that!’ or shouting abuse at it for getting completely the wrong end of the stick / being immensely pompous / infuriating pseudery (usually involving Top of the Pops). About Time 3, available direct from the publishers or, to save British buyers paying ridiculous charges from America, at specialist shops like Tenth Planet, have an exciting theory tying in with Larry’s Doctor Who novels that the ‘Inferno’ punctures a shell created beneath the Earth around intrinsically hostile matter from an alien (Yssgaroth) universe, which is why it’s so horribly mutagenic and, in never cooling down, refuses to obey ‘our’ laws of physics. On the other hand, despite being the self-styled definitive work on everything, they’re too up themselves to repeat the story about the eyepatches. Alan and Fiona also have funnier captions.

Doctor Who – Inferno: The Novelisation by Terrance Dicks

Published in 1984, appropriately for the Big Brother-style leader of the alternative Britain, this is one of Terrance Dicks’ better Target Doctor Who novelisations, particularly those after his early burst of quality and enthusiasm. It was how I first came to know the story, and it was gripping; the macho thriller style really suits Terrance’s sparse writing, coming across as taut and tense where more detail could easily have become bloody and off-putting (as in the semi-sequel by David A. McIntee). At the standard Target length of 126 pages, it seems absurdly short, but it crams a lot in with much smaller type than usual. Though this leaves very little room for additions to the bare script, there are a couple of stylish pieces of scene-setting that help sell the whole thing: the opening,
“It was the greatest scientific project that England had ever known,”
or the Doctor’s musings on the origins of the fascist state. There are also a few moments of hindsight, such as the Doctor’s “elegant velvet smoking-jacket” (which at this stage looks plainer, blacker, and much less velvety than the description influenced by Mr Pertwee’s later excesses implies) or hearing that it was “still the early days of his exile,” and I get the feeling Terrance may be taking the piss slightly when he notes that
“The strange force that had taken over Stahlman made him immune to the Doctor’s Venusian aikido, and he even withstood the fearsome Martian karate.”
There are a few cuts to keep the page-count down, mostly in excising almost all the sideways glances back to ‘our’ world while the Doctor’s on the alternative Earth. There’s a brief recap for them at the start of Chapter 13 (the equivalent of Episode Seven), but not lowering the tension by breaking the oppressive mood of fascist Britain actually improves the book. You can’t see the doggy mutants (never called primords) either, of course. There are quite a few cuts to Greg Sutton’s lines; he’s much less of a sexist git, but also seems to have fewer lines warning of everything going horribly wrong once the Doctor’s convinced him, including weakening his rant about the “toy soldiers” keeping them in, even though that was the most memorable scene to read at the time – beating the “screaming out its rage” cliffhanger on the page without its screaming sound effects. There’s less of the brutality of the fascists preventing anyone escaping the disaster, or the starkness of the government abandoning them to die. On the other hand, there’s a memorably grisly simile as the world is destroyed, where
“The air was filled with the dying screams of the mutants who had been huddled around the complex, and were now devoured, like fiery sacrifices to their savage god.”
Reading lines on paper in some cases magnifies their effects; the way everyone descends into caricature at the anti-climax is exaggerated, with the Doctor at least getting a bit of internal desperation to paper over his behaving like a nutter and regretting it afterwards, but the Brigadier ‘soothing’ him in front of Sir Keith is influenced by the times the character later slipped into being a comedy, disbelieving bungler. Stahlman’s demand that the Doctor be arrested immediately – merely for telling them to stop, which as an adviser is his prerogative – is something the Brigadier or someone needs to counter with ‘We’re not in a police state, you know.’ Even if not for its comedy value, Stahlman simply can’t say things like that, except to raise the tension artificially and encourage the Doctor to throw a wobbly.

At the time, my Dad was a senior librarian in Stockport Libraries, and would see copies of books they might like to order, ‘on approval’, as soon as they came out. Doctor Who hardbacks (essentially for the library trade) came out months earlier than the paperbacks, and I was so taken with reading this one that I wanted to share it. As it wasn’t my book – nor even the library’s yet, for that matter – I couldn’t lend it to my friend Stephen, so it was one of just three that I remember reading onto cassette in its entirety for him. The cassette’s long since been taped over, or perhaps destroyed, so I can’t hear how bad I sounded at twelve, nor how badly I characterised everyone, before any misguided soul requests a podcast.

