DOUGLAS CAMFIELD &
THE MO-HOLE PROJECT
& PROJECT INFERNO
'INFERNO' SPECIAL EDITION DVD (BBCDVD3671) RELEASED IN MAY 2013.
Inferno is a top-secret project that involves drilling down into the crust of the Earth to unleash a new energy source. However, the Doctor, along with his assistant Liz Shaw, is concerned that this drilling will have disastrous consequences for the whole world. His concerns are soon confirmed when the TARDIS throws him into a dangerous parallel universe, where Project Inferno is almost complete and the end of the world is near...
9TH MAY 1970 - 20TH JUNE 1970
To this day, Doctor Who’s 1970 run remains one of its most idiosyncratic. Fuelled by comparatively mature science fiction and buoyed by its easier-to-achieve Earth grounding, Jon Pertwee’s first season in the role often feels more like a halfway house between Quatermass and a James Bond movie than it does the colourful programme that it was in the 1960s, and would be again, which is really saying something when you consider that it was this season that saw the transition from monochrome to colour. But with its seven-part season finale, Inferno, viewers began to get a sense of what lay in store for the remainder of the UNIT era. Don Houghton’s script maintains the strong scientific sensibilities that lent its three predecessors their adult audience allure, but complements them with monsters and mayhem – and generous lashings of humour too.
Like many of Doctor Who’s best long-running serials, Inferno is very much a tale of two halves, though it is unique in that its two halves each tell the same story, but with a very different end. With Houghton’s Operation Mole-Bore pitch only offering enough material to sustain three or four twenty-five minute episodes, script editor Terrance Dicks instructed him to shunt the Doctor ‘sideways’ in time into a parallel world, where the same drilling project that is endangering the Earth in our universe is running slightly ahead of schedule. This allowed Houghton not only to defy convention by showing us what could happen should the Doctor lose, but create fascinating alter egos for the UNIT regulars. Nicholas Courtney’s scarred, eye-patch sporting ‘Brigade Leader’ very nearly steals the show with his vile turn, while Caroline John relishes a much straighter, but ultimately much more nuanced, role as a version of Liz who chose security over science.
In addition to the regulars, there are also some brilliant performances from the likes of future Jago & Litefoot star Christopher Benjamin, who plays an unusually straight civil servant; Derek Newark, who keeps his everyman anchor constant across quanta; and Sheila Dunn, who flits between put-upon PA in our world and dictatorial doctor in the other, yet remains eye candy across both. Most impressive of all though is Olaf Pooley as the obsessive government-funded scientist Stahlman, who provides the perfect foil to a passionate Pertwee. The third Doctor is invariably at his best when played against a narrow-minded and egotistical antagonist, and Inferno has the added layer of placing the government-serving Brigadier awkwardly in between them.
When Inferno is remembered, it is usually through reference to Houghton’s well-drawn Orwellian dystopia, which is typified on screen by the omnipresent image of a stern-looking visual effects assistant, but I think that the story on our world is very nearly as good – it just lacks the enticing hook of the alternate reality. I especially like how events on our side of the quantum divide reverberate on the other; the story is laced with beautiful little flourishes of character that take what is superficially a huge schism and reduce it to something traversable. Greg Sutton’s political views, for instance, are scarcely any different across the dimensions – in our reality, he’s not thrilled with the idea of being a civil servant; in the dystopia, he’s actively subversive, speaking aloud his loathing for the state despite the potential penalties. Professor Stahlman, similarly, cares only about the drilling project in both his iterations. Whether it is run as a “scientific labour camp” or a government-funded research project makes no odds to him – he just wants it to proceed.
Inferno is presented here looking sharper than it did back in 2006, when it was first released on DVD, as its NTSC-sourced colour information has since been stabilised (both geometrically and in terms of brightness) through reference to old 16mm film recordings of the episodes, and then put through the VidFIRE process to recreate the original broadcasts’ distinctive video look. Like The Claws of Axos before it, Inferno is now finally on almost level pegging with the rest of the Pertwee era.
But for its recent remaster, Inferno isn’t an adventure that I would’ve thought needed revisiting, and this is reflected in its special edition’s fresh bonus material, which is only of tenuous relevance to the serial itself. This is no reflection on its quality though, as both of its new substantial features are extremely entertaining, albeit in very different ways. Hadoke versus HAVOC flits between wistful and wacky, as Doctor Who DVD staple Toby Hadoke tracks down the surviving members of the stunt team synonymous with the early UNIT era and interviews them separately about their lives and experiences on Who before bringing them together for a reunion at an airfield, where he is cajoled into performing a stunt. The programme would have been worth its salt just for its concluding spectacular act, which is made all the more amusing thanks to the complete lack of reassurance that HAVOC offer the obviously-bricking-it Hadoke, but I also found it quite stirring generally. Famous EastEnder Derek Martin comes across as a particularly interesting character, as he relays the tale of how a juror told him that he’d make a good actor during one of his regular court appearances as a defendant in his youth, but the likes of Stuart Fell; Roy Scammell; and, of course, argent extraordinaire Derek Ware also hold their own with tales of record-setting falls and embarrassingly doubling as Katy Manning’s derrière.
