Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (2006) Review

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“The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit”, the one where the Doctor and Rose meet the devil in space. “The Satan Pit” is one of the standout stories from Series 2, not just in terms of quality, but also the Tenth Doctor’s overall character development in his first season. Matt Jones is one of those guys like Rob Shearman, James Moran, Simon Nye and Richard Curtis who wrote a belter of an episode for Doctor Who, outside of the show’s usual norm, and regrettably never returned to the series to pen another adventure, inadvertently ensuring he had a positive, untarnished track record as a guest writer. Like “The Girl In The Fireplace“, “The Impossible Planet” serves as a proper sci-fi adventure for Series 2, as well as a modern update of a classic Doctor Who formula, the base under siege story, allowing Matt Jones to indulge in a lot of classic horror movie tropes with the Beast across the two episodes. In general, I love the setting of this two-parter: a space station with a limited amount of crew members on a lonely, empty planet orbiting a black hole at the end of the universe. It really proves to be an inspired choice on Matt Jones’ part, which he takes full advantage of: because throughout this story there’s always a strong feeling of loneliness and isolation haunting the Doctor, Rose and the astronauts as they fight for their lives in cramped quarters, light-years away from home and anybody that could help them, eventually being kept apart by the devil himself to fight their own battles. Not to mention, a gnawing sense of fear and paranoia about the unknown, dangerous history of the planet. Things frequently go from bad to worse for our heroes at every opportunity, and by the coda of this adventure, all of the survivors have experienced some form of pain, loss, heartbreak or despair.

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The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) has never made it a secret that he loves a good mystery, the thrill of a good riddle, and he gets quite a bit more than what he bargained for in this two-parter. Right from the pre-titles sequence, he’s intrigued by hieroglyphics that are so old the TARDIS can’t translate them, older than the universe, older than Gallifrey. From there, he’s incredibly alarmed to discover he and Rose are standing on a planet that’s in stable orbit around a black hole, something that’s completely impossible and feels viscerally wrong to his time lord instincts. The Doctor is usually written as a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, particularly in NuWho, so it’s good to see him reach his limits and be legitimately stumped every now and again. In fact, “The Impossible Planet” feels a lot like Ten’s dilemma from “Rise Of The Cybermen” being taken to a whole other level – the Doctor being forced into a crisis where his usual tricks are useless. Fairly early into the two-parter, the Doctor and Rose get separated from the TARDIS and are led to believe that it was destroyed. The Doctor has lost not only his ship, but his home, his oldest friend and his oldest companion, and he takes it pretty hard. Nearly a thousand years worth of adventures have seemingly come to an end just like that, because of one impulsive decision. As captain of the TARDIS, he’s also failed Rose, stranding them both 2,000 years in the future for the rest of their lives. Their predicament is pretty grim, and the usually jovial and energetic Ten stays somber and depressed for a good chunk of this adventure; the only thing left for the Doctor and Rose, as far as they know, is solving the mystery of the pit. The Doctor’s spirits do improve a bit, when he and Ida venture down into the planet to satisfy their curiosity. The Doctor manages to strike up a good rapport with Ida, since they prove to be kindred spirits, and they have several honest, vulnerable, character-building conversations.

Doctor Who has never been afraid to start talking about politics or take political stances on matters, especially during the RTD era when the show loved to take digs at world leaders, but it’s a lot rarer for the show to discuss religion, since it’s such a touchy, sensitive subject all around. Doctor Who is generally an agnostic show, unlike it’s spin-off series, Torchwood, which is a straightforward atheist series (and at times, almost depressingly nihilistic). The Doctor doesn’t deny other people their faith unless it harms others, even if he doesn’t believe in it himself (“The Rings Of Akhaten”). A thousand years worth of experience has ensured that the Doctor has a naturally skeptic personality; he always doubts that the supernatural or the paranormal actually exists unless he sees it for himself, and even then he’ll try to find a rational, scientific explanation for it (he usually does). In “The Satan Pit”, the Doctor concedes that there are some things he doesn’t know, and the fact that he doesn’t know everything about the universe is why he travels: to learn. Miles away from Rose, the TARDIS, and any of his other friends, Ten is forced to do some soul-searching and confront the idea that maybe some myths are real, or maybe some myths have some basis in truth. The Doctor’s own faith is called into question, along with his place in the universe as one time lord in a world of impossible, unknowable things. Being the rebellious time lord that he is, the Doctor rejects the idea of predetermined destinies, robbing people of free-will, and takes fate into his own hands, deciding that he if he believes in anything, he has faith in his friends. Notably, the Doctor never does get all the answers: he never gets conclusive proof about whether the Beast was just a super old alien who influenced human religion over the years, or if he actually was the Christian devil trying to make a comeback, and he’s okay with that. Ten is just happy to get his TARDIS back so he can leave this adventure. “The Satan Pit” won’t be the last time NuWho challenges the Doctor’s personal beliefs, but it’s certainly one of the best examples.

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“The Satan Pit” is Rose’s (Billie Piper) best character study in Series 2, much like “The Age Of Steel” was for Mickey, serving as an excellent example of how Rose is the heart of the TARDIS team for the first two series of the show. While the Doctor is preoccupied with the ever-growing mystery of Krop Tor, causing a few things to slip off his radar, Rose’s attention is continually drawn to the Ood working on the space station, disturbed by the idea that humans rely on alien slave labor in the future. Not only is Rose’s basic human decency perturbed by the values dissonance of the distant future, but it’s been an established part of her character since her second episode that Rose feels an affinity towards neglected, underpaid, working-class people, and she will reach out to them and try to befriend them whenever she can. So Rose checks in on the Ood several times in “The Impossible Planet”, when no one else does, and tries to make sure they’re being treated well. Pretty soon, the Doctor and Rose are trapped in the distant future for the rest of their lives, ensuring Rose will never see her friends, her family, or her home world ever again. Rose honestly doesn’t know how to process that, but she also accepts the consequences of where her dangerous choices her led instead of letting the Doctor infantilize her by shouldering all the blame herself, which is something I’ve always liked about Rose. Despite her own fears and uncertainty about the future, she shows the Doctor plenty of sympathy about losing his home and his best friend. There’s a rather telling scene where Ten and Rose discuss their options: Rose is able to resign herself to the idea of settling down in the future and starting a new life with a job and a mortgage, so long as the Doctor is with her, while Ten is genuinely mortified by the idea. “The Power Of Three” confirms that the Doctor would consider that to be a torturous way to spend his immortal life; as much as he respects his friends’ mundane, daily rituals, he would never want to live like them.

It’s interesting: as much as Series 2 loves to flaunt the Doctor and Rose’s close bond, their unspoken relationship, nearly every episode also deconstructs it and demonstrates how they’re ultimately incompatible in the long run. Not just because time lords live longer than humans, but also because of core differences in their personalities. The only ones in denial about how they’re not gonna last are Ten and Rose themselves. In any case, the Doctor and Rose are separated, unable to help each other, for most of the two-parter, which means Rose has to stand on her own in “The Satan Pit”. With the Doctor detained, Rose becomