Friday, 24 May 2013

Doctor Who: Inferno – Special Edition – DVD review

Bringing to an end a run of four consecutive Special Editions, one of the best stories of Jon Pertwee's era is re-issued on DVD with an improved restoration and a couple of new extras...

RRP: £20.42
Released by: BBC Worldwide
Release date: 27 May 2013

"Doctor, are you telling me that there's some link with the volcanic eruption in Krakatoa?"

The concept behind Inferno can only be described as pure Doctor Who. A project led by Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley) is drilling into the Earth’s crust in order to obtain a new and revolutionary source of energy. But something else arrives instead, a menace that has been buried in the Earth for a very long time. This story gets going faster than some others, because the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is already in on the action. He is acting as an advisor on the project, while simultaneously using the nuclear reactor to power his own little project: the on-going storyline of the Doctor trying to get the TARDIS working again following his exile to Earth by the Time Lords.

The story is one of the most atmospheric and tense in Doctor Who’s history. The series’ regular composer Dudley Simpson did not work on Inferno. Instead, stock library music was used, and it’s surprisingly effective. Although quite simple and brief, the music is very eerie, and the effect it has is wonderful. But a lot of the dramatic power of Inferno is down to the content of the story itself, and how it is realised by directors Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts (the latter stepping in to direct parts of the story after Camfield fell ill). A mysterious green slime emerging from the drilling area transforms anyone who touches it into a vicious Primord – a “retrogression of the body cells” – in sequences which, for Doctor Who, are quite harrowing to watch. This facilitates a number of fantastic scenes, such as an inevitable yet shocking moment in Episode 4 which works so well because it’s pulled off so simply.

On paper, reading that Inferno is a whopping seven episodes long could forgivably be a bit daunting. There are plenty of stories which drag at six episodes, so seven could have been a big problem! But in reality, while the story could have been chopped down by an episode or two, its structure (and the tension it creates) means that it still works very well. After all, much of this story’s drama is in its slow inevitability, as no-one seems to appreciate what’s at stake apart from the Doctor, so you could argue that its length makes it more effective. A mysterious threat is established, which the Doctor then slowly builds up an understanding of – there is one very striking moment when he realises that a noise he hears reminds him of an event from long, long ago in the Earth’s past. The breathing space the story has also means that we are treated to a lot of character drama, as relationships fracture and develop in equal measure. One touching moment in Episode 5 is a great example of this, and is wisely left totally ‘raw’ as we see it on-screen. No music, nothing happening in the background, just clear, heart-warming character development.

It is in Episode 3 that Inferno enters its element, as the Doctor finds himself trapped in a parallel universe, Doctor Who’s first real exploration of this concept. Writer Don Houghton takes the idea and truly runs with it, crafting unsettling alter-egos of familiar friends. Liz Shaw (Caroline John) becomes Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw, and even more dramatically the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) is now the sinister and ruthless Brigade Leader. This really is shocking, especially because the story periodically flicks back and forth from ‘our’ universe to the parallel one, highlighting just how much we miss the usual versions of the characters. This is a far darker Earth, where the royal family has been executed, and it isn’t at all subtle that in many ways, this alternative word is reminiscent of the rule of the Nazis. The drilling project here is literally a labour camp (with lines such as “servant of the state” and “well behaved zombie”), and the marching and salutes of the military probably doesn’t need any comparison. This raises some very interesting implications about how the course of history may have been different in this version of the Earth's history.

The masterstroke of Inferno is that by shifting the action sideways into a parallel world, the safety net is removed. There truly is nothing stopping the world from being destroyed, and this results in one of Doctor Who’s all-time greatest cliffhangers at the end of Episode 6. But beyond this, it means that when the Doctor finally manages to return to his proper world, the stakes are arguably higher than they had ever been in the programme until now. Earlier, I said that the story has an ever-rising inevitability about it, and this becomes absolutely true in the strongest sense when it reaches its final act. The Doctor is the only one who knows the true horror that lies in store if the project continues, as he has actually seen it already. The presence of the parallel universe serves as a sort of premonition of the catastrophe that could await our own world. The fact that we as viewers are in on this as well means that the tension during the climax of the story is – if you’ll pardon the pun – at boiling point, as everyone is pushed to the limit and Stahlman in particular nears insanity.

