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11 May 2018 @ 08:07 pm
The Randomiser: Inferno  
So from the Pertwee story fan wisdom has proclaimed the worst, to the Pertwee story fan wisdom has proclaimed the best - although fan wisdom, as I have perceived it, is probably less unanimous on that point.

Just as The Time Monster, in the event, was a lot better than I had expected, this one wasn't really as stunningly good. I hadn't told Tame Layman about fan wisdom in advance for this one (because I don't feel one needs to brace oneself for something that's likely to be good). I'd say he was patchily enthusiastic and certainly quite keen to talk about bits of it, but it didn't blow him away in any sense.

There are really three things going on in Inferno - an attempt to drill through the Earth's crust, people mutating into "Primords" (though I don't think they are ever called such in the show), and a trip to a parallel universe in which everyone is a facist and the Brigadier wears an eye-patch.

The Primords are the weakest part of the story. They are never adequately explained (or even explained at all really) and their only purpose is to inject random peril at convenient moments and, arguably, to handily take the obsessive Professor Stahlmann out of play before he can destroy the world in the final episode.

The drilling through the Earth's crust (to unleash untold energy resources) wants, I think, to be the thematic heart of the story. I think the story wants to say something about man's hubris and exploitation of the planet. I don't think the story ever quites get there though. I suspect this is in part because the parallel universe is far a more interesting and novel idea (at least in terms of Doctor Who) and so overshadows whatever message about man and the planet the story is aiming for. But I think also, the way the story plays out, downplays the message. In both universes Professor Stahlmann is an objectionable obsessive who is driving the project too fast and has alienated many of the people who work with him to the extent that they are actively attempting to get the project shut down, fearing some kind of drilling accident (but I don't think anyone is particularly concerned the drilling will destroy the world). He in turn, it gradually transpires, is not averse to sabotage and murder to keep it running (though it is possible this is only as a result of the fact he is beginning to mutate into a Primord - since they appear to want the drilling to continue though why is as unexplained as what they are). At any rate, the Doctor largely considers the whole thing a side show until catastrophe actually occurs in the parallel world. I think the mysterious unexplained green goop that turns people into Primords is supposed to suggest there is more at stake than a nasty accident with a big drill, and probably tie into the environmental message, but it is so unexplained that its impact is low. We, the viewer, know something bad is going on because, well, we know we're watching Doctor Who, but within the story actual evidence of a serious world-threatening problem arrives quite late. While the character interplay and politics is mostly good stuff, I don't think it helps the theme. All this assuming this is the theme, and not a theme retroactively imposed upon the story by fan wisdowm.

The parallel world to which the Doctor is transported halfway through the story is the most successful element. As Tame Layman said, the actors are clearly having a lot of fun. He was less keen on the fact that it got destroyed at the end, though it is slightly beyond me how he thinks the story could possibly have worked otherwise (I suppose with better indication in the run up to penetration of the Earth's crust that this was a really, really bad idea). By chosing to show only a small part of this facist universe, and a high security project at that, the show isn't over-burdened with trying to create a consistent world. It is enough to show how well-known characters have been changed by their new environment. The Writer's Room podcast observed that in this parallel world the female character's roles move up from the "assistant" status they have in the "real" world. Given this is the 1970s, there are only two female speaking parts. Liz Shaw takes a sideways step from companion to Security Leader and I think you could argue that this isn't really a move up - when not the Doctor's companion, she's a professor. The other woman is Petra Williams, who starts the story framed in the "real" world as Stahlman's PA, where in the parallel world she is clearly his scientific second-in-command. However, once we return to the "real" world she seems to have morphed into this role there as well and is the one with the technical capability to shut down the drilling at the last moment. Just as I think the story is a little muddled in its presentation of the danger posed by the drilling, I think it is a little muddled in whether it thinks Petra Williams' role is administrative or technical.

