And so to ‘The Impossible Planet’/‘The Satan Pit’, much vaunted when it was first announced as the new series first on-screen foray to an alien world. In fact that was ‘New Earth’, which didn’t feel at all like a new planet, and thus ‘The Impossible Planet’/‘The Satan Pit’ represents the first truly alien, hostile environment seen in the series albeit it one with that is uninhabited by anything or anyone except the ultimate personification of evil. As such, what we get is less ‘The Web Planet’ and more ‘The Dæmons’ on another planet with a bit of Aliens thrown in for good measure. Regardless of this however, it’s unlike anything seen thus far in the new series, and that is its great strength.
What is most striking about ‘The Impossible Planet’/‘The Satan Pit’ is its use of the regulars, and this is something of a mixed bag. I’ve long since grown sick of the relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Rose; her constant looks of longing in his direction just about worked with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor as it was portrayed as unrequited love. By this point it looks like almost-requited lust, and manifests itself as adolescent flirting and some of the most crushingly intrusive dialogue the series has ever seen. If the production team must insist on romance in Doctor Who, do it like ‘The Girl in Fireplace’ did it and have an end to this juvenile crush dynamic. Mercifully, writer Matt Jones, new to the series but having previously written New Adventures ‘Bad Therapy’ and the Doctor-less ‘Beyond the Sun’ manages to exploit this increasingly irritating relationship in ways that just about make it work. So although on the one hand we have the utterly facile exchange in which the Doctor gloomily muses, “I’d have to settle down… now that, that is terrifying” and Rose starts blithering about getting a house together, this arises out of the fact that, for the first time in series two, the Doctor is forcibly separated from his TARDIS rather than simply parking it somewhere and then unable to get back to it because he’s wandered into trouble, or unable to escape in it because it’s recharging. Tennant conveys some of the sense of loss and, as result of being trapped in a single time and space, claustrophobia that the Doctor must be feeling, and despite the hideous dialogue she’s given, Rose’s function here is to keep his spirits up until a mysterious menace comes along to keep him occupied. The ghastly smugness of the opening scene in which they leave the TARDIS and Rose suggests, “If you think there’s going to trouble we could always get back inside and go somewhere else” followed by badly acted hysterical laughter comes back to haunt them when they find that they really can’t just get back inside, and even though the audience knows that the Doctor’s going to find the TARDIS at the bottom of the Pit after it vanishes into an abyss, it adds a sense of urgency to the story because for a while the pair seem just as isolated as the humans on the planet.
Jones also makes some progress with the story as the Doctor confronts the body of the Beast in the Pit and realizes that in order to destroy it, he will have to sacrifice not only himself but also Rose. This suggestion that the Doctor thinks she’s the most important thing in the universe has blighted the new series ever since ‘Aliens of London’/‘World War Three’, but here at least he does decide to sacrifice her and open the prison, dooming the planet. So their relationship here is still overwrought slop and frequently annoys me, especially when the Doctor solemnly announces, “If I believe in one thing, I believe in her” but the story demonstrates progress. It probably won’t last, and it’s a bad sign that when the Beast tells Rose that she’ll die in battle I desperately hope he’s telling the truth, but it is at least a step in the right direction.
Interestingly however, ‘The Impossible Planet’/‘The Satan Pit’ also made me realize that it is purely this relationship, rather than Rose herself, of which I am wearying. True, she’s slow on the uptake when the Doctor (and the audience) realizes that the TARDIS has gone, but once the Doctor has descended into the Pit, it is Rose who takes charge, focusing the surviving humans into formulating and executing a plan, leading them through the maintenance ducts, and thus allowing them to disable the Ood. She has to be sedated to leave the Doctor behind, and threatens Zack with a bolt gun until he asks if this is how the Doctor would want her to behave, which takes us back into overwrought territory, but for the most part she works very well. But of the pair, it is the Doctor who is really great here. The hug may be cringe worthy (although Zach’s nonchalant “’spose so” when the Doctor asks him if he may hug him is rather amusing), but once the Doctor goes into the Pit the character shines in a way that, in retrospect, he hasn’t done for several episodes. Jones achieves this by challenging the character’s beliefs and making him face his fears; even the Doctor is wary of going into the pit, and only does so once the cable snaps and he has nothing to lose, quietly telling Ida, “For once in my life Officer Scott, I’m going to say retreat.” Tennant is especially good when the Doctor dangles over the pit, musing on the true nature of the Beast and wondering if everything he believed about the Universe is wrong (and on this occasion, the script leaves little doubt that he is), before finally taking a very literal leap of faith and falling into the void.
Which brings me to the villain. The Beast is the first god-like foe that the Doctor has faced in the television series since ‘The Curse of Fenric’, and although this sort of thing isn’t new in the series as a whole, it is a first for the new series. The wise decision to cast voice of Sutekh Gabriel Woolf as the Beast pays dividends; ‘The Impossible Planet’ is very creepy and Woolf’s malevolent tones significantly contribute to this, with Toby’s possession proving chilling. The episode builds tension wonderfully, with the Ood casually announcing, “The Beast and his armies will rise from the Pit and make war against God”, and the computer and Rose’s phone chillingly stating, “He is awake”. Scooti’s death is memorably nasty. Woolf’s best scene comes when the Beast communicates with the base personnel, plus the Doctor and Rose, near the start of ‘The Satan Pit’, and answers the Doctor’s question, “If you are the Beast, which one?” with the almost gleeful, “All of them.” He sounds suitably devilish when he says of the Doctor, “This one knows me, as I know him, the killer of his own kind.” All of which leads the viewer to expect the story to follow the obvious route, with the Doctor confronting and defeating the Beast in the Pit, but Jones subverts this: the Doctor finds its body, but the expected confrontation never really takes place; much of the Beast’s function is to make the Doctor confront his fears and challenge his beliefs, as he descends into the pit, confronts it, and realizes that he has to sacrifice Rose as well as himself, or at least so he thinks, in order to overcome this ultimate evil. This is genuinely unusually for the series; we don’t get the Beast explaining some grand scheme to the Doctor, it simply wants to escape and the Doctor has to work this out more or less on his own. This is a commendably brave decision, even if it does result in the slightly ridiculous scene in which Rose gives it a lesson in the importance of wearing seat-belts. Who would have thought the Devil could have been brought down by a chav with a bolt gun?