As for the Primords themselves, the depiction of their transformation from humans is well-realised, and what’s notable is that the speed at which it happens varies (something which is explained in dialogue). The transformation of one character in particular is especially gripping, as it’s incredibly slow yet we know it’s going to happen. Sound is used to fantastic effect here as well, with piercing sounds accompanying the character’s mental anguish. The fully retrogressed Primords aren’t as effective as the devolving humans which come before them, but they don’t look too bad. One thing which isn’t so strong about them is their voice, though. It’s far too electronic for my liking, and it sounds more like something you’d expect from a Cyberman. At no point during the story was I able to believe that this is a sound which could really be coming from an organic creature’s vocal chords.

Jon Pertwee’s performance in Inferno is stunning, and he's wonderful at portraying the Doctor as an exiled “free agent”. You can really believe in every line he says, and he brings his own charm to the part, singing at the start and end of the story for example. But at the same time, he brings a fiery temperament to the Third Doctor, a wonderful unpredictability which causes sparks with authority figures and “nitwits”. A particular highlight is Pertwee’s interaction with Courtney and Pooley – with the Doctor showing his usual love/hate relationship with the Brigadier and utter contempt for Stahlman.

Inferno is the last of four stories to feature Caroline John as Dr Elizabeth Shaw. The production team did not renew John’s contract, believing that having a companion with so much scientific knowledge meant that too many questions remained unanswered for the audience. It’s a shame that this resulted in John only being on the show for a single season, as the dynamic between Liz and the Doctor is very enjoyable. It isn’t hard to see them as equals, with Liz working alongside the Doctor in their makeshift laboratory. Maybe this does leave too many questions for the viewer, but it makes for a great change from the norm. But what about Liz’s departure in this story? It’s certainly very abrupt, perhaps even slightly annoying in its suddenness. John returned for a brief cameo appearance in the 1983 twentieth anniversary special The Five Doctors, but it’s a shame her regular appearances in Doctor Who came to an end in such a bizarre manner. There is some consolation, at least, in the memorable role that John plays in the story thanks to the parallel world.


Leading the new features on this DVD is Hadoke v HAVOC, one of the most entertaining extras ever to appear on a Doctor Who DVD. Helmed by Chris Chapman, the programme sees comedian and self-proclaimed Doctor Who fan-boy Toby Hadoke track down four members of the HAVOC stunt group (who performed a wide variety of stunts on Doctor Who during the early 1970s), with a view to reuniting them for one last job – and learning to perform a stunt himself. After a great intro sequence, Hadoke’s first port of call is Covent Garden, where he meets Derek Ware, ringleader of HAVOC. The interviews conducted by Hadoke are fascinating, as we learn that HAVOC for a time handled 50% of stunt work on BBC productions and almost all of it on independent projects. We also find out about a conflict with Equity, and how stuntman Terry Walsh inadvertently spelt the end of HAVOC’s involvement with Doctor Who. It’s also rather alarming to hear Roy Scammell describe one form of stunt falling as a “suicide dive”!

But the part of this feature that everyone will probably be talking about (not without reason) is the big reunion, and Hadoke’s own stunt dive. Hadoke arranges a meeting between Ware, Scammell and fellow HAVOC veterans Stuart Fell and Derek Martin (the latter best known for his role as Charlie Slater in EastEnders), which is truly delightful to watch. Scammell in particular doesn’t show his age one bit – he is eighty years old, but that doesn’t stop him from making a very impressive entrance to the reunion and demonstrating the stunt before Hadoke does it. I won’t say too much about the long-awaited moment of Hadoke’s stunt, because I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say that it doesn’t disappoint. This is one of the most re-watchable extras on the DVD range to date – it really is superb.

Also new to this DVD is Dr Forever! – Lost in the Dark Dimension, the fourth and penultimate instalment of James Goss’ series examining how Doctor Who was kept alive following its 1989 cancellation. This episode starts with current Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury and former editors John Freeman and Gary Russell discussing the challenge of keeping a magazine devoted to a specific television show running without a specific television show to accompany it. It’s fun to reflect on how DWM covered the many ‘possible revival’ stories that popped up over the years, with a number of stories circulating of the possibility of the series returning in independent hands. There was also a “day of action” organised, encouraging as many Doctor Who fans as possible to phone the BBC to demonstrate the demand for re-commissioning the series. (It probably isn’t difficult to imagine how this turned out. The phrase “loony audience” crops up.) All of this segues nicely into the solving of a mystery…

