Again, the episode plays a neat game of pitting the Doctor and the Master against one another without ever having them cross paths. At first this takes the form of the Doctor battling for the mind of his companion, de-hypnotising her, and freeing her from the Master’s control. Later, the same thing happens to the kidnapped scientist Philips, with a less happy outcome. Still, you’re left with a sense of the Master playing games with the Doctor (he describes the bomb he sent Jo to deliver as a ‘gallantry on the even of battle’), while the Doctor’s just trying to avoid a massacre.
It begins with an explosion of colour at the circus, a far cry from the muted beige shades and scientific environments of Season Seven, and what follows is like eating a whole bag of Skittles in one go. It’s a rush of images, a plot that progresses in great leaps rather than with the methodical and steady pace of last year. Almost before you can take in one thing, the next arrives. It introduces three new regulars, writes one out offscreen, and essentially crams in the story of pretty much the first three episodes of Spearhead from Space. This feels more different from Inferno than Spearhead from Space felt from Season Six.
‘Nothing like a nice happy ending is there?’ After the apocalyptic scenes last week (which surely merited more of a recap at the top of this episode), this is a race against time to avert a disaster in our world. The idea that the Doctor has seen this all before, and is fighting time itself is compelling: ‘The pattern can be changed.’ In practice, naturally no-one really believes his Cassandra-like warnings, especially after he takes a spanner to the computer, and it’s largely thanks to a devolved Stahlman choosing to emerge from the drill head that convinces everyone to stop the clock.
‘Do you want to end your lives fighting like animals?’ asks the Doctor, as the parallel Earth explodes around them all, a scene that, consciously or not, replays almost the same way as in Survival. The reputation of Inferno is significantly enhanced by this episode which briefly but shockingly presents the apocalypse on a BBC budget in a way that’s every bit as horrible as in Threads. A man sits, shell-shocked, as the planet cracks open. Soldiers run about aimlessly. Fire bursts from the ground, and everything is bathed in hellish orange light.
You can tell things are getting serious because Greg’s taken his suit jacket off. This is a very fast flip to the end of the world, which leaves me wondering when the Doctor worked it out – as he definitely hasn’t been warning about it all along. Was it literally only when he looked at the computer readings at the end of Episode 4? Has something been triggered in his mind by the ‘sound of the planet’? We just don’t know.
The first half of the episode is set in the parallel universe, and Don Houghton’s script neatly drops enough hints about this Britain to give us some idea of what happened in 1943. The talk of ‘servants of the state’, ‘party members’ and ‘crackpot free speech groups’ sketch a familiar picture, and Greg’s preordained fate is to be liquidated once the project is complete and his outspokenness outweighs his usefulness.
Parallel worlds must have been a reasonably familiar concept to audiences in 1970 (Star Trek had done its famous Mirror, Mirror episode in 1967, although in that case the inhabitants of the mirror universe all had facial hair, whereas here it’s “our” versions that are hirsute). Accordingly, it doesn’t take ages for the Doctor to work out that he’s travelled sideways in time, to what looks like an Orwellian alternative: posters proclaiming ‘Unity is Strength’ with Big Brother looking stern. If that wasn’t clue enough in rapid succession we get Benton shooting at the Doctor, a dark-haired Liz holding him at gunpoint, and a clean-shaven Brigadier modelling an eyepatch.
A drilling facility with an overwrought director whose staff are falling victim to something bubbling up from the depths: so far this is Fury from the Deep with lava instead of seaweed, tufts of hair instead of fronds of weed poking from the cuffs of the infected. On the plus side, there’s much more sense of forward momentum, and the character work is stronger, but there’s nothing – yet – that suggests this has seven weeks’ worth of story.
This is the first Doctor Who script by Don Houghton, who also wrote Hammer Horror movies (including the excellent Satanic Rites of Dracula), Sapphire and Steel and Ace of Wands. After 14 weeks largely written by Malcolm Hulke, this has quite a different tone, even if the setting – a scientific facility beset by unexplained issues – is the same. Professor Stahlman is very much in the vein of Dr Lawrence – a choleric and overbearing director, with no time for the civil servants or “experts” that continually seek to interfere with his work. But whereas Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death kept its monsters mysterious, this episode pretty much tells us everything we need to know up front: Stahlman is drilling into the Earth’s crust; the drilling is releasing a weird green ooze; the green ooze turns anyone it touches into a green werewolf.
The conspiracy is cracked open, and it turns out to be based on the delusions of a man broken by first contact. General Carrington’s frighteningly unexpected encounter with the aliens he met on his Mars expedition, and the accidental death of his co-pilot, has convinced him that he must save the Earth from alien conquest. His ‘plan to save the world’ involves publicly unmasking the aliens on a worldwide TV broadcast to spook the UN into launching an interplanetary war.