There were several things about the book that inspired this enthusiasm, right from the stark, one-word title that grabbed me rather more than any of the Fifth Doctor ones of the time, and a striking orange cover of a technician infected by the Earth’s primordial rage, framed against a blazing sky. I was twelve, and though I no longer had my early book-and-photo-based conviction that the Third Doctor was the best, it was the right age for the macho world of UNIT to seem exciting. I think, though, that most of all it was that Terrance Dicks seemed to have returned to form. I’d loved his earlier books like The Auton Invasion, but by 1984 had long been disillusioned by his regular flimsy the-script-with-‘he-said,-she-said’ publications. In the late ’70s and early ’80s the Target books had become thin and dull, and after a few ‘old’ stories like The Aztecs and even The Dominators that had just made something far more interesting than the uninspired Peter Davison tie-ins they accompanied in the publishing schedules, it was great to find that even ‘Uncle Terrance’ was improving. The stripped-down, tightly written thriller elements were perfect for his economic writing style, with the added advantage of being able to tell a strong story that we weren’t able to see. It still works to read, though now it’s in the shadow of the DVD in a way that some of Mr Dicks’ early books still aren’t; the novel of Inferno reflects a good story, but The Auton Invasion adds enormously to the already impressive Spearhead From Space (while many of the other Jon Pertwee stories, less impressive on screen, remain brought to vivid and less tacky life on the page). So, while a lot of its 1984 impact was to do with the underlying story, the writing style remains far superior to the bulk of the novelisations from the late ’70s on, with the author’s obvious love for the subject matter consistently seeing him raising his game.

THE DR WHO annual 1971 (on pdf with the Inferno DVD)

Stephen first got to know the novel of Inferno when I read it to him in 1984; I first got to know this Annual just last year, when he lent it to me. We were having a Doctor Who conversation long into the evening, and he mentioned a violent bit of un-Doctorishness from an Annual which I didn’t recognise… It turned out that the story in which “Doctor Who” lays about him with his trusty laser pistol, calls the Brigadier “sir”, calls in UNIT’s Army Chemical Warfare division and concludes with the line, “This time I’ve got to admit how welcome it is to have a few professional killers around” is one I don't have, The Dr Who Annual 1971. Stephen was kind – or punishing – enough to lend it to me, but now it can be yours to read too, not for hundreds of pounds on Ebay but for the price of a DVD.

It’s quite entertaining but forgettable, and when the standard of stories is this poor I miss having a comic strip, which at least usually supplies more visual style. It seems here that the Doctor mostly works for UNIT and is occasionally an international troubleshooter flying around the world like Jason King. All the stories here tend to have UNIT, mysterious deadly aliens and very peremptory endings, but, to be fair, with odd pieces of impressive artwork. Most of it features quite groovy paintings of Jon Pertwee (the Doctor) and all right ones of Caroline John (Liz Shaw), though they clearly didn’t pay for any photo references for Nick Courtney and just make up their own ‘Brigadier’. The best picture is on the contents page, with a double spread of a pink, one-eyed, tentacled Lovecraftian thing and a (nearly as scary) boggling Pertwee. As with most 1970s Annuals, there are many one-page fillers, often repeating the same themes (space quizzes, space suits and satellites, for example) several times. ‘Factual’ piece The Planet People, on Roman gods, chooses Pluto as the most exciting one to start with, which this week seems a bit of a shame. Oh, and there are puzzles and games like the thrilling snakes-and-ladders-with-arrows The Space Chase, in which there’s a ham-fisted attempt to reference the TV series as the Silurians have stolen a part of the Doctor’s car and he must get it back (no, space isn’t involved) from one that looks almost entirely unlike a Silurian but suspiciously close to a painting of It, the Terror From Beyond Space. None of it’s inspiring, though it does try ineptly to be educational, including with odd little one-paragraph factoids stuck into the text of the stories, which are rather bizarre.

It starts with The Mind Extractors, which says it all, and if it has a point it’s to scare kids off smoking with scary cigarette-like wriggling alien protrusions. More memorable is Soldiers From Zolta. It’s not memorable in a good way, though; not just a rotten story, but with only disappointing black and white line drawings on purple and brown. It looks rather like the last Second Doctor Annual, and, oh my word, it’s ugly. The tale of ‘mass politics for peace causing huge disturbances and all manipulated by the communists Zoltans’ make it seem far more pro-establishment than usual, too. It’s got touches of that year’s TV story The Ambassadors of Death, dumbed down, made conservative, and with rip-off Cyberman drawings. Bizarrely, the invaders apparently manipulating gullible human peaceniks are killing their allies as well as their enemies, and as the Doctor realises this he visits a bungalow, sees an hallucination triggered by an alien insect and, after it dies away, nothing more is heard of the Zoltans. So how did the Doctor make his deductions, what were the Zoltans trying to do, and why did they give up? It’s like having a Part One to a story, then cutting straight to the coda.

