This review is for the episodes The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, which together form a single Doctor Who story. In common with many two-parters in the modern era, they form that story in a very particular way: one episode that sets up the story and builds up all the mysteries, and one episode that pays it all off and resolves it. I think I remember at some point an interview with Russell T Davies (although the memory often cheats!) where he mentioned his approach of basically making an Episode One and an Episode Four in terms of the original series, as those are the exciting ones, and missing out the middle episodes. This does tend to make the pacing a bit imbalanced because a lot has to be held back before our traditional episode one cliffhanger. Also, the first episode tends to tell us what is happening, whereas the second shows us instead. Which episode you prefer will depend on which of those approaches you prefer in general. For me the unseen terror is always more effective.
This is the moment the series steps outside of its usual boundaries and starts to challenge just what is acceptable for 7pm on a Saturday evening. The satanic subject matter is not entirely unprecedented. In 1971 The Dæmons showed us Azal, a demonic figure who was raised in a crypt by satanic rites (albeit ‘Mary had a little lamb’ spoken backwards!) Then in 1975 Pyramids of Mars gave us Sutekh, an evil Egyptian god. Sutekh was voiced by Gabriel Woolf who returns here to provide the voice of the Beast, and it is debatable whether the two characters might be one in the same. Apart from the use of the same voice artist, there are many hints that he is: ‘I have so many names.’ The Ood say ‘some may call him Satan’, which was also true of Sutekh. Also, the Beast seems to recognise the Doctor: ‘this one knows me as I know him.’ However, the Beast’s imprisonment, chained up since ‘before this universe was created’, doesn’t quite fit in with Sutekh’s imprisonment in Pyramids of Mars. Woolf’s voice is as creepy as ever and it is great to have him back in Doctor Who. Although there are precedents, the nature of the beast here is the most overt, and when you consider the title for the second episode it is probably pushing things a bit too far for family viewing. I would have liked it to be a lot less specific about all that, because I suspect some children will have found it troubling.
We will eventually find out that the Ood are cousins of the Sensorites, and with their innate gentleness and vulnerability that makes perfect sense. However, at this stage there is a better comparison to be made with the Monoids. Like the Monoids of 1966’s The Ark, the Ood are aliens that have been enslaved by humans. Also like the Monoids, they are at the more bizarre end of the spectrum of alien life forms. There are further parallels to be drawn, as they are also telepathic, and end up turning on the humans, although under a controlling influence.
In the last series we were shown fantastic, gleaming space stations but this year is different. Now the Doctor and Rose have to cope with much bleaker surroundings, with dirt and claustrophobia rather than glamour and shine. It helps to establish an atmosphere of grim oppressiveness, perfect for the frightening storyline. This is textbook ‘base under siege’ stuff, the formula for almost every Second Doctor story. The difference here is that the Doctor cannot leave as the TARDIS is gone – the stakes are raised.
Everything is cranked up to another level in the second episode. The claustrophobia gets worse, with the crew forced to crawl through shafts, pursued by the Ood. There are more deaths, with Jefferson’s demise being particularly moving and heroic. Nor should we forget the fate of the Ood, who are as innocent here as anyone else, something that perhaps should have been dwelt upon a little more by the Doctor.
The Satan Pit raises some interesting philosophical questions and this is the first time that the Doctor has really had to question his own beliefs. He seems to be without faith, dismissing the idea that the beast comes from before time as ‘impossible’, and stating that ‘it doesn’t fit my rule’. But the admission that he keeps travelling ‘to be proved wrong’ is a great line. I don’t want to think of the Doctor as having a closed mind.
There is some lovely character stuff for the Doctor and Rose: Rose’s insistence on waiting for the Doctor when all hope seems lost; the Doctor’s decision to retreat for the first time, and then the thought that he’s ‘getting old’; the wonderful way in which Rose takes charge in a crisis and motivates the crew, showing how far she has come. There are hints of the past and the future: the Doctor is recognised by the beast as ‘the killer of his own kind’; the human crew are ‘representing the Torchwood Archive’; and then there is the prediction that Rose is ‘the valiant child who will die in battle so very soon’.
The scope of these episodes is astonishing. There is the black hole, the planet surface, the amazing cavern with its ancient ruins – absolutely breathtaking. The whole thing plays out like a horror movie, with some genuinely terrifying moments, most of all Toby’s transformation. Scooti’s death is one of the most shocking ever shown in Doctor Who, her dead body floating through space towards the black hole. So is this suitable for children? Perhaps not, certainly not for younger ones. One thing’s for sure: no adult would have turned this on and thought they were watching a children’s programme. The Impossible Planet is the scariest Doctor Who story to date, and one of the very best. RP
The view from across the pond:
Today’s “across the pond” is presented as two individual episode reviews written at the time of first broadcast (explanation here).
