1. The Impossible Planet
  2. The Satan Pit
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

Story No. 182-183 What do you believe?
Production Code Series Two Episodes Eight and Nine
Dates June 3 and 10, 2006

With David Tennant, Billie Piper
Written by Matt Jones Directed by James Strong
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: A black hole, a planet that shouldn't withstand its forces and a being that shouldn't exist.


Them's the rules by John Nor 7/7/06

Rules. We all live by them, whether they are our own rules or someone else's.

One of the rules that the Doctor and Rose live by is that when the TARDIS lands them somewhere, they will not immediately hop back on board and go somewhere else. In fact, at the start of this episode they illustrate this rule by laughing at the very idea of just turning tail at the first sign of trouble.

The first episode of this two-parter sets the scene for one of the more philosophical stories of the this season, although its musings are continued from earlier in the season: just what keeps the Doctor traveling on?

By the end of this first episode, because we are familiar with stories in general, and perhaps certain stories in particular (Ridley Scott's film Alien, James Cameron's film Aliens, Classic Who's The Robots of Death) we know there are certain rules that must be followed as well.

Rule: the crew will be picked off by the Monster. One. By. One.

Rule: even in the far future, people will still be people, griping and bickering.

The bickering crew that we encounter inhabiting the base in the far future, on a planet circling a black hole, are familiar as well. They are not stereotypes, the writing is too good for that, but they are definitely types. The reluctant captain. The dutiful soldier. The enquiring scientist. These basic types are fleshed out convincingly by the writing and acting into a believable group of people you root for and care about.

The first episode sets up a situation for the Doctor and Rose that has them questioning their rules: as the TARDIS is gone, what do they do without constant traveling? In one great scene we see them ponder exactly what they are going to do. Rose tentatively puts forward the idea of settling down somewhere. Together. The Doctor doesn't reject the idea as such, just reminds Rose of a rule he had set for himself. To return Rose to Jackie one day. Rose tells him that we all have to leave home one day. But without the TARDIS, and without his homeworld, where is home for the Doctor now?

What other rules has the Doctor set himself? That he can never get too close to a companion? This is something that has been hinted at in the episode School Reunion. He can never get too attached, that is one of the rules. Can he express that attachment?

Great tension is set up across this first episode as the Beast slowly reveals its presence, and the first of the crew is picked off. The Doctor and Rose are parted. The Doctor is investigating the interior of the planet with the scientist, while Rose stays with the rest of the crew on the base. The extensive references to the film Alien are fair game, as the Doctor was there first anyway (with The Ark in Space!)

If this episode was influenced mainly by the film Alien (technology with a lived-in look, crew member invaded by Monster, some of the crew sent off from the others to explore a mysterious cavern) then as the next episode begins it is most definitely the film Aliens, with even the one of characters obliquely stating that they appreciate the reference!

Before we get to frantic chases through ventilation ducts however, there is some philosophy. The Beast introduces itself to the Doctor, Rose and the crew. It appears to be the devil, from Before Time. The Doctor asks which devil or religion and pronounces that to be from before time is impossible. "Is that YOUR religion?" asks the Beast. "It's a belief" replies the Doctor.

While Rose and the crew make their way across the base hounded by the Ood, Ida and the Doctor debate theology. Ida asks the Doctor what he believes. He believes he hasn't seen everything, he says doubtfully. As the Doctor makes his descent into the pit, he describes to Ida just what his problem with the Beast was. If it had said it was from beyond the universe that would be fine, but before the universe? "It doesn't fit my rule."

The rules that we gather around ourselves, that we believe describe the universe, our universe.

Rule: the sun will always rise in the morning.

Rule: there was nothing before time.

Rule: nothing can escape a black hole.

Rule: he can never tell her that he loves her.

He has to believe certain things, so there are boundaries.

But this is why he travels, he says, to be proved wrong. What does he want to proved wrong about? That is homeworld is gone forever? That he can never tell her?

As the Doctor gets ready with for his act of faith: to fall into the pit, he asks that if Ida gets in contact with Rose could she "...tell her... tell her... ah she'd know."

After the Doctor falls, and the crew prepare to escape on the rocket, the scene where Rose refuses to leave the Doctor on the planet "all alone" is very powerful and affecting.

With the rest of the episode we find out just what the Doctor does believe in for sure: Rose.

A Review by Ron Mallett 2/12/06

This story is one of the more compelling additions to the new Who canon. Written by Matt Jones, it is certainly one of the better stories of the season and probably the entire new series. One of the major advantages of course is that it is of more traditional length, making it possible for the audience to more self-consciously go on a "journey" with the characters and therefore enjoy a more fully-rounded story. It was a new take on the old "small amount of people trapped in a base under siege" idea that was a staple of the old series and can be seen in all series from Star Trek to The X-Files.

