Friday, September 5, 2014

Inferno - "Look, I am not mad, I am not a spy and I'm certainly not a political demonstrator."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Inferno - Details

Season 7, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #54) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Doctor Who Gifs
The Doctor Who writer's guide entry for stretching stories so they cover six episodes is to cycle through capture, escape, re-capture, escape again as many times as needed. "Inferno" is a rather ingenious variation on the technique. Here, the old sci-fi chestnut of the parallel universe with evil twins of the characters we know and love is re-purposed so the story that's been started can basically be retold without boring the viewer because Hey, Look, the Good Guy We Like Is Now an Eye Patch Wearing Bad Guy!

It's inevitable for two long-running series of the same genre, covering roughly the same time period, that there are going to be similarities between episodes and themes. I've hit a little patch of DW / Star Trek parallels with the episodes I've been watching recently. "Into the Dalek," in addition to re-covering some territory DW has covered before, called to mind ST:TNG's "I, Borg". (But, hey, aren't the Borg just amped up, competent Cybermen?)  "Inferno," would seem to owe no less a debt to "Mirror, Mirror". What it lacks in originality though, it makes up for in being solid, UNIT-era, environmentalist comfort food.

Jack Graham posted something recently about DW's obsessions, and watching "Inferno" reminded me of one I think he left out. He writes:
People really don't understand this show at all ... Doctor Who is supposed by some to be the 'triumph of romance and intellect over brute force and cynicism'.  Wrong.  Firstly, much of Doctor Who doesn't even recognise a contradiction between romance and intellect on the one hand, and brute force and cynicism on the other.  Secondly, the show is absolutely obsessed with entropy, commodification, fetishism, cannibalism, humans as meat, etc... and that's without getting into even more overt obsessions like class, sadism and tyranny.
The obsession not mentioned is what we might call a hand-wringer's concern about an amoral pursuit of science. If I said to you I had just watched the one where someone had doggedly pursued some discovery/technological breakthrough so they could attain power without carefully considering the risks, which story might you think I was talking about? "Planet of Giants" ? "Tomb of the Cybermen"? "Dalek"?  "The Lazarus Experiment"? "Robot"? Or, "Inferno"?

Let's look at what happens in this story: the Doctor's attempts to 'break the barrier' while trying to get the TARDIS functioning again result in his sideways hop into the alternate universe, he's driven and insufficiently prudent in pursuit of his goal, much like Stahlman is with his drilling. Stahlman's drilling results in green slime from deep within the Earth turning anyone who touches it into Primords -- for some reason, because they needed some more baddies running around to ratchet up the action, I suppose -- and, rather more seriously, is going to essentially turn the world inside-out.

Now, this all makes very little sense. I'm as concerned about fracking causing earthquakes as the next guy, but the Doctor yelling: "That's the sound of this planet screaming out its rage!" and this drilling operation ending the world in flood of lava is patently ridiculous.

When I say I'm concerned about fracking, as I am about deep sea drilling, and nuclear power plants, I have to admit only the last of those is a personal, near-front-of-mind-fear and that's because I live not very far from a nuclear power station, and we've had tornadoes rip through this area. What strikes me as concerning about fracking and the contamination of groundwater, and the earthquakes, and about the possibility of another Deep Water Horizon, is that the scientists and engineers who develop these techniques, like those who split the atom, generally seem to understand the risks and the need to use the technology judiciously. The risk of pursuing new technology isn't mad scientists trying to rule or the destroy the world with the latest weapon, the risk is that technology developed in the context of neo-liberal capitalist societies will be used amorally and imprudently by oligarchs shielded from the consequences of their actions by their wealth and the legal-governmental structures that have been established to ensure they are never accountable for the suffering they cause.

"Inferno," made as a straight drama instead of a Doctor Who story, would have Sir Keith (Hey, look, it's Christopher Benjamin, who'll later play Henry Gordon Jago to such brilliant effect in "The Talons of Weng Chiang"!) as the hero, and crisis would have been averted when he carefully weighed the concerns of drilling expert Greg Sutton against Stahlman's bluster and dismissal of the evidence of danger. This may be a case of the Doctor being the wrong hero for the story (or, more accurately, not being used correctly for the story he's in) and, as a result, the devastating critique it could have made of capitalist exploitation of the environment ends up as a more ham-handed, less discriminate bit of vaguely ecological propaganda.

That's my long-winded way of saying this was almost the classic some would have you believe it is. It's not quite because it's got its concerns slightly misplaced, and so it goes about solving the problem the wrong way. It delivers lots of great action, a fun twist on the characters, touches of humor, and features a relatively strong cast (Caroline John, John Levene, and Nicholas Courtney shine as their fascist counterparts), so is by no means a failure. Sir Keith and Sutton are not played for fools, so it largely gets them right -- though Sutton's a bit painful to watch as he schmoozes Petra -- the fact that their heroic function falls to the Doctor instead, and he's got a bit of Stahlman's problem just muddles the moral of the story.

Off On A Tangent

What would really happen if we drilled as deep as we could?  Well, there's the Kola Superdeep Borehole to answer that.

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