Doctor Who: Inferno

Doctor Who: Inferno September 11, 2012

The Doctor Who episode “Inferno” from the Jon Pertwee era is one of the few where the Doctor, rather than going backwards or forwards in time, slips sideways into a parallel universe. The episode thus features the interesting scenario of the Doctor trying to prevent a catastrophe in his own universe, seeing events unfold in a somewhat but not completely different parallel universe, and then returning to his own to try to prevent the catastrophe armed with knowledge from what happened in the parallel universe.

The Doctor actually reflects on the moral and human implications of where he finds himself, concluding that there is in fact genuine free will, since there are infinite universes with infinite possibilities.

This seems like a perhaps desirable, but nevertheless illogical conclusion to draw, based merely on this brief experience. It would take more evidence to demonstrate that the differences resulted from free choices, and not differences at the quantum level, for instance, which might be random but would not necessarily for that reason constitute free choice. Indeed, if there are an infinite number of universes, it would seem inevitable that an infinite number of versions of you will make the wrong choice instead of the right one an infinite number of times. Hardly encouraging.

But then again, if there is genuine freedom, then there is nothing intrinsic in the nature of the universe to prevent you from making the right choice this time, is there? And so it seems that the existence of parallel universes at least leaves room for hope, even if it doesn't inherently provide it.

The topic of acting to save other versions of oneself or one's loved ones in a parallel universe is one I discussed a while back in connection with the show Fringe.

Other than broad themes which are as much about ethics as about religion, the only real religious reference in the episode is when Greg refers to people having made “a little tin god” of Prof. Stahlman. This makes explicit what is implicit but prominent throughout the episode, namely the theme of scientists “playing God” and putting humanity at risk in the process.

When the Doctor makes reference in the episode “The Mind of Evil” to having witnessed a world destroyed by fire, it could be a reference to what happens in the parallel universe in this episode.

You can watch the episode online at DailyMotion:

What do others who've seen this episode think? And on the broader topic, if it turns out that there are parallel universes, would they seem like a reason for hope, or despair, or morally neutral? Perhaps this is particularly worth pondering as we await the return of Fringe


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  • tony springer

    Yes, this episode was very different from other early Doctor Who ones. I have read that the actors had fun playing opposite characters. A fascist-type atmosphere permeated the alternative universe, too. James, you made a good connection to Fringe. Also, Stargate SG-1 had some episodes in a similar vein, but less cerebral. Most alternative universe narratives have a “bizzaro world” effect where it is opposite day. I like the interesting perspective of someone standing outside of the alternative universe, such as the Doctor or Peter on Fringe, in not an omnipotent but a somewhat omniscient role.

  • I agree that the Doctor comes to an illogical conclusion. But this was mainly a children’s show after all. I did enjoy the episode. I watched it (from my own collection) after reading your post. What did strike me about it though was the willingness of the people in the alternate universe to fight and give their lives for a world that they had little hard evidence for. So it seems to was about faith as much as free will.

    I wonder if I would work so hard for my alternate self based on the word of some stranger and his disappearing act. Would anyone?

    • Indeed, if something makes the scenario in this Doctor Who episode and on Fringe different, it is the intersection of the “same” people in the parallel universes on Fringe. But of course, Fringe was devoting more time to telling stories about parallel universes than Doctor Who was with this one episode.

  • arcseconds

    if it turned out that, for whatever reason, worlds existed where every possible decision has been made, is one of the most depressing concepts ever.

    it means that nothing you can do really makes a difference. save that kid drowning in a pond? well, there’s another kid exactly like him that died because someone very similar to you decided not to. dedicate your life to preventing starvation? you can’t alter the numbers one jot.