I while back I wrote up some reviews of the science fiction serials of Nigel Kneale – some wonderful relics of a bygone age. I do feel that it would be amiss to talk about the age of British science fiction serials without bringing up the franchise that reigned supreme over the grenre and format – Dr. Who.
Dr. Who is a British institution and global phenomenon, and I’m not going to try to do a summation of the franchise or talk about it as a whole. There are a lot of great videos and essays you can find on the topic. Instead I’m going to look at just one Dr. Who serial, Inferno. The reason for this is that it has often been compared to Kneale’s style of work, and is generally considered one of the best of its era. So, the question is, looking back – does it hold up?
I’ve watched some of early Dr. Who and I must say that while I have to applaud their imaginativeness, many of the early serials suffer from their format rather than benefit from it. Rarely does it occour that every moment in a multi-episode serial is used well, and the plots often suffer from recursion or stalling in order to fill out their run time. You get the feeling that often the writers were struggling to make their deadlines and fill the time, which I suppose is part of the charm. Inferno is so impressive, however, because it manages to keep its engagement over seven episodes.
The general idea is that the titular Doctor (the third incarnation of the character, played by John Pertwee), is performing experiments while sharing the power of a drilling project in England (in Dr. Who, all the most major scientific projects in the world naturally are located in England). The project in question is headed by the maniacally obsessive Professor Stahlman and seeks to pierce the Earth’s crust. There is a general sense of foreboding about the project, exacerbated when scientists exposed to some of the liquid dredged up by the drill start to turn into violent, heat loving mutants. The Doctor’s experiments end up sending him “sideways” in time, visiting the same drill site in a dystopian alternate Britain.
The sequence in the dictatorial Britain forms a sort of “story within a story”, and is the reason Inferno works so well where other long serials falter – just as we might be losing interest in the “our world” plot, we get a new set of stakes to care about, as the Doctor must avoid being sent to the firing squad by less scrupulous versions of the cast from his Britain. The interior story also allows the serial to become shockingly grim, with not everyone escaping the fiery cataclysm that occours when the drill project is complete. The serial can have its apocalyptic bad ending, but the Doctor then gets to return to his own timeline and take another crack at stopping the disaster. The dark mood seems very much inspired by Kneale type serials, and with its rampaging mutants and flowing lava, it’s a great take on Armageddon.
The cast is all great, and I must give kudos to Pertwee as the Doctor. The Third Doctor is in somewhat of a unique situation in that the metaplot of the show has him stuck on Earth, instead of freely roaming the cosmos. Pertwee is excellent at playing the Doctor like a tense, cadged animal – he knows he’s smarter than everyone else on Earth, but for once, he can’t just leave.
Indeed, the serial is shocking prescient and captured some of the exact feeling of hopelessness and frustration that you might experience talking to a climate change denier. A blind focus on “results” and personal achievement leads to the destruction of one world. Even if his Britain isn’t a 1984 style dictatorship, the Doctor must struggle against much of the same sorts of stubborn insanity to save the day. The Third Doctor, who is a man of science and rationality, with the trappings of a genteel Victorian dandy, is the perfect foil to the forces of thuggery and irrationality. I give Inferno a solid recommendation if you enjoy 1970’s era sci-fi.