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Doctor Who: Inferno (parts six and seven)

We meant to watch part six of this serial last night, but we got home too late. So we doubled up again, and really enjoyed this story. I love how the tension in part six just keeps ramping up, even with a plot that doesn’t fill its running time, necessitating a bit where characters run back to a previous location to try one more time to restart the power. It works because the actors really convey their desperation, and Nicholas Courtney’s Brigade-Leader falling apart from the stress is a great, great moment.

After that, and the fabulous cliffhanger of the sea of lava coming to engulf the hut and kill all the parallel universe doubles, the final part can’t help but feel like an anticlimax to older viewers who are familiar with the rules of drama. But it’s paced so darn well for the younger members of the audience! There’s even a bit where the grown-ups are bound to ask whether it’s absolutely necessary for Jon Pertwee to climb up yet another bit of scaffolding in this refinery, and the children will answer that of course it is; he needs to fight another green monster up there. Our son had a ball with both parts. If he uses a make-believe “fire extinguisher” to defeat my playground alter ego of “Daddy Monster,” I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

“Inferno” would be the last Doctor Who serial directed by Douglas Camfield for five years, damnably, and also the last appearance for Caroline John and her character, Liz Shaw. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had concluded that the character didn’t really work (they were mistaken), but the actress had already decided to leave. In 1982, she worked with Barry Letts again in the BBC’s four-part adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. She was a regular face in guest star roles throughout the eighties, and reprised her role as Liz Shaw in the four direct-to-video P.R.O.B.E. movies from 1994-96. In a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Liz is said to be working on UNIT’s Moonbase (really!), but the actress did not appear onscreen. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 71.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (part five)

There’s a story that Olaf Pooley was really unhappy with the decision to turn him into a full-fanged green werewolf. I guess he’d understood that he would be turning green and going wide-eyed like the fellows in the earlier episodes, but in part five of this story, there’s a lot more goo from the earth’s core and a lot more heat, and this all combines to turn people into white-fanged slavering dog monsters with lots of hair. Our son pronounced these guys “really scary” and they sent him behind the sofa with a shriek.

There’s a really good moment early in this episode to casually remind everybody that the Doctor’s such a great hero. I love how he goes straight into the drillhead room with Derek Newark’s character, hoping desperately that there’s a way to stop the destruction. This isn’t his fight, and it isn’t his problem, and not one person on this hellworld has shown him a second’s consideration, but he’s still immediately willing to risk his life for them.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (part four)

“Inferno” gained its wild reputation from its tone of accelerating doom, which starts very slowly and trickles through episodes three and four until it hits the amazing climax of this story, which is brilliantly directed and features one of Jon Pertwee’s best performances as the Doctor. But to be brutally honest, most of part four is very frustrating. Our son certainly felt it. As the Doctor tells the truth again and again and is ignored again and again, he shouted “He’s telling them the truth!” It’s a real sense of desperation, with our hero just not able to get out of this mess.

I think episodes three and four could easily have been combined into one and this would have been an even better six-parter. This one’s incredibly repetitive, and not just with the Doctor re-explaining the parallel world situation. We get more scenes of Olaf Pooley being obstinate in both universes, and more of the simmering desperation of Derek Newark trying to get Sheila Dunn to listen, all hammered home again and again, just in case anybody in the audience missed the previous part.

But that cliffhanger! Apparently Douglas Camfield wanted to use stock music and occasional special atmospheric effects rather than let any musician, even one he really trusted, interfere with his desire to make the increasing noise of the drill be the focus. It leaves the actors having to shout over it. The cliffhanger is brilliantly paced, with the Doctor begging everyone to listen while trying to avoid being captured again, and it ends with Pooley cornering him with a pistol while the countdown gets closer and closer to zero. I think that Barry Letts directed this one from Camfield’s detailed battle plan. It’s completely fantastic and left our son wide-eyed and breathless.

We’ll leave it there for a couple of days and give him time to wish we could see the next part right now, right this very minute.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (parts two and three)

We’re in uncharted territory now. Doctor Who had never done a parallel universe story before, and, mercifully, it wouldn’t again until 2006. It was still new-ish enough for television in 1970, even though sci-fi writers had been tapping that well for a long, long time.

