Inferno

“The world’s going up in flame and they’re still playing at toy soldiers!” – Greg Sutton

I’d always liked this story for its plot but had not realized until watching it again how well written, edited, and directed it is. The dialogue and interaction of characters is very breezy and natural, much more realistic than at other times in the program. It’s structured well in its move to the parallel universe with just enough well-timed peeks back into the real world to keep the story moving. It even thematically wrestles with questions of fate and freewill and romantic destiny (i.e. Greg and Petra’s different routes to ending up together) without these being center points of the narrative. I find a lot of the explanations flow naturally rather than feeling like forced dialogue and the pacing is well done over all.

There are lots of nice little extra touches too: the Doctor jokes about the Brigadier not having a mustache in his early army photo—a very natural teasing with no seeming significance which is suddenly revealed to be a clever foreshadowing many episodes later when we see his double in the parallel universe without one; the savage blow of the first Primord is flipped into the hammer blow of Benton setting up the UNIT office; the behind the shoulder shot and reveal of “Section Leader” Liz; and how many elements of a dictatorship (like the 1984-type “Unity is Strength” poster with its strikingly odd picture of the supposed Republic’s despot) are put in but never obliquely referred to.

Of course, this story is most famous for its use of a parallel timeline and seeing some of our favorite characters as different version of themselves. Caroline John and Nick Courtney do a great job giving a totally different aspect to their roles, especially Courtney as his “Brigade Leader” sits laid back in his chair with arrogance and disdain (such the opposite of the rigid but personable Brigadier) only to later prove to be no stronger than a petulant and broken little boy. (But he’s definitely much better with smooth comebacks: “But I don’t exist in your world!” “Then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you.”) I love that Liz is not only the self-assured and smartest in the room in the good world, but even in the evil one too her inner strength shows in her character’s change in loyalty to the Doctor. Also, even though Benton has appeared in several other episodes, this is the first one where he comes across as a personality and more prominent figure in UNIT.

The Doctor’s now trademark acerbic disposition and flippancy is actually appreciated here since he’s the only one with the gall to stand up to the even more disagreeable Stahlman and they have some great teeth-bared encounters. (“Our liver playing us up again this morning, is it Professor?”) Stahlman’s undeserved dressing down of Sir Keith sets him up from the start as quite a jackass. It’s thus a rather pointed anti-authoritarian statement that this quality makes him a much more powerful figure in the parallel timeline. His nasty disposition is also presumably what allows him to maintain so much of himself and stave off the change caused by the green ooze longer than any others.

There’s a lot more to like in this story than I remembered. It’s definitely reaffirmed itself as a favorite of the Pertwee era for me.

Best (or worst) unsettling moments:

What a frisson to hear the “Brigade Leader” refer to the execution of the Royal Family. This and the forlorn faces of the people caught in the throes of the volcanic destruction of earth (glimpses I don’t even remember seeing in other viewings) are both small but rather unsettling moments in the story.

Firsts:

  • Parallel dimension
  • Alternate versions of characters
  • Destruction of earth
  • Venusian Karate!

Regrets:

It’s absolutely shameful that this is the last we see of Liz. That they decided to take away such a strong and remarkable female character because she was “too smart” and “too equal” to the Doctor is sad. I saw their camaraderie as a big plus, not a deterrent to his role as the center of the show. And even if she was going for a good reason, it’s sad that Liz doesn’t get a nice important send-off that fits her character rather than just a mention of her off-screen departure at the start of the next season.

As for the story itself, the Primords can be a bit over the top at times and their electronic snarling is not near as scary as the story calls for. There’s a bit of slip in the later episodes where the Doctor is upset about the drilling project as if he had known all along it was a bad idea and been against it from the start; this is not the case in the first episodes at all. Also, many will probably be put off by Sutton’s patronizing flirtation or, perhaps more accurately, will find it unbelievable that a smart and independent girl like Petra would give in to it.

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