Judge Eric Profancik manages to work in a Star Trek reference to this Doctor Who review. Parallel universe collision alert!
"But I don't exist in your world!"
They don't make them like this anymore. No, really, they don't. "Inferno" is a classic episode that takes seven episodes to tell. That's nearly three hours of television for one Doctor Who story—and as far as we've seen with the new Who, the biggest tale hasn't gone past 90 minutes.
They don't make them like this anymore partially because they can't and they don't have to. They can't make seven-episode stories anymore because today's audience has an attention span the size of a gnat, and they don't have to make them that long because the good Doctor finally has a real budget. A few decades back it was a cost cutting measure to stretch out a story. That way you didn't have to spend money on new sets.
Who cares if it's seven episodes or four as long as it's a good yarn? "Inferno" is a good yarn and did some things rarely see in the land of Who.
Facts of the Case
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is in his first year of exile on Earth, working with the good folks at UNIT. UNIT has some tangential relation to a project being overseen by Professor Stahlman in which he is working with a revolutionary new drill to break through the Earth's crust. Using that connection, the Doctor is allowed access to the project. He has two reasons to want to participate: first, it's a momentous event and the Doctor always enjoys witnessing history; second, and more importantly, the Doctor can tap into the nuclear reactor powering the drill. The Doctor needs the power to do some experiments of his own on his TARDIS.
But nothing is ever smooth when the Doctor is around, and the drilling leads to problems at the site. Yet the Doctor isn't fully aware of the depth of the problems and he continues his personal experiments, which quickly go awry. The Doctor finds himself slipping sideways in time to a parallel Earth, where everything is just a bit different. Brigadier Stewart is now Brigade Leader Stewart under a more despotic UNIT, and Professor Stahlman is hours closer to breaking through the crust. In this parallel universe, the Doctor has no allies and is distrusted and the drill will have catastrophic consequences.
Can the Doctor get back to his own time and use his knowledge from the parallel universe to prevent the same catastrophe?
As I've mentioned in my plethora of Who reviews, my knowledge of the first three Doctors is terribly limited. I've seen less than half a dozen Hartnell, no Troughton, and maybe two or three Pertwee. While I know the overall arcs of the three, I haven't seen their specific exploits. So I can't tell you how this stories ranks in the scheme of Pertwee. But on the whole this is an enjoyable (if somewhat padded) romp.
"Inferno" contains the hallmarks of any fine, classic story, but it goes beyond that. First and foremost is its leisurely pace. "Leisurely?" you protest. "How can it be leisurely when one of the drill workers goes amuck in the first episode?" True, it may not start in the traditional, relaxed way. Yet over the course of seven episodes, there's plenty of down time for the Doctor—not to mention plenty of stretched-out dialogue and moments. Beyond that, we have the all-knowing Doctor getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, and saving the day (somewhat). Better than that, we have the Doctor making, I believe, his first visit to a parallel universe. This is a distinct and delightful rarity in Who, and doesn't happen again until the Tenth Doctor meets up with the Cybermen in a parallel London. Mixed in with this are Bessie, action, guns, explosions, over-the-top acting, and heights!
In the classic series, "Inferno" is one of the more action-packed spectacles that comes to mind. You have UNIT causing trouble, Earth-crusted-goo men attacking, egotistical professors chewing scenery, and an eyepatch wearing Brigadier Allistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. (Think Spock with a goatee for the appropriate geek cool factor.)
The two things that I liked most about this story were the Brigade Leader and Professor Stahlman. After seeing nothing but the good Brigadier, the slightly evil (though eventually wussy) Brigade Leader was a fun twist on the character. As they say, it's always more fun to play bad than good. Trumping this is Stahlman, played by Olaf Pooley (who does lots of television work including Star Trek: Voyager). Pooley's interpretation of the professor is gloriously self-assured, bordering on insanely egotistical. His strength in himself and casual derision towards all others is a delight to watch.
This two-disc set from the wizards at The Restoration Team is a mixed bag. I always feel guilty when I have bad things to say about these discs because I know The Restoration Team has put in a ton of blood, sweat, tears, and love into making these stories as clean and good looking as possible. (Please read the link provided on the right…and let me know if you understand half of what they're talking about.) With that said, I was disappointed with the transfers, especially the video. The full frame color transfer is uncommonly soft and grainy, even a touch on the fuzzy side. Everything just seemed a step below their usual quality levels, with muted colors, weak details, and wanting contrast. In episodes five and six, there are some instances of horrible horizontal noise patterns. I felt like I was watching a VHS tape that had been through the VCR a couple times already. Things on the audio front aren't as bad, but the dialogue was sometimes muffled, and background sound effects sometimes overwhelmed the dialogue. In spite of this, the story is still easily watchable; it's just not a top release.
The main bonus features are wonderful and highly informative:
• Audio Commentary with Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier), John Levene (Sgt. Benton), producer Barry Letts, and script editor Terrence Dicks: This enjoyable commentary has many a story and interesting tales about Pertwee and his era. The only "miss" on this one is that Levene was recorded separately from the rest.
• Text Commentary: If you love production and technical details then you will be wholly satisfied with all the trivia that's fit to print.
The commentaries are included on disc one while the remaining items are all contained on disc two.
• "Can You Hear the Earth Scream?" (34 minutes): An extremely informative and entertaining look at the making of this story. It's almost better than the story itself, and I wished it ran longer.
• "The UNIT Family, Part One" (35 minutes): Another solid featurette detailing the origins and early adventures of UNIT. Again, I wished it had lasted longer; and, more importantly, where's Part Two?
• Visual Effects Promo Film (6 minutes): How the BBC made bad special effects in the 70s.
• Deleted Scene (2 minutes): This is a quick scene in the parallel universe after the catastrophe occurs where the Doctor, the Brigade Leader, and Liz listen to a radio broadcast.
• "Pertwee Years Intro" (2 minutes, 45 seconds): I'm not sure what this is a part of but we have an older Jon Pertwee doing a very quick intro about "Inferno." It felt incomplete and out of place.
Rounding things out are a photo gallery, the Doctor Who Annual and Radio Times Billing on PDF, and one Easter Egg (though the packaging says "eggs").
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One minor quibble with this story (outside of seven episodes) is the Doctor's contradictory way of handling the drilling project in the parallel worlds. In the real world, the Doctor is fairly relaxed about the project, even when things appear to be going off track. However, as soon as he arrives in the parallel project, his entire demeanor changes as he spouts dire warnings about breaking through the crust. He's preaching hard and heavy to stop things, but where did this come from? You didn't seem so concerned in your world, so why the change?
Oh yeah, the goo-infected scientists really weren't necessary either.
Many consider "Inferno" to be one of the finest Pertwee stories. I can see how that would be possible, yet I'd be disappointed if he peaked in his first season (out of five). Regardless, how can you go wrong with the end of the world and an eyepatch wearing Brigadier? What more do you need?
"Inferno" is an excellent and entertaining classic episode of Doctor Who. Though the transfers are below average, the bonus features coupled with the winning story make this one a definite addition to your growing library.
"Inferno" is hereby found not guilty of being too hot to handle.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Audio Commentary
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