The Satan Pit
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
The Impossible Planet

Story No. 182 How very Ood
Production Code Series Two Episode Eight
Dates June 3 2006

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

Synopsis: As everything else is sucked into a black hole, impossibly a mysterious planet remains stable.


Hide behind that pillow! by Joe Ford 19/56/06

I did not have high hopes for this story. Whilst I loved Matt Jones' Bad Therapy, a very sweet character piece in the final third of the New Adventures, I couldn't stand Beyond the Sun, his Bernice Summerfield novel and I regularly found his column in DWM the most annoying thing about the magazine. Add to that the fact that this episode has the least "WOW" factor in this series to date (One had Zoe Wanamaker, Two had Queen Victoria and warewolves, Three had Sarah Jane, Giles and K9, Four had Sophia Myles and Mickey as a companion, Five and Six had Cybermen and Seven had Maureen Limpman) and that last week's teaser was hardly an appetite-whetter and the best thing you could say is that "that bloke from Casualty is in it". Hmm...

Oh what a stupid, stupid fool I am. Hype is one thing (come on I think we were all a little disappointed by New Earth) but a show firing on all cylinders and proving what it can do in every department is another and that is exactly what The Impossible Planet does. Technically this episode is flawless and I genuinely feel it has the strongest cast yet assembled for the new series. This is an episode that might restore faith in the series of some of those who preferred series one (so Simon's mother then) and remind the rest of us why we should be so proud of supporting this show.

It is a funny old business, I do like it when there is a third companion mostly because John Barrowman and Noel Clarke are such good performers and bring much to the show but when the TARDIS is enjoying threesome we see the weaker aspects of the Doctor and Rose's relationship, namely their ignorance of how much they are hurting the third member and involved in themselves. Take away that selfishness of their intimacy and their relationship is adorably sweet, as proven last week in The Idiot's Lantern and here. David Tennant and Billie Piper have enjoyed a strong chemistry this season but their carefree existence lacks the unity of Piper and Eccleston's relationship. This is where things shift up a gear and they share some wonderful moments in this episode, which exposes the richness in their partnership, both the characters and the actors. The Doctor's quiet despair at being trapped is rectified slightly by the sweet moment where he and Rose talk about settling down, both of them too shy to admit they would choose to live together. Rose's admission that "everybody has to leave home" and that being trapped in this situation is not so bad because she is with him are possibly the most mature scenes the character has ever had and all the better because they are understated and impeccably performed. Bravo. Also Rose's gentle kiss of the Doctor's helmet (behave yourselves!) suggests an intimacy between them that surpasses anything we have seen before without stripping them of their dignity and getting all sweaty.

Matt Jones has written a damn good script, on par with the best of either year. The story is packed with great ideas and they are dramatized beautifully. This is a textbook case in how to effectively build up tension, spend the first fifteen minutes setting the scene and introducing the mystery, then mid-episode introduce some major problems for the characters to react to before your big reveal in the last third which gets everybody on the edge of their seat screaming "Oh shit!" (or was it just me?). Jones had also written an extremely strong cast of characters, so successfully thought through that the death of somebody we have only known for twenty minutes has a major impact. Whilst the cast are responsible for bringing these people to life, they really don't have anything to work with if the script is naff.

Imagination soars as with all the best Doctor Who stories. The Ood are a marvellous idea, a slave race that only reaps pleasure from serving others but with such a stomach-churning appearance. Loads of scope to be damn creepy and yet sympathetic at the same time, slaves of the humans or the Beast. The big reveal that the base is affixed to a lump of rock orbiting a Black Hole is well presented to make the viewer gasp and gawp, helped no end that it is visually spectacular as well (but bonus points for holding this off for ten minutes, had this been a regular one-off episode this would have been tossed in the air before the opening theme). It is a terrifying thought being sucked into a black hole and the episode wastes no time in demonstrating the power of this phenomenon, Murray Gold's effective strings accompanying an entire star system being consumed by the Black Hole. Where the episode lacks in originality is its horror undertones, something nasty under the ground waiting to be unleashed but come on... name two instances where that cliche hasn't worked out? It's a fabulous conceit, which is why it has been used over and over and implanted into a story which is already as gritty as this one turns a dark episode into a terrorizing one.