That having been established, there are I think some major problems with the subject matter. I think classic Who steered away from religious-orientated stories and while certain sections were tactfully written, there were some uncomfortable moments. Certainly stories such as The Daemons and The Pyramids of Mars touched on the issue of the devil personified, but with an entire universe and all time as a canvas upon which to write I find it strange that such a subject was chosen at all - particularly if one is aiming at a family audience.

There were some awful "new series" moments grafted onto the story and some examples of just some simply, poor writing. Jefferson's death scene was truly convoluted to the extent that it was simply cringefull to watch. It was interesting to note that grief was only demonstrated for the central characters and other deaths among the other members of the crew passed almost without note. The most painful and unWhoish moment was of course the terrible "mortgage" scene where it was implied that the two main character could shack up together. They are after all members of different species and the word "bestiality" keeps jumping into my head every time this sort of nonsense is injected into the show, in a shallow attempt to appeal to a shallow demographic.

There are some recurring problems with the series that were well represented in this story. One is the tendency to incorporate predictable and convoluted plot turns, such as the convenient rediscovery of the TARDIS in the last few minutes. Another problem is the lack of internal pseudo-scientific jargon and principles that Trek is so famous for: the new series has often degenerated into the worst "silly science" since circa classic Season 16.

I can't escape the feeling that there has been a decision to strain to try and create a new "season 13/14" this year. If Davies and crew are the devoted Hinchcliffe/Holmes disciples they appear to be then they would be better off asking themselves what would Holmes have done if he were script editor now, with all the money and technology they have at their disposal, not simply ape the peak of the Tom Baker era. There are some parallels between many of the stories (Tooth and Claw strains for a The Talons of Weng-Chiang feel, The Impossible Planet tries to be a cross between Robots of Death and The Pyramids of Mars - to the extent that they cast Gabriel Woolf as the satanic adversary). To an extent then it comes off a little too much like fan fiction rather than original drama. There appears to be a serious paradigm problem then with the new series that needs to be debunked now.

The production values (from the direction to CGI) again were flawless. I say that every review I know... but they are.

It's Only Mind Control But I Like It by Hugh Sturgess 19/1/07

I was incredibly disappointed with The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit.

From other reviews on the site, comments by designers, people on Confidential, all of that stuff, I'd been led for expect a dark, grotesque, nightmarish thriller, like Event Horizon but with less blood, with a slippery, invisible, malevolent presence determined to track down and kill the cast in inexpressibly horrible and brutal ways. I was waiting to be scared.

I was disappointed. I've since realised that Joe Ford's judgement on what's scary is a little shaky (his greatest sin is not pointing out to me, before I spent my AU$49.00, that Night Thoughts is stagey and seemingly improvised beyond its second episode (listeners will know what I mean)), and "scary Doctor Who" isn't nearly as scary as everyone thinks.

The biggest problem is that no one goes as far as they could have. I could mention a thousand things (a slight exaggeration) but I'll focus on two. Firstly, Rose's wisecracks and jokes obliterate any latent tension in a scene just as effectively as the bad wolf / Rose destroyed the Dalek fleet in Parting of the Ways. Toby says something dark and sinister, and she replies "what are you, chief dramatist?"; Ida calls the planet Krop Tor ("the bitter pill") and Rose replies "I like that" like a seedy tramp in a musical. Steve Cassidy has already discussed this in his review, but I couldn't leave it out. Like with Tom Baker in Season 17, how can we be expected to take the threat seriously if the regulars don't? They're supposed to be our representatives in the celluloid universe, and if they're not at all bothered by the situation then we can't see any reason to be either. Later, when Rose and the Doctor are pushed to the breaking point, rather than saying "this is terrible, they're suffering", you're enjoying yourself, seeing their smug little faces twisted in agony and emotion. It sounds cruel, but a couple of clowns belong in this story just as much as a mind reader does in a murder mystery.

Secondly, after the hints of psychological thriller ("the captain, so scared of command, the soldier, haunted by the eyes of his wife" etc.), it's all forgotten and everything's reduced to a crude runaround. The Beast should have driven the crew to despair, made Rose doubt the Doctor, made the Doctor doubt himself, yet he never does. In Event Horizon (this story's direct ancestor), the malign presence on board the vessel forces Sam Neill to relive his wife's tragic suicide. If the Beast had made (to pick an obvious example) Jefferson relive a similar experience, then I would feel like I had more of a stake in this world. I'd feel horrified by the evil of the Beast, but in the real world, I just find the Beast to be a little nasty in the extreme. The direction is similarly lacklustre. The Sanctuary Base is brightly lit, looking like a lot of stuck-together pizza boxes, and I could never get the feeling that it was an authentically dirty-through-use workplace. It looked artfully dirty, which is just stupid. If the corridors were dark, grimy, and as narrow as they are now, then I would have been scared at the thought of the evil things out there in the dark. If Toby's workstation was in shadow when the Beast talks to him, I would have felt the tiniest twinge of terror. But they're not, so I don't.

