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Recap / Doctor Who S7 E4 "Inferno"

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Even in a hellish alternate reality, Lethbridge-Stewart will always be packing heat...

Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart: Your identity is being checked with Central Records. When we know who you are, the real interrogation will begin.
The Doctor: But I don't exist in your world!
Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart: Then you won't feel the bullets when we shoot you.

The one where the Doctor goes dumpster diving.

Written by Don Houghton. This seven-episode serial first aired from May 9 to June 20, 1970.

Doctor Who's first dabbling in an Alternate Universe. Professor Eric Stahlman theorizes that a new energy source, "Stahlman's Gas", lies beneath the Earth's crust and UNIT are providing security for the drilling operation to exploit this useful resource. The drilling strikes a green goo which regresses anyone who touches it into a beastlike "Primord", which is drawn to heat. Unfortunately, Stahlman is driven to disregard safety precautions, and he ignores every attempt at slowing down and being more cautious.

The Doctor's attachment to the project is two-fold. He's curious about the scientific effects of penetrating the Earth's crust, and he's using the power from the project's nuclear reactor to run experiments which aim to get the TARDIS operating again. While taking an accidentally overpowered test flight, he ends up discovering a barrier he can't get through, and his curiosity is piqued. However his altercations with Stahlman reach the breaking point, and Stahlman cuts off his nuclear power. The Doctor manages to restore it just long enough to take off again, but the power is again cut, trapping him in a parallel universe where Britain is a fascist dictatorship. The Brigadier is now Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart (with an eyepatch and no moustache), while Liz Shaw struts around in kinky dominatrix boots. The Doctor does everything he can to stop the drilling, which is more advanced than it is in his universe, but he is ultimately unsuccessful and penetration zero is achieved with disastrous results.

One by one, the alternate versions of the base's staff make a Heel–Face Turn and join the Doctor's cause, but honesty compels him to reveal that he can't possibly save them — they'll all have to make a Heroic Sacrifice to get him back to his own dimension, and the only thing they can do is maybe save their regular world counterparts. The Brigade-Leader is killed while trying to force the Doctor to save him, and the Doctor escapes as the parallel Earth is destroyed.

Returning to the "real" world, the Doctor warns the others of the dangers, but is not believed. That is, until Stahlman himself is transformed into a Primord. The Doctor kills him with icy blasts from a fire-extinguisher and manages to stop the drilling just in time.

Finally, the Doctor announces that he's finished repairing the TARDIS console, that the Brigadier is a "pompous, self-opinionated idiot" and that he's leaving. He flips a switch and vanishes, only to reappear moments later through the door, explaining sheepishly that he materialised on the local rubbish tip.

The production team had been looking for an excuse to get rid of the old console prop, which had fallen into disrepair over the years and was becoming too much of a hassle to fix, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. The next time the TARDIS console appeared, it was given a new prop that was mostly similar to the old one, but sported a sleeker, simplified central column fit for the '70s. The new design would last for the remainder of Jon Pertwee's tenure.

They also disposed of Liz Shaw in the gap between series — Caroline John had become pregnant, though no-one knew that at the time and it was just felt that the character wasn't working out. However, this decision hadn't been made at the time of filming, so Liz never got a "goodbye scene". One attempt to rectify this in the Expanded Universe was in the Missing Adventures novel The Scales of Injustice. Shortly beforehand, two texts stories in consecutive Doctor Who Yearbooks had a go. Over in the audio continuity, 2013's "Vengeance of the Stones" gave a different explanation for this and for how Mike Yates, who debuts in the next story, started working with UNIT — not the first time UNIT continuities got knotted in a twist.

The Doctor Who Expanded Universe takes the "fascist empire" angle and runs with it by having the tyrannical overlord of Earth be an alternate Third Doctor. (There is no indication of this in the actual story, which on the contrary heavily implies that the Doctor was only able to travel to that universe because he didn't already exist in it, but this is Hand Waved as it being a different incarnation, much like in the other multi-Doctor stories.) The novels claim that the face on posters of the dictator (actually that of BBC special effects expert Jack Kine) was also one of the faces offered for the Second Doctor to regenerate into in The War Games.


