Doctor Who

Starring: Jon Pertwee
RRP: 19.99
Certificate: PG
Available 19 June 2006

20th Century Earth. An unhinged scientist, Professor Stahlman, is attempting the first penetration of the Earth`s crust in a top secret drilling project called Inferno. He hopes to tap into a new energy source at the core. When the Doctor is called in with his companion Liz Shaw to oversee the project, he soon develops grave misgivings. Things begin to go very wrong when a mysterious green substance leaks from the drillhead. A substance which turns all who come into contact with it into alien primeval creatures called Primords...

As the Tenth Doctor and Rose battle Cybermen on a parallel Earth in the brand new 2006 season of Doctor Who, it's wonderfully appropriate that the latest classic series release is Jon Pertwee's Inferno - the show's original stab at a parallel world storyline from 1970.

Inferno rounded off Pertwee's first season as the Doctor, quite possibly the oddest and certainly the most unique season in Doctor Who's history. At this time, the show was undergoing the biggest radical revamp ever to be seen in the show's initial 26-year run on the BBC. The days of an eccentric scientist travelling through time and space in a tatty police box and battling giant ants from outer space were to be abruptly and dramatically replaced with a more mature and realistic approach, as the third Doctor faced home-grown terrors on Earth. This interesting new adult model of Doctor Who would regrettably be watered down in subsequent years, but Inferno will always be remembered as a fitting climax to this short-lived vision of a more grown-up show.

It could almost be described as two separate tales bolted together. The story kicks off with mysterious happenings, brutal deaths and political wranglings at Professor Stahlman's drilling project. Midway through the episodes, the story is swiftly turned upside down as the Doctor finds himself transported to a darker parallel Earth, where his former friends and colleagues are now trying to kill him and Stahlman's project is at a more advanced stage with potentially devastating consequences. These two strands are very nicely interwoven though, and we barely see the join as this epic tale gathers pace.

Tension and gloom pervade every scene in the story. Despite the fact that we never clap eyes on the drill that is supposedly penetrating the Earth's crust, the continual eerie effects in the background and the cast often having to shout their dialogue over the noise, quite cleverly convinces us that we have, and that there is a palpable sense of danger here. It's a quite beautiful example, if one were needed, of Doctor Who seriously raising the tension and horror stakes without much of a budget. The stylish and subtle direction is consistent throughout all seven episodes, and much of the credit for this goes not to the legendary Douglas Camfield as the closing titles suggest, but to Producer Barry Letts who took over when Camfield fell ill but was not allowed by the BBC to take recognition for it.

The parallel world storyline offers up a delicious chance to see the Doctor Who regulars playing the baddies for a change. Nicholas Courtney clearly relishes his role as the alternative 'Brigade Leader' complete with sinister eye patch and scar, and it's a truly classic moment when he spins round in his chair to confront a surprised Doctor for the first time. The real scene-stealer though is Caroline John who delivers a subtle and convincing performance as the Parallel Earth's 'Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw'. Initially as cold and ruthless as her Parallel Earth colleagues, we eventually begin to see shades of her alter-ego seeping through, and you end up becoming quite attached to the character - which makes the resolution of the parallel world storyline all the more shocking and brutal. Doctor Who doesn't come much bleaker than Inferno - even the unique opening credits are unusually disturbing, as the story title and writer's credit are superimposed over grim images of bubbling lava which seems to represent the end of the world - and that's pretty close to what we end up seeing by the story's climax.

It's a genuine shame that Doctor Who wasn't able to continue in this rich vein throughout the Pertwee era. In the seasons that followed, UNIT would slowly degenerate from a credible military organisation into a nice cuddly family. The Brigadier, seen here as a sharp and efficient leader of men, would eventually become a Colonel Blimp buffoon, whilst the Doctor's refreshingly intelligent assistant would be replaced by a 'loveable' blonde who was just there to ask the right questions. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty more entertaining third Doctor stories to follow, but it would never be quite like this ever again. Just watching this story is itself rather like taking a trip to a parallel Earth, a world in which Doctor Who was an intelligent adult show, shown long after the kiddies were tucked up in bed. For this reason alone, Inferno will always remain an unusually flavoured and very, very special slice of Doctor Who.

As usual, the discs are supplied with a wealth of superb features. Insightful commentary is supplied by Nicholas Courtney, Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks whilst John Levene (Sergeant Benton) delivers a warm and enthusiastic solo commentary on episodes 2 and 5, during which his sheer love for Doctor Who gleefully shines through. Sadly, Caroline John was unavailable to participate in the commentaries (especially disappointing considering this is one of the very few stories she appeared in) but fortunately, she does contribute to both of the brand new documentaries featured in this package.

Can You Hear The Earth Scream? takes a detailed look at the troubled making of Inferno, whilst The UNIT Family (Part One) focuses on the early years of the development of UNIT. Both documentaries are somewhat shorter than we have been used to in recent Who releases, but still manage to cram an impressive amount into their short running times. John Levene is again hugely passionate, honest and often downright funny throughout his contributions, whilst the likes of Letts, Dicks and former producer Derrick Sherwin dish up fresh insight into the origins of UNIT, the crisis during the Inferno filming as Douglas Camfield was taken ill, and the abrupt departure of Caroline John.

Also included on the disc is a now infamous deleted scene in which a radio announcer, voiced by Pertwee himself, warns the general public that the end of the world is nigh. This was quite rightly cut before transmission as it was so recognisably Pertwee putting on a very silly voice, but was accidentally retained on overseas prints of the show and even surprisingly showed up within the 1994 VHS release and recent UKTV Gold repeats. Here, it's finally put in it's rightful place as a quirky extra feature. Other special features include a cheesy but fun Visual Effects Promo Film, Pertwee's cringeworthy opening links to 1991's The Pertwee Years video, and a very special and financially viable chance to view the incredibly rare 1971 Doctor Who Annual as a PDF file, (currently going for small fortunes on eBay!)

A final special mention must go to the dedicated work that has clearly gone into restoring the quality of these prints. Compare and contrast the DVD with 1994's VHS release and you'll see what I mean. Over 35 years on, the end of the world has never looked so good.

Danny Salter

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