‘The Impossible Planet’/‘The Satan Pit’ also works because of the supporting characters and a largely great cast. Jones makes every named character sympathetic, so that whenever one of them dies it has an impact. Jefferson’s in particular manages to be very moving, despite toying with cliché. Interestingly, the Beast plays on their fears, and we learn that some past incident between Jefferson and his wife still haunts him, but Jones doesn’t bother belaboring us with the details, which means that these snippets of information feel like genuine character background rather than plot points. Ronny Jhutti’s performance as Danny is rather shrill and forced for much of the story, but when the character starts panicking in the ducts, it’s very believable. All of them, despite being, really, barely sketched, feel real, especially Shaun Parkes’ thoroughly likeable Zach and Will Thorp’s unfortunate Toby, and the Doctor’s rescue of Ida at the end makes for a partially happy ending that avoids feeling twee.
And it all looks fantastic. I don’t normally bang on about effects in Doctor Who, but the Beast, the black hole, and the caverns in the bowels of the planet look superb. The sets mesh perfectly with the effects, creating a convincing world, and the obvious Aliens influence results in a frontier base that looks functional and dirty. The Ood look great, their interfaces giving them a bizarre pipe-smoking appearance, and their pursuit of Rose, Toby, Danny and Mr. Jefferson through the ducts is very tense. Director James Strong maintains atmosphere throughout, and as a result ‘The Impossible Planet’/‘The Satan Pit’ is one of the most visually impressive stories of the new series to date.
Despite this praise, I do have criticisms besides the relationship between the regulars. The Doctor and Rose are introduced to the crew when they first arrive, but when Danny tells the Ood to remain where they are he is accompanied by a hither-to unseen guard. Guess what happens to him? And to the unknown female crewmember who similarly appears at the start of ‘The Satan Pit’? Given Jones’ grasp of his other characters, this jarring insertion of nameless cannon fodder feels terribly lazy and borders on parody. There are other convenient contrivances on display too; the lack of air in the maintenance tunnels isn’t terribly convincing, given the abundance of mesh grills leading into and out of them, and the fact that the Ood, which apparently need air, creep up unexpectedly through different stretches of duct. It’s also terribly fortunate that the Ood cut through the door protecting Rose et al very quickly, but take ages to get to the Captain. The “We must feed” teaser is a bit silly, although I suppose it does makes the Ood sinister initially before they become friendly and helpful, and then, erm, sinister again, and the ending is also a bit daft, as we see the TARDIS with a tow-rope. Why didn’t it just materialize around the ship? Then we have the Torchwood reference; these are really starting to grate, and I’m actually looking forward to the series. Rumour has it that the references are building to something within this series of Doctor Who and are not just plugs for the spin-off, although given the Bad Wolf farce in series one, this doesn’t inspire confidence.
Overall then, despite some misgivings, I enjoyed ‘The Impossible Planet’/‘The Satan Pit’, although the admirable fact that it didn’t actually do what I expected left me rather cold on the first viewing. But Rose’s infatuation with the Doctor grates more than ever and I need it to stop, one way or another. One last note: the story would probably work much better without Murray Gold’s tepid aural effluence smeared all over it. But then, that goes for the whole series.
I have to put my hands up and admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this one. Yes, I was very keen to see what the new series made of its first out-and-out alien world – even though New Earth was in a whole different galaxy, the very fact that it was ‘new Earth’ didn’t make it feel all that alien, did it?
But somewhere along the line this kept getting compared by Russell T Davies to the western genre – pioneers making their brave new way in hostile territory, that sort of thing. I think I probably took his comments a little more literally than they were intended, but neither the idea of this bleak, miserable planet nor comparisons to westerns – a genre that usually bores me to tears – did anything for me. So I had this chalked down as ‘one not to get too excited about’, although of course it’s all relative – an episode of Doctor Who is never anything less than very watchable, even when the show is at its worst.
Of course, I was completely wrong about the whole thing anyway – this two-parter is absolutely wonderful, and easily my favourite story of the second series bar the perfect Girl in the Fireplace. It’s very different in style to Moffat’s effort, however – whereas that excelled because of the emotional resonance and the cleverness of the story, The Satan Pit (as I shall refer to the two-parter) gets by more on action-adventure and oodles of atmosphere.
In fact, there were only a few bits and pieces across the two episodes that I really didn’t like, so let’s get them out of the way first before they spoil things. The opening of the first episode – now this is a debatable one. Is the false threat of the Ood funny and clever because it takes advantage of our expectations that they should be a threat and then subverts them (for now), poking fun at the show’s format? Or is it a pretty poor excuse for a forced cliffhanger, as if the production team realised they needed a bit of excitement to crash into the opening titles on rather unsubtly crow-bared this one into the plot?
I lean towards the latter myself, and I didn’t like it, but mercifully it’s out of the way quickly enough, and from here on in there’s little to dislike. The Doctor hugging Zach, the similarity between the deaths of Scooti and Lynda-with-a-Y from last year with the cracking glass and the nasty death in space… Personal reactions that are probably more down to your own individual opinion than anything wrong with the episode as such.
There’s little that writer Matt Jones or director James Strong can be said to have done wrong here, and both make very favourable impressions on their first outings for the series. Given that this was shot last and thus had the shortest timescale between production and transmission, it’s perhaps impressive that the episodes look as good as they do. There’s only one real visual weakness that springs to mind – again, Scooti’s death, as her lifeless body floats through space. Shooting this underwater was a clever idea and probably worth a go, but the overall effect looks a bit cheap and sadly just doesn’t come off. But if Doctor Who is nothing else it’s a show where new production techniques and ideas have been tried out, so I applaud them for having given it a go.