  • All There in the Script: The Primords are only ever referred to as such in the closing credits.
  • Alternate Reality Episode: The Doctor winds up in an Alternate Universe where it's implied that he was never there to help Earth out when it needed him. Britain has become a fascist dictatorship, his usual allies are no-nonsense jackboots who've never met him and thus are much harder to persuade, and the drilling project that threatens Earth in the main timeline has already progressed to the point of irreversibility, resulting in Earth's destruction. The Expanded Universe would indicate that in this universe, the Doctor became the dictator himself, thus making him humanity's oppressor rather than its savior. The Doctor we know eventually manages to get back to his own universe and stop the drilling there in time, but is left traumatized by the events that transpired in the other universe.
  • Alternate Universe: in which Britain has been a Republic since at least 1943. When the Doctor asks what happened to the Royal Family, the Brigade Leader says that they were all executed.
  • And Then John Was a Zombie: Anyone exposed to the goo, or touched by a Primord becomes a Primord.
  • Apocalypse How: The alternate Earth apparently experiences a Class X, as the Doctor tells the alternate Inferno team that within the next few days the world will blow itself apart. We don't see the actual destruction of that Earth, but we see it very shortly before the implied end, with lava exploding throughout the country and a wall of lava advancing through the Project area.
    • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe books retcon this into a Class 4, in which the planet remains physically intact but is reduced to a burnt-out wasteland, with those (un)fortunate enough to have survived the catastrophe having all become Primords in the meantime.
  • Beard of Evil: Inverted, as the Brigade Leader is clean-shaven, unlike his moustachioed counterpart. Likewise, the parallel universe Stahlman also lacks his prime universe's beard, but his personality is 99% the same. The 1% difference is the willingness to commit murder so his project remains on track.
    • Amusingly, later stories in the Expanded Universe has seen to it that it is actually played straight with the Leader, as he was made an alternate version of the Third Doctor, seeing how he sports a moustache in contrast to his clean-shaven prime universe counterpart. He is visually partially based on Oswald Mosley.
  • Big Bad: Professor Stahlman. For the most part, he's an Unwitting Instigator of Doom, but his resorting to threats and sabotage so nothing stops "his" project are the cause of most of the problems in the story.
  • Big Electric Switch: Two of them, the old-fashioned kind, control the power to the TARDIS console during the Doctor's experiments.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Okay, so he actually dies second onscreen (and third overall) but Harry Slocum the technician is the first of the Inferno personnel to become a Primord.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The alternate universe ranks are based on English translations of Waffen-SS ranks.
  • Bottle Episode: The story takes place entirely on sets already built for UNIT and a bit of location filming in a generic refinery. There are monsters in the story, but they are Technically Living Zombie versions of the main cast requiring minimal makeup, and much of the supporting cast is playing both their usual characters and their evil counterpartsinvoked. There are few effects beyond some fight sequences and Stock Footage.
  • Cassandra Truth: The Doctor tries telling the Brigade leader and alternate Shaw the truth, but they don't believe him.
  • Chair Reveal: Of the Brigade Leader.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Bromley, the scientist who gets turned in to a Primord. In both universes he rather tenaciously eludes capture and keeps turning up. This is especially true in the original 'verse, where he simply disappears after the second episode only to make a rather abrupt reappearance in Episode Seven.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The Third Doctor, as usual, gets creative with whatever he's got lying around. And his fists.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: In both universes, Stahlman conceals his mutated hands with white gloves as he starts turning into a Primord.
  • Crossing The Burned Bridge: After the Doctor reappears a mere few moments after declaring the Brigadier "a pompous, self-opinionated idiot", and now in need of said Brigadier's help with recovering his TARDIS console. The Brigadier just repeats the Doctor's previous insult in a completely deadpan manner, to which the Doctor, deflated and humbled, says he shouldn't bear a grudge over a few hastily chosen words.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Being a facist hasn't stopped the Brigade Leader from sharing the same snarky traits as his Good Counterpart:
