Shiny Shelf


Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

By Mark Clapham on 11 June 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

This two-parter from writer Matt Jones and director James Strong could never be accused of being unambitious, stretching as it does what the new series of ‘Doctor Who’ can and will do, both in terms of content and production scale.

For a start, after the very Earth-like alien world of ‘New Earth’, we’re on a really alien planet, a desolate rock in orbit around a black hole. Then there’s the tone of the episode – SF horror, with the greasy industrial environments of ‘Alien’, ‘Event Horizon’ or the ‘Doom’ games, and the deep caverns beneath the planet’s surface where something ageless rests. This is some of the finest design and effects work in the series to date, with spectacular shots of vast caverns with ancient, alien statues. The story is also familiar from the movies mentioned above, with a human expedition digging away at something ancient and buried. There are many good scares, with one of the crew, and later the benign alien Ood, possessed by ‘the Beast’ chained within the planet.

By the point of the cliffhanger at the end of ‘The Impossible Planet’, audiences might be forgiven for feeling comfortable with where the story is going, both from the ‘Who’ references (old evils possessing humans to free them being something of a ‘Who’ cliché) and the filmic references (there’s going to be some gunplay, and the cast will be whittled down as the alien Ood go evil). It’s all heading for a ‘Who’ version of a big SF blockbuster, as the Doctor faces down the big evil in forty four minutes of explosions. Bigger and better than the old stuff, but at heart the same old ‘Who’ story.

What happens in ‘The Satan Pit’ is rather more surprising than that. Yes, there’s a chase to escape the Ood, with shaky camerawork as one of the characters blasts away at the pursuing alien enemies, and a heroic sacrifice along the way. But that’s all over surprisingly quickly. While there’s some action towards the end of the episode, and a few big effects, this is a very talky episode rather than the expected shoot-em-up, with long conversations about the characters’ beliefs about the universe, god and the devil. What’s rather more surprising is how much of this discussion involves the Doctor. There’s been a developing theme of the Doctor and Rose’s over-confidence this season, which is an interesting development of the Doctor’s position as a know-it-all character with an answer for everything. To have the Doctor question his own beliefs and purpose is a brave move, and here he finds himself facing a true unknown, a Beast from ‘the time before time’.

Inevitably, the Doctor descends into the Pit to face the Beast, and there is indeed a big (and incredibly well realised) nasty when he gets there. But there’s no simple face-off with the ageless alien baddy this time, no scene where the Doctor gets to exchange quips with his enemy and then defeat them. The Beast’s consciousness is already making its escape, and the Doctor is left talking to himself. David Tennant does incredibly well with a difficult role, playing a character arguing with himself as he faces a question he can’t satisfactorily answer.

Is it the devil, or just a really big alien? Was there something before our universe? Does this mean that God exists in the ‘Doctor Who’ universe? Will this mean the Doctor getting religion?

Sensibly, most of those questions are never answered and the last one is a resounding ‘no’. The Doctor tends to be our guide to his universe, and to have him firmly establish an answer either way, at 7pm on a Saturday night, wouldn’t really be appropriate. What we do know by the end of ‘The Satan Pit’ is that there’s a limit to the Doctor’s knowledge, forces that even he can’t put a name and planet of origin to. It’s a surprisingly subtle position for a family action show to take, and demonstrates that the production team are willing to be thoughtful in between the pyrotechnics. That element of surprise is a pleasing addition to episodes that are as scary, tense and impressively realised as anything the series has done to date.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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