The overall resolution to the story is, ultimately, a bit disappointing. Broadly speaking, because our world is less efficient than the parallel world, the drilling is a few hours behind which means Stahlman mutates into a Primord (and so essentially loses control of the project) before the critical moment occurs. At the same time, the government official, Sir Keith (assasinated at Stahlman's behest in the parallel world - or so we infer), survives and is able to order the project shut down. While the Doctor runs around in the final episode prophesying doom, his actions actually have fairly little effect on the outcome.

I feel I'm being very negative here when, in fact, a lot of this is very, very good. It just doesn't quite all slot into place as a coherent whole in the way I was expecting. In many ways it has six excellent episodes and then one slightly disappointing one at the end. In the initial episodes in "our" world, we get to see a large scientific/technical project with the Doctor conducting his own experiments on the fringes. This feels very season 7, this sense that the Doctor and UNIT are grounded in semi-realistic institutions and have to deal with them in semi-realistic ways. It is notable for featuring a sympathetic civil servant (unlike most civil servants from the Pertwee era). Liz Shaw works particularly well in these sorts of settings, her credentials as a serious scientist allowing her to fit naturally into the environment. The episodes set in the parallel world are equally good, not only in providing contrasts to the characters we know but, in episode six, creating an excellent atmosphere of urgency and impending doom. I think the final episode just fails to quite deliver the necessary pay off.

We've now watched all of season 7 of Doctor Who. I do think it is an interesting, and generally extremely high quality, Doctor Who season and it definitely feels rather different (to me at any rate) to anything that came before or after. People often describe it as more "adult" but I'm not sure that quite captures it. I think it is trying to depict UNIT, and therefore the Doctor, as embedded in a wider network of organisations and institutions and, to an extent, portray that network in a more complex fashion than Doctor Who normally attempts (the three longer stories are full of multiple incidental characters with varying perspectives and agendas). I get a sense in a lot of these stories of a plot that is driven by the actions of mutiple characters (chief of which is the Doctor), rather than a plot that is driven primarily by the actions of the Doctor and an antagonist (obviously a format encouraged particularly by the imminent introduction of the Master).

Season 7 is also working quite hard to avoid the problem that the "only" present-day Earth stories you can tell are alien invasion or mad scientist. While Spearhead from Space (the shortest of the four and the new Doctor's introductory story) has a fairly straightforward alien invasion plot, the others all have interesting things to do with the basic tropes they are working from.

We get echoes of Season 7 through the remaining UNIT stories, but from here on the show becomes more focused on UNIT primarily as the Doctor's military backup, the problems he faces become more straightforward, and the Doctor moves more centre stage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I do wonder what the show would be like if it had continued making stories in the style of Season 7 a bit longer.

This entry was originally posted at https://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/501374.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on May 12th, 2018 10:11 pm (UTC)
I've also been bothered by some of the things you point out about lack of explanation, particularly when and why does the Doctor decide that the world is going to be destroyed? Presumably he wouldn't have left at the end of episode two if he thought it was going to destroy the world, yet by episode four he seems to believe just that. That said, I think the story does triumph over its lack of explanation. Things make a kind of associative sense even if they don't make actual sense and I've long felt Doctor Who needs conviction and aesthetic coherence more than strict logic or scientific accuracy. The excellent direction (perhaps surprisingly good, given that original director Douglas Camfield dropped out partway through due to health problems) and the disconcerting incidental music (the only post-1960s story with a score drawn entirely from stock music, which perhaps makes it seem stranger) give the whole thing a disturbingly oppressive feel, especially as the evil alternate Earth (possibly Stalinist rather than Fascist - the script seems to deliberately play it both ways) feels brutal in a way that Doctor Who rarely manages . Just compare with the next fascist Earth, in Day of the Daleks, which is a good story, but a little bit more kids' TV. The real problem is, as you said, the final episode. Having destroyed the world, where do you go next?
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on May 19th, 2018 04:53 pm (UTC)
There's a fine line to be drawn, I think, between trying to explain too much and not explaining enough - and where it falls depends upon the aesthetic of a particular story to an extent. I do think this needed more explanation - though I agree that the atmosphere is excellent.