Monday, 25 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit

The Impossible Planet

“And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his Gods?”

For all that this extraordinary story more or less stands on its own, the teaser is just the sort of thing we’ve come to expect by now. It plays amusingly with both the Doctor and Rose’s relationship and the tropes of the show, as they burst out laughing at the mere suggestion they might perhaps decide not to explore where they’ve landed and just get back into the TARDIS. It’s also a nice little cliffhanger and resolution. But from this point on everything just feels different from the rest of this series. However much Matt Jones has utterly nailed the two regulars, he’s done something completely new and different and fantastic with this script.

It’s not the first time the “New Series" has taken us to a new planet, but it’s the first time it’s done it properly; this isn’t just somewhere that might be Earth. And this is where the show’s new aesthetic of space travel is established; as Rose says, it’s not “whizzing about, teleports, anti-gravity”- it’s tough. A very lived-in, post Alien style future, and although it’s not the first time we’ve seen this sort of thing in Doctor Who it’s never been either as well-realised or as refreshingly free from Eric Saward’s nihilism as this.

It’s a wondrous yet precarious situation that the Doctor and Rose find themselves in; a planet balanced, just, in orbit round a black hole, something which takes incredible quantities of energy which originates from somewhere below the surface. And almost as precarious is that the crew can only return to Earth as long as the black hole continues to generate some kind of bizarre gravity chute. Naturally, then, it’s here that the Doctor and Rose lose the TARDIS and become stranded. Makes you all nostalgic for the early Hartnells, doesn’t it?

Brilliantly, though, grim as this all should feel, somehow it doesn’t. And this is because of the crew- every single character has their foibles but is basically well-rounded and likeable, and there’s something noble in the human desire for knowledge and exploration which has led them here. The Doctor certainly seems to think so, and he has a point. For all that the mission has a practical purpose in that there’s the possibility of a new energy source, the crew seem just as interested, even enthusiastic, in the pure science and archaeology there is to discover on the planet, and whatever the grubbiness of their living conditions the romantic side of their work is not lost on them.

There’s something very New Adventures about the whole feel of this, incidentally, and that’s something which we haven’t seen on screen before. I haven’t read Matt Jones’s effort (is it any good?), but this reminds me a lot of the “Future History Cycle” novels from early in the range. It’s the whole mood of the thing, I think; for all that there is a dark threat, and even a dark side to humanity (the huge ethical problems with the Ood being used as slaves are not dwelt upon, but they are addressed, and that’s important), we care about these people, and that makes us more scared for them. The “don’t look behind you” scene with Toby is particularly effective (and isn’t it great to hear Gabriel Woolf’s voice again?) but Scooti’s horrible death is effective for a completely different reason, and really sold to us by the reactions of the crew. This really seems like a tight-knit group who care about each other.

We get a nice little interlude between the Doctor and Rose where the character arc stuff gets a bit of action. Billie Piper is particularly brilliant here. And, of course, the fact that Rose seems to want to settle down with the Doctor in domestic bliss but knows she shouldn’t just come out and say it in no way means that the relationship is going to end soon or in tears, so that’s all right.

Lots of fantastically scary things keep happening- the things said by the Ood and computers are easily as scary as anything we see- and the response of the crew is fantastic. I particularly like the way Jefferson, the gruff security guard, could so easily have been something of a cliché, but he isn’t. He’s no closed-minded bigot, so we get no tiresome suspicion of the Doctor and Rose, he’s capable of listening to reason, agreeing not to shoot Rose in the next episode when Rose reasons with him, and he’s a cultured man, who quotes Macaulay, good old-fashioned nineteenth century Whig that he is. Come to think of it, there’s something very much of the Whig interpretation of history in this story’s themes of human progress and daring.

The Doctor, of course, volunteers to accompany Ida on to the planets surface, and mentions a number of names for the devil, including “Abbadon”. Wonder if we’ll be hearing that again any time soon?

The Satan Pit

“Maybe that’s what the Devil is in the end- an idea?”

There’s a slightly disappointing resolution to the biggest cliffhanger yet, but fear not- the excellence continues pretty much non-stop. We get a bit of a contrast between the action sequences above ground and the more contemplative sequences between the Doctor and Ida below ground. And these in particular are brilliant; this Doctor has never before been shown quite so philosophical as he is here, but the characterisation never fails to ring true.

We begin with the Captain’s order to withdraw, and the subsequent discussion between the Doctor and Ida. The Doctor muses on the human urge to explore, but ultimately decides against the temptation. Fascinatingly, we’re touching on the themes which caused me to be underwhelmed by this story first time round; the Doctor seemed first time round to be implying here that there’s space in the universe for supernatural forces into which science should not pry. And being myself something of a rational, empirical, pro-Enlightenment sort of chap, I tend to be somewhat alienated by such messages.

We get a brilliant scene in which the Devil speaks to everyone, with a brief statement for each individual which serves to round out their characterisations rather nicely. And Rose, incidentally, is going to die in battle”. Ooh! This doesn’t stop her taking charge of the situation, though; having been more than a little annoying and selfish in recent episodes she more than redeems herself here in performing the rather Doctorish role in encouraging the crew to find reserves of strength and brilliance within themselves and survive. But everyone’s magnificent, above all Jefferson, whose noble death uncannily reflects the subject matter of the poetry he was quoting earlier.

There’s a nice Fanwank thrill from the Doctor as Ida lowers him into the pit; we get mentions of Draconia, Daemos, and the Kaled god of war. But the cable comes to an end, and beneath is only darkness. In a leap of faith, the Doctor jumps. Again, I had problems with this scene on original transmission. But on this viewing the scene it (and the story) seems not so much to be about the theme of faith versus reason but about human courage and curiosity, and the urge to climb Everest, walk on the Moon, leap into the unknown, all in spite of the dangers, because it’s there. Again, a very Whiggish view of human progress.

Mind you, we do get a brief musing on religious themes, albeit obliquely. The Doctor expresses agnostic sentiments, but arguably he’s not really talking about religion so much as his willingness to have his certainties challenged. But then he says something really quite charged: “If you get back to Rose, tell her… tell her… oh, she knows!” And then he jumps. We’re kept in suspense for the next several minutes as to whether he survived.

While the Doctor’s working out what’s going on and preparing to save the day, Captain Zachary Cross Flane finally gets to move away from the control panel and show himself to be a worthy and decent leader, whatever his doubts. He’s quite right to restrain Rose and take her with his to safety; too many people have indeed died. And he gets a wonderful line as they’re all seemingly plunging to their doom, pointing out that they’re making history, being the first people ever to fall into a black hole. Arguably his character represents the story’s view of the human race as a whole.

Fittingly, not everything is explained, but that’s okay as the writing and the nature of the Beast aren’t really relevant to the plot. And there’s a point here; not, as I used to think, that there were more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in my philosophy, but that it’s good to have unknowns so that we can carry on exploring.

Wow. I liked that rather more than I was expecting. 5/5- in fact, it pushes The Robots of Death out of the top ten. A brilliantly constructed thriller with themes, character, and depth.


  1. I agree with your review, and the music as well is just brilliant. Somehow despite not being pessimistic... we have a downer two parter that isn't a downer but is very dark indeed. Excellent review!