With the return of Doctor Who to our television screens imminent, I thought I'd take some time and dive into the archives for some old school love.
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But first - let me catch up the new people who may have just stumbled onto this review by accident. From 1963 to 1989 (and a couple of false starts thereafter) the BBC ran an immensely popular family program called Doctor Who. The main character is called The Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He travels the universe in the TARDIS, a wondrous spaceship that can go anywhere in time and space - provided that the Doctor can steer it correctly. During his adventures, he and his companion (usually a young human female with weak ankles and good lungs) combat evil and injustice wherever they find it. Key to the longevity of the series - Doctor Who can do what the James Bond movies have done several times. When fatally injured, Time Lords have the ability to regenerate, totally changing their faces and personalities, allowing the ability to swap out the lead roll when the actor wants to leave the series. So there have been several Doctors with different faces (ten, so far), but all of them the same character.
Oh, and the name of the show is Doctor Who. The main character is simply called The Doctor.
Our story is set at an experimental drilling project attempting to penetrate the earths crust and tap the vast source of energies within. UNIT has been called to provide security to the facility, and the Doctor (the one in the frills and smoking jacket) is along to work a little side project of his own - mainly bypassing the dematerization controls the Time Lords locked out when they exciled him to Earth.
Professor Stahlman, chief scientist the project, dismisses the concerns of the project's Executive Director Sir Keith Gold and exceeds all safety margins in order to expedite the work. It's not long before a green slime is discovered leaking from the drill head - a slime that transforms all who touch it into vicious primeval creatures with a craving for heat!
Meanwhile, an accidental power surge from the reactor has an unexpected effect on the partially-repaired TARDIS control console, transporting the Doctor into a parallel universe where England is ruled by a military dictatorship. The drilling is at a more advanced stage in the mirror universe, and the Doctor gets to witness first hand Stahlman penetrating the core - and it's disastrous results. Now, surrounded by enemies he used to call friends, the Doctor has to find a way home amid the exploding volcano and rolling lava fields before it is too late to save Earth.
Seven part episodes are often notorious for their padding and meandering plots - so that alone could have scuttled Inferno. Also, given that producers/writers/script editors Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts still finding their way with the earth-centric format that the show had taken during the season, Inferno could have very easily been a disaster of biblical proportions. And yet somehow, despite all this, Inferno was not only a good story, it was probably the best story of the season.
Writer Don Houghton managed to produce a script that was taut and gritty, and coming up with a hybrid of Quatermass, Hammer horror and the Doctor Who we all know and love. Coupled with Douglas Camfield nice and tight directing means that Inferno is easily in the top ten classic episodes of the show's run.
The acting - well, with series regulars getting to purposefully go over the top with their bad selves counterparts - you can tell they're having fun with the reversal. Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John both really excel as their alternate versions, and even alternate Liz's wig being shamelessly silly doesn't undermine the proceedings. Even John Levene gets to chew up the scenery for a bit with a wonderfully thuggish Benton. And of course Jon Pertwee is always wonderful, well and truly settled into the roll as the Doctor by this point, giving out six packs of charm and authority in equal measure to everyone around him.
The guest cast lives up to the high standards set by the regulars - Olaf Pooley as Stahlman gives a delightfully maniac performance without going over the top into megalomania. He's a hard, driven man- and certainly arrogant - but it's always more Tampering With Things Man Was Not Meant To Know than a "Muah-hah-hah-hah! Nozing in ze vorld can shtop me now!" madman. Seeing him play off of Pertwee in a battle of wills is some really good stuff.
The setting - an old, run down oil refinery - really lends itself to some stark location shooting. Add in the monsters and the frantic pacing and the end of the world - and you've got some real "behind the sofa" moments here. It's not violent, but it is very dark and heavy.
If there's anything wrong at all with the story, it's that the Primorlds don't look as well as they should have, especially in the close-ups. They come across as more comical and cuddly than ferocious and mean. Given that their addition to the script was a last moment one, the beasties are more superfluous than anything and the story would have been stronger without them.
That said - Inferno is still a great piece of work, and is probably the best story of the third Doctor's run.
THE DVD -
One of the reasons that we don't get more Third Doctor episodes is because of the poor shape a lot of the tapes are in. It's a long and boring story, so here's the short form: The BBC wiped the master tapes from the archives starting about 1972 or so, including a great many Pertwee episodes. Unlike Doctors One and Two however, there were a lot of tapes that were recoverable from other sources - America, mainly. The problem is that converting the master from PAL (the UK broadcast standard) to NTSC (the American standard) and back to PAL makes the resulting copies look like crap.
The Restoration Team managed to figure out an algorithm that takes the NTSC signal and reverses the process and salvage the missing lines of resolution in a long and technical procedure that I don't completely understand. What I do know that the episodes unconverted like this look better than they have in a long time.
One of the other problems with Inferno was the how badly the episodes are affected by tape dropouts. On a tape of 1970 vintage, you might expect there to be around one dropout every ten seconds or so. However because of the multiple generations of tape Inferno had one or more dropouts every three frames, and the PAL->NTSC->PAL conversion makes such dropouts way more visible. Apparently repairing these wasn't any more difficult than the normal restoration - but there were a LOT of them.
THE EXTRAS -
For the commentary this time around, we get a lively talk from script editor Terrance Dicks, producer Barry Letts, Nicholas Courtney and John Levene.
For documentaries we get a half hour feature on the making of, the first part of a ongoing series looking at the UNIT family, a visual effects reel, an excerpt from an early attempt to sell the experience and facilities of the BBC Visual Effects Department to clients, featuring some model work and effects from The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno, a bit from Marty Amok, some model shots from The Caves of Steel and short segment of the Doomwatch episode called Survival Code.
There's a deleted scene featuring Jon Pertwee doing a funny voice over the radio that was cut because it sounded way too much like Jon doing a funny voice, the intro from the
The Pertwee Years originally presented as part of the BBC Video VHS release, and finally the 1971 Doctor Who Annual and clippings from the Radio Times included as a PDF. Oh, and of course the photo gallery and subtitle production notes.
THE BOTTOM LINE -
Despite being long and on uneven ground for the production team, Inferno comes together nicely. It's got some brisk action, wonderful acting and some good directing. The DVD looks great and has a fair number of extras. Looks like a winner to me!
OTHER DOCTOR WHO EPISODES ON DVD:
DOCTOR ONE -
The Beginning * Doctor Who and the Daleks * The Aztecs * The Dalek Invasion of Earth * Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. * The Web Planet * The Lost in Time Collection
DOCTOR TWO -
Tomb of the Cybermen * The Seeds of Death * The Mind Robber * The Invasion
DOCTOR THREE -
Spearhead From Space * Doctor Who and the Silurians * Inferno * The Sea Devils * The Three Doctors * Carnival of Monsters
DOCTOR FOUR -
Robot * The Ark in Space * Genesis of the Daleks * The Pyramids of Mars * The Robots of Death * The Talons of Weng-Chiang * Destiny of the Daleks * The Leisure Hive * The Keeper of Traken * Logopolis
DOCTOR FIVE -
The Visitation * Earthshock * Time-Flight * The Five Doctors * Warriors of the Deep * Resurrection of the Daleks * The Caves of Androzani
DOCTOR SIX -
Vengeance on Varos * Timelash * Mark of the Rani * The Two Doctors * Revelation of the Daleks
DOCTOR SEVEN -
Rememberance of the Daleks * Ghost Light * The Curse of Fenric * Survival * The Television Movie
THE NEW SERIES -
Doctor Who - Series One * Doctor Who - Series Two * Torchwood - Series One * Doctor Who - Series Three * The Infinite Quest