Similarly, the music never evinces terror, and, while the bits with Scooti looking out at Toby are quite nice and lyrical, they're also totally inappropriate for the episode. This episode needed crawling, dark, twisted music, music that would unsettle the listener. But it doesn't (I keep coming back to this, don't I?).

However, there are two really big problems with the script. The smaller one is the science. Yes, I know that Russell never researches anything for his scripts, but I'd expect even a slight sheen of realism to the black hole stuff. When he learnt (shock horror!) that black holes didn't pull everything in (this is extraordinary common sense - if they did pull everything in, then the entire universe would be one huge tunnel leading to a single black hole, which is almost exactly how it isn't), he quickly said that this black hole's event horizon had "folded in on itself" so it drags in everything within a radius of five million miles. This is perfectly fine... except for the fact that it doesn't change the way the black hole works, it just makes the event horizon bigger. We shouldn't be able to see anything within that radius of five million miles, as light shouldn't be able to escape. In effect, the black hole would just grow bigger. I could write a whole essay on this, so to save time I'll move on to the bigger and far worse problem: the Ood.

Ron Mallet has already said how only the deaths of the main characters are mourned, while the deaths of other crewmen are ignored, forgotten as soon as they fall. I go one better, and I say without reservation that the Ood are probably the worst, most disgusting plot element of any Doctor Who story ever. Um... they're a race of slaves, used by humanity as their menial workers, called "livestock" by Jefferson, called "cattle" by Danny and generally treated like talking animals. Of course, we can't have humanity looking bad, so some crap justification is included. Apparently the Ood offer themselves as slaves, as they get off on being ordered around. How convenient for you, eh Matt (that's Matt Jones, the writer)? I wouldn't expect the author of Bad Therapy (which concerned, among other things, the "toys" of a madman being living things with rights of their own) to purvey this poisonous, racist shit. Danny's suggestion that, without orders, the Ood just "pine away and die" sounds suspiciously like those slave-traders from the sixteenth century who rationalised their actions by saying (by believing) that Africans "knew no better". He says that "they are so stupid, they don't even tells us when they're ill". Neither did African slaves in the American cotton plantations, but do we blame them for being enslaved?

Let's look at this in full. The Ood are enslaved by humanity, enslaved by the Beast, treated like animals, considered to be children under the guiding influence of humanity, abandoned, shackled up in "pens" and ultimately left to be crushed down to a one-dimensional point... and the Doctor doesn't even save a single one of them. He says that he didn't have time. Bollocks. He had time to save Ida, yet he abandoned the fifty sentient beings in the base above. So, in a crisis, he'll choose to save a single hypoxic human (who'll be dead by the time the planet passes the event horizon) rather than fifty terrified beings who'll fall into the black hole acutely aware that they won't be killed, just trapped there forever? Is that what he does? And what's more, how can he "run out of time", when he has a time machine?

The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit isn't the best story of the New Series, as some have claimed. I wouldn't even call it the best story of Series 2. In Doctor Who's third season, back in 1966, The Ark showed mute, seemingly docile beings being enslaved by humanity, and ultimately reversed the roles to show us how we would feel if we were enslaved. Yet this story doesn't dwell on these issues at all. Perhaps without the Ood (or, alternatively, with more moral discussion) this story might be able to hold its own. But here, with stories like Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace (which I unreservedly call the best Doctor Who story in any medium ever) and even Fear Her all around it, it can only manage to block the way.

A Review by Finn Clark 1/3/07

It does everything it's trying to do. The nearest I can get to a criticism is to suggest that New Who might have needed something else from a big two-parter like this, which is hardly fair since it's judging the season not the story. Even then any such criticism would be a bit of a reach since this is a landmark in Tennant's first year. A lot of his episodes felt a bit lightweight, but this certainly doesn't. A rock orbiting a black hole, where everyone's existence depends on being ignored by the laws of physics and more of the base seems to get destroyed every hour. The Ood. The Devil. What's more, it feels real. Boy oh boy, does it feel real. Imagine this production in the hands of the cardboard corridor brigade in the old days... the JNT era perhaps, or maybe Troughton or Pertwee. We'd have laughed until we cried. However the 2006 production team keep an iron grip on the story's tone, never allowing even a moment that's silly or unconvincing.