This is followed by the attempted production which gives this instalment of the Dr Forever! series its name. Following 1992’s successful VHS release of the incomplete 1980 Tom Baker serial Shada, BBC Enterprises started looking at how else the show could be commercially exploited. This led to the inception of The Dark Dimension, later Lost in the Dark Dimension, a proposed straight-to-video thirtieth anniversary special starring Baker as the ‘main’ Doctor. Writer Adrian Rigelsford and director Graeme Harper talk about the project, which collapsed just five weeks away from shooting. Lost in the Dark Dimension has always fascinated me, so it’s fantastic to hear so much about it here, including Rigelsford talking about the various ideas which came before it (including one not-too-subtly called The Environment Roadshow). As regrettable as the cancellation of the project was, it does make for the most interesting part of this documentary. BBC1 controller Alan Yentob expressed an interest in airing the special on television, and thus Lost in the Dark Dimension went from being a niche direct-to-VHS production to a mainstream film to be shown on television, and perhaps even in cinemas. There are differing accounts of the fatal blow which axed the project, with Harper incorrectly citing the on-going film negotiations with Amblin as the reason the BBC had to “cease and desist”. But Rigelsford tells the story of what actually happened, with a critical financial error being made at the BBC.

Staying on the subject of Doctor Who films, the DWM editors talk about the 1996 TV Movie starring Paul McGann (with Russell in particular expressing his belief that we dodged a bullet with it not going to series in America). There is far more to its story than we get here, but that’s understandable because the fuller account has been told before – on the Special Edition DVD of the TV Movie, for instance. The discussion instead turns to the question of whether or not there will ever be a Doctor Who movie today. Bringing the topic up with any Doctor Who fan will almost certainly lead to a fierce debate, which is probably why Spilsbury treads so carefully when speaking about it here. The last section of this episode of Dr Forever! is a bit confused. The focus starts to shift towards the events leading up to the 2005 revival, with things such as the 2003 animated webcast Scream of the Shalka touched upon only very briefly, and it is at this point that Russell T Davies (executive producer of Doctor Who between 2005 and 2010) and Steve Cole (author of Doctor Who novels and overseer of Doctor Who merchandising for a time) make their appearance. There is some great stuff here (such as the sequence of events leading up to the announcement of Doctor Who’s return), but its introduction makes things feel a bit imbalanced. It feels like this is an embellished lead-in to the final Dr Forever! (which it might well be), but it does feel a little strange. I should mention the voiceover, which is now provided by Zeb Soanes – it seems that the in-vision links which have occasionally seemed odd across this series have disappeared. Despite the bizarre structuring towards the end, this episode is still very enjoyable, especially because I find the subject so interesting. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the final part has in store.

A set of Production Information Subtitles, written by Martin Wiggins, gives the viewer the option to read an informative text commentary as they watch the story. In this case, topics covered include practical jokes on-set, the reason Caroline John wasn’t given a proper leaving scene (regrettable as it is) and a very stern memo sent by Douglas Camfield to the cast and crew before the location filming. Wiggins has written a fantastic set of notes for Inferno, which are certainly worth a read. The original commentary reappears here, with Nicholas Courtney, Barry Letts, script editor Terrance Dicks and John Levene (Benton). The latter’s contributions are separate from everybody else’s, as Levene recorded a solo commentary over selected portions of the story. The result is that Levene is heard at a couple of points in Episode 1, a few times in Episode 6 and once in Episode 7, while Episodes 3 and 5 are almost entirely devoted to his commentary. It’s a shame that Levene didn’t join in with the other three participants for whatever reason, but the editing is done quite well. Thankfully, the commentary makes no attempt to pretend that Levene is in the same room as everybody else, which would almost certainly have been disastrous. Although Levene’s comments are insightful and quite often amusing, it’s definitely a relief to get back to a proper conversation with Letts, Dicks and Courtney afterwards – the trio have a delightful banter going on, which is bittersweet to listen to since Letts and Courtney have now passed away.

The making-of documentary from the original DVD is called Can You Hear the Earth Scream?, produced by Steve Broster. It starts in style with some clips of various Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories (predominantly from Season 7), which sets the scene wonderfully, before Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks talk about the genesis of Inferno. The journey the story took before it reached the screen is very interesting. Don Houghton’s fundamental idea came from the mystery of classified American and Russian projects, with the parallel universe element being added in to help to fill out the seven episodes (a format which both Letts and Dicks say they hate). Despite being seven years old, this documentary stands up very well to the quality we get these days, and there are no less than seven interviewees, plus another via archive interview footage. Considering the amount of people involved, the documentary balances out very well, with a veritable goldmine of production insight and anecdotes. We hear about the story’s stunts from Derek Ware and Alan Chuntz (the latter through the archive footage), how the location filming wasn’t exactly luxurious for Caroline John, and which dictator Nicholas Courtney based his portrayal of the Brigade Leader on (and no, it wasn’t the obvious one). Can You Hear the Earth Scream? has a lot of stories to tell, and it tells them wonderfully.