The Impossible Planet:
Episode 8 of this season is the first that truly brings us someplace new. On top of being alien, it is the most tense, desperate place ever depicted in Who lore. Sure, it feels a little like Zeta Minor, right down to the creature in the pit, but this makes Zeta Minor look like a vacation hot spot. The age of the planet, being able to bewilder even the Doctor; the quakes and the very odd Ood – rejects from a Lovecraftian nightmare. Excellently done. If Cthulhu were mentioned it would have fit right in! Add to the mix the superb voice of Gabriel Woolf, the 6-6-6 to the Doctors calculations, the image of a demon on the viewer and some of the most genuinely frightening quotes in Who history and we’ve got a winner. (“The Beast and his armies will rise from the pit and make war on God”, “He is awake”, “…the Legion of the Beast”, “The pit is open and I am free!!”) For the first time in 2 seasons here is a place that is full of mystery. You don’t just walk away from this place. There’s something to be discovered and human nature wants to discover it… as the Doctor very happily points out. Personally, I had an electric thrill while watching this episode. I was back in the place I loved; a universe of mystery, with ancient civilizations to explore, a hidden treasure (of a sort) from before mankind was even a thought. Brilliant! The hull breach is a terrifying moment, and I was dismayed that we had lost Scooti right in episode one. Why not Bob… the unnamed security guard or something?!! And the TARDIS being lost, stranding them on the planet, just added to the claustrophobia.
Compounded by some stunning visuals from the black hole to the demon; the Ood to the gravity funnel (take careful notice that when Zack is pointing to said funnel, his finger perfectly covers the arc of the funnel, and no more. Considering the fact that there is really NO such image for the actor to work against, I was very impressed!!) This is the start of a great 2-part story. The music is once again used to fantastic effect. Bolero was an especially nice touch. Great job to the audio and visual departments.
David Tennant is a stand-out Doctor. To be fair though, I say this of all the Doctors. The Doctor is one of those roles that you just can’t help but love. This Doctor though is clearly different from his predecessor, embracing humanity with hugs and warm, open arms. He still has a bit of the discomfort though when things get too domestic. Yet clearly there is love between the Doctor and Rose. So why does he shy away from these conversations so much? Fear of getting hurt? Fear of loss when Rose eventually dies, as he mentioned in School Reunion? There is a very genuine, special quality to the Doctor’s attitude when talking of how he promised to always take Rose back home. Foreshadowing? I hope not. Rose has her moments here as she tells the Doctor that being stuck with him at least isn’t so bad. The kiss on the helmet is further indication of how she loves this man; her guide, protector and friend. And yet there is something in her attitude in this episode that I found wearing. Her desire to laugh at everything and turn so much into a joke (“The Bitter Pill… I like that”) got a bit tiresome. Even the Doctor seems to ignore her once or twice. Sure, it’s not unreasonable to make light of things that really scare the devil (ha! Pun!) out of you and keeping in mind that she’s supposed to be 19-20 years old, her character makes sense, but I almost wish they skipped some of it.
The supporting cast all seem to be great. Zack is super-likable from accepting the hug from this eccentric Doctor to his trust in the same unknown person. Scooti and Ida Scott are both really likable; I still feel it was a shame to lose Scooti, but the effect (filmed underwater) make up for this to an extent. The least liked member was Toby but because of his role, that’s expected.
I have three complaints that seemed fishy. The first: when the Ood are advancing near the end of the episode, the security chief does not open fire (even though by part 2 he does nearly instantly). This seems at odds with the role he plays. Why allow both self and others to be cornered like that when you don’t really know what the Ood are going to do next. Second (and I admit this comes from having already seen part 2): why does the Doctor seem so impressed with the power of the black hole in the opening of part one, indicating how nothing can possibly escape it… only to then (in part two) dismiss it so easily? “gravity, shmavity…” Finally, when the Doctor and Ida are in the pit looking around and things start shaking, why doesn’t the ever-logical Doctor think to search for his TARDIS? Since part of my complaint comes from part two, should I take away from that? I don’t know. But I can’t wait to re-watch and review part two. Until then…
The Satan Pit:
The Satan Pit picks up immediately where The Impossible Planet left off… but does it live up to the standard of part one?
In a word: yes. This was the best 2 part story to date. Which is to say: when both parts are looked at as a whole, this had the most solid storyline. Looking back to Aliens of London/World War Three there were simply too many problems; silly, overlooked, out-and-out stupid! Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways: part one is filler and shows that the Daleks have hatched the absolutely most idiotic invasion ever. Thank God The Parting of the Ways was so stunning! Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen – again too many blunders and the like. But as a two part story goes, both parts of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit held up remarkably well. Like part one the Audio-Visual department knows what it is doing. The organ music is such a classy and dare I say creepy touch! The image of the Doctor dropping into the pit when he willingly detaches is stunning. The lack of music adds to the intensity. The image of the beast in the pit is fantastic. The tension of the episode doesn’t let up for a second; the Doctor’s own fear is palpable when asked if he wants to go into the pit… where angels fear to tread. I personally feel the use of comedy in science fiction is ok if done well – one has to use care or it goes into pantomime. Rose yelling at the Doctor on the speaker and the squeal that blanks out the last word was comical in a way that worked for the episode. The tunnel crawl where we learn about Danny and Rose’s “best angles” was silly and under the circumstances seemed out of place.