The more I think about it, the more impressive that achievement seems. This might be the riskiest production yet in the new series. Even the subtlest of goofs could have made the whole thing risible (e.g. a silly-looking Beast), but there's more to it than that. It's a fairly slender story, crafted as a horror tale rather than anything more intellectual or intricate. It was always going to stand or fall on atmosphere, which you can never guarantee in advance.

This isn't a story aimed at those who watch Doctor Who mostly for the writing, since its outstanding qualities are in the production. Its SF future is perfect. Not just "very good". Perfect. I can't remember any episode of an SF TV show that felt this real and only the tiniest handful of SF movies, going from the set design to the casting and the performances. I was looking up the actors' names online to see what else they'd done, such as that chap playing the stand-in captain. It's an entire cast who probably specialise in playing villains. Danny Webb is accustomed to being the slimiest of the slimy, but I loved his Mr Jefferson. Similarly "that pretty boy from Casualty and Holby City" sounds unpromising for a story like this, but Will Thorp does solid work and can look jaw-droppingly evil. Then there's Gabriel Woolf who rules, although I think he'd look back and agree that Sutekh was the more interesting role.

Similarly the Ood and the Beast both look fantastic. The base does too. It's like the anti-matter opposite of all those Troughton 21st century stories like The Seeds of Death or The Space Pirates, in which the futuristic setting was like an oxygen blanket smothering the story to death. I'd also note that it's a multi-ethnic future... which might sound too trivial to mention except that I've seen people bashing New Earth on precisely those grounds. As a small aside, I'd point out that it's (more or less) the non-white actors who live.

That said, it's time to start quibbling. I don't think the new Who production team have quite got the hang of writing old-money four-parters. Russell T. Davies writes two independent episodes, each with their own themes, one merely cliffhangering into the other. That's less true of Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, but his Eccleston two-parters are good but feel almost jarringly disjointed. Meanwhile everyone else, even Steven Moffat, has been turning out stories paced oddly like classic Who. The new one-parters and two-parters are trying to pack in exactly the same amount of story. As a result the one-parters can feel rushed, with an emotional main story and a "shit, we need monsters!" subplot. However, in scale, the two-parters should be the equivalent of a full movie. In story terms, they're not. Both this and the alt-universe Cyber-story manage to make their monsters more impressive than usual, but their actual plots feel simplistic. I still want a true clash of wits, a proper to-and-fro with an arch-enemy. Bring back the Master, that's what I say.

This particular story is essentially "Doctor Who versus the unstoppable force", like an earthquake or a volcano. The Beast has a plan, but it doesn't spend enough time operating at a human level. Instead of interacting with the characters, it's just throwing shit at them. Some of my favourite scenes in the story are those in part one where Gabriel Woolf is simply talking to Will Thorp.

Oh, and another nitpick: names. I think planet names would make the Whoniverse feel bigger. Eccleston famously never left Earth orbit, but even his pet space station never got a proper name and was always just "Platform One" or "Satellite Five". Tennant has been allowed to go further, but the places to which he's been are: (a) New Earth, (b) an abandoned spaceship, (c) a parallel Earth, and (d) "don't be silly, it doesn't have a name, how could it possibly have a name?" Three of those are explicitly described as being unimaginably far from home and even the fourth goes further into the future than almost any story from the classic series, yet somehow the season as a whole feels Earthbound. I think names would help.

On first watching I wasn't particularly awestruck by this two-parter, but my appreciation rose on repeat viewings. It's so confident and accomplished that it's almost impossible not to respond to it, even if its story is a bit linear. I love that aesthetic. I've had things to say about some of the new series directors, but James Strong did fantastic work here and I'd be delighted to see more from him. (According to the commentaries, these episodes were the last to be filmed and the money was starting to run out. They had very little slack to play with, but you'd never guess from the final product.) Apart from anything else it creates a real sense of wonder, which is something it has in common with a surprising amount of new Who.

If nothing else, it's a full-blown horror movie on Saturday teatime television. That's got to be worth something, right? I suspect that the last line is a deliberate echo of the end of Alien. I'm sure the production team were aware of the parallels. Alternatively one might call it a space-age version of The Amityville Horror... but better. The fact that people (including me on first viewing) would carp about this story just goes to show how high our expectations have risen about new Who.

"I believe in Rose" by Terrence Keenan 7/1/09

Um, wow. And wow. And, by the way, Wow.

Finally, we're away from the Earth, in a place that is strange and offputting and downright malevolent. A place that by all rights shouldn't exist: a place that challenges the Doctor's core beliefs.

Oh, yeah, Satan is in it too.

