Saturday, July 10, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Inferno"

And now we go to the Third Doctor's era.

Surprising everyone, Jon Pertwee, who had been known as more of a comedy/musical actor, chose to play the role of the Doctor as a kind of cross between Errol Flynn and James Bond. Simultaneously, there was a push by the production team to make the stories more adult in tone to appeal to a wider audience. As such the stories featured quite a bit more action and adventure as we well as a darker tone... and you don't get much darker than "Inferno".

The decision was made to end Pertwee's first season with a bang... a seven part story. This made it the fourth longest story in the history of the program -- behind "The Daleks Master Plan" at 12 installments, "The War Games" with 10, and "The Invasion" with 8. The story was also given a unique title card -- something rarely done in the show.

The episode would also mark the last for actress Caroline John playing companion Elizabeth "Liz" Shaw. Script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts had done their work too well; they had crafted an intelligent, independent, modern woman for a companion and then didn't know what to do with her. Up to that point the role of the companion was to ask the questions the audience was asking -- giving the Doctor a chance to explain things. Liz Shaw, created as a Cambridge University scientist with several Ph.D's to her name, was too much a scientist in her own right to ask the basic questions and Dicks and Letts felt that they were doing the character a disservice and so decided to write her out and write in a new companion. It turned out for the best as John was secretly four months pregnant and had not yet told any of the cast or crew. Her impending bundle of joy would have made it difficult for her to continue on in the role.

The Plot: The Doctor, stranded on Earth by the Time Lords, manages, through his connection with UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Task Force) to wrangle permission to tap an atomic reactor built to power a project to drill deep into the Earth's crust in search of a new energy source. The Doctor hopes to use the nuclear energy to try to get the TARDIS console working again. Along the way he tries to advise caution in the drilling project but runs afoul of Dr. Stahlman -- the arrogant head of the project.

Unknown to all of them, the project has started to bring a strange green goo to the surface. Anyone coming into contact with the liquid slowly begins to transform into a violent creature radiating intese heat and intent of getting more heat... by any means possible... and Stahlman in infected!

The Doctor is determined to continue his experiments but when Stahlman cuts the power at a crucial juncture the Doctor and the TARDIS console vanish right before the eyes of his assistant, Dr. Liz Shaw, and Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT. The accident sends the Doctor to a parallel world where the government is a cruel, repressive, dictatorship and he finds dark copies of all of his friends and acquaintances. He also finds that this world is running slightly ahead of his own. When Stahlman's project finally succeeds the result is catastrophic. A chain reaction is set off, dooming this Earth and it's inhabitants. The Doctor may still escape, though, and warn his Earth... that is if he can survive.

My Take: There are many who consider this story a masterpiece.... and it really is darn close to it! The director on this one was Douglas Camfield who directed many Doctor Who stories from the 1960's through the 1970's. He was known for his excellent work with action sequences and a great knowledge of military subjects -- giving most military sequences a dash of realism. Not only is the camera work here noticably good but the cuts made in editing are first rate and give the story a visual style all it's own.

The Pertwee era was marked by rather topical stories -- dealing obliquely with issues such as war and peace, authority and protest, and environmentalism. While there is a sly political message here with themes of protest and rebellion much more of the focus is on the environmental overtones -- of those who would damage the Earth in search of more and cheaper energy instead of conserving what they have or searching for more renewable sources.

The sub-plot of the alternate universe was added in oder to pad out the episodes as the story was falling short but the result works surprisingly seamlessly. It gives the cast a chance to examd their range and in particular it gives the regular cast a chance to play against type -- and they do so with relish. In particular it is fun to see the usually upright, strong, Brigadier become the brutal and then cowardly brigade leader and it is obvious that actor Nicholas Courtney is having a ball as well. The alternate universe also adds to the story's deeply pervasive sense of doom and nail-biting tension. There is a streak of darkness as the audience realizes that this world is doomed. It really gave the writers a chance to show how high the stakes were by destroying the Earth without destroying the Earth. Sure, this is a darker Earth but it is still close enough to our own to be uncomfortably familiar and it is populated with some good people. There is a bit of a cheesy sense of "a Christmas Carol" here, though, as the Doctor realizes that fate can be changed.

The rest of the characters also really fill their space in the story... for the most part. Stahlman's assistant, Petra, is a bit of a cypher in both worlds and the stalwart Sutton is likewise a a paint-by-numbers square jawed hero. Stahlman however, suffers from the classic Greek Hubris -- that overweening pride and desire to set oneself up above the gods -- and viewers know he is heading for his fall. Although his arrogance is annoying there is still a sense of tragedy at his fate -- an idea that no person deserves THAT.

Kudos also have to go out to regular composer Dudley Simpson. Simpson was the composer for the series from 1964 until 1980. While he didn't always hit the ball out of the park with every episode his work his is notable for he plays against type. In action sequences he actually goes with minimalistic music instead of the usual bombast modern viewers are used to and he allows some sequences to go completely unscored to great effect.

As good as the story is it is not perfect. There are several scenes and sequences which show the padding, the faces Pertwee makes to indicate the Doctor's pain and fear while crossing between dimensions are laughable instead of dramatic and the green screen work is really very obvious to modern eyes.

"Inferno" stands up to the test of time and remains gripping, dramatic, and a dark ride but, as the Doctor himself says: "Nothing like a nice, happy ending, is there?"

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