The characterization is still incredibly strong. The Doctor loves humanity; admires their ability to explore the darkest places. His ability to help them focus when explaining that the devil is doing the same thing a good psychologist does… brilliant (though why he doesn’t simply point out that the Ood are telepathic and may simply have read some of those thoughts off the crew escapes me, but here again, his point is far simpler and equally sound!). But the thing that stands out so much in this story is really how much love he and Rose have for one another. The Doctor shows it time and again: when talking to Ida Scott (“I’ll get back. Rose is up there!”; “If you talk to Rose tell her… Oh, she knows”) or when he first sees her again back on board the TARDIS (the hug of hugs!). Rose too shows her love (“I’m gonna wait for him… how can I leave him alone down there”) or when she hears his voice when they are rescued from the black hole by the TARDIS. Come to think of it, the mere fact that the Doctor would not destroy the vase (and thus kill the Devil) simply because it would kill Rose too says a great deal – for him saving Rose is more important than saving the entire universe from Evil!
Observations and questions:
- Mr. Jefferson’s “Sorry I was a bit slow” was a copy of Rose’s line when running from the Dalek in “Dalek”.
- In the Doctor’s discussion of horned beasts, he mentions Draconia (Frontier in Space), Daemos (Daemons) and the Kaled God of War (the Daleks former name). Continuity is achieved!
- Why does the Doctor have a hard time accepting something from “before time” when he defeated Fenric (The evil from before the dawn of time) among such other things as Shub Niggurath and The Great Intelligence? Continuity is put into question!
- When the captain is opening the “ventilation shaft” doors he has to open each door slowly but is able to almost instantaneously reverse the process without much notice when one door opens to reveal Ood. He even says, “I can’t stop the automatics” but proceeds to do that very thing mere minutes later!
- Is Rose blind? When getting out of the shaft, Toby is directly below her. She is reaching down for him. He turns, looks at the Ood with glowing eyes and motions two things – the finger to the mouth indicating “quiet” and the hand gesture indicating “be patient” yet Rose sees none of that?! She may need to look into getting contacts!!
- What exactly were the Ood? Did they worship this beast? Did they simply get possessed? They were all given honours upon their death, but were they merely a slave race or were they intent on seeing “the beast rise”? We may never know!
- The TARDIS – when it falls into the chasm during the quake (in part one), it should have fallen to the level Ida Scott was on, NOT the level the Doctor is on with the beast. The hatch opens while Ida and the Doctor are staring at it and the TARDIS is very clearly not on it! Of course, this can be explained simply that the TARDIS truly is alive and essentially went where needed (since we see it there so majestically, without so much as a scratch) but this is a bit of a stretch. Then again, perhaps the TARDIS intellect knew that the only time it could have presented itself was when the Beast was truly defeated! But here we just speculate!
My only real gripe with part two is the way Rose takes charge of what is at least mostly a military base. This seemed both far-fetched (since everyone listens to her) and unlikely. There was just something about her that irked me in this role. I adore Rose as much as anyone, but that quality was poorly realized. Now, as foreshadowing often does, I don’t want the beast’s prophesy to come true (“he said I was gonna die in battle”) simply because she took charge! I hope that was just the Beast being a beast and Rose goes back to being Rose, not a know it all woman wherever she goes!
Doctor Who captivated my imagination as a child and continues to do so nearly 30 years later. I hope this show keeps on going. It truly is the stuff of legend! Bravo on yet another fantastic episode!!! ML
The view from beyond the stars:
For this story, we also present some further contemporary comments, from Mike Basil:
One thing I have always respected Doctor Who for is its ability to keep human values alive in its horror stories, even if Horror of Fang Rock was an exception. I grew up with the original series’ education in human values from The Ark in Space to The Curse of Fenric, and I am pleased that The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, thanks once again to Mr. Davies at the helm, has given us another high point in Whoniversal humanism. Tennant and Piper also once again excel in the dramatic connection between the Doctor and Rose. And the guest stars, especially Danny Webb’s portrayal of Jefferson’s dignified sacrifice, are remarkably unforgettable. I also give due credit to Gabriel Woolf (who we remember as Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars) as the Voice of the Beast. The climactic showdown between the Doctor and the Beast is easily reminiscent of the confrontation between the Doctor and Sutekh. The Ood are also distinguished monsters for Doctor Who. This two-part adventure is a success with the unique scare tactics of Doctor Who. But it also succeeds with the enduring human spirit. Of course, where would even this much be without the Doctor and Rose Tyler?
Ever since Rose dynamically saved her world from the Autons and Nestenes in her debut, I knew she had the potential required for a competent female sidekick of the Doctor’s. Of all her heroic displays so far, her bravery in telling the Beast to “Go to hell!” and blasting it back into the black hole is another lovely moment for Ms. Piper as a sci-fi star. Keeping science in science fiction may depend on one’s definition of science. If humanity can qualify as a science, then Piper more than qualifies as the human driving force that the genre always needs, including Doctor Who. MB
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