TIP/TSP does everything right. Story, characters, action, direction, effects, setting... the whole damn thing. It is by far the best of the New Who stories. It has atmosphere, weight, actual character progression and still doesn't explain all its secrets.

Let's get the big one out of the way. TIP/TSP is no more religious than The Daemons, Kinda, Pyramids of Mars or The Curse of Fenric. Like those stories previously mentioned, it uses religious imagery to drive the story, and add some symbolism for people to debate over. Besides, Old Scratch has been on Who before: Sutekh the Destroyer, Fenric, Azal the Daemon, The Black Guardian. The only difference is that for once the Doctor has his own beliefs questioned. It is perfectly in line that the Doc believes in Rose. His belief in his companions helped save him from the haemovores in Fenric.

David Tennant is at his best in this one. Even during his flibbertigibbety moments, it all works as a whole character. As written, his character is very "Doctor-ish," more so than in any of his other outings.

Billie Piper is, as usual, really good. And this time, there's none of the smug bullcrap that has made such a chore to watch during season 2.

The guest cast all shine, with a special nod to Shaun Parkes for his playing against the cliche portrayal of his role as Zack. You have give Gabriel Woolf a huge bigging up as the voice of the beast. The man does evil voices like most people floss their teeth.

The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is brill to the core. Nuff said.

A Review by Richard Conway 24/9/12

When Doctor Who returned in 2005, many fans were worried. A strange thing to say about their favourite TV program coming back on air but nevertheless it was true. The feeling was that - among the hardcore fans anyway - they would rather leave the program dead and buried rather than bring it back as a shadow of it's former self. Sure the effects would look good, what with the new shiny CGI technology, and the production values would be high with a confirmed good budget, but would it still be the same program. Would it still feel the same and still have the same emotional pull as the program we all grew up with?

The answer as that first season unfolded (the 27th to me!) was yes and no. Sure, it was in many ways but for every TARDIS scene there were two set in Jackie's flat. When the Daleks came back, they came back with a different emotional context and the season finale with them was as much about reality television as it was about these new Daleks. Even when this new season opened with a old familiar foe, the new production team seemed too tentative to even give them a name-check. A strange set of affairs. It was almost as if the production team - led by RTD - felt that, to be accepted by a modern 21st century audience, the program needed to be seen through the lens of a populist prism. It continued through to David Tennant's first season as well with Sarah-Jane coming back not so much as a ex-companion but more as a dumped girl-friend! The Cybermen were more a offshoot of mobile phone technology than the cyborgs of old. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this was the wrong approach and the ratings they pulled in speak for themselves, but for all the great stories, indeed classics, there was something missing.

That something for me was more in the approach towards the stories rather than the stories themselves. It has often been noted that if any story from 20th century Doctor Who could be made straight from script without any changes today it would be The Ark in Space. It's a very modern piece of storytelling after all, but for all the great stories made in the first season and a half of the series coming back, none felt like they could have been made in the previous century. That all changed however with the arrival of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. This felt for me like Doctor Who's missing link, the one story that tied the two great eras together.

For a start, in it's setting we are presented with the first truly alien planet of this new era. This is definately not some CGI'd hillside in South Wales! This is truly alien, dark and mysterious, and reeks old school Who. The building blocks of the series' former eras are all present and correct, from the sanctuary base - which, as the Doctor himself says, could easily be a seabase or moonbase of old - to the creepy alien race that meet our two heroes on arrival. This continues through to the base-under-seige scenario of the setup, populated by a group of characters that you just know will be picked off one by one by the beast in the cellar, so to speak. It's as though, sprung with confidence by the success that their previous approach to the series had bought, they felt confident enough to come out of the closet of popular modern culture, spread their wings and in essence go back to what the program had been before.

Of course this was old school Doctor Who with big shiny CGI knobs on, but strip away that layer and what is left is very much a serial that you can imagine knocking about back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It builds up in the narrative very deliberately, like an old story. With the most obvious example being the TARDIS, which is effectively lost within the first ten minutes (Terry Nation would have been proud) and of course the main narrative thrust of trying to get down to something buried deep in the earth. That, you just know, is not going to be a good idea (Inferno, Frontios, take your pick). This felt all too familar but in a good way, in a warm comforting way that when the old eras had got it right, we used to have in abundance. In short, this was the story where the series not only felt back but intact - and to emphasise the point they even go filming in a quarry!