Dropping the Doctor into a universe where the good guys are all villains sounds an awful lot like the famous Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” but there’s some question as to whether anybody working on Who would have had the chance to see that episode before starting work on this. It’s been suggested that Don Houghton and Terrance Dicks, as well as Trek‘s producers, were all inspired by novelists like Philip K. Dick, although I believe there were occasional episodes of The Twilight Zone that were probably the first occasions of teevee producers playing with the idea.

Since we’re all very, very familiar with the trope in the 21st Century, after a terrific chase scene, episode three of this adventure becomes almost painfully slow. It would have been incredibly important to have the Doctor talk fruitlessly about parallel universes to baddies who won’t believe him in order to get this information across to audiences in 1970. Compare that to any episode of the current Flash series. Even the first time they started screwing with alternate realities, Jesse L. Martin, playing that program’s audience identification character, understood what was going on within ten seconds and two lines of dialogue.

But then again, our six year-old is still pretty new to all this. We gave him a crash course in the concept before we watched part one – Jesse L. Martin caught on quicker – and he thought this was incredibly creepy. It’s not the green hairy men that are bothering him, it’s Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John, and John Levene being cruel and mean. He’s still not used to paying attention when the heroes aren’t onscreen, so the Pooley-Dunn-Newark-Benjamin dynamic is just random talk, but he needed all his attention to really understand what a grim situation the Doctor is in.

Incidentally, it’s often suggested that actors enjoy the opportunity that parallel universe stories present to stretch a little bit and do something different. Courtney plays a really good bureaucratic bully, and, I’m noting this here in advance for Marie to consider and watch, when he starts to crumble across the next three episodes, as all bullies do under pressure, he really shines. Doctor Who fans smile about the comfort of the eye patch and scar because it became a much-loved anecdote in interviews and convention stories, but there really is a terrific performance under that patch.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (part one)

We began the final serial from Doctor Who‘s seventh season this morning. “Inferno” is a seven-part story written by Don Houghton, a newcomer to the program, and directed by the veteran Douglas Camfield. As I mentioned a few posts ago, it appears that Camfield came straight onto this production from three episodes of the first season of Paul Temple. Badly overworked, Camfield finished all the location filming and the first of three studio sessions before collapsing. Producer Barry Letts, who had been a BBC director for several years, finished up the studio work while Camfield recovered from his heart attack. Letts ensured that Camfield received full screen credit as director; he didn’t want any indication that Camfield’s heart condition would prevent him from finishing future work.

The story, which guest stars Olaf Pooley, Sheila Dunn, and Derek Newark, along with Christopher Benjamin as the Civil Servant of the Month – this one, in a nice twist, not a complete interfering twit – is set at a research project looking for a new energy source deep beneath the Earth’s crust. But the drill is bringing up what our son calls “green goo that turns people into mean, hairy monsters.”

He was a little distracted this morning, and the first episode is very, very talky. The guest characters are kind of drawn in very, very broad strokes. Pooley is the ruthless scientist who intends to ignore anybody else’s advice or interference, Benjamin is timid and overcautious, Dunn is completely dedicated to her boss and won’t hear a bad word about him, and Newark is the action man voice of experience. Some writers have drawn parallels between this story and a popular BBC drama of the time, The Troubleshooters, about boardroom intrigue and dangerous events in the oil industry. Newark’s character is apparently the sort of tough-talking guy who’s seen dozens of people killed at unsafe drilling platforms in third-world countries that Ray Barrett had played on The Troubleshooters.

Since the focus is on these four guest characters right now, with the regulars really hovering on the fringes of the story, it was difficult for our boy to really pay attention. But Jon Pertwee nevertheless lit up every scene. He’s insulting and rude to Olaf Pooley’s character, but unlike the aggressively derisive Doctor of the previous two stories, he’s insulting with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, because this time he’s got his own agenda. He’s siphoning power from the project’s nuclear reactor for his own project, and this subplot will take over the story very soon.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part seven)

Many Doctor Who episodes suffer from being a little padded, but the conclusion of this story is one of the worst examples of a serial running out of plot and running in place. It certainly isn’t rushed; with maybe ten minutes of story left – ten good minutes, mostly – we have to suffer through about three instances of people, including Michael Wisher, returning after a few weeks away as the TV journalist John Wakefield, asking the insane General Carrington whether he’s absolutely sure he wants to make a live TV broadcast unmasking an alien and showing the world what’s out there, risking worldwide panic.