Above: Toby Hadoke lets slip the dogs of war
The latest instalment of Dr Forever!, Lost in the Dark Dimension, takes a half-hour look at the many attempts to resurrect the series in the 1990s. I vividly recall the bizarre ‘David Burton is the Doctor’ rumours prevalent in the early 1990s, which were apparently borne of claims made via, of all things, markings on a motor vehicle, and so I was fascinated to see the man discuss the events surrounding his purported casting. His memories on the topic are very flimsy indeed, and aren’t helped by the clandestineness that he says the project was cloaked in, which was reportedly so extensive that absolutely no evidence of it survived – no contracts, no scripts, no photos, no film. It’s almost worthy of a Doctor Who story in itself. Interviewees’ recollections of Lost in the Dark Dimension, the planned straight-to-video special commissioned to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the series, are much clearer, however, and shed some retrospective light on why the project was ultimately abandoned. The general consensus seems to be that two factors conspired to kill the show: a well-meaning Alan Yentob, then-controller of BBC One, who decided that he’d like to screen the finished programme, and perhaps even give it a limited theatrical release, which meant that the costs of achieving the necessary quality pushed up the production costs to such a level that the project “collapsed under its own weight”, while in the background BBC Worldwide and Fox had a very different direction for the franchise in mind, which a lot of people in the know seem to think that they were keen to protect. This is a real shame, as Adrian Rigelsford’s complicated ecological thriller that would have seen multiple Doctors, led by Tom Baker’s fourth, lock horns with a villain played by Rick Mayall at the height of his Bottom notoriety, sounds like too promising a prospect to have been passed up. If Big Finish Productions are on the prowl for more fodder to fuel their Lost Stories range, then Rigelsford’s abandoned tale has got to be a prime candidate.
Above: One of the greatest mysteries of the Wilderness Years deepens when Lost in the Dark Dimension
The programme moves on to discuss the TV Movie, and the general acceptance of defeat that seemed to follow it. Writer Stephen Cole, who was effectively left with the franchise in his hands in the aftermath, reports Doctor Who being shunted from department to department – including a brief stint in ‘Factual’ – as the BBC found itself at a loss as to what to do with something that was still earning it a fair amount of revenue in sales of books and videos. “Could we invent another unfinished story?” he claims that they asked him, upon receiving the sales figures for the Shada VHS. How the series went from this to what it is today is almost as much of a mystery as how David Burton came to be driving a car proclaiming him to be the next Doctor.
Above: Can You Hear the Earth Scream? Or is it just the script editor?
The second disc of the release preserves all of the special features released originally, including the flagship ‘making of’ feature, Can You Hear the Earth Scream? By 2006, 2 | entertain had really got into their stride with these programmes, and this particular offering, with its striking, burning segues, is as competent and compelling as anything that they’re producing today. The fascinating thirty-five-minute documentary explores Terrance Dicks’ suggestion of the parallel universe digression, the record-setting stunt that made the newspapers (and the injury sustained during a comparatively innocuous one that didn’t), and Barry Letts’ unexpected return to directing when director Douglas Camfield took ill.
The first part of The UNIT Family series is more of an overview piece that takes a look at every Doctor Who story to feature the paramilitary organisation from its first appearance in The Invasion all the way up to Inferno. Running at thirty-six minutes, each story gets a fair degree of attention, and even The Web of Fear, which strictly speaking isn’t a UNIT story, is given a little screentime as it introduced the organisation’s future commanding officer.
Above: Terrance Dicks remembers The Unit Family
The release also includes a deleted scene, which would be an extremely rare treat under normal circumstances (this is, after all, a show that had most of its episodes from this era junked, let alone cuts from them), but it is made especially so as it features leading man Jon Pertwee impersonating the infamous Lord Haw-Haw on the radio. You can see why it was cut, mind – it is clearly Pertwee doubling up. A similarly fleeting feature, this one exclusive to the special edition release, offers a few further musings from David Burton, all of which only serve to heighten the intrigue further. Thow in the Jon Pertwee introduction to the serial's final episode for The Pertwee Years VHS and a clean title card, and that’s your lot.
Overall then, Inferno’s special edition upgrade is one that has proven worthwhile on all fronts. The much-loved serial now looks better than it ever has before, and it is now accompanied by not only its already-impressive complement of special features, but a couple of new ones of sufficient weight to hopefully draw in those sat on the fence.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006, 2013
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