This careful balancing act between the old and the new is masterminded beautifully by the director, James Strong. He went on to be one of the main directors used in the Tennant era, but his work is never so more impressive than it is here. Just about everything works on screen, from the quick cuts to the wide-sweeping vistas, and every look of horror and every impressive spectacle is not only covered but ramped up to the max. It all ably brings out the big themes and the big fan-boy moments of Matt Jones' script. That feels a lot more of a fan written script than anything we've seen with Daleks or Cybermen in, up to this point. As impressive as the acting on display here is, with the nature of the script - especially the visual side - it was always going to take a back seat in this story to the design work - and what design work it is! From the bizarre Ood to ol Nick himself, from the big Disney black hole - that might send you mad! - to the remains of an ancient civilisation, this is a visual treat of the highest order. Just begging to be seen on a big shiny new plasma screen.

Talking of the Ood, a special mention must be made of this particular creation. For the first time under this new era and production team, the Ood feel like the first genuine time that they have come up with a alien/creature/monster (take your pick) that can rival the foes and protaganists of the past. They have that wonderful feeling that you almost get on first sight with a great creation in a program like Doctor Who. That feeling of being chilled and intrigued in equal measure and at the same time. They weren't quite what the Borg were to a certain Star Trek series, but they were close and more than warranted a followup story showing us more; moreover, they proved that RTD and his team could come up with the original - as well as the re-fitted - goods to match what had gone in the past.

In reality, we should all felt a little cheated by Matt Jones' script, as the true nature of the villian of the piece is effortlessly and skillfully avoided throughout, but in this case it felt not only justifiable but also right. In sc-fi, the writer has the right to play around with any themes and topics they like, but in a case of such a heavy and provocative issue as religion and the existence or non-existence of gods or devils, it's not only wise but also more interesting to leave the final judgement and belief to the viewer at home.

What do we have then from this truly excellent two-parter? On the face of it, a straightforward action adventure, a base (literary) under seige story with subtle religious overtones. For the older fans of the program, though, it feels like so much more. This story feels like a love letter to the program's past. To all those stories that used those building blocks that this story uses so well, it feels like a vindication. It's saying "Yes, I know you had to use many of these ideas and techniques because of time and money restraints, but, you know what, they make the best stories anyway. Even if you have the kind of time and money and technology we have today, we're still looking to you in the past to show us the right way to go."

A modern masterpiece. 5/5

Better the Devil You Know by Jez Cartner 26/3/13

It is said that religion and science fiction make strange bedfellows, and while this would seem to be the case, the two actually share a harmonious relationship. Since science fiction as a genre began, many of the classic writers of our time have used the medium in order to voice their opinion of organized religion, and on occasion even put forward their personal theories on the more mystical elements that have bewildered mankind for centuries. By far though the biggest inspiration for science-fiction writers is undoubtedly the prince of darkness Lucifer himself, or to use his common name the Devil.

Doctor Who throughout its very long run has often turned to this enigmatic of figures as the basis for some of the best stories Doctor Who has ever produced. The obvious examples are the 1971 story The Daemons, the 1975 story The Pyramids of Mars and any adventure featuring the Doctor's arch villain the Master (I'm not going to attempt to justify this last statement only to say that for anyone who is familiar with the Doctor and the Master's relationship the comparison will make perfect sense). Perhaps the best example of the devil in Doctor Who is in the 2006 episode The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, and this the story I'm going to focus on.

The set up for the story will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Patrick Troughton story in that the Doctor and Rose find themselves aboard a sanctuary base orbiting a black hole and discover an ancient evil awakening in the pit below the base. It is a typical base-under-siege story, with a twist that only Russell T Davies can deliver. This for me was the first episode of the revived series that would have had my seven-year-old self running for the back of the sofa. It is an unsettling episode that is fantastically directed and acted by all concerned. The Beast himself is the perfect embodiment of everything the Devil is said to represent and is true to how he is portrayed in most religions. The Beast drops tantalizing phrases that hint at the dark places the characters on the base have been. The Beast's main weapon is to challenge a person's faith, whether it's by dropping hints about what may have happened to Jefferson's wife, or revealing that Ida is running from Daddy or by simply saying that Danny is the little boy who lied. The Beast's goal is to awaken the darkness that it knows lurks inside everyone of us, and then use the confusion it creates to its advantage. This is why the Beast's possession of Toby is one of the most chilling scenes ever filmed in the series, made all the more menacing by utilizing the pitch perfect voice of Gabriel Woolf (who incidentally was the voice of Sutekh in the afore mentioned story The Pyramids of Mars).

According to whatever religious text you happen to be reading, the Devil's other trick is to manipulate and trick others into doing his dirty work for him. In The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit this role is fulfilled by Toby and the telepathic slave race the Ood. To be honest with you, I was never overly fond of the Ood. I found them to be rather one-dimensional, and to be blunt Doctor Zoidberg wannabes. Their only purpose in the story is simply to act as vehicles for the Beast to control. Nothing of value is revealed about them, and as a consequence of this it's very hard to feel sorry for the fate that eventually befalls them. This has been rectified somewhat for their subsequent appearances, but, speaking personally, it was too little too late as the damage had already been well and truly done in their debut appearance.