The look of the sets and the whole design elsewhere is pretty gorgeous. The Sanctuary Base looks a bit familiar perhaps from a million and one Hollywood sci-fi movies, but it more than competes and stands up to such comparisons. The whole thing looks like a big budget version of the industrial zone from The Crystal Maze, and it’s a look that suits the edge-of-the-universe desperation of the situation very well indeed.
David Tennant’s Doctor seems a tad brought down in terms of his usual manic persona for much of this story, which suits the situation well given that he’s supposed to believe he’s trapped on this lump of rock with no TARDIS to give him a way out – not that you suspect deep down the Doctor would ever believe that, and we as the audience know it would never be the case. Nonetheless, the Doctor’s reaction to the apparent loss of his space and time ship is handled much better here than it was back in Rise of the Cybermen, although the fact that such a similar event happens twice in comparatively rapid succession could be regarded as a little unfortunate in terms of the overall planning of the series.
Tennant is particularly good in the scenes in which the Doctor ponders just what this deep, dark menace at the bottom of the pit might be, and his appreciation of and admiration for the humans’ spirit of adventure and desire to seek out and discover new things is also conveyed very well by the Scot. Similarly, Piper rises to the occasion when Rose is left basically marshalling the demoralised survivors of the expedition into some sort of action against the approaching Ood. Although both Piper and her character are good at this, the fact that Rose herself doesn’t have anything constructive to offer does highlight the fact that she can at times seem a little bit useless when it comes to practically doing anything about the situation, although she doubtless has good leadership skills.
It pretty much goes without saying these days that any Doctor Who story is going to assemble a first-rate supporting cast, such is the draw and prestige of the show, but I have to bring special attention here to the cast, especially Danny Webb. Anybody who was in the awesome Our Friends in the North has long-since attained God-like status in my eyes, and it was good to see Webb appearing in the show and putting in a fine appearance as Mr Jefferson. Also worthy of mention is Shaun Parkes as Zach, who was of course David Tennant’s co-star in Casanova and thus it seems almost like a reunion between their two characters in that production at some points.
And then of course there’s your man Gabriel Woolf. Is it Sutekh? Well… no, the little we do learn about the origins of ‘the Beast’ do seem to go against it, but who cares frankly when you’re getting a performance like that out of the man. Despite never appearing on screen he managed to be by far the most disturbing thing about the story, with his highlight coming in the “Don’t turn around!” scene in which he possesses poor old Toby’s soul.
But what was he? Or she, or it? The devil? An Osiaian? Something completely different? Unless this does all very cleverly and unexpectedly link into something we’re going to see at the end of the season then I don’t suppose we will ever know and it will forever be a mystery – which is nice. We could do with a few fewer explanations in Doctor Who, and the dark, enigmatic shadowy nature of this devil made it by far the most intriguing enemy the Doctor has faced this series, and perhaps since the show returned last year.
No God-like evil from the dawn of time is complete without its minions, however. The Beast gets the Ood, a frankly repulsive lot and another score for the design team, although I’m not completely sure about the voices. While I was a little disappointed the whole idea of their slave race nature and their origins and how they fit exactly into human society wasn’t explored just a little more, the idea of this servants-turned-killers plot development was a good, if slightly predictable, one, and echoed The Robots of Death, as cleverer reviewers than I have long since tired of pointing out.
There’s little else I can add without repeatedly going on about how much I enjoyed the story. Another great effort by all concerned, and let’s hope we get a couple more trips to completely alien worlds in series three.
Oh dear. Having just glanced over the reviews already posted on this page, it seems that I am destined to become largely outspoken in my opinion of these two episodes. You see, I thought they were just damn awful. There you go, I said it. ‘The Impossible Planet’ and ‘The Satan Pit’. Awful.
As inflammatory as that may sound, it would not be fair of me to take an indiscriminate swipe at all the elements of this story. The visual effects, for example, were absolutely stunning – probably the best the series has seen since it returned to our screens. Hats off also to James Strong for his accomplished, inspired direction. And, of course, David Tennant and Billie Piper were, as always, brilliant. Not one of these things can be faulted.
No, where ‘The Satan Pit’ fell down was with the most important element of all – the script.
Now lets be honest, the quality of the scripts so far this year have generally been weaker than in Series One. There have been some corkers (‘School Reunion’, ‘The Girl In The Fireplace’), some trundlers (‘New Earth’, ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’) and some absolute stinkers (‘Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel’). Unfortunately, ‘The Satan Pit’ falls into the latter category.
Given that Matt Jones had ninety minutes to play around with, how he chose to fill them was baffling. We seemed to be getting padding and endless set-pieces when we should have been getting plot and character development.
It’s true that, in Season One, the writers were still finding their feet when it came to the two-parters – the finer points of how the narrative should be paced were still being worked out which lead to them being slightly patchy and uneven in their concluding episode. Even ‘The Empty Child’ suffered with this to some degree although, admittedly, not as much as the others. By Season Two, Russell T. Davies and his team of writers should be starting to get to grips with the longer stories but neither of the two-parters so far this year have demonstrated any advancement in this area. In fact, they seem to have taken a step backwards. But whereas the problem with ‘The Rise Of The Cyberman’ was that there were too many elements vying for attention (The Doctor, Rose, Pete and Jackie, Mickey, the Cybermen, John Lumic, the Preachers, an alternate Earth, etc), ‘The Satan Pit’ suffered from the exact opposite - there simply wasn’t enough plot to go around, resulting in a lot of tedious, overblown dialogue, running down corridors and repetition (just how many times did we get the scene where Toby was sitting in his office only to have his name whispered by the unseen beast? I genuinely lost count!)