I am not easily scared. I think Doctor Who has managed to give me the shivers maybe three or four times in its entire run but there was one scene in this episode which terrified me more than any other that I have seen in TV or film for years. It is beautifully filmed to get under your skin. Toby stands outside the base in the airless vacuum without a spacesuit before the black hole and turns on his friend staring at him through the window. His eyes are blood red, his face is stained with alien scrawl and he is grinning at her. A beautiful smile of pure evil, beckoning him towards her. Oh my God I was hiding behind a pillow... and as the glass cracked and she was sucked out towards his grinning face... there must have been loads of kids shitting themselves tonight! Also scary but not as much was the climax, featuring the Beast speaking through Toby and telling the security office that his wife never forgave him.

Two performances stood out although there was not a single one that didn't impress me. I want to apologise to Will Thorp who I had written off as a soap actor (or dancer) who delivered a spot on piece of acting of a man fighting against a terrible infection. His early scenes suggest a shy, dedicated but likable man and his transformation into a pawn of the Beast is truly shocking, his stunning smile is put to great, scary effect. I have to say a word for David Tennant's old sparring partner Shaun Parkes who made such a sparkling partnership in Russell T Davies' Casanova. Standing in as acting-Captain, Parkes delivers a great, tired performance of a man doing a job he was not built for but still pulling it off well. As expected his scenes with Tennant shine, the scene where the Doctor hugs him should be vomit-inducing and yet (thanks to the actors) they make it work.

Lovely to see some grit in the new series, I remember Russell T Davies saying how much he channel hops and stops on the show with the prettiest picture regardless of how good the show is. Doctor Who this year has perhaps been a bit too pretty: New Earth, Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace and The Idiot's Latern all feature gorgeous, sumptuous productions but it all looks a bit NICE. Here we've got all the style but jumping down below decks with the "workers". The sets are divine, dirty, unsteady, filled with dirty smoke... it really helps to put across the sense of clinging on to this rock for dear life. I like the contrast of the futuristic setting with the modern-ish costumes, nothing too flashy but casual and comfortable just how you would want to be in that environment. Lighting is exceptional throughout, especially during Toby's murder scene and the Doctor and Rose's "settling down" conversation. Real edge-of-the-seat drama and an attempt to be scary that succeeds on every level, here is a great example of Doctor Who doing its best to give you nightmares before you go to sleep. It's almost a shame it is broadcast in the daylight. Do yourself a favour and tape it and watch it later in the dark on your own.

Ten out of ten chaps.

The Beast shall rise from the Pit to make war upon God by Steve Cassidy 10/11/06

There is no doubt in my mind that The Impossible Planet is the highlight of season 2.

We had high expectations. This was one where the Doctor finally breaks free of the earth stories and the audience gets to see an alien planet. He finally does what every other Doctor has done before him and has a thrilling adventure in time and space. And the aforementioned planet doesn't disappoint; it truly is a place of horror. Matt Jones' script gives us one of the most memorable alien locations ever seen in Who. And then he subverts it even more to give us a protagonist that sends shivers down our spines.

For that is why this one works. It has those old standbys in spades: menace and mystery. We truly do believe the threat posed by the black hole. We truly do believe that there is something evil at the heart of the planet. Brilliant direction by James Strong builds up the tension so that every corner and inch of the space station is touched with menace. The premise of deadliness is set up very early in the adventure with the space station being shaken to bits and the loss of the TARDIS: the Doctors lifeline. We are meant to take this one seriously. This is true hide-behind-the-sofa territory.

