Who Review – Inferno

Posted by Richo On October 3, 2012 ADD COMMENTS

Welcome to the twenty-eighth instalment of Who Review, my ongoing quest to review all available episodes of TV’s longest running SF series, Doctor Who. This week, we bring season seven to a close with Inferno.


Inferno (7 Episodes)


9 May – 20 June 1970


Jon Pertwee


Liz Shaw


The Doctor and Liz have relocated to The Inferno, a nuclear facility where attempts are being made to drill into the Earth’s crust to tap into pockets of Stahlman’s Gas, which could provide England with an almost unlimited supply of cheap energy. Professor Stahlman, the project’s chief scientist, is adamant that the project must stick to schedule despite the safety concerns of Project Director Sir Keith Gold, who has called in drilling expert Greg Sutton as a health and safety advisor. Stahlman is arrogant and obnoxious, causing tension amongst the project members.

The Doctor has little interest in the project, however. He is merely there to harness some of the power from the nuclear reactor in the hopes of repowering the TARDIS console, which he has removed from the TARDIS. Despite this, he draws attention to some concerns of his own. Stahlman is dismissive of his advice, even when he is proven right. Stahlman even goes so far as to deny the Doctor access to the nuclear energy he requires, but the Doctor sneakily reconnects the power without the Professor’s knowledge.

The safety concerns are well founded. Slocum, a worker repairing one of the drill pipes, encounters a toxic green liquid seeping from the pipe. Exposed to the liquid, he is slowly transformed into a subhuman primordial creature (called a “Primord” in the credits but never named in the episodes themselves). On a rampage, he kills several technicians and a soldier.

Some of the liquid is siphoned from the pipe into a jar, and Stahlman accidently becomes infected when he gets some of the sample on his hand. He tries to hide his affliction from his co-workers but his actions grow more erratic as the infection spreads.

Meanwhile, the Doctor manages to reactivate the TARDIS console. However, the experiment goes awry and he is transported into an alternate dimension. In this new world, the Republic of Great Britain is a fascist dictatorship. The Inferno Project is ongoing in this reality as well, although their project has advanced further than in the Doctor’s reality.

The Doctor encounters alternate versions of Stahlman, Sutton, the Brigadier and Liz, with Liz being the most prominently different; here, she and the Brigadier are members of the Republican Security Forces (RSF), a fascist, militaristic version of UNIT. Captured and imprisoned as a possible saboteur, the Doctor manages to escape. Realising the catastrophic damage Inferno is doing to this Earth, he attempts to sabotage the project but is captured again. He tries to convince Stahlmann to stop but the project leader is adamant that they continue.

Suddenly a series of tremors rock the station, forcing the RSF troops to flee. The tremors grow more violent and temperatures rise quickly as more green liquid oozes from underground, transforming project members into Primords. To his horror, the Doctor realises that this Earth is doomed; there is no way to undo the damage the Inferno project has inflicted upon the planet.

Resigned to this fate, he manages to convince the Brigadier, Sutton and Liz to aid in his return to his own reality, where he may still be able to stop Inferno from destroying the planet. Battling through a horde of Primords, they fight their way to the TARDIS console, where the Brigadier threatens to shoot the Doctor if he doesn’t take them with him. Liz shoots the Brigadier, enabling the Doctor to return to his own reality mere moments before the alternate Earth is destroyed.

Back in his own reality, the Doctor awakens from a coma a mere 3 hours before Inferno penetrates the Earth’s core. He makes his way to the control room and confronts a mutated primordial Stahlman. The Doctor manages to subdue Stahlman and shut down the project, saving Earth from destruction.

With the threat passed, the Doctor recommends to Sir Keith that arrangements be made for the shaft filled in. Sir Keith informs the Doctor that the project is being abandoned and everyone is leaving.

The Doctor announces that he is also leaving. Despite the Brigadier and Liz protests, the Doctor activates the TARDIS console and vanishes. A few minutes later, he appears at the door of the hut covered in mud. Despite his belief that the TARDIS console was repaired, he was only able to travel as far as the local rubbish dump. Humbled, he is forced to ask for the Brigadier’s aid in retrieving the console.


