Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Living in the Past

Apart from looking at pictures of 1970s American sports cars, I suppose that another symptom of a midlife crisis is obsessively watching old TV series you remember for your childhood in some vain attempt to rekindle one's mythical lost youth.  I say 'mythical' as my youth really wasn't that exciting or event-filled.  But, like everyone else I know, I like o look back on it and pretend t myself that the 'old days' when I was growing up were so much better than today.  But to cut to the chase, thanks to the Horror Channel (now available free-to-air on Freeview) I was recently able to re-watch a Dr Who story that I hadn't seen since it was first broadcast in 1970.  'Inferno' comes from Jon Pertwee's first series as the Doctor, when the BBC were trying to refashion the show as a Quatermass-lite science fiction thriller series, with stories set exclusively on contemporary earth.  The trouble with this formula was - as then script editor Terrance Dicks pointed out - that basically only two types of story were viable: alien invasions and mad scientists.  'Inferno' was an attempt to vary the earthbound nature of the stories by having the Doctor inadvertently slip into a parallel universe whilst investigating a drilling project being run by a scientist who is a bit, well, mad.  It was an ingenious way to allow the Doctor to have an adventure on what was effectively an alien planet without actually leaving the earth.

It's cleverly done - the Doctor finds himself in the alternate world version of the drilling project, where the scientist in charge really is mad and Britain is some kind of fascist dictatorship.  Everyone he knows from our universe has an equivalent - some of them evil.  The Brigadier's equivalent, for instance, is the Brigade-Leader, who sports a black eyepatch and lacks his alter-ego's moustache.  But the story eschews the simplistic approach of making the parallel world just an evil version of ours.  Many of the characters are decent people in both realities, but in the circumstances of the parallel world forces the versions there into sometimes compromising their values in order to survive.  The scientist in charge of the project is clearly unhinged and insanely over-ambitious in both worlds, but in the parallel fascist Britain there is no framework of civil authority to constrain him, so his project inevitably ends in disaster.  Which is another ingenious aspect of the parallel world plot line: it allows the series to have its cake and eat it by having the Doctor fail to save the 'earth' for once, but also to escape back to his own reality in order to prevent the same thing rom happening to his version of the earth.

It was fascinating watching 'Inferno' again at a distance of more than forty years.  I'd always thought that I remembered the story vividly, but seeing it again, there were parts I'd forgotten and much of the plot unfolded differently than I had remembered.  The production values were very much of their era and featured the characteristic seventies TV mix of filmed exteriors and videotaped studio sets.  It was also clear that, in order to bring the story up to seven episodes (most of Pertwee's first series consisted of these longer stories) a fair amount of padding had been inserted into the script,  In particular, the whole sub-plot involving the green liquid being brought up to the surface by the drilling, which turned anyone it touched into a Wolfman-like monster, was there primarily to bring the story up to length and provide a 'monster of the week'.  The green stuff and its effects were never properly explained.  However, the story remained commendably atmospheric and tense, with the parallel world and its cast of familiar-yet-unfamiliar characters was still quite disturbing.  But did watching 'Inferno' again make me nostalgic for 1970?  Not really.  It was entertaining but the fact is that the world has moved on - modern TV, for instance, has far better pacing and production values.  It's nice to visit the past, and in particular our childhoods, but I wouldn't want to live there: no internet, only three TV channels, polluted air and rivers, racial prejudice on a scale it is now hard to believe, 1970 now seems like some bleak alternate universe.  Although, to be fair, it is in our present reality that Britain has the fascist dictatorship... 

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