If there is a literary paralell to Matt Jones' vision then it has to be Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. The boat keeps pushing deeper in the void (the humans teetering on the edge of the black hole and boring down into the euphemism for hell). The ringleader gets crazier and crazier (possessed Toby/stressed crew) dragging their slaves/minions with them (the Ood). And Marlow (the Doctor) descends deeper into the Congo/black pit. The madness just carries on until he meets with the Kurtz/Lucifer equivalent.

This adventure has atmosphere in spades and some truly stunning set pieces. At times it resembles 'Alien' or any other American Sci-Fi series but the British idiom shines through. There is a bit of gun-toting going on, but you get the impression that it is done with embarassed reluctance rather then the gung-ho ideas of 'Aliens'. When the Ood are rampaging all over the ship it doesn't turn into a computer-game "shoot 'em up" but a bunch of scared people thinking on their feet and bumbling through, nervous at losing their hides. The reluctant Captain played by Shaun Parkes could have been a sci-fi cliche, but he is so well played that he has your instant sympathy. Mr Parkes goes with the character: you can almost see the thoughts flicker across his brain and his eyes dart around with stress. He is in charge now of other people's lives in a situation where death can occur at any second.

Almost as good is Will Thorp as the archaeologist Toby Zed. The scene everyone remembers is him working alone in his cabin and the sibulous whispering (the silky voice of Gabriel Woolf) occurs in his head. Is it real or imagined? The audience doesn't know until he turns over his hands and they are covered in runes. Alien possession is an old ruse in Who. There isn't a secondary character/companion who hasn't been taken over by alien intelligence. But his transmogification into being a mouthpiece/puppet of 'The Beast' is very impressive. The lasting image to me of The Impossible Planet is the death of Scooti, the twenty-year-old trainee. The sight of her floating in space, seen through the glass observation ceiling, hair floating against the raging black hole, is chilling. And the music by Murray Gold with cello/bass ethereal sound just adds to a already haunting adventure.

Of course, nothing is perfect and I have to draw attention to my least favourite scenes in the whole series. Imagine the premise: the tenth Doctor and Rose have just arrived and the lonely crew are just getting over their sight of new humans. The precarious situation is explained, an earthquake experienced and the awesome black hole revealed. Rose doesn't seem to be taking the situation seriously and has a flippancy which already threatens to derail the adventure. As Toby explains about the ancient myths surrounding 'the pit', Rose supercilliously says "Who are you? Chief dramatist?" Bang! The tension immediately goes out of the window. I could have cheerfully strangled her for that line. If I were the crew, already stressed and jittery having seen their number die one by one, I would have picked up Rose Tyler and kicked her out of the airlock. And instead of slapping her down (as the fourth and third Doctors would have done) the tenth Doctor just smirks, as if he is encouraging her.

The tenth Doctor/Rose smugathon is the only bad thing about this adventure. And to be honest David does some good work in the finishing installment The Satan Pit but I see the editing hand of RTD in those scenes. Matt Jones wrote a very good story but the rumour is (and it is only a rumour) that he wasn't happy by the RTD rewrites and as a Who purist struggled with the "emotional journeys" that RTD made him insert. It is only an alleged bit of internet gossip but Matt Jones, a lifelong fan, has been damning by his silence on this project. Certianly RTD seems to take most of the writing credit on Confidential.

How much of this is RTD's and how much is Mr Jones' will eventually come out in years to come. In the meantime we have a wonderful adventure with a premise worthy of hardcore sci-fi. A story to send kids to bed with the willies and get the audience hooked on an adventure. The casting of the original Satan/Sutekh, Gabriel Woolf, from Pyramids of Mars had fans quivering with excitement and Mr Woolf has lost none of his menacing magic. The SFX were fantastic: the Black Hole and surrounding planet looked fantastic and the space station had that battered make-do feel which utterly convinced. The story itself had that 'hook' to capture an audience to bring them back for more and built to an effective climax. The Ood themselves had a flicker of realism: the premise of a race that lives only to serve others is distinctly disturbing and the fact that they turn on their masters confirms this. To be honest, I really can't praise The Impossible Planet enough.

This adventure is devilishly good...