Tuesday, 5 January 2010

"Can't shoot me unless you’ve filled in all the forms, is that it?"

Written by Don Houghton, directed by Douglas Camfield, 1970

Happening to watch this after The Invasion, I was surprised – even given that story’s influence on the season seven format – how unprecedented Inferno feels. The earth-exile concept is understandably taken for granted now, but given the relatively few contemporary-set sixties stories, in the context of what had gone before it’s quite a departure.

In fact, it’s almost like an alternative Doctor, or a reboot: a TARDIS-less, earth-bound kung fu dandy with a car and a whole military organisation backing him up. It couldn’t be much further from the distrustful old man in his junkyard, could it? (Given all the changes in format, it seems strange that the recognisable police box prop has been removed from the equation, rather than using it as a reminder that, no, you’re not watching the wrong program.)

Despite this gear change, I’m torn between whether season seven feels different from what’s gone before… or just the same, but in colour. There’s probably an argument for both views, but I think things are confused by the fact that there are precedents to season seven: The War Machines, The Web of Fear, The Invasion have similarities of style and approach – but weren’t representative of the contemporaneous norm. What’s different is tone: the year before this, Pat was battling Quarks on an alien planet; now it’s zombies and fascist versions of his friends in a bleak industrial complex.

It’s a cliché to say that season seven is grittier, more adult, etc, but it’s hard to avoid – the infected humans’ grey-blue Romero-zombie pallor is much more visceral than anything prior, especially without the light comedy relief of a character like Jamie taking the edge off. (It’s certainly not the plots per se that have changed – Inferno as a story is your basic scientific research gone wrong – but it is elevated by its execution.)

There is a big perceived division within fandom between the sixties and the rest of the series, which is only really attributable to the transition from black and white to colour (there seems to be a lot of people who’d happily watch season seven onward, but not touch anything from the sixties). Apart from the fatuousness of this opinion, it’s ironic how much cheaper and less attractive the programme looks in colour (especially emphasising the location/studio difference). It’s probably the advent of colour that really makes this division seem a big deal (imagine if Troughton’s last season had been in colour – the sixties-seventies/Second-Third Doctor division would seem a lot less absolute).

Another thing that does make Pertwee’s era seem tacky: unrealistic scientific establishments. I know nothing about drilling, but this is so obviously unrealistic, with its hall-of-mirrors walls… I suppose that ‘near future’ thing can answer for a lot. (I like the way they get a handyman on a bike in to fix the hi-tech drillhead.) This probably isn’t much different to Fury from the Deep, etc, but the run of season seven’s relative realism makes it more apparent. On the other hand, the power station location work is rather handsome.

The Doctor himself almost doesn’t feel like a continuation of the Doctor we know, and having him already established in a setting feels odd. However, by comparison to Doctors One and Two, he works excellently – a bastard, yes, but a cheery, breezy one. Love his opera cape, too. In fact, the simplicity of his ‘Sunday best’ (or rather, relative simplicity, compared to later purple-silk-lined checked hunting capes) is appropriately iconic – only a slight but effective variation on the First and Second’s costumes. (Given later contrasts, it’s surprising how similar they all are – essentially the same ‘Edwardian’ outfit of black jacket, cravat or bowtie, just the formal, hobo and dandy versions.)

Pertwee himself is a weird one – from the heights of the programme’s seventies popularity, he is one of the ‘most classic’ of the classic Doctors, but one who’s experienced a backlash over his chauvinism and authoritarian arrogance… Whereas Tom (charisma, humour, danger – all at once!) is still perfectly acceptable to a modern audience, Pertwee has fallen out of favour. Unfortunately, this is one of those bits of fan ‘wisdom’ which I’ve been swayed by – a shame, cos I love Pertwee, and the Third Doctor – so it’s great to see him holding his own in such a brutal and unforgiving story. (He’s brilliant playing it straight, isn’t he?) And – he does KUNG FU! (He even threatens to permanently paralyse Stahlmann…)

I’ve always loved Liz, too: capable but long-suffering – and generally fab! (I like her little curtsey when the Doctor sonics the door open for her.) She’s such a leap from the younger, more comic and less realistically-grounded Zoe and Jamie (although it’s arguable that this is exactly one of the things which diminished this season’s ratings – god forbid everything isn’t as accessible as possible! Nothing changes, does it?). She’s even an equal to the Brigadier in a way Jo or Sarah never are – he even calls her by her first name.

Anyway – I absolutely love Doctor Who played straight, and it really doesn’t get much grimmer than this, Androzani being an obvious exception (although Inferno has the advantage of being set in a recognisable world (or two)); everything feels similarly inexorable here. It’s also refreshing to have Doctor Who go fully apocalyptic, when understandably it’s normally part of the programme’s makeup for the Doctor to save the day (otherwise resulting in cop-outs like Last of the Time Lords).

Intercutting the doomed world with ‘our’ world makes everything all the more horrific. The final cut from now-familiar characters, threatened by lava, to the Doctor lying on the floor in silence is particularly shocking because of what it doesn’t spell out: all those characters have died horribly. And, despite helping the Doctor get back to save our world, they would have died anyway, so their deaths feel surprisingly nihilistic and meaningless. (The Fires of Pompeii notwithstanding – where all the sympathetic characters survive – Russell T would never have gone this far.)

Whether it’s really different from what went before, or more of the same with a fresh lick of paint, this story is great – it certainly feels fresh and different, despite being a long-established part of the Doctor Who story.

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