An Analysis of "Inferno"
by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 307
"Inferno" is one of those Doctor Who stories which never seems to go out of style. While some of its contemporaries find themselves quietly dropped from the roster of classics due to ropy effects, poor direction or downright silly plots, and others find themselves by turns reviled and lauded as the reputation of some director or leading actor waxes and wanes, "Inferno" continually remains on most people's Desert Island list. It is worth considering what has made "Inferno" such an enduring classic in the face of the vagaries of fashion.
As stories go, "Inferno" has a good deal to recommend it. It gets through seven episodes without really letting up the pace (although Episode 6 involves a bit of filler material, it is miniscule in comparison to other six or seven-part stories). The location direction, by Douglas Camfield, is excellent, and the studio direction, the bulk of which was done by Barry Letts, is at least competent, with occasional flashes of creativity. The one element which lets the story down, the Primord makeup, is more than compensated for by the performances of the actors- on film they are particularly well choreographed, and even on video they manage to avoid seeming totally ludicrous. "Inferno" also incorporates elements from all the other stories of the season. The presence of duplicates and the Doctor falling into an inexplicable coma (and turning up in an alien world where nobody knows him) recall the events of "Spearhead from Space"; "Doctor Who and the Silurians" contributes a rapidly-spreading plague, a menace coming from the Earth itself rather than from space, and the Doctor powerless to prevent UNIT (or equivalent) from committing genocide; blue-skinned aliens with a fatal touch, a top-secret project and a mystery surrounding a scientist all come from "The Ambassadors of Death". As well as having its own themes, then, "Inferno" also cleverly alludes back to the better elements of earlier stories.
"Inferno" is also interesting with regard to the Jon Pertwee stories which would follow it. Coming as it does immediately before what is generally thought of as the "Letts Era" (as, although Letts had been producer on the series since "Doctor Who and the Silurians", Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin's conception of how the show should be produced still dominated), it foreshadows many of the ongoing themes which Letts would later incorporate into Season 8, but without the contrived feel they would subsequently acquire. The Brigadier, for instance, is more good-humoured here than in earlier stories, and is teased by the Doctor, but he is far from the buffoon he would become, and visibly resents the Doctor taking liberties. Similarly, the Doctor briefly mentions having seen the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, foreshadowing his later habit of gratuitously telling all and sundry about his encounters with historical figures and events (which, as the Completely Useless Encyclopaedia points out, means that anyone who knows he is a time-traveller will not be impressed and everyone else will think he is a lunatic). Here, however, he is doing it in a way which makes sense in the story's context, to illustrate a point, and also speaking in confidence to someone who doesn't need impressing. A busybody civil servant also figures strongly in "Inferno", but Sir Keith Gold is actually a genuinely helpful, intelligent sort, rather than one of the obstreperous fascists which grace such later stories as "The Claws of Axos". While all of these elements would later become formulaic, dulled by repetition and mishandled by lesser writers, here they come across as fresh and intelligently used.
As well as this, however, "Inferno" does a number of clever things which are not seen in any other Pertwee story. For instance, Houghton's script plays with the characters, making the people in the Fascist universe more or less the same in personality to those in the one in which the story begins. Stahlman is still an obstreperous egomaniac, but is accorded more respect in the Fascist universe than in the democratic one; Petra is the type who follows orders in either universe, whereas Greg Sutton appears as a rebel in both. Where slight changes in personality do exist, they are always a consequence of the different options available in each society; the Fascist Liz is brassier and more confrontational than the one in the other universe, but then again the former Liz has trained for the military rather than doing a doctorate. The Brigade Leader is a bully, but he is a commandant of a "scientific labour camp," rather than a top member of an international organisation, and as such has not learned diplomacy.
Furthermore, in the two cases in which most viewers claim to see a difference- the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton- this difference is in fact largely an illusion. We have encountered these two mainly when they are dealing with friends and colleagues; the Benton from the Fascist universe is simply the same man seen from the perspective of his enemies and underlings. The Doctor is accorded respect by the UNIT soldiers because they know him; if the Brigadier had found an unknown eccentric wandering around a top-secret facility, he would deal with him in harsh terms, much as he orders Benton to use physical force on Stahlman. The characters are basically the same; it is simply that the viewer is seeing them from a different standpoint.
This theme of duplicates is also foreshadowed in the early scenes with the Primords. Slocum, the first victim, initially appears whistling merrily as he walks down the road, but is not long after seen beating his friend to death. The efficient and disciplined UNIT private later turns into a maniacal, anarchic killer. In both cases, however, the original knowledge and personality endure; Slocum, a technician, knows how to operate the reactor controls, but does it in a malicious and self-serving way, seeking to raise the temperature rather than carry out the project, and with no thought for the consequences of his actions. He kills his friend with a wrench, again using one of the tools of his trade for destruction. The soldier still knows to use his gun as a weapon; rather than firing it, however, he swings it like a club. The Primords, like the Fascist-universe duplicates, have the same personalities as their originals, but in a distorted fashion.
Finally, we may observe that the respective outcomes of the two Inferno projects stem more from the personalities and choices available in the different universes. In the Fascist society, even the people who realise that Stahlman is insane cannot do anything to prevent his plan from going ahead. In the other universe, by contrast, the issue could have been resolved happily even if the Doctor hadn't been there, if Sir Keith, Greg Sutton and the Brigadier had acted to get the project shut down after the first few deaths. It is not that the presence of the Doctor is unimportant, but it is worth noting that in the Fascist universe the Doctor fails because other people won't act. All of this ultimately goes to demonstrate Houghton's main theme, which is that the outcome of events is determined by the individuals involved and the choices which they make.