Another side effect of the thin plot was that you just stopped caring about the guest characters. When something was revealed about one of the crew it tended to be largely superficial. There was one instance where the beast goaded each crew member, revealing some weakness or ghost from their past. Toby, for instance, was apparently a virgin. Was this mentioned at any other point? Did it have any bearing on the plot? Nope. Ida was still running scared from her father. An interesting scenario and motivation for the character. Did this develop any further than the one glib remark? Nope. The only character that was allowed to bleed through successfully from this scene was that of the Acting Captain. He was demonstrated true worry about the responsibility of command and, certainly earlier on in the story, this proved to be quite interesting. Unfortunately, we were given no grounding to how this insecurity had come about. Shame.
Even the Doctor’s character suffered. The idea of him having his ideals tested is a brilliant one but it was just too shallow and came across largely unresolved. Having sat there through all the tedium for ninety minutes, you couldn’t help but feel slightly cheated and unfulfilled.
In Doctor Who Confidential, Russell T. Davies commented that it was important for the Doctor to not always have an answer, hence at the conclusion of this story we are left not fully knowing the nature of the beast that he encountered. This is all well and good, a fine idea in fact – nobody ever has all the answers – but I fear that what Russell was really saying was ‘sorry guys, but we kind of ran out of ideas…’ If the intention really was to let the audience draw its own conclusions on the beast then why not leave the creature unseen, an invisible but ever present threat? Surely this would have been scarier and far more in keeping with the creepy, dingy space-horror that the story was trying to emulate. ‘Tooth & Claw’ suffered in much the same way – how much more exciting and horrifying would it have been if we’d been made to wait right up to the moment when the werewolf bursts into the observatory before we get a chance to see it in all its terrifying glory? I understand that the BBC want to show off how accomplished the effects being produced at The Mill are – and don’t get me wrong, I think they’re breathtaking – but it comes across slightly like a young teenage girl putting on makeup for the first time; she cakes too much on. Season One got it right in this respect, the visual effects were there to compliment the narrative, to drive it forward to the next passage of plot development. Here, unfortunately, it just felt like the visuals were plugging the gaping holes in the storyline.
Why, oh why couldn’t this story have been confined to one episode (a format far more fitting to the depth of its plot) and an extra forty-five given over to one of the richer ideas from this season? (Just imagine how much more Toby Whitehouse could have done with Sarah Jane and K9, for instance!)
Please, please, pull your socks up guys! In 2005, you showed us how brilliant Doctor Who can be in the right hands!
As K9 would say: “Suggestion – spend less money on visual effects and more on hiring people who can write!”
Newcomer Matt Jones has contributed essentially one of the most solid scripts in new Who to date. Chiefly because this is fairly unpretentious stuff, offering little that it can’t deliver, though it is debatable whether the second episode delivers what is so accomplishedly promised in the superior first episode.
The premise of the story is tempered with a new generation of audience in mind, suggesting, rather arrogantly, that this is the most challenging scenario the Doctor has faced in his several incarnations yet. That is to say, an ‘impossible planet’. But of course older fans will recall, for instance, the equally ‘impossible’ nature of Zeta Minor, the last planet in the known universe which harboured a portal into the universe of anti-matter, in Season Thirteen’s definitive ‘gothic sci-fi’ story, Planet of Evil, the story from which Matt Jones has borrowed the most of his own story’s ingredients. Ironically, recalling the unusually stunning sets of the eerie world of Zeta Minor, shot largely on film at Ealing Film Studios, Jones’s modern offering on similar themes is even to some extent visually ghosted by its Louis Marks-penned predecessor of almost exactly thirty years back. However, the cavernous location filming in the ‘pit’ in Jones’s offering, is admittedly about as filmic and 2001: A Space Odyssey as the series has ever looked – certainly a world away from Planet of Evil’s video-shot anti-matter pit set. But essentially, has that much really changed in thirty years when one compares Planet of Evil and The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit?
Essentially this latest new Who offering is both one of the best-written stories since new Who returned last year, as well as being one of the most obviously lifted from the former triumphs of the classic series. We have ingredients from Robots of Death with a group of isolated humans being turned-on by their own ‘slaves’ (i.e. the Vocs in Robots and the Ood in Impossible Planet), the Ood also being expertly voiced in an uncannily similar soothing tone to both the Vocs and the Clockwork Robots in Girl in the Fireplace – beautifully done. We have another manifestation of the Devil, aka Azal, aka Sutekh, and so on, now manifested somewhat anonymously – so this harks back to The Daemons (also alluded to in this story) and of course Pyramids of Mars, with, coincidentally, the incomparable Gabriel Wolf voicing what is basically another version of Sutekh once again. There is also a striking similarity between this modern Satanic manifestation and the – admittedly completely botched one – of the Great Vampire in State of Decay, who is also imprisoned beneath a planet; who’s to say this isn’t one of that giant number, formerly thought destroyed by the Timelords? But, as previously cited, Planet of Evil is Jones’s most obvious inspiration for Impossible/Satan: both stories have an ‘impossible’ planet at the edge of the known universe, one the gateway to anti-matter, one orbiting a black hole; both harbour a pernicious and indestructible power force and almost magnetic imprisoning of their human visitors; and both feature possessions and transmogrifications of one of these human visitors into something symbiotically a part of the planet they are trapped on (i.e. Sorenson and the mundanely named Toby). And of course both stories are quite blatantly inspired by the cult Fifties film Forbidden Planet, which is where presumably Jones got his own title.
So basically what we get from Jones is a fairly derivative plot, but it is in the details of this plot and the scriptural elements (i.e. allusions, dialogue, back stories etc.) and characterizations that his new Who offering really comes into its own. All the characters are excellently scripted and acted, and with the compliment of the beautifully designed and voiced Ood servants (stupid name but excellent concept: a bipedal ‘herd’ species, rather like cows, with superbly realised blinking eyes and what look like Turkish pipes as translators – their ‘telepathy’ and how it is measured being very well thought out), colour a scenario strongly reminiscent of Chris Boucher’s classic Robots of Death. These are, at last, characters one can to some extent engage and empathise with, to the point that one very nearly cares what happens to some of them; the casting had a lot to do with this, some good solid actors for a change.
