After a very long break, I’m continuing my series on some of the best and most original Doctor Who serials per season. Today, the Doctor takes a trip into a parallel universe.
Most, if not all of the biggest sci-fi franchises will sooner or later end up featuring a parallel universe. Star Trek took just over a year to broadcast the Season 2 episode “Mirror, Mirror”, so in many ways it’s surprising that Doctor Who held out for so long. But when the show did finally get around to it, it was an undoubted success.
Like “Mirror, Mirror”, Inferno featured versions of the show’s long-running, well-loved characters in its mirror universe, and once again the parallel versions were far less amiable. Liz, the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton were turned into the violent fascists Section Leader Shaw, Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart and Platoon Under-Leader Benton (the ranks were inspired by the Wehrmacht).
The Britain of the parallel universe is a dictatorial republic (the Royal Family have long since been executed) under the command of an unnamed leader represented in posters by the BBC’s visual effects designer Jack Kine, as an homage to the corporation’s earlier adaptation of 1984. What both universes share in common is Project Inferno, a plan to drill deep into the Earth’s surface which results in the unleashing of a primordial ooze turning humans into monsters, and which eventually (spoilers) causes the parallel Earth to be destroyed.
For me, the highlight of this serial is the details which go into drawing a distinction between the two universes. The reason the parallel Project Inferno is so far ahead of the real one – giving the Doctor time to go back and save his version of the Earth – is due to the extra fascist efficiency afforded by militaristic governance and enforced labour. And the design is more subtle than that – engineering expert Greg Sutton, flown in from the Middle East at short notice to work on the project, has a tan which isn’t present in his alternate version, who presumably would never have been allowed to leave the country.
The actors – especially the regulars – do an excellent job of convincing us that they really are playing two different characters, and it’s fascinating to watch how the inhabitants of the parallel universe change as their situation becomes more desperate.
The Brigade Leader, so confident and together when he has authority over everyone, breaks down once his soldiers start to desert and the civilians working on the project no longer feel obligated to listen to him. Section Leader Shaw, who starts off as an obedient militarist, is happy to rebel against her superior and even shoots him to allow the Doctor to escape – an action which will not benefit her or her government but which will allow the Time Lord to save another Earth, and another Liz.
There’s a fascinating subplot which takes place in the parallel universe between Sutton and Petra Williams, the second-in-command on the project. Early on we learn that Williams had started off as a loyal party member, but had gradually begun to warm to Sutton to the extent that she no longer reported him for his seditious language. Sutton’s rebellious nature – tolerated only because of his usefulness to the project – boils over as the Earth starts to do the same.
Towards the end, Benton arrives just in time to stop Sutton and Williams from deserting the project, before going to round up his remaining soldiers. Sutton, anger and despair radiating off him, bellows over the sound of the Earth’s demise, “The world’s going up in flame and they’re still playing at toy soldiers!”, before raising his arm in a mockery of Benton’s salute. Outside, the Platoon Under-Leader is drilling a handful of privates while the world around them becomes hotter and hotter, a demonstration of the mindset of dictatorships: with nothing they can do to prevent their inevitable fall, they cling to the last vestiges of their power.
You’ll have noticed that this article barely mentions the Doctor at all, and that’s because for me he’s almost a side character here. The real beauty of this serial lies in its world, its characters and its design, which make Inferno stand out even in one of the show’s best seasons.
Next time: a prison riot and international diplomacy in The Mind of Evil.