Also making an appearance from the original DVD is The UNIT Family – Part One (again produced by Steve Broster), a retrospective look at the early days of UNIT in Doctor Who. This episode focuses on the six UNIT stories from 1968’s The Web of Fear (though this wasn’t strictly a UNIT story in the truest sense) until 1970’s Inferno. It opens with a wonderful rendition of Dudley Simpson's “UNIT theme” from The Ambassadors of Death, arranged by Mark Ayres. Dicks explains that UNIT was developed to “look after” the Doctor during his exile on Earth and to support the longer stories, while Derrick Sherwin (former script editor and producer) talks about the stories of this period having a Quatermass feel to them. As you’d probably expect given the subject matter, it’s Courtney who is the highlight of this documentary though. He talks about an early role in Doctor Who which nearly happened, and then another (extremely crucial) one which almost didn’t, along with an amusing anecdote about his moustache. The overriding impression I came away with is that at this point in the programme’s history, the cast was a truly tight-knit group – Levene describes the cast as “a band of jolly men”. As with Can You Hear the Earth Scream?, Broster’s structuring of The UNIT Family – Part One is superb. A chronological tour through the story behind six adventures, it’s a shame it took so long for the next instalment to turn up; five years after Inferno’s original DVD release in 2006, The UNIT Family – Part Two appeared on the DVD of Day of the Daleks.

Next up is a more unusual item. A contemporary Visual Effects Promo Film advertises the work and skills of the BBC Visual Effects Department, with clips from the model filming for the Doctor Who serials The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno, along with footage from the production of other programmes such as Doomwatch. Watching this proved to be quite a surreal experience, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it’s because this sort of thing isn’t really made any more, but whatever the reason, this item made for an enjoyable (if rather strange!) six minutes.

For Inferno’s original transmission, a scene was cut out because it featured none other than Jon Pertwee as the voice of a radio announcer. It was felt that this was too obvious, so the scene was dropped. However, the scene survived in the version of the story sent for broadcast in North America, and so the deleted scene is presented here in context with some of the surrounding footage. The thing is, is Pertwee really that obvious? I think the scene would have been all right in the episode, and even though I went into it knowing that it featured Pertwee’s voice, I didn’t actually think it’s very recognisable! In any case, if everyone else has a double in the parallel world, why can’t the Doctor…?

When Episode 7 of Inferno was included on BBC Video’s The Pertwee Years VHS in 1992, Jon Pertwee recorded an introduction to it, and this is presented here. Pertwee appears in front of the iconic BBC Television Centre, speaking proudly of his association with the building and recalling fond memories of his fellow cast members such as Courtney and Levene. The clip of Pertwee’s very first scene in Doctor Who (falling out of the TARDIS in Spearhead from Space) is played, before he directly introduces the final episode of Inferno. This is a wonderful curiosity, and Pertwee’s enthusiasm and showmanship is immediately obvious.

The Photo Gallery is the same as on the previous DVD, with over six minutes of photographs from the production of Inferno included. There isn’t a huge amount to say about it, other than that it’s a comprehensive and solid selection of images. As well as the usual Radio Times listings, there is another PDF item included as per the original DVD: the entire 1971 Doctor Who Annual. There are plenty of PDF items on the DVDs that I love, but relatively speaking, I’m less interested in the Annuals (though I do still think it’s a shame they ceased to be included on newer releases, because they’re a nice thing to have on the discs). But that’s just a matter of personal interest – there’s nothing specifically wrong with them!

Two Easter Eggs are hidden somewhere on the menus of this release. One was included on the previous DVD, and is wonderful for a title sequence geek like me. But the other one is brand new to this Special Edition, and is off-cut footage from one of the new special features. The Coming Soon trailer is for another Jon Pertwee adventure from the following season, The Mind of Evil. Gareth Randall has once again done a fantastic job cutting it together, with much prominence given to the fact that the story has been restored to full colour for the first time in over four decades.