Ironically, during the first episode, I tended to feel the only characters which were annoying me were the Doctor and Rose themselves, who seemed to trip into the grim scenario fairly smugly to be greeted by a bunch of rather subdued and moody protagonists who were quite clearly taken aback by the intruders’ pretensions to amiability – cue the cringe-inducing and meaningless hug that the Doctor offers the Captain. What on Earth, or off it, was that all about? The forced ‘zaniness’ and overly emphatic manic ‘energy’ of the Tenth Doctor can often be grating and slightly embarrassing, making Tenant resemble a hybrid of Jarvis Cocker and Kenneth Williams, but thankfully the ‘zaniness’ is fairly muted for the rest of this two-parter, and Tenant puts in his best performance to date as the Doctor: not too omnipotent for a change, a little feckless, and prone to philosophical digressions on the ontology of his adversary, a welcome relief from his ubiquitous allusions to popular culture which litter and deflate many other episodes – as a friend pointed out to me the other day, the ‘Kylie’ and ‘Walford’ style quips would be perfectly apt from the mouth of Rose, someone grounded in that very culture, but coming from the Doctor it is simply absurd, puerile, pointless and basically down to abysmal scripting and characterization. The Doctor should be a figure we look up to both morally and intellectually – I can’t look up to anyone who quotes Kylie lyrics and alludes to EastEnders. And what was the point in the Walford reference anyway, when it was barely audible due to The Doctor irrelevantly blurting it out from inside a space helmet? This is simply slack writing. However, Tenant, as I said, certainly pulled off his most convincing performance to date, and seemed to be directly mimicking the mannerisms and delivery of his iconic predecessor Tom Baker when confronting the demon in the pit. Even though what we get is a much less compelling pastiche of the Fourth Doctor, Tenant is at last given an opportunity with a pretty straight and substantial script, to put in a convincing performance – ranking equally to his refreshingly accented portrayal in Tooth and Claw –, blissfully unhampered by the growingly tiresome Rose.
Which brings me on to some of the criticisms for this story. As previously mentioned, the highly nauseating smugness of the Doctor and Rose as they first meet the humans. The Doctor’s completely stupid hugging of the Captain and his equally fatuous and geeky back-of-the-throat chortles afterwards, rather like that goggle-eyed eldest son from My Family. Rose’s dim-witted remark about the black hole funnel being ‘like a rollercoaster?’ – the sort of line occasionally force-fed to poor Sophie Aldred in some of the worst scripted McCoy’s; and the inevitable scene when, faced with being stranded forever on the planet (remember Frontios? no doubt one of this story’s other influences), Rose proposes sharing a mortgage with a thankfully awkward-looking Doctor, who seems to gladly greet this prospect with the same sort of horror that the classic series Doctors would show at the prospect of residing back on Gallifrey. Thank God, at least, for this subtle re-emphasis of a cosmic hobo who won’t be tied down to anything other than the TARDIS. But the greatest irritants of this otherwise accomplished script, are the Doctor’s constant commentaries and eulogies on the intrepid spirit of the human race; yes, admittedly we appear to be a contrast to the home-loving Timelords, but come on, there’s also the couch-potato side to Earthlings as exemplified in the cloying Jackie. No doubt Jones was attempting to pull off a similar monologue from the Doctor to Tom Baker’s in The Ark in Space – but I’m afraid there’s no comparison: on this level Jones could not compete with the Fourth Doctor’s classic speech on the ‘indomitable’ spirit of the human race which, as we may recall, was not meant to be particularly flattering, but awe-struck, horrified and sardonic all at the same time. While the Third and Fifth Doctors might have often eulogised about Earth being their favourite planet (though Pertwee was frequently attempting to escape it in the TARDIS), the Fourth and Seventh Doctors were noticeably more misanthropic, and this was something I always liked about those incarnations. Sadly RTD’s obsessive terrestrialization of Doctor Who seems constantly intent on emphasizing the Doctor’s sentimental bond with Earth via frequent speeches paying tribute to its inhabitants (the worst example being the Ninth Doctor’s ludicrously parochial eulogy about the British in World War II, only just saved by a refreshingly political tribute to the Welfare State).
Other criticisms I have are related to the story’s overly Geiger/Ridley Scott-esque visuals, and in particular the blatant Aliens rip-off of the Ood going through the tunnel sequence which takes up a sizeable chunk of episode two. Satan Pit was for me a bit of a come down from the promise of episode one, but it was still pretty good in its own right, if a little too action-based.
But back on a more positive note, Gabriel Wolf put in another inimitably chilling vocal performance as the Devil; not quite on a par with the ‘abase yourself you grovelling inse-e-ect’ lines of Sutekh, but not far off. The scene in which he warns Toby not to turn round and look at him as it will kill him is one of the most genuinely disturbing scenes ever done in the series. Excellently directed. As is the scene in which the girl spies the possessed Toby through the glass of the base to her imminent peril as he turns round to flash his red eyes at her and smash the glass by clenching his fist in its direction, to the strains of string and wood instruments that have a menacing Celtic arc to them – brilliantly shot by director James Strong. Other scene highlights in terms of script and direction are those as the Ood rise up possessed chanting ‘I am the fear, the doubt, the obsession, the temptation…’ and so on. I was also greatly relieved to find that this story’s chosen ‘musical insert’ was a beautifully incongruous but atmospherically compatible choice of Ravel’s Bolero; a lovely and classy touch to shots of the Ood going about their menial work. Very well chosen.
Overall this story is for me the most successful and well-produced of the new Who cannon since Dalek, to which it comes a close second in my opinion (followed closely by Tooth and Claw, Unquiet Dead, Father’s Day and the Girl in the Fireplace). Well done all round – bar the still seemingly inevitable scriptural lapses between the Doctor and Rose.