    • "Then you won't feel the bullets when we shoot you.".
  • Day of the Jackboot: The UK has been a fascist state since at least 1943. The story does not explain whether this was due to conquest by Nazi Germany, or a home-grown fascist movement that was more successful than the real-world British Union of Fascists and others.
  • Decoy Hiding Place: Used by the Doctor when he's being pursued by the soldiers in the alternate world.
  • Downer Ending: An entire alternate world, filled with people the Doctor knows in the original world and has spent the last four episodes trying desperately to save, winds up being reduced to a uninhabitable hell-world infested with proto-human zombies. Furthermore, the Doctor's last-second escape leaves him with the sight of those few redeemable people left in the world about to be killed by lava. About the only good thing to come from this adventure is that the Doctor is at least able to prevent it from happening to our own world. But he's still left essentially scarred from the experience in the other world. Hell, "The Mind of Evil" shows that the memory of this is his worst fear.
    The Doctor: Not long ago I saw a world consumed by fire...
  • Dug Too Deep: Unleashing an ancient, mutagenic slime that turns people into hostile, aggressive fire monsters? Yeah, there are definitely better things to drill into.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: And for once the Doctor is completely unable to stop it. All he can do is get the hell out minutes before it's utterly destroyed.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: The serial presents a unique variation of this, as the Doctor both saves the day and fails to prevent a world-ending apocalypse. The TARDIS accidentally moves "sideways" into a parallel universe, where everyone dies, but he successfully prevents the same event in his reality — with the unwitting instigator of the original problem being the only major guest character to die.
  • Evil Doppelgänger: Subverted. The RSF versions of the Doctor's friends aren't exactly clean-cut good guys. Platoon Under Leader Benton is vicious and ruthless, Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart is paranoid and cowardly, and Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw... isn't a scientist, but when they realize how screwed their world is, they help the Doctor get back to his TARDIS console, though the Brigade Leader does attempt to kill him before escaping. Sutton however comes across as decent in both worlds, though is implied to be in trouble with the Government in the Fascist world.
    • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe suggests the leader of the fascistic alternate Britain was actually one of the possible persons the Second Doctor could have regenerated into.
  • Evil Is Burning Hot: The Primords give off tremendous amounts of heat, so much so anything they touch is burning hot for ages afterward. The one shot by UNIT falls against the wall and leaves scorch-marks where its body presses against it. The goo itself is also burning hot, but given where it's coming from, no surprise.
  • Evil Is Hammy: The normally calm and subtle Brig becomes the wonderfully hammy Brigade Leader.
  • Expendable Alternate Universe: Subverted, as the Doctor is traumatized by its destruction, and would carry the memory of the event with him for a good while. Despite how horrible the world is, with a Fascist Britain, the Doctor still tells the few remaining members of the project he wishes he could save them.
  • Eyepatch After Time Skip: Not a time skip, but the Brigade-Leader sports an eyepatch, showing that history unfolded very differently for him than it did for The Brigadier.
  • Eyepatch of Power: The Brigade Leader has one. Subverted, it's implied he lost a sword fight.
    • As a prank during production, everyone just showed up wearing eyepatches... and everyone cracked first when Nicholas Courtney just carried on in-character as if nothing were unusual.
  • Faux Action Guy: Amusingly gender-inverted (well it is an alternate universe). The Brigade Leader is a cowardly loudmouth while Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw is a tough leader in a crisis.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Director Stahlmann is marginally more willing to listen than Professor Stahlman but is more willing to have dissenters ''murdered' to keep his doomed project running.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Stahlmann is absolutely right about there being an awesome amount of untapped power beneath the Earth's crust. In the parallel universe, he succeeds in releasing it. Unfortunately, there is enough there to destroy a whole planet.
