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Reviewed by Adam McGechan


'Defence of the Republic Act, 1945.'
'Republic? What happened to the Royal Family?'
'Executed. All of them.'
'Oh ...'

Doctor Who's seventh season was very much a season of change. A new dashing Doctor, a new style of assistant. Colour came to a now Earth-based programme. 1970 was really a showcase for all the new changes and possibilities that had been introduced in an effort to liven a flagging production. And as the finale to this action-packed year, Inferno certainly lives up to a 'grand' appraisal.

Inferno fits into an unusual category in Doctor Who stories. It is one of the few of the Time Lord's adventures that, Hartnell historicals aside, doesn't actually feature an alien risk, or more precisely, the threat to humanity is in fact humanity itself and thus Inferno more than most Pertwee exile stories, fills the prerequisite of being 'Earth-based'. The Earth-based threat was used previously in Doctor Who and the Silurians earlier in the season. Such a style of story hadn't been seen since the dictatorial grasp of a future Earth by Salamander in The Enemy of the World.

From the first episode it becomes clear that Inferno is setting itself up as an almost operatic drama. Each protagonist is carefully and clearly introduced into the story, from the opening shot of a (rather musical) Doctor and the parallel with the fated technician Slocum, to the understated arrival of Professor Stahlman, who with his assistant Petra are skillfully slipped into camera shot. Though this may seem trivial and I may be over-emphasising it, this single shot, introducing to us the viewer the man in a sense responsible for the following seven episode drama is a testimony to the brilliant subtly that director Douglas Camfield brought with him to the programme.

Nicholas Courtney is oft quoted as saying that Inferno remains one of his favourite stories, and it is easy to see why. From the friendly, familiar Brigadier, he is transformed into the hostile bully of the Brigade Leader. The scenes set in the parallel world dominate the middle part of the story, with fascinating insights into the cold world of fascist Britain. Again, some superb direction conveys a very real feeling of loneliness and cold unfriendliness, especially in the location scenes in amongst the pipes and tanks of the Inferno project.

So the strength of it all lies in three areas that of course comprise all Doctor Who stories but in this instance are used just that bit differently. Firstly, Don Houghton's wonderfully complex story - and although the parallel universe sections were apparently a last minute addition to extend the script, without them the story would be more average although I think still a very tight and tense drama. Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts) give us some of the best film direction seen in Doctor Who's history - the location footage is a visual feast, full of a subtlety I have yet to see in any other story. And the finally, hats off to the cast who made 'double' appearances, and successfully conveyed two very real and very different worlds. There is a definite sense of relief as the Doctor finally manages to escape the world of the Brigade Leader and arrives in time to save us all.

The strongest Doctor Who story to round off the strongest of seasons.

This item appeared in TSV 49 (November 1996).

Index nodes: Inferno