In 'The Impossible Planet' and 'The Satan Pit' we got what 'the Guardian' described as 'Alien plus The Matrix divided by The Exorcist'. You didn't need to look too hard to find other influences from various precursors in the sci-fi and fantasy/horror genres but it was all brought together with such panache, and with enough that was original and fresh, that there was never any hint of schlock. 'Derivative' is not a disparaging criticism when the sources are as impeccable as they were here. Of course, give a bad cook a platter of even the finest ingredients and you'll still end up with an inedible meal. Fortunately for us, what we sat down to here was a banquet, lovingly prepared by a gathering of master chefs.
It is reported that when Lew Grade had finished watching a screening of the very first episode of 'Thunderbirds', he said to Gerry Anderson 'That's not a television show. It's a movie!'. Similar words are apt here. For a new take on the base-under-siege theme, with a suitably claustrophobic setting, this felt simply epic in its scale. Splice these two episodes together and you have a cinematic experience more involving than many a Hollywood blockbuster.
Matt Jones' script skillfully increased the tension and excitement as the plot, which never felt predictable, advanced. The gradual revelation of the presence of the Beast, first in simple references, then through the disembodied voice heard by Toby, his subsequent 'possession' with its truly chilling physicality, the conversion of the Ood into his army, the flickering hologram and finally the monster in the pit, was masterful. Moments of action and tension were interspersed with intimate duologues which gave the characters time to grow, to breathe and to explore their relationships, even their relationships with characters in their lives outside this story. Just three words, 'My old Mum', added flesh to Ida's character, superbly portrayed by Claire Rushbrook. When the Beast, through Toby, asked Jefferson if his wife had ever forgiven him, going on to say 'She never did', a whole history was alluded to in just a couple of sentences. The effect was powerful and the writer allowed us the intelligence to make more of these exchanges than the mere words conveyed. Such finesse abounded.
The economy of the language used to make such dramatic impact was breathtaking. Jefferson's poetic eulogy as he reported Scooti's death elevated what was already a powerfully moving scene to another level again. Beautiful words, simply spoken. The beast confronted the deepest psychological fears of the crew not with snarling threats but simple insights; 'The soldier, haunted by the eyes of his wife. The scientist, still running from Daddy. The little boy who lied.' When cut together with the reaction shots of the people concerned, the effect was electric.
Subtlety in scripting was matched by subtlety in performance. Given the nature of the story and its themes, it would have been all to easy for any of these actors to chew the scenery with a vengeance but none did. Every performance was based in truth and pitch-perfect. The stand-outs were, of course, Will Thorp and Gabriel Woolf, who, individually and together, inhabited the character of the Beast to mesmerising effect. Toby was entirely believable and his transitions from downright terrified to downright terrifying were brilliantly portrayed. It is impossible to imagine a voice better suited to the Beast than that of Gabriel Woolf. Two outstanding performances that brought to life two characters in one.
David Tennant's Doctor, surely destined for an honoured place in the Who Hall of Fame, continues to grow in stature and authority with every episode. He is at his quirky and eccentric best when considering apparently insurmountable problems. His 'thinking-out-loud' approach, with sudden swoops of logic and contradiction, is as much a joy to watch here as ever. So too his quiet contemplation of events in his duologues with other characters. He always conveys a sense of this Doctor's deep empathy. Billie Piper too reminds us of why Rose really is such an apposite companion for this Doctor and why she is perfectly equipped to bring her to life. Rose here shows more steel than we've seen before; but then she has come a long way from being a simple shop girl. She's been changed by her experiences with the Doctor and her fondness for him, just as Sarah Jane and others were before her. The rest of the ensemble cannot be faulted and it is no struggle to believe that this is a group of people who have journeyed far together.
The meticulous care with which the production team have brought the Doctor back to our screens has been evident in every episode since 'Rose' but the bar is raised again with this two-parter. The whole look is impressively filmic and it's difficult to believe that something with such visual punch is actually a kid's programme created for broadcast television on a comparatively tight budget. The sets, the costumes, the lighting, the effects photography, all are seamlessly integrated to create a wholly plausible environment; whether the dingy confines of a realistically detailed sanctuary base or the cavernous underground of a lost civilisation.
The Ood were another great concept brought to life by some terrific prosthetics and animatronics. They didn't look like blokes in rubber suits as so often creatures did in the classic series, but believable aliens. The CGI beast, when it first appeared in all its malevolent glory, actually elicited from me the involuntary but entirely appropriate exclamation of 'Bloody HELL!'. The scale and detail of that creation was astounding and resulted in surely the most visually impressive 'monster' the series has ever featured. The heat haze which shimmered about it was a small example of that almost obsessive attention to detail which helps give such creations their authenticity.
Equally impressive and arguably more disturbing still was the manner in which the 'possession' of Toby was represented. A simple idea, amounting to little more than a few tattoos and some red contact lenses, but brilliantly executed and brilliantly effective. Factor in Will Thorp's focused performance, and Gabriel Woolf's measured tones, together with James Strong's taut direction, and the effect was astonishingly creepy. When the beast inhabiting Toby fixes Jefferson with his gaze, during the first occasion on which the crew realise his possession, you really get the remarkable sense that he is looking not at him but into him. The moment in the maintenance tunnel when an apparently 'clean' Toby turns to the advancing Ood and stills them with a look and a gesture was totally unexpected and shocking indeed. It is again a tribute to all involved that when the possessed Toby later begins spouting messianic phrases and even breathing fire it never seems over the top but remains true to the story, entirely believable and horrific.