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: Inverted, in the good universe Britain is a constitutional monarchy (which, presumably like the real world Britain, was at this time shedding itself of its imperial legacy) and in the "evil" one it's a fascist "republic".
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: The Brigade Leader has a nasty scar to go with his nasty personality.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Sutton gets out a good, loud and angry "HECK" when Primord Stahlman sabotages everything.
  • Head Inthe Sand Management: Professor Stahlman refuses to listen to the concerns or advice of anyone in his team of experts.
  • Here We Go Again!: Briefly employed when the Doctor ends up in the alternate universe - he finds himself encountering the same two Primords as before, in the same place (atop a huge gasometer). Wyatt, the soldier, even dies the same way he did originally. Only after Wyatt's death do things begin occurring differently again. However on seeing Sir Keith survived a car crash while he died in one in the alternate Earth the Doctor realises things could go differently.
  • Heroic BSoD: The Doctor sees the alternate world burn as he leaves it and goes into a coma for a good chunk of the following episode.
    • We find out later that this becomes his greatest fear.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Discussed; the Brigade Leader complains about having to do this in order to save the Doctor's Earth, but Section Leader Shaw points out that they only have a few days to live whatever they do. In the end, sticking around to help the Doctor does condemn them and the counterparts of Sutton and Williams to earlier deaths — the Brigade Leader gets shot dead by Shaw, who along with Sutton and Williams is presumably killed when the utility hut is swallowed by a lava flow — but they wouldn't have survived much longer either way.
  • Hooked Up Afterwards: After spending the entire serial flirting back and forth, Greg Sutton and Petra Williams are seen hugging at the end of the emergency and later drive back to London together.
  • Immune to Bullets: Zigzagged with the Primords. It's not so much that they're bullet-proof... just that it doesn't help much. The first one shot is shot through the heart, twice, and it still takes a while to keel over.
  • In Spite of a Nail: In an alternate universe with thirty years or more of historical and political divergence, the same drilling operation is still being run by the same people, although some of them are in slightly different positions or ended up there by different routes. Even more this trope, minor details are the same: notably, the same people have been infected by the green stuff on the same day, even though it was a highly contingent accident. However the drilling is slightly ahead, by about 46 hours. Sir Keith surviving the car crash which killed him in the alternate Earth helps the Doctor realise, though, that these universes are still parallel and the destruction of the world can be stopped.
  • Insufferable Genius: Good lord, Professor Stahlman. Throughout the entire serial he acts like a complete Jerkass, blatantly disregarding valid and sensible precautions, insulting military and scientific personnel frequently in their faces and sabotaging equipment that might as well be saying "STOP DRILLING INTO THE EARTH, YOU MORON".
    • He's so hostile towards everyone and everything with half a brain telling him to stop the project, he can come across as a Know-Nothing Know-It-All.
      • Unbeknownst to everyone, though, he'd been infected with Mutagenic Goo. But because he started out as an Insufferable Genius, people were slow to realise. It helps that the transformation does squat to his personality.
    • The Doctor has his moments as well in this episode, as the "pompous, self-opinionated idiot" Brigadier can attest.
  • Interdimensional Travel Device: The TARDIS console transports the Doctor to a parallel universe where Britain is governed by Fascists.
  • It Can Think: Despite their inhuman screeching, zombie gait and general appearance, the Primords aren't stupid. They actually know how to operate machinery. And how to break it.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Regular universe Greg Sutton is grumpy about being called over to the project, and more than a little forward towards women in a way that's kind of creeptastic these days, but he still knows his stuff, and tries calling out Stahlman... for all the good it does.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Sutton may come across as really sexist towards Petra, mansplaining her job to her and referring to her as "darling", but is right to point out the dangers of the pressure of the drillhead.
