“Doctor, I need answers.”
The Brigadier looks grim, troubled as he presses the Doctor over just what is going on at the Stahlmann Gas Project. On an elevated gantry overlooking the impossibly bleak complex, the two men ponder events they recognise as the start of something awful: a terrible infection let loose on the site of an infernal scientific experiment . Moments later we get confirmation that an appalling epidemic is spreading through the site, regressing its victims into screeching, drooling savages.
Unsettling musique concrete and the muddy palette of newly in-colour Doctor Who combine to make this set piece one of the most striking in the Doctor Who canon. Compared to the previous season, which had seen Patrick Troughton’s tenure labouring to a close with the likes of the interminable The Space Pirates, Inferno feels as radically different from the previous year as any comparable seasons in Doctor Who.
Even before the Doctor is shipped sideways in time and space to a fascistic parallel universe, Inferno feels grim. There is little levity and, unusually for Pertwee, there is little cheer in the Timelord himself, beyond his jibes at the pompous Stahlmann. The Brigadier remains the straight-laced professional soldier of his previous outings and few of the guest cast are easy to warm to. The location filming, minimal electronic score and direction of Douglas Camfield – utilising low shots, close-ups and handheld cameras (even the odd Dutch angle) to superb effect on location – combine to make Eastchester a grim, dull, cold place.
When the Doctor finds himself in an even more nightmarish version of the site, now patrolled by fascist avatars of his friends and plagued by more Primords, it reduces the story and the Doctor to a desperate fight for survival. Our hero gives up on saving a world that scarcely seems worth the effort and can only thank the remaining few who gives their lives to save his – and are promptly roasted alive.
All the regulars perform their mirror-universe counterparts with aplomb, but it’s Nick Courtney who really makes the difference. Despite his upright facade, The Brig has arguably become the key audience indication figure over Season 7. To see him as a sadistic, bullying coward – and to hear that the government he serves had the Royal Family “executed’ – undercuts our trust and faith in the character horribly.
Yet even he becomes a pitiable figure when faced with a grim death. “That bore’s going to blast any minute and we’ll all be roasted alive,” he whimpers. The Brigade-Leader’s mettle deserts him as he mouths the last word. It’s unsurprising – their fate is truly appalling. No death cheats here. No technicalities or semantics. Simply Liz Shaw – undeniably our Liz Shaw – being burned to death.
The Doctor fails, arguably for the second time this season after six full years of happy endings and enemies defeated. Perhaps the Doctor realises with a jolt – as does the viewer – that will not always prevail. This too is a radical shift in Doctor Who. He may never give up, and the Third Doctor is never cruel or cowardly. But for the first time in the show’s history he is portrayed not only as flawed, but fallible.
It could all have gone so horribly wrong with Jon Pertwee at the helm. While a versatile comic performer, there was little in his past to suggest that he could take the lead role and make it work. The comparison with his two predecessors, who have a long filmography of serious roles behind them, makes Doctor Who’s reinvention as an even more downbeat version of Doomwatch even more remarkable with the star of The Navy Lark at the helm. Yet Pertwee carries it off with style and purpose. Taking his lead from the material, and perhaps mindful of his past in comedy and light entertainment, Pertwee makes the Third Doctor a man of deep moral conviction and righteous anger.
In a few short months this dramatic new vision for Doctor Who is abandoned. When it returns in Terror Of The Autons, the show is faster, more colourful, more cosy. The UNIT family and Pertwee’s favoured ‘mother hen’ characterisation are in clear view and form the basis of the next four years. It casts Season 7 and Inferno into an even more curious light in retrospect. Arguably nothing so nakedly alarming as the story’s most memorable creations will be attempted ever again.
The Primords, in their proto stage, are raggedly terrifying creatures. Their blind fury is balanced with a disturbing otherness – alike but not. The course of their infection emphasises that strangeness. When Wyatt and Bromley are newly infected by a rampaging Slocombe they are propped up against the wall, responsive and seemingly confused as the green slime from the earth’s core rewrites their DNA. When they awake they are furious, violent, possessed of superhuman strength and endurance, radiating a terrible heat. They screech and pant. They are also horrendously contagious and in this aspect of the Primords is perhaps their most frightening threat. Not simply death, but infection, subversion, regression.
The Primords are some of the best realised zombies in the visual medium. While the previous decade had Plague Of The Zombies and Night Of The Living Dead, undead creatures had rarely been seen on film for 30 years. Even so, the zombies of Hammer and Romero are shuffling, largely ponderous. Inferno may be one of the first examples of the ‘running zombies’ genre, so lauded in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. As in Boyle’s film, the Primords are not driven by a desire to feed, nor are they controlled by malevolent agents, they simply want to kill.
Derek Ware’s Wyatt Primord uses movement particularly well and the reactions of the regulars to the horrifying creatures add weight to their threat. The Doctor, who until now has largely scoffed at foes, is frightened by the Primords.
The Doctor never really understand what the Primords are, thought he has a sense of it as he pieces together what is happening at the Stahlmann complex. They are antibodies, somehow created from deep within the planet and now determined to return the Earth to its volcanic past, ridding it of humanity. The sound of a planet screaming out its rage; a planet trying to cleanse itself of a pestilential menace.
The Doctor alone realises this. The real enemy in Inferno is not Stahlmann, nor the Primords, but the Earth itself.
The slavering creatures that roam the site are not infection; we are.