Much of the credit for the foregoing belongs to James Strong. His pacing always works with the script, never against it. Intimate conversations took place in close-up; sometimes with an unusual angle of view, such as when the Doctor and Rose were shot from below against the towering image of the black hole above. In these more contemplative passages the camera was allowed to linger, the cutting between shots kept to a minimum, the dialogue brought to centre stage. In the action sequences the cuts came thick and fast; close-ups capturing every nuance of reaction, medium shots used to show the characters interacting with the environment or each other and long shots, again often from unusual perspectives, used to create a sense of the scale of this drama. Together with the effects team, he offered us some stunning and very memorable imagery: the shot of Danny looking through the porthole, seamlessly transitioning to Toby looking through his magnifying glass; the possessed Toby on the surface; Scooti drifting in space; the Doctor and Ida exploring a cavern which seemed both real and vast; the space-suited Doctor suspended in the inky void of the pit, finally falling; the Beast railing against his chains and writhing in fire; the possessed Toby confronting Rose in the space ship, his malevolence captured in extreme wide-angle close-up. These pictures will long stay in the mind.
Murray Gold also continued to deliver the goods. I've never found his music for the series intrusive as some claim to have done. For me, it always helps the drama just as the best incidental music should. Haunting refrains underscore emotional scenes whilst action sequences are accompanied by orchestral passages which here are wonderfully percussive and Faustian. Sometimes all it takes is a single, stabbing chord, a crescendo or glissando, to highlight a dramatic event. Classy stuff.
My only minor niggle in this whole story concerned the reappearance of the TARDIS. It needed to reappear where and when it did, of course, as it was essential to the eventual denouement, but the way in which this was done just felt a bit lazy. How, for example, did it come to be beyond the great seal over the mouth of the pit, which was closed at the time the TARDIS was lost? Did the earthquake really open up a chasm over ten miles deep that went beyond that seal elsewhere? Or did the TARDIS somehow dematerialise to protect itself during the fall, something not beyond credibility for a device which we know to be sentient on some level, being drawn, naturally enough, to rematerialise near the source of the gravity field? A quick question from Rose answered by the Doctor would have filled in the one remaining blank for someone who likes everything nice and tidy.
It is, of course, beyond irony that these episodes, which in time will surely come to be regarded as classics of the Who canon, and which of all the New Who episodes most recall the spirit of great episodes from the classic series, are those which have received the lowest audience numerically since the Doctor's return; even if still enjoying a good percentage share. Someone in the BBC must be certifiably insane for scheduling the series to run in the summer months. Imagine how many more people would be inclined to watch and enjoy the programme on a winter's evening. Imagine, too, how much better the dark of winter would have suited the broadcast of a story as atmospheric as this.
This has been my first review, so I should explain that I am writing simply from the perspective of one of the millions who formed in earlier years a great and abiding fondness for one of our national TV treasures. After reading much of what has been written here concerning the 9th and 10th incarnations of our eponymous hero, I'm really rather relieved that I'm not what might be called a 'true' fan. It must be terrible to have access to television drama of such sublime quality as this every Saturday evening and to remain unable to enjoy it for what it is. For the true fan, it seems, the 21st Century Who can do no right (and I can imagine the reviews for next week's episode already!). For the rest of us, fortunately, it remains entertaining and enthralling and can do no wrong, especially with material as strong as this. Long may it continue.
Since "Doctor Who" came back to TV, the makers have so far been going down a checklist of things that either the original series or the spinoffs in the wilderness years did and bringing them to full-screen and fully-updated life. This story covers some of the few remaining "big" items to check off, like "visit hostile alien planet," and "meet Devil," and now having seen these done and done so well, I feel like we are at last back to "normal," or at least what normal was before the cancellation crises of the mid-80s started, or what normal should be today in 2006. Strange that such a gripping, suspenseful, and terrifying story should bring about in me a feeling of relaxation, like the series is finally well and truly "home." What a pleasant feeling to have. :)
In classic series terms, this is very much "Planet of Evil" crossed with "Pyramids of Mars" and a bit of "The Ark in Space." From "Evil," we have a bottomless black pit that the Doctor falls into, a scientific expedition on a hostile planet that's slowly going under, and some physics that's rough around the edges. From "Mars," we have the god-like being that could destroy the universe, the prison that it's kept in, the prison helping the Doctor to prevent the jailbreak , and even the voice of Gabriel Woolf. And from "Ark in Space," there's some good old running-away-from-monsters-in-ducting and diversion of power from a rocket ship with its own power system. Oh, and there's the old "we've lost the TARDIS" trick. I make these points not to criticize the series for reusing its own greatest hits collection, but to remind everyone that we saw these things in "Doctor Who" in 1975, and that's where it's all coming from, and not from other movies and media that became hits in the meantime. And it's more than just straight reuse. It's all given a fresh 2006 update with plenty of great character work, as the story stops itself on numerous occasions to let the Doctor, Rose, or our guest starts pause to think about the implications of what it is they're discovering, or about how much trouble they're now in, or how old the person who's just died was as she floats off into a black hole. I also very much like that, for once, the space explorers in a tough environment are not a bunch of cynics complaining about their lot or what bonus their evil paymasters didn't give them or how they shouldn't trust these strangers who just turned up. They're still at least somewhat cheerful, for although they may lose people, they're all doing something they believe in and feel like they're getting somewhere, and for that, the Doctor gives their captain a hug, in what's probably my favorite character moment that the Tenth Doctor has had yet. And now for that thing they discover...
Now, normally, I bristle whenever in "Doctor Who" we get a giant god-like monster from beyond the universe or time or what-have-you. These things are too often done as excuses for the villain to do apparently magic things or to introduce a silly backstory with all sorts of proper names attached to it. I was therefore a bit surprised to find myself really enjoying how the Beast material turned out, and I think the reason why is that although we've got the Beast, there's only a very sketchy backstory given for it (literally), and we only see a small fraction of its power. The rest is very wisely left to our imaginations as to whether or not this thing really is the true original Devil, or how bad it would be for the universe if it ever got out. It's big (really big) and bad and it can read your mind, and it might be older than the oldest hill, and it sounds like Gabriel Woolf, and that's all we need to know for it to be terrifying. On the Woolf casting front... I, like many others, was a bit giddy with anticipation that it could turn out to be Sutekh himself, but in the end I'm glad it turned out not to be. Had it been him somehow, it would have devalued both this and the earlier story, and in any case, the Beast that we do get to see is so visually impressive that I don't mind that it wasn't that guy with the mask with the green lightbulbs in it. And I do also much appreciate the implication that this Beast probably inspired those on all of the other planets that we've already seen horned beasts on, particularly Dæmos as the Dæmons were supposedly behind humankind's obsession with devlish imagery.
