Aired 9 May – 20 June 1970
The first run of stories with Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor has already pushed the boundaries of the programme as roles have been redefined and more adult themes explored. ‘Inferno’ continues to explore new territory, an accident with the TARDIS taking the Doctor to a parallel universe in a fascist Great Britain. This concept breaks two of the strongest fibres of the franchise in allowing the Doctor’s colleagues to be evil and seeing the Doctor lose in spectacular fashion as everyone except him succumbs to a fiery death, allowing for a refreshingly different spin on core concepts.
As usual in this time period, ‘Inferno’ opens with the Doctor and UNIT observing the eponymous project that seeks to drill to the centre of the Earth to find a new source of energy named Stahlman’s Gas. While the Doctor is certainly curious to see how events progress, he also plans to use some of this energy himself in an attempt to fix his TARDIS, in the process butting heads with the uncompromising leader, Stahlman, who is obsessed with increasing the speed of the project’s progress.
Realizing that Stahlman’s unflinching push to completion my not be in everyone’s best interest, the executive director, Sir Keith Gold, calls in the drilling expert, Sutton, to ensure events develop naturally and safely. This unsurprisingly results in a central power conflict as Stahlman’s drive to be proven correct after so long is suddenly confronted by the inconvenient truths that others’ facts provide. Even as a sudden spate of vicious murders occurs and the drill site starts to uncover a strange green ooze that turns those who come into contact with it into rabid zombie-like creatures, Stahlman remains unyielding in his desire to finish, passing everything around him off as petty concerns. Suggesting the true power and danger of the situation, the Doctor later tells the Brigadier that he once heard those creatures’ scream once before, at Krakatoa in 1883.
After Stahlman tries to sabotage a machine warning of imminent danger, accidentally infecting himself with the ooze as he furtively moves about, the Doctor rashly decides that he has had enough and attempts to flee the scene completely in the TARDIS. However, with his knowledge of TARDIS flight still blocked as part of his exile, things go wrong, and the Doctor ends up on a parallel Britain where fascists executed the royal family and established a stern republic where ‘unity is strength.’ This is a concept that could only be employed after trapping the Doctor in one location and one time to breed a sense of familiarity with his usual surroundings, and it is employed to great effect to allow the Doctor to see the worst in everything around him and to gain a greater sense of perspective as everything goes horribly wrong.
With this alternate universe established as an alternate universe, it’s not up to the Doctor to set it right, allowing for a fascinating exploration of alternative pathways that main characters could have taken under different circumstances. While it’s intriguing to see that Liz is essentially the same person who has a passion for science under her gruff exterior, it’s altogether more interesting that the Brigadier- here known as the Brigade Leader- joyously uses his power and threats to get his way, the regime corrupting him completely. Sutton remains a proponent of safety, though he knows that standing up to Stahlmann (spelled differently in this world) may well end up costing him his life, and Stahlmann continues his push for completion without listening to reason. This is one of the dramatic flaws of the story since Stahlmann/Stahlman is already fanatically dedicated to his drilling, and his varying degrees of infection from the green ooze do nothing except strengthen his resolve, this becoming a somewhat tiresome source of conflict over seven episodes.
Still, looking past the obvious fascist changes to the more subtle changes present in this alternate universe is what gives the Doctor hope that history can, indeed, be changed and that he still has a chance to save his own universe’s Earth if he can return. Sir Keith’s continued presence in the ‘true timeline’ and the questions being asked there to oppose the willingness to accept orders in the fascist timeline are certainly key components to giving a sliver of hope. It’s also quite satisfying that the Doctor’s dazed ramblings upon his return are what finally spur Stahlman’s assistant, Petra, to bypass his authority and stop the drilling completely. Even though that heroic decision doesn’t create the climax of the story, it’s fitting that it’s a strong woman who takes action after Stahlman comparing everyone to weak women as they complained.
It’s rare for Doctor Who to embrace the horror genre so openly, but the realization of the events completely spiraling out of control to the brink of apocalypse as lava and rabid creatures threaten everything is commendable given the budget. And while perhaps the alternate universe ends up being more about spectacle than substance in the end, distracting from the fact that no explanation of the green ooze is given, the end result of the story as a whole is certainly one deserving of the praise it has received as it showcases different aspects of familiar characters while also proving to the Doctor that free will does, indeed, exist.