When the Beast's prison is revealed to us in The Satan Pit, the imagery we're presented with is certainly consistent with what one would expect in the fiery depths of hell. The ever-present flames and chains tick all the visual boxes of what we would expect to find if we were unfortunate enough to be deposited there when we finally do breathe our last. This leads me nicely into the visual look of the beast. The look is clearly inspired by the 1985 Tom Cruise vehicle Legend, and by default the Destroyer in the 1989 story Battlefield, but it also fits in with the image we all have of what the prince of darkness ultimately looks like. It's a bit of a letdown that, when we do finally see him, all he does is roar and snarl, but this is explained in story by having his consciousness inhabiting the body of Toby. It's never revealed what the Beast's jailer's motivations were for trapping him in the first are, especially as he seems to have no problem transferring his consciousness into the bodies of others, but it allows the Doctor the chance to point out that the Beast may be the explanation behind the myth of the Devil on countless thousands of worlds, by listing examples of other civilizations whose religions feature a horned beast.

This is without a doubt one of my favorite episodes of the revived series for the simple reason that it takes a familiar concept and gives it a refreshing twist. While not everything makes sense plotwise, its sheer scope and ambition more than make up for any failings it may have.

As I mentioned above, this isn't the first time the Devil has been used in Science Fiction and I can confidently predict that it won't be the last. And what did the horned one himself think of his Doctor Who appearance? Well, I'm not exactly certain, but the next time I drop into my local Tax office I'll be sure to ask him.

But if I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in her! by Evan Weston 17/7/14

So that's what the rest of the universe looks like! It may not seem like it, but in the 21 episodes and 17 stories of new Doctor Who so far, not one has traveled completely away from the Earth. The End of the World, The Long Game and the Series 1 finale were all set above Earth, and half of The Girl in the Fireplace takes place on an alien spaceship (New Earth comes closest and is technically set on another planet, but come on, it's supposed to be a futuristic Earth), but The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is the first episode of Davies era Who set on a completely different planet with no scenes set on or near the Earth. It's impressive that the production team was able to get away with that for nearly two dozen episodes, but it's about time for a story that uses Doctor Who's space-travel plot device to full effect.

Suffice to say, full effect is achieved. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is the best two-parter of the show up to this point, and will remain that way for quite some time. In fact, that might still be true all the way through Series 7. This is a phenomenally deep episode with a ton to deconstruct and analyze, but I'll start by saying that it's the first two-parter to really feel like it deserves the 90 minute running time. World War Three and The Doctor Dances went out with a bit of a whimper, Bad Wolf was 20 minutes of reality TV parody before it got started, and you could cut out chunks of Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel wholesale if you felt like it; that one's just for fun. This one is weighty, it's important, and it's plotted so wonderfully that it never feels like the episode is dragging on too long.

For this and many other things, all the credit in the world goes to writer Matt Jones, who hadn't written a script before The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and hasn't written another since. If Jones made a deal with the devil (heh) that he could only write one Doctor Who story in his lifetime, this was a pretty damn good choice. This story is obviously a passion project, and Jones pours everything he has into 90 minutes of pure adrenaline mixed with deep probing sci-fi thought, challenging yours and the Doctor's notions of life and death. This review is difficult to structure because there's so much to talk about, so there's no better way to start than by definitively declaring that Jones is the primary reason everything works so well. He would have joined Shearman, Cornell and Moffat among my must-watch writers with this masterpiece, had he ever gotten another chance to write. Someone has to ask Russell T Davies why he didn't.

We'll discuss the principals first. The Doctor isn't quite the center of the action in this one - then again, no one is - but he is at least the philosophical core of the episode, acting as the character both the least and most disturbed by the Beast. We hear the other characters' plights and feel for them, but the Doctor has to stand strong and believe in himself all the way to the end. His speech about rules is truly fascinating. I suppose everyone has a set of rules - for instance, I didn't know Doctor Who made a habit of incorporating religion into its stories - and though the Doctor's are few and far between, to see them messed with is intriguing and a lot of fun. Though Jones doesn't go super in-depth with the Doctor's belief system, he really doesn't have to. That's because the Doctor isn't the protagonist of the story.