If the basic premise of the Inferno project sounds familiar, it’s because it is almost identical to the project in Doctor Who and the Silurians. Nuclear power plant, experiment in alternate energy sources, irate chief scientist pushing the project and refusing to listen to the Doctor’s warnings, unleashing a prehistoric menace; the setup for both of these season 7 stories is almost identical. Unfortunately, the execution here is inferior to Silurians and the story suffers by comparison.

On a positive note, Inferno combines two of my favourite SF elements: alternate realities and fascist, dystopian worlds. The story picks up the moment the Doctor appears on the alternate earth at the beginning of episode 3 and remains strong until his departure at the end of episode 6. These 4 episodes elevate what was fast becoming a meandering and derivate plot into a fascinating and entertaining storyline.

One of the strongest and most compelling elements of Inferno is the morbid fatalism of the Doctor’s time in the alternate reality. Almost invariably, the Doctor is able to save the various worlds he visits, but here he is unable to save the Earth and can do nothing as it is consumed in fire. The moment he realises he is helpless is a powerful one that adds an uncharacteristic bleakness to the story.

Screenwriter Don Houghton based the Inferno Project on Project Mohole, an actual US government attempt to drill through the Earth’s crust. The project was abandoned, although the reasons for shutting the project down were classified as top secret. Houghton incorporates this secrecy into the story, a secrecy heightened by the fascist nature of the parallel earth.

Terrence Dicks added the idea of the parallel Earth to Houghton’s initial concept, as it was believed that there wouldn’t be enough material in the story to fill 7 episodes. It was an inspired decision by Dicks, as the alternate reality story is the highlight of Inferno.

Inferno marks the final appearance of the original TARDIS console, in use since An Unearthly Child. When the TARDIS reappears in later seasons, it is sporting a completely new and different design.

Inferno is a story of great contrasts. The alternate reality story of episodes 3 – 6 is fantastic, drawing on elements of classic SF, most notably Orwell’s 1984. Unfortunately, the weakness of the Primords and the similarities and comparisons to Doctor Who and the Silurians detract from a story that could have been an absolute classic. I’d love to have seen the Doctor visit this fascist reality in a different story.


As his first season in the title role draws to a close, Jon Pertwee has well and truly established himself as the preeminent Doctor. He has developed a compelling character, one that retains some of the elements of his predecessors while remaining fresh and new.

Pertwee was afraid of heights, making scenes in episode 2 of Inferno difficult for him to film. Apparently it took him 15 minutes to sum up the courage to shoot those scenes. It’s a credit to his professionalism that his acrophobia is not noticeable in the episode or in any episodes in the season.

In this story, we learn that the Doctor was present during the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa.


After a season of mediocrity, Liz Shaw finally becomes a compelling character! Unfortunately, it’s her alternate reality counterpart. Actress Caroline John has stated that she enjoyed playing “evil” Liz and it shows; her performance is excellent. She’s also stated that she found playing regular Liz “boring” by comparison. I can’t say that I blame her.

This would be Liz’s final appearance in Doctor Who. At the beginning of the next season it is revealed that she has returned to Cambridge.

Nicholas Courtney has also stated that the “evil” Brigadier was his favourite performance. He absolutely revels in the role, delivering the standout performance of Inferno.


The Primords are the weakest element of Inferno. There is no back story offered for the creatures or the green ooze that creates them. They’re poorly developed and ill-defined, with seemingly no motivation beyond random destruction. Also, they look like green werewolves. This is one of those instances where intent and execution are both laughably bad.

It doesn’t help that the backdrop of the story draws instant parallels to the Silurians, an infinitely superior villain. Perhaps if these stories hadn’t appeared in the same season the comparisons might not be so obvious, but it’s hard not to make the connection when you watch them almost back to back.


If I were ranking episodes 3 – 6 alone, Inferno would have received at least 4 Lukes, as the alternate reality story is excellent. Unfortunately, the early chapters are meandering, taking far too long to get to the more compelling story, and the Primords are some of the weaker Who villains so, 3 Lukes.


It’s the beginning of a new season and the introduction of one of the Doctor’s greatest villains as The Master makes his debut in Terror of the Autons.

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