    • The Doctor may be insulting and disrespectful to Stahlman but is nevertheless completely correct about how dangerous and world-threatening the project really is.
  • Kick the Dog: Stahlman threatens Sir Keith's driver into delaying the man's return to the project.
  • Kryptonite Factor: The Primords are extremely sensitive to the cold. A good old fashion fire extinguisher can paralyse or even kill them.
  • Malevolent Mugshot: Of Jack Kine.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Unlike the Badass Normal Deadpan Snarker Brigadier of our universe, the Brigade Leader has an overbearing arrogant facade and is a Large Ham but turns out to be a Dirty Coward who panics in the face of danger and gets easily beaten up by Greg Sutton.
  • Mirror Universe: Complete with mirror counterparts with sinister shades, eyepatches, and/or scars. Although, demonstrating that Star Trek's version was not yet ubiquitous, the mirror universe actually has less facial hair than the usual one.
  • Mutagenic Goo: The slime that turns humans into primoids.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The alternate timeline Britain is obviously run by Nazis.
  • Never Was This Universe: The alternate universe is similar to ours, except everyone's a fascist.
  • No Indoor Voice: Greg Sutton is this. Even when you know he is talking normally, he speaks louder than is necessary.
  • Noodle Incident: Two in fact.
    • The Doctor heard the same sound produced by the Primords at Krakatoa during the volcanic eruption.
    • Upon learning that the royal family, the Doctor recalls knowing “her” (presumably the incumbent Queen) great-grandfather in Paris.
  • Oh, Crap!: The Doctor gets one when he is about to leave UNIT with the TARDIS console. Before he goes, he tells off Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in no uncertain terms. Then, he rematerializes... in the garbage heap next door, realizing that an irate Brig is within earshot...
  • One-Word Title: The first one for the series.
    • In serial titles, at any rate; the series has previously used one-word titles for some of the individual episodes during the William Hartnell era.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The Republic of Britain, a fascist dictatorship explained in Expanded Universe material to be under the control of an alternate version of the Third Doctor. This particular version appears to draw after not only the Third Reich, but also British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley's vision of a far-right Britain, to the point where an expy of him can be seen in a photograph in the Brigade Leader's office.
  • Perp Sweating: Used by the Brigade Leader on the Doctor to find out who he is and where he came from, complete with the traditional desk-lamp-in-the-face. It's hard to take seriously in a series with Mind Probes and other terrible tortures.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The Doctor finds an already mutating Stahlman about to smash an important circuit. The man attacks him, so the Doctor paralyses him with the old Venusian Akkido. The Brigader comes in wondering what's going on, but rather than just saying "I found him about to smash something and he attacked me" the Doctor... doesn't, instead just telling the Brig to follow him.
  • Pride Before a Fall: Stahlman is too proud to admit his theories could be wrong. He ends up a witless beast in both universes.
  • Putting on the Reich: If the uniforms didn't sell it, the goose-stepping and vaguely Nazi like salutes should. Also the "Leader" ranks are literally translated from the SS ranking system.
  • Railing Kill: Done to Wyatt by himself when he overbalances while attempting to hit the Doctor with his rifle.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: The only Doctor Who story outside of the First or Second Doctor's eras not to feature a specially-recorded soundtrack. Instead, various stock music cues — most of which were composed by Delia Derbyshire, arranger of the show's theme tune, thus making this the closest she came to actually scoring a Doctor Who story — are used throughout.
  • Red Right Hand:
    • Stahlman's hand turns green in both universes, slowly spreading the goo through his body. He hides it with gloves.
    • If you look carefully, Nicholas Courtney appears to endow the Brigade-Leader with a Richard III -like hunchback and deformed left arm, whose hand he always keeps in his pocket.
  • Redshirt: The alternate Benton lasts a while, but when everything finally goes horribly wrong, he's touched by Stalhman, and slowly and painfully turns into a Primord. And the audience sees every minute of it.
  • Reverse the Polarity: The same catastrophe is averted in both universes by "reversing all systems"
