The prison riot sub-plot is really very weird. Mailer and his goons take over the prison and hold Jo hostage, but she manages to grab Mailer’s gun and help the warders take back control for all of about five minutes (her finest moment so far). Then, the Master, in the guise of Emil Keller, turns up and re-arms Mailer, organising a second prison takeover. So what was the point of the first one? I suspect it’s our old friend “padding”. There’s a lot of good stuff in the episode, and the plot just about hangs together, but it does lack the momentum of Inferno, an altogether more ramshackle piece of work.
On top of the killer rehabilitation machine, the World Peace Conference, the missile transport we now have a prison break and the Master thrown into the mix on the basis that something has to stick. The risk is that there are a lot of stories rather than one good one, but Houghton has more or less proved he can keep the plates spinning, and at least this is giving the sense that everything – somehow – is connected, rather than being introduced, Terry Nation style, to extend the script for another week.
This is almost as scattergun as Terror of the Autons: we’re presented with UNIT observing a revolutionary new method of rehabilitating criminals; investigating a World Peace Conference threatened by allegations of international espionage, and transporting a missile. Last time Don Houghton wasn’t sure if his story could stretch to seven episodes he chucked in a parallel universe plot which added an extra element of tension to Inferno. This time, it just feels like a string of unfortunate coincidences.
In context, this continues to be one of the biggest pivots in tone and style in the show’s history. The opening action sequence (introduced with an iconic ‘Hai!’) features two police officers revealed to be murderous drones (Barry Letts got into trouble for that), one of which is driven off a cliff by Captain Yates in a speeding Morris Marina (why UNIT are driving round in a crap car is anyone’s guess – they’re all in uniform so can’t be undercover). After an impressive fall, the Auton then just gets straight back up and comes after them again. It’s relentless and quite scary.
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.
‘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.