Houghton also raises some interesting points with regard to whether our universe really is the "best one." This can be particularly seen in the position of women in the story (which was, interestingly, made in 1970, around the time that the feminist movement began to gather strength). The women of the Fascist universe are in a much better position than they are in the democratic one. Petra Williams is a top scientist and Assistant Director of the Inferno Project in the Fascist society; in the other, she is a personal assistant. In the democratic universe, Liz Shaw is also not given much respect; although she is a scientist, she is reduced to a supporting role alongside the Doctor, with even the Brigadier calling her "Miss" rather than "Doctor Shaw." In the Fascist universe, however, she is second in command to the Brigade Leader (although, confusingly, her rank is "Section Leader," which implies that she is a junior non-commissioned officer), who does not patronise her in the slightest.
It is easy, at this point, to assume that Houghton is claiming either that Fascism is a good thing, or that higher status for women is bad. However, this does not appear to be the point of the exercise. In the initial encounter between Petra and Greg, she is confrontational and uptight about his lack of respect for her rank. In the Fascist world, by contrast, everyone, not only women, shows a similar tension and defensiveness; this is because they are all oppressed. Furthermore, there is also no sense that Petra and Liz's oppression in our world is somehow justifiable. The point here appears to be that both universes have good points and bad points with regard to freedom and individual action.
It is, however, worth noting that this is not a matter of ambiguity or moral grey areas. The Fascist universe is undeniably a bad place in which to live; however, it is not portrayed as unambiguously so. Similarly, the democratic universe is not necessarily portrayed as the "good one"; it may be a happier place than the Fascist world, but it also incorporates graft, prejudice, the abuse of authority, and so forth. It is also interesting to note that the scenario opposing Stahlman and Sir Keith reverses the usual stereotype of the intelligent scientist and the unfeeling politician; just as some people are happier and/or more successful under a Fascist regime than under a democracy, so a politician can be intelligent and a scientist a petty, self-serving dictator. Again, it is not a matter of apologising for Fascism or portraying authority as a good thing, but of questioning the significance of the individual versus the group.
This leads us into the final and most important theme of the story, which is revealed in the Doctor’s remark upon returning from the Fascist universe: “so free will is not an illusion after all.” This remark works on several levels. Firstly, it relates to the Nietschian worldview embodied by the Fascist universe itself. Most of the people in the Fascist universe, operating in a totalitarian system, do not seem to feel they have a choice in their actions. The Brigade Leader refuses to believe that the crew will be abandoned to their deaths, asserting almost to the last that his superiors will save them. Liz is more pragmatic, but even then she does not leave her post. Around them, meanwhile, we see the reversion to the primitive of the project’s technicians, which flies in the face of the Nazi ideology of upward progress while at the same time embodying Nazi principles thoroughly; in the end, Nietzchian philosophy just comes down to brutality and the survival of the strongest and most vicious.
It is also worth noting that the Fascism we find here is a particular sort of Fascism. It is not the ideology of Germany or the totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia, which were both triumphant and triumphalist. The England we see is a defeated country and, as in the Weimar Republic, its people are defensive, upset and disillusioned; if Britain fell in 1943, most of the people whom we see would have been children or teenagers at the time. This again reflects the Nietzchian nature of this universe; the idea that they had no choice in the matter justifies their submission to foreign conquest.
The quote about free will also, however, links into the continuous rethinking in Doctor Who on the subject of the ability to rewrite history. In "The Aztecs", the Doctor asserts that it is impossible for Barbara to change history; however, by this he appears to mean that her attempts to eliminate human sacrifice will ultimately come to naught against the tide of Aztec society. Later, this statement is rethought into a literal lack of change: by "The Reign of Terror", Dennis Spooner is asserting that it is physically impossible to change history, (somewhat ironically, given that the actions of the Doctor and companions have had an impact on events in all the historicals). By "The Time Meddler" Spooner has changed his mind and is now stating that history can be changed and interfered with, and that the Doctor, in not doing so, is just following a golden rule. The Doctor’s reasons for following this rule are later stated in "The Massacre" when he says that he "dare not change the course of history,” because "We are all too small to know its final pattern,” (although this does not seem to stop him abducting schoolgirls from 1966!). In "Inferno", however, the idea is put forth that there are infinite futures, each hinging on actions and decisions taken; the future is therefore not fixed, and so the impact of the Doctor's forays into the past and future can be taken into account without violating the idea of history having unfolded as the viewer knows it.
Finally, the quotation refers to the Doctor himself. He was seemingly powerless to prevent the conclusion of the Inferno Project in the Fascist universe. Consequently, although he asserts to the Brigade Leader that by returning to the other universe he may be able to prevent the same events from occurring, the thought must have crossed his mind that perhaps he couldn’t. The fact that the project has evidently been proceeding along a different timeline in his absence reveals to him that the events are not predetermined, and therefore that his intervention can help stop the project. However, by seeing the outcome of the Inferno Project in the Fascist universe and by having the authority to act upon his knowledge, the Doctor has rendered the chain of cause and effect in our universe meaningless, creating a temporal paradox through introducing information from the project's future into its present.
"Inferno" has long been acclaimed for its stunning characterisation and intelligent portrayal of a Fascist society. It is also worth praising, however, for its philosophical depth and clever reflections on other aspects of the Doctor Who mythos.
With thanks to Kishor Kale
Effects copyright Fiona Moore