Of course, another big thing the 2006 series can bring to these 1975 "Doctor Who" traditions is the much-improved visual images, and this story certainly didn't disappoint on that score. "Doctor Who" has never looked as good as it did here, and in parts this show looks almost as good as "The Lord of the Rings" movies. There's the black hole itself, the star systems it's eating, that freakin' awesome Beast, the exteriors of the base, Scooti floating in underwater-for-space, but most of all, the cavern system leading to the seal, which looks utterly and completely convincing to me. I had no idea until I'd seen the "Confidential" episode how they shot that, and that it proved to have been done in a traditional "Doctor Who" quarry is the most ironic thing I've heard all year. Everyone at the Mill and on the effects team in general should give themselves some hugs like the Doctor does in this story, because you've really surpassed yourselves this time.
Director James Strong did a number on us as well, milking almost every shot for all the tension he could get out of it. For example, in one scene, the stage directions probably read "Toby looks in horror at his hands, which are suddenly covered in the alien lettering." But is that the final shot we get? Not quite.... first Toby looks at the backs of his hands, which are clear and fine, and so for an instant he and we watching think, "oh, they're fine," but then he turns them over, and there's the lettering all over them. Strong fills the entire story with little changeups like this, so we can never quite anticipate just when the scary bit is going to appear. I also would like to mention the four different reactions shots from only slightly different angles that we get in quick succession as the Doctor has one of his Tenth Doctor trademark moments of "Yes! No! Wait! Yes!" as he thinks very rapidly aloud to himself down in the pit.
Speaking of that Tenth Doctor, David Tennant really found some new sides of him to show us this time. We haven't seen "melancholy" from this Doctor much before now, but here when he's confronted with some really terrifying things for the Doctor, he gets all sullen. The two that stand out to me are when he's sitting with Rose over dinner contemplating having to settle down somewhere and have a mortgage on a house now that he may have lost the TARDIS for good, and especially that moment when he is hanging in the pit deciding on whether he should fall to the bottom or not and also trying to answer Ida's question about what he believes in. It's in that moment that we hear for the first time in a while his belief that he hasn't learned everything yet, and that's what keeps him going and going, and it's that which gets him to let go and fall to the bottom. (and what an image that shot is of him falling into blackness) And once there at the bottom, we learn of his other belief... his belief in her....
And speaking of Rose, she at last is back to the top form and quality screen time she hasn't had really since "The Parting of the Ways." "The Satan Pit," where she takes charge of the Ood crisis back in the base, is her strongest episode of the season by far. Whereas that take-charge-like-the-Doctor-does attitude got her into trouble in the previous story, here it's what saves herself and some of the others and helps to finally destroy (?) the Beast. Cut off from the Doctor, she doesn't go apopleptic but instead thinks what he would tell people, tells them the same, and because it makes so much sense, they do it even though they've all got ranks and a command structure and she's the mysterious stranger who doesn't even know what an Ood is. I mentioned things I bristle at earlier, and another one of those is when a hero has some pithy final line for the villain just before killing him, but somehow I actually really loved Rose telling the Beast to go to hell just before she literally sends him there with her bolt shot at the window at the end. I don't know why I liked it this time. I think it's just because it was Rose saying it and doing it... this lost little shop girl so far away from home comes through and kills the Devil himself. That's pretty cool.
Speaking of pretty cool, Murray Gold's music veered back into that category with this story. He gave us some truly beautiful music to go with the imagery this time, particularly the movements that accompany the reveal of the cave and the bit where Toby is standing out in the vacuum and then kills Scooti. That was very "Firefly"-like, and that's always a good thing. More like this please, Murray.
There's lots of other things I want to praise about this story too, but this is already going on a very long time, so I'm going to just have to list things and tell you at the top here that these were are all fantastic: the entire guest cast and the way their parts were written, the character name of Captain Zachary Cross Flane which is just the coolest name ever, the Ood, the inventive plot of the Beast trying to escape the jail in mind and not in body, the rocket, the ventilation ducts which for once don't do any venting, the spacesuits, the random spooky voices, putting the next week trail after the credits again... and so on and so on.
And last and least, I will take my shots at the ropey physics. I call them the least because they're all things that could have been fixed, and none of these things being wrong really impede the story in any way. It's just frustrating for someone of my background to see these things continuing to crop up from time to time. I do wish they'd let someone with a science background at least glance over the scripts before they shoot them so burs like this can be sanded down though.
There clearly seems to be gravity on the surface of this planetoid, so why is Scooti's dead body not just lying on the ground outside where Toby cracked the wall? Why is she suddenly floating above the base and off towards the black hole? (It looked really, really cool, I'll grant you, but why?)
Why is the gravity near and within the pit at normal levels when, being near the center of the planetoid, it should be balanced out to near zero-g? And since it should be near zero-g, that could've been used as the reason why the Doctor didn't crash when he got the bottom of the pit.
Why do they keep saying it's impossible to orbit a black hole when it is no such thing? (All this needed was to say that they're beyond the event horizon of the black hole while they're orbitting... now that would be impossible.)
Sci-fi tends to scrimp around the sounds-in-space issue for dramatic effect when ships are shooting at each other, but as recently as "The Parting of the Ways" we saw "Doctor Who" not allowing Dalek-to-person sound transmission through the vacuum. So how can Ida and the Doctor hear the rocket take off when it's doing so in vacuum?
That's all that come to mind right now, but I suspect there might have been one or two others.
Overall though, a tremendous story and a welcome return for "Doctor Who" to a truly alien planet and situation. 9.5 out of 10. (I'm docking 0.5 for the ropey physics.