None of the original PAL 625-line videotapes of Inferno survive, as they were wiped as part of the BBC’s archival junking policy which lasted up until the late 1970s. Thankfully however, all seven episodes exist on other formats: 16mm black-and-white film recordings (or ‘telerecordings’) made by BBC Enterprises for overseas sale to territories which had not yet adopted colour television, and NTSC 525-line colour transmission videotapes recovered from Canada. When Inferno was first released on DVD back in 2006, the restoration for that release was based around the 525-line tapes, which were put through a process called Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC). The conversion of the original 50i tapes to the North American 60i format back in the day was understandably nowhere near as sophisticated as modern standards conversion technology, and merely doing a regular modern conversion back to 50i would produce ghastly results, with extreme juddering and ghosting. So, the BBC’s R&D department pioneered an alternative means of working with North American tapes of this kind. Thanks to very complex mathematical formulae, the RSC process is able to ‘unpick’ the fields of the standards converted video to restore the genuine original 50i motion. The lines of resolution lost in the original conversion are gone for good, so RSC pictures are upscaled from 525 lines. This results in video that isn’t as sharp or detailed as the original PAL version would have been, but the original interlaced motion is fully intact. This was the method used to restore the original DVD. The new one employs a different technique, but RSC still has a part to play.

This new DVD utilises a method first used in this way on The Claws of Axos Special Edition last year. To take advantage of the extra resolution which is present only in the 16mm film recordings, these have been used as the basis of the restoration this time around, with VidFIRE used to restore the interlaced ‘video look’. In order to restore colour to the episodes, the chrominance (basically the raw colour element of the video, without the more detailed black-and-white image which normally lies beneath it) from the RSC work carried out for the 2006 DVD has been overlaid onto the film recordings to apply the best possible colour to the best possible underlying video. The results are amazing – of course, you’re never going to mistake this for the original 625-line PAL masters, but it’s as close as we’re ever likely to get. Straight RSC has a habit of 'twitching' on fine detail, but that is no longer an issue. The sharpness of the video varies from episode to episode (largely depending upon the quality of the telerecording), but at its best, this restoration doesn’t look a million miles away from how the original videotapes might have looked (this kind of detail is especially striking in some of the close-up shots), while at its worst the picture is softer, but still with vivid colours and excellent stability considering we’re really watching a film recording. The 16mm film sequences within the episodes have been treated in the same way, and although this means that a small amount of double-imaging may have been introduced due to out-of-phase film inserts on the telerecording, it really doesn’t cause a problem as any such effects are almost invisible compared to the state some of the film inserts on other telerecorded serials are in. When preparing the screenshots for this review (looking at a computer screen as opposed to a television on the other side of the room), I noticed that you can sometimes see a small amount of black-and-white video (a very small amount, I must stress) at the extreme left or right sides of the frame. This must be because the RSC chrominance doesn’t always manage to quite cover the whole of the film frame, but it’s not an issue of any major description as far as I’m concerned. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and Inferno has now been restored to a condition as close as possible to how it would have looked when originally broadcast in 1970.

The mono audio has been restored using the best source materials available, and encoded as a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. While it has a different ‘feel’ than it would if we still had the original UK transmission tapes, it generally has a lot of clarity to it. Sometimes, when the background drilling sound effects are at their loudest, dialogue is drowned out a bit, though I imagine this must be as per the original broadcast and only a couple of scenes are affected. The story’s sound effects and minimalistic stock music are well-resolved, with the higher pitched sounds being piercingly sharp.

Below are comparisons between the 2006 and 2013 DVD releases – above is the old release and below is the new one. For the best comparison, open each image in its own tab and flick between the old and new version.


It’s difficult to choose a favourite story of Season 7 (and therefore of the entire Pertwee era), but Inferno certainly has a lot going for it. With a ‘parallel world’ concept fresh to the series, wonderful direction from Camfield and Letts and a massively tense atmosphere, Inferno can only be a highlight of all fifty years of Doctor Who’s existence. The cast are excellent and while the story outstays its welcome if you try to watch all seven episodes in one go (and it was never imagined that we’d be able to do that), if you watch one or two episodes a day it works fantastically. This is one Doctor Who story which could genuinely be described as scary, with Project Inferno effectively being a ticking time-bomb for the entire world – and just this once, it might actually be the end. The two new extras are fantastic, setting aside the slight imbalance of the Dr Forever! feature. I don’t use the term “must-buy” lightly, but I doubt it will ever be much more relevant than it is here.

9 OUT OF 10

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