Unfortunately, that story pretty much sets the tone, with off-key references to Who stories that have just been on TV, bizarre characterisation and plots that seem like the writer jotted down a few initial ideas and then wrote ‘the end’ rather than coming up with a workable climax. Still, along the way we get some variation. Caught in the Web starts off in the desert and then flies to the Arctic, excitingly, but features a stunningly rubbish alien shape that looks like a man in a grey all-over suit with a frilled head (there’s no excuse when you’re drawing it from scratch), while The Dark Planet has a strange role-swap as the Doctor turns alien-killer and the Brigadier comes in at the end almost in tears, protesting “What things we would have learnt.” The closing story, A Universe Called Fred, is full of pseudo-scientific postulations about sub-atomic universes and dodgy pictures of Pertwee and flying pink people. Here, the Doctor has constructed a sub-space radio for use between dimensions, to contact sub-atomic inner space. Uh huh? He and Liz fly down into it to be caught in a battle between two doomed microscopic races. Luckily, the Brigadier switches off the Doctor’s machine and out our heroes pop. Yes, just to put the cap on this collection, there’s no resolution at all to the problem – it doesn’t even end. It might as well be a pensieve.

The ‘infamous’ story is Caverns of Horror, a hideously macho rewrite of Doctor Who and the Silurians with the Doctor and UNIT drawn by a series of tremors to investigate some ‘fairyland’ caverns. There’s a striking Pertwee painting and, reflecting the tone, exciting action pics of him with his miner’s helmet, shooting away at giant grasshoppers with his shocking pink laser. The moral of is that the soldiers are right to kill everything and Dr Who is wrong to think they’re trigger-happy, as he goes almost mad in the presence of the “loathsome” insects. He asks the Brigadier not for DDT, but cyanide, scared by formic acid and hoping they’re not intelligent, terrified by them pouring their larva on him: “something cracked in Doctor Who’s mind”; “with a howl of inexpressible horror”; “sobbing and gibbering”; he begs that there should be not the “smallest chance of any living thing surviving.” He regarded all life as sacred – “But those things… ugh!” And that’s where the closing line Stephen referred to came in. Let’s say I wouldn’t rush to give anyone this as an introduction to the series.

The Third Doctor

After being so vivid on screen, slightly ambiguous in the novel and so poorly characterised in the 1971 Annual, I found myself thinking about the character of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. I love the Doctor in all his incarnations, but I have to admit that Pertwee’s the one I sometimes find most difficult to like. It wasn’t always that way; when I was a boy, though I’d never seen any of his stories, I thought he was brilliant, just on sight of his spectacular photos. Perhaps the defining example for me now is Terror of the Autons, the story that followed Inferno six months later. The Doctor suddenly acquires a more dashing and colourful wardrobe and poses thrillingly amid his co-stars in the fantastic publicity photos for the story that so captivated me as a boy; but when I finally got to see the TV story itself, lumbering direction replaces thrilling still photography and the Doctor becomes an unbearable git throughout.

While there’s a huge leap in Terror of the Autons, Inferno’s in many ways the turning point for this Doctor. It closes his first season and (it later turns out) is the final outing for a companion who can converse with him on a scientific level (yet almost never called ‘Doctor’ Shaw) rather than one he can shelter under his cloak and patronise. His attitude to science is one of the main keys to his character, as is his ‘look’. Unlike the first two, he’s a very ‘look at me’ Doctor – he establishes the Doctor as a flamboyant figure, dressing up, never shutting up and all showy action. It’s in Inferno that he starts running around on gantries and using ‘Venusian Aikido’, striking the ‘man of action’ pose he’ll increasingly adopt to disguise his inability to take the action he’s desperate for and leave the Earth. At this point, he’s already a little aloof and has his foibles, but he’s passionately idealistic in a way that’s just about to dry up and be reduced to sour lecturing and scoring cheap points. After this, he looks more striking but is a patronising git; for me, it’s because as his exile to Earth wears on, he loses confidence in his ability to escape, to change things and ultimately in his own identity, which used to be a traveller in time and space who’s at no-one’s beck and call. The reason he becomes so insufferable is that he’s become cynical and insecure, and needs to pretend he’s still as capable as ever.

