Pumping slime, filling time and Inferno (1970)

inferno

There’s lots I don’t get about Inferno. But let’s start with goo.

At Project Inferno, they’re busy drilling through the Earth’s crust, when a bright green goo starts oozing through the drill head. This goo is remarkable stuff. It causes a physical change of the people unfortunate enough to touch it, transforming them into hairy, murderous beasts. It also heats their bodies, to the point where they can superheat wrenches and scorch walls, although it leaves their clothing unsinged. So far, so standard for a Doctor Who sci-fi gunge.

But this goo causes more than just a physical change. It also imbues the people it infects which a desire to perpetuate, even accelerate, Project Inferno. The first of its victims, Harry Slocum (Walter Randall), turns bestial and then acts with sophisticated intent to spark a surge in the nuclear reactor. In the parallel world to which the Doctor (a uncommonly intense Jon Pertwee) travels, infected technician Bromley (Ian Fairburn) fights his way towards the drillhead, intent on mayhem. And when chief crazy Stahlman (Olaf Pooley) eventually succumbs to the ooze, he does everything he can to keep the drill going, including infecting others for the cause. This seems like more than a natural phenomenon. Surely there’s a intelligence behind this ooze?

If there is, Inferno tells us nothing about it. Why has the goo only appeared now, as the drilling reaches its climax? Is it programmed somehow with instructions which its victims have to play out? Surely this is someone’s malevolent plan?

Apparently not. Apparently it’s a natural reaction to the drilling. If so, it makes Inferno an odd story, one that warns if you mess with nature, it will bite back of its own accord. It’s a bit like In the Forest of the Night, in that it suggests that the Earth has an in-built defence mechanism.

Although that doesn’t make sense either, because why would the Earth unleash a super programmed green goop to transform humans into its own primordial agents, only for those grunts to bring about the planet’s destruction?

“A terrible thing,” the Doctor says at one stage, “a murder without a motive”. Well, a. how would a murder with a motive be any better, but more to the point, b. how about some superpowered green slime without a motive?

****

Next, there’s the extraordinarily unhelpful computer.

Within Project Inferno, there’s a computer, a big shiny featureless box. It’s funny to see it being treated more like a faulty household appliance; it’s accused on being “temperamental”, and there’s talk of it “packing it in” when Stahlman removes a fuse-like microcircuit from it. Still, it’s the device which starts ringing warning bells about the drilling.

It’s a surprisingly prescient machine for something that runs on fuses and looks like an oversize coffee table from Ikea, but it’s not great on communication. We never quite find out what it says. The Doctor tells us that it warns that the drilling be stopped, but it never says why. Other contemporary stories like The Ice Warriors, The Invasion and The Seeds of Death featured computers which could talk. Just as well Inferno’s one is mute, as it might have given the game away:

COMPUTER: The drilling must be halted immediately!

DOCTOR: Why do you say that, computer?

COMPUTER: If drilling continues, green goop will emerge from underground and transform everyone into primitive, yet surprisingly premeditated, beasts! Then when penetration zero occurs, earthquakes and volcanoes will destroy the world!

Still, I’m probably being too hard on it and I certainly shouldn’t compare it unfavorably to today’s technology. It’s just the 1970s equivalent of that unintelligible symbol on your car’s dashboard that lights up when something’s wrong, but doesn’t tell you what it is. It’s that indecipherable error message that pops up on your PC to say ‘run time error no. 17′ but offers no guidance on how to fix it. As I say, unhelpful, but a portent of things to come, in the fictional and the real worlds.

****

The Doctor manages to pad out the whole story by slipping sideways into an alternative universe. There, everything’s a dark fascist nightmare. Liz Shaw’s (Caroline John) a Nazi, the Brigadier’s (Nicholas Courtney) Mussolini and Sergeant Benton’s (John Levene) become a regular. All our supporting characters are there too, in a twisted version of our world. Only our beloved mute computer’s the same, which only goes to show that the barriers of reality itself are no impediment to the market reach of Ikea.

But here’s the thing: where’s this universe’s Doctor? Perhaps he’s dead or was never exiled to Earth or perhaps, as someone somewhere once suggested, he’s regenerated to look like Jack Kine and become the tin pot dictator on this world. It’s a question no-one ever asks, but it’s an opportunity missed. Perhaps the later episodes might have had an interesting left turn, had our Doctor discovered the corpse of his alternate somewhere, or perhaps found him alive and enlisted his help in getting back home.

What’s that you say? An element too much? There’s already so much going on in this story, what with alternative universes, hairy monsters, mad scientists and the end of the flippin’ world. You want to add a duplicate Doctor too?

Frankly, yes. Take a closer look at Inferno and it’s mostly padding. Cutting back and forward from our world to the wicked one takes up some time. As does the stop-start romance of Sutton (Derek Newark) and Petra Williams (Sheila Dunn). And the problem with dual narratives, is events have to happen twice.

It’s only the pacy direction of Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts that keeps the whole thing moving so swiftly. But there’s plenty of room for a bit more plot. I’d certainly take a fascistic Pertwee, but I’d settle for an explanation as to what the hell’s going on.

****

Still, there’s that cliffhanger to Episode 6. Ooh, that’s creepy. As grim as it gets.  Not even dodgy CSO can spoil that one. As the Doctor desperately tries to kick start the TARDIS console, his allies, Elizabeth, Greg and Petra look out of those garage doors as see a wave of lava oozing towards them. Certain death: agonizing, inexorable and inescapable.

I’ll make fun of Inferno until there’s no tomorrow. But truthfully? That shot’s the only one in Doctor Who’s long history that’s ever really scared me. Well played, Inferno. That’s some skillful use of goo.

LINK TO Meglos: both feature cast members from Doctor Who‘s first story (Jacqueline Hill and Derek Newark).

NEXT TIME… We travel with understanding as well as hope (and an elephant) aboard The Ark.

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