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Writer Don Houghton was inspired by a scientific article he had read about five years earlier, concerning an American proposal to drill more than five kilometres through the Earth's mantle in the Pacific Ocean to the Mohorovicic discontinuity, the boundary between the planet's mantle and its crust.
  • Schmuck Bait: The Doctor to warp 2 Benton: "Have you ever seen anything like this?" Cue Venusian Karate when the dope walks over to see what the Doctor means.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The mutagen under the Earth crust.
  • Shout-Out: The Doctor complains about the Mirror Universe UNIT's scepticism about his TARDIS, by asking them if they expected "Batman at the controls". Also a Take That! as, at the time, Batman was what ITV were running against Doctor Who.
  • Sinister Shades: The mirror Stahlman wears them.
  • Special Edition Title: Uniqeuely for the Third Doctor's era, the story title, episode number and writer are not shown in the opening "time tunnel" sequence; instead they are imposed over stock footage of lava flow.
  • Strange Salute: The fascist army of an alternate-history UK had a salute sort of like the Vulcan one, but without the split fingers. This is actually the gesture that Adolf Hitler himself often personally used to return others' Nazi salutes.
  • Technically Living Zombie: The Primoids.
  • Tempting Fate: As the Doctor tries to stop the drilling, Sir Keith says that there's no evidence of an emergency situation. As if on cue, the zombified Stahlman enters.
  • Took a Level in Dumbass: For whatever reason, after spending the whole serial trying to be the voice of reason, Sir Keith becomes stupidly unhelpful at the last hurdle.
  • Truth in Television: In the 1930s, Britain really did have a burgeoning fascist movement, the British Union of Fascists, led by Sir Oswald Mosleynote . Elvis Costello fans might know him as the inspiration for the scathing "Less than Zero". Fortunately, the BUF were a bit too right-wing for the times and never got elected, but if they'd been better at playing on the public's fear of a Communist revolution like Hitler had, who knows how history might have turned out...
  • Unexpectedly Dark Episode: Doctor Who was no stranger to heavy plots, but "Inferno" is far more brutal than most of the stories before and after it. The Doctor gets trapped in an alternate universe where Britain is a People's Republic of Tyranny, he shows up too late to save that world from an apocalyptic, hubris-induced disaster and instead can only try to get back to his own world to prevent the same thing from happening there, everyone in the alternate universe grows increasingly nihilistic as they realize just how doomed they are, and the Doctor is so heavily traumatized by the experience that it forms the basis of his worst fear: worlds consumed by fire.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The Doctor has an accident with the TARDIS, and finds everything looks strange, there's weird fascist symbols everywhere and guards shooting at him. Hiding, he finds Shaw, but doesn't think there's anything strange about the military uniform she's wearing, or the fact her hairstyle's changed appearance and colour.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Nicholas Courtney does a good job portraying The Brigade Leader as a 'coward breaking down' as John Levene puts it in the commentary.
  • The Virus: The Primords. Stahlman's Ooze is how it is conveyed; if you get some on your hand, you'd better cut your arm off in the next few seconds, before The Virus has time to spread though your bloodstream.
  • Visual Pun: On crossing to the evil fascist universe, instead of UNIT we have a poster with UNITY.
  • The Wall Around the World: The Doctor pushes through a barrier in time and ends up in a Mirror Universe.
  • Was Once a Man: Again, the Primords.
  • We Will Use Manual Labour in the Future: The Doctor speculates that the people working on the Inferno Project in the alternate universe aren't all there by choice, but are slaves.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The Primords can be killed with fire extinguishers. Or more specifically, something as cold as the CO₂ in said fire extinguishers.
  • Zee Rust:
    • The Doctor has invented an automatic door for Bessie's garage, which everyone marvels over.
    • Towards the beginning of the serial the Doctor is assured by one of the scientists that everything is safe... because everything is coated in layers of asbestos!


Video Example(s):


Doctor Who - "Inferno"

Fitting its plot about a volcanic apocalypse, the titles for "Inferno" are overlaid atop stock footage of lava rather than displaying them during the howlaround sequence.

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Example of:

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