The Third Doctor is all overcompensation. Of all the Doctors, he’s the one who most often states what he’s about (a scientist and traveller), but least practices it. Unable to travel, he’s emasculated, and constantly tries to show off his aptitude for travel instead. He’s always grabbing vehicles and showing how proficient he is with them; he tinkers with pieces of TARDIS technology not inside the TARDIS, where he has access to the most advanced equipment in sterile conditions and without distraction, but outside – even taking the central console out – and the only reason that makes any sense of this is in order than he can loudly draw attention to what it’s supposed to do. More than any other Doctor, he’s an appalling name-dropper, another trait that takes off in Inferno. ‘I gave cooking tips to Alfred the Great, you know: “Why not stick to trout, Alfie,” I said,’ the Doctor might boast, but for an ulterior motive. ‘I can’t travel through time right now,’ he’s saying, ‘but don’t you forget that I have done. I really, really have done. No, believe me, I have.’ The Time Lord jailers who stranded him on Earth appear to have cursed the Doctor, like Cassandra, to be surrounded by people who don’t believe in his dream of time travel, from Jo (who thinks it’s a joke), to the Brigadier (who thinks it’s all done with mirrors), to Sarah, who’d rather follow her career than take a trip in his unreliable machine even when it finally works.

The Doctor’s self-styled role as a scientist is just as fatally undermined by his own protestations. Like the First Doctor, he professes himself a scientist and explorer, but banned from exploring, his scientific genius is constantly bent in a peculiar way – to bashing other science and scientists. He claims to be intellectually curious, but this is more of a ‘say’ than a ‘do’. More than in any other period of Doctor Who save perhaps the Gothic horror ‘There are things Man was not meant to know’ early Fourth Doctor, his curiosity manifests itself in outright scepticism that usually develops into rabid technophobia. ‘Your technology is evil and nasty and destructive,’ is his message to everyone else. ‘I don’t approve of oil, or cars, or doomsday weapons, or computers.’ Inferno is the key moment in this; he fails to prevent the Project and panics – instead of another attempt at persuasion or switching to stealthy sabotage, here he becomes a brutish Luddite. Throughout his stories, he instinctively mixes with scientists, but feels the need to put them down, and although the Doctor’s rarely fond of computers in any incarnation, his especially loud fulminations against them in this body become one more attention-seeking device; as he scores yet another point over a box of lights with an open-reel tape that can’t answer back, what he’s really saying is, ‘Look at me, not this thing. Pay attention to me. I’m an alien, and I’m frightfully clever, and you should be deferring to me instead of this, because my scientific knowledge is superior to anyone else’s. Just because the Time Lords have closed off half my brain as part of my sentence doesn’t in any way mean that I’m not still utterly brilliant, and I’m in no way concerned about it.’

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, before he’s rewritten as a buffoon, has a fascinating relationship with his insecure, anti-science Scientific Advisor. The Doctor needs to be ‘on top’ because he’s not very self-confident, while the Brigadier, by contrast, alternately indulges him and indicates he has the measure of him. Several times in Pertwee’s first season in particular, the Brigadier leans back with the half-smile of a parent while the Doctor sounds off, and when the Doctor argues in Terror of the Autons that he needs a scientist to replace Liz or he’ll never stop sulking, Lethbridge-Stewart delivers one of his rare but devastatingly accurate put-downs, that all the Doctor actually wants is someone to hold his test-tubes and tell him how brilliant he is. He knows that while the Doctor is stuck on Earth, working with UNIT is his safety blanket, or the Time Lord might have to go out and make some life for himself. By railing against them, they become a proxy for the captors he can’t touch and an excuse for staying where he is to help these ‘needy primitives’.

After Inferno, the Doctor becomes still ruder and more of a showoff, so the scripts pit him against caricatures instead of characters (even the Brigadier) to make him seem less unsympathetic. In a way it’s a shame, not just because it makes the stories more shallow but because it distracts from the Doctor’s real insecurity. The pilot for the new setup is Inferno, complete with environmental awareness, the utterly obnoxious Stahlman and comedy love-hate scenes at the end, but the Third Doctor will have four more years of this. He’ll keep trying to escape, but the more he shouts about it the less clear it is that he would actually leave given the chance. Once he’s finally given a functional TARDIS again, he hangs around on Earth. It’s a mixture of Stockholm Syndrome, fear that he simply isn’t up to the independent life he used to lead, and a crushed spirit that has him suddenly sticking up all the time for the Time Lords who stranded him in the first place, like Winston Smith coming to love Big Brother. In Inferno, he’s still impassioned rather than institutionalised, and you get him at his best. While for me it’s an enormous relief when he finally regenerates into Tom Baker and we get the Doctor back, I can understand and feel for this outwardly arrogant, inwardly broken Doctor, even if I still find him hard to like.

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