13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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"Nothing like a nice happy ending, is there?"
Top Pertwee? Top ten? We'd say neither, but nevertheless, there's no denying that Inferno packs quite a punch.
It's the parallel universe, of course. It's a perennial SF favourite, and for good reasons. It's always fun sneaking a peek at how things might have been, particularly when in SF for 99 percent of the time things might have been pretty nasty. After all, a sugar-coated universe is pretty boring to look at, not to mention making us all restless and discontented. No, the bad alternative's much better - it's a lot more interesting, and we get to feel smug that we don't actually live there. What a winner.
And that's what works so well in Inferno. We see what the world would look like if George Orwell were a historian instead of a fiction writer, and it works a treat. There are great performances all round, but the most fun are the evil Brigade Leader and snarly Benton. Nick Courtney in particular, looking even more delicious with eyepatch and duelling scar and losing the horrible moustache, outdoes himself. We're not sure why some people, like the Brigade Leader, are markedly different in the alt universe whereas others like Sutton are exactly the same. But then, we're not experts on parallel dimensional physics, are we? (We don't know why job opportunities for women are so much better over there either, and we're not sure we really want to know.)
But there's more to Inferno than the peek into a parallel dimension. We also get to see something we're not allowed to experience in any other story: what happens when the Doctor doesn't save the day. And it's absolutely horrific.
There's the fact that the world is ending, for a start. That's never exactly a cheery theme, and it seems very real here, well conveyed both by the use of filters and by the futile struggles of the characters against the inevitable.
And more than that, it's happening to people we know. By the time episode six rolls to a close, we've come to care about Section Leader Liz Shaw, Dr Williams et al, and the start of episode seven makes it clear there's no miracle: they're going to die, immediately and horribly, under a tide of lava. Could this be any blacker? It may also be the only time in Who when the impending disaster in a cliffhanger turns out to happen exactly as threatened. Children's programme. Yeah.
However, it's not all slam-bang planet killing. Unfortunately. When you rip out the highly impressive parallel dimension stuff, what's left is a mish-mash of cliches. Firstly and most annoyingly, there are the Primords. Looking like escapees from a low-rent Halloween party, these ghastly furry monsters serve zero function in the plot except to stretch it out with pointless chase sequences and add some totally spurious danger. C'mon, guys, the world's ending! Life as we know it is about to be wiped out, screaming, under a tsunami of molten rock! And you want us to worry about a werewolf waving a spanner?
But that's not too bad, is it? A few redundant monsters in an otherwise great story? If only. Let's see, what else have we got in here? A monomaniac who won't listen to reason. The Doctor giving warnings that go unheeded. The iconoclastic outsider intent on shaking up the status quo. (No, not the Doctor, although he's just as patronising.) And liberal helpings of the SF producer's reliable friend, green goo. We have, to put it mildly, seen it all before. And that, in a different way, is what's wrong with the last episode: we've gone through the nightmare once, and the last thing we want to do is drag our way through it again.
Then there's the way the plot falls apart. How come the goo takes so much longer to work on Stahlman than on the others? Why is the Doctor the only one who can travel between dimensions without triggering another big bang? And how come Bessie goes with him? Why, when shut in the office, didn't they just shoot the Primords with the Brigade Leader's and Liz Shaw's guns instead of fannying about with fire extinguishers? Why does Petra rush all the way over with the others to the Doctor's hut to tell him she's failed, only to rush back and have another go, wasting precious time on the way? Why does Greg tell the Doctor to remain in the hut when Petra goes back because she might succeed, then follow her and yell at her for trying? Once back in our world, why does the Doctor take to the equipment like a raving loony, thereby guaranteeing he won't succeed in stopping the drilling? And why does he climb to the top of the storage tanks again? Surely looking for the Primord is the least of his problems. And what on Earth's a fire extinguisher doing up there? Sigh.
We like the cute little "futuristic" bits, though. The garage door opener (they were really taken with this idea). The car phone. And we'd love to get our hands on their computer, which seems to be able to do anything at all if only you "feed a few figures" into it. Even if it does print everything out on little bits of paper.
Visually, it's a bit of a mix. The parallel dimension looks very spiffy - we particularly like Stahlmann's Dr No outfit. Our dimension is less impressive, with Petra in a dress that manages to be frumpy despite being so short. The outside shots look quite good, even if most of the high shots aren't really necessary for the plot. The whole thing, though, is very hard on the ears: it starts with the background noise of the drill, then a whole lotta hissing sets in, and then we have to put up with the deafening noise of the earth erupting all over the place. What we wouldn't give for a Cone of Silence.
Despite the big-dealiness of the plot, it's not actually a stunning story for the Doctor. It's pretty much business as usual for him, with nothing much standing out except the famous "free will is not an illusion" bit. The story belongs much more to the other characters, particularly the ones in the other dimension. While some things about them seem off to the modern eye - how Greg manages to make Petra fall in love with him despite behaving like a total tosser gobsmacks us - they nevertheless are real enough to make us care.
And Caroline John in her last story? Liz, we hardly knew ye. She did her best with the part, bringing a more than welcome dose of intelligence and competence, but the character never really has the chance to shine as she deserves. A major pity, and even more tragic when you compare her to the scatty thicko about to be visited upon us.
Too much padding, too many monsters. But powerful stuff for all that.
MORAL: Same shit, different day.
AT LEAST THEY HADN'T INVENTED KARAOKE YET
It's bad enough in the Peladon stories, but do we really have to listen to the Doctor warbling in semi-Italian, let alone a bunch of doggerel about Martian moons? Couldn't somebody shut him up?
NEXT STOP REALITY TV
We like the way a Steadicam follows Slocum to indicate his wobbliness. Now that's nice direction, and ahead of its time, too.
I'M A SCIENTIST, NOT A LEXICOGRAPHER
Megga-volts? Oh dear.
EVERYONE NEEDS A HOBBY
Liz says: "I happen to be a doctor, Brigadier, remember?". Well, yeah, Liz, but not a doctor of medicine, unless you qualified sometime after the beginning of the season. Mind you, given how little she has to do, this is entirely possible.
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
At some points, Stahlman has a dent in his hair from the sunglasses worn as Stahlmann in the other dimension.