Now one problem here is that sometime midway through episode six, John Abineri stopped playing Carrington as a controlled and subtle villain and made him unhinged, and the script repeatedly gives him a stupid catchphrase. “It’s my moral duty” might have been chilling if used once, and repeated when he has lost, but it makes the character look foolish when he can’t say anything else. Frankly, his hired goon, Reegan, is far more competent and threatening than Carrington, and all he wants to do with the aliens is have them rob banks.

Another problem is with this worldwide live telecast. There’s one school of thought that somebody must have yanked a plug and nobody at Space Centre knew the feed was cut, otherwise there could have been a mass panic; in any event, the audience in the Who universe saw at least the beginning of some program about an English general claiming the existence of aliens. Another theory, put forward by Tat Wood in a volume of the entertaining About Time criticism, is that anybody who did watch this quickly dismissed it and forgot about it like people in our world did when they saw Alternative 3 or an alien autopsy movie in the 90s, or Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County.

I honestly think it’s more likely that the network was just humoring Carrington and never broadcast anything. How in the world did this guy convince anybody at any television channel in any country to stop what they’re doing and let him have control of their airwaves for a live feed? I think the BBC sent Wakefield since he was familiar with Space Centre, and Wakefield had a quiet word with his boss, and they recorded all of this just in case there was something to it. But come on, nobody at the American networks, let alone any relay station in Jos, cut away from anything to hear somebody claim to be ready to unmask a space alien. My suspension of disbelief stopped right about there.

Well, nitpicking at length is the way of Doctor Who fans. I really think this story’s finale was a disappointment overall, but when it was good, it was really good. There’s a terrific bit, pictured above, when the Doctor shouts “What kept you?” at the Brigadier, because he wanted to be rescued earlier. Some of the stunt work is especially amazing, including one fellow who goes down a flight of stairs backward, and the direction of the on-location scenes is very good throughout the show and there are some really good moments in the last episode. I think the conclusion is disagreeably stagy, but that Space Centre control room set is an awfully theatrical set in the first place; it was probably unavoidable.

Our son, meanwhile, loved the story more and more with each installment. He was super-excited this evening, and responded to every new plot complication with “This is gonna be so cool!” When the Doctor and the UNIT gang bring the ambassadors to the Space Centre, he was just about ready to pop. While it was good, this was not one of my favorite adventures, but I think it’s definitely one of his.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part six)

Pictured above, Jon Pertwee steps out into an alien environment created by blue screen / chromakey. This won’t be the last time. The BBC called this blue screen tech – the antecedent of modern green screen – “Color Separation Overlay.” It was used for the first time in the previous serial and there will be quite a lot of CSO in Doctor Who‘s seventies.

It turns out that the aliens are not empty suits as our son predicted, but hideous blue-and-black creatures that we only glimpse very briefly. And it also turns out that General Carrington is behind all the villany. Our son claims that he’s known that the whole time, but I’m not certain I believe that claim.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part five)

Throughout this serial, we’ve seen a large, full-scale space capsule for the actors to climb in. I was interested to learn that this prop was built in a shared-cost budget with another BBC drama, Doomwatch. This allegedly “sci-fact” show about civil servants saving the world from dangerous new technologies and ecological disasters was created by a pair of former Doctor Who‘s regular writers, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. It debuted the week after “Doctor Who and the Silurians” began, and the capsule was used in episode six, “Re-Entry Forbidden,” which was shown five days before the first episode of this serial. I wonder whether anybody watched both shows in March 1970 and noticed.

After watching part four, I showed our son a picture of John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton from “The Invasion” to refresh his memory, because Benton, now a sergeant, resurfaces in this episode. There’s a neat story about how this character got promoted to semi-regular. He was one of many good guy military characters in “The Invasion,” which Douglas Camfield had directed. Camfield was in line to direct the next serial, “Inferno,” and since there was room in the script for a Sergeant Anybody character, he asked whether they could rehire John Levene, as he enjoyed working with the actor. The production team reasoned that there was also a Sergeant Anybody in this story, and so it might make a little sense to start using some familiar faces in UNIT rather than a revolving bunch of guys in beige uniforms. That worked out quite nicely. Everybody likes Sergeant Benton.

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