That title belongs to Rose Tyler, who is written better in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit than she has been in a long time. Rose has either been cast aside (The Girl in the Fireplace, The Idiot's Lantern), marginalized for another character (New Earth, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel) or straight-up poorly written (Tooth and Claw) in Series 2, only getting a real workout in School Reunion. Here, and specifically in The Satan Pit, Rose is an action star, rallying the troops together in the absence of the Doctor to get everyone out alive. You believe her as the leader and she does it in her very Rose-like spontaneous way, thanks to Jones' superb grasp of the character.

Billie Piper takes command of the part she's given and runs with it like a manic train. She actually threatens to go back to her Tooth and Claw mishap early on, chortling through the first 15 minutes of exposition like she doesn't have a care in the world, but once the TARDIS is gone you realize how intentional that was. Rose's smugness is gone here, replaced first by sadness, then a determination unseen in the character since Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. Piper is fantastic as an action hero, with a steely gaze no more pronounced than when she's inspiring another character to keep moving on, and even a dry sense of humor that keeps the proceedings from slipping into self-seriousness. She's magnificent.

She also gets some great interaction with David Tennant's Doctor. Jones, unlike literally every other guest writer this season (including Moffat), understands that great characters are developed over the course of many episodes and not just one. The most touching scene in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit might be Rose and the Doctor's conversation in the dining hall, deciding to shack up together if they make it out alive. It's adorable, for starters, and it shows you where the Doctor and Rose are at this point - young enough that they want to keep travelling without slowing down, but if forced to, they could start a life together. The characters' deep concern for and admiration of each other is the driving force of their actions in the second half of the story, and their determination to see each other again is what makes the narrative so compelling above all else. I'm not sure there's a better Tenth Doctor/Rose story out there.

Still, they aren't the only ones who keep you glued to the screen. Jones has created the best new Who supporting cast to date, developing five deeply drawn characters with different quirks that make each one totally believable. Best in show is probably Shaun Parkes as Captain Zachary Crossflane. In a story with faith at its heart, Parkes plays a man without faith even in himself, and his defeated look and bursts of anger make his final transformation compelling (and it still manages to be subtle). I must also applaud Claire Rushbrook and Danny Webb for their performances as Ida and Jefferson, respectively. Rushbrook fills Ida with a sense of wonder that the other characters don't possess, and she works as the emotional driver behind the crew. Meanwhile, Jefferson's old soldier with a heart of gold routine works because Webb completely sells it - the Beast's taunt to him seems more real somehow, because you believe it from him. His death is an extremely poignant scene, nicely underplayed and not shoved in your face. Less memorable but still solid are Will Thorp's possessed villain Toby Zed and Ronny Jhutti as comic relief character Danny, who fill their roles nicely. The only misfire is MyAnna Buring's Scooti, and she's meant to be the pretty face who dies anyway.

And yet, there are still more great things to say about The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit! We haven't discussed the villain yet, and boy is he nasty. The Beast is one of the best original villains of the Davies era; the eventual CGI creation is a hulking slab of awesome, but more impressive is the psychological terror he inflicts. It helps that veteran British bad guy actor Gabriel Woolf lends his voice to the role. Even more impressive are the Ood, who look utterly fantastic and are brilliant from concept to execution. Their mouths are terrifying, yes, but it's all in the eyes. From the pre-credits sequence onwards, they frighten you, but their final on-screen appearance is tragic, as they huddle together with fear freezing their eyes. It's fairly obvious why the Ood were brought back for more adventures, but they are never better than they are here.

My goodness, we haven't even talked about the story yet. This is another one where the plotting is so precise, you might as well just go watch the episode, but the pacing is remarkable. There's a lot of exposition to get through here, but it's done nicely within the first 15 minutes; credit here goes to director James Strong, who moves the dialogue along with tight close-ups that emphasize the dire nature of the situation without getting too THIS IS IMPORTANT about it. Actually, Strong's work is really solid overall, and he becomes a stable Doctor Who director thanks to this episode (at least somebody got to last because of it). There are terrific, lengthy - I know! - action sequences paced gorgeously throughout the structure of the story. We get the quake, then some exposition. Scooti dies; we get some dramatic build-up. The beast awakens the Ood and cuts off the Doctor and Ida, and there are characters desperately trying to figure out what to do. The best two sequences are the chase through the maintenance tunnels and the climax in the rocket, both fitting perfectly into the story and giving a rush of adrenaline.

Phew. I didn't remember loving it like this, but The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is probably the best blockbuster Doctor Who ever made. Matt Jones has created, for the first time in the new series, an entirely new world to explore, and he's jam-packed it with terrific characters, a mysterious and powerful villain, and an exhilarating yet personal story that leaves you winded by the end. This is one I'll watch over and over, wondering why in the world Matt Jones never got another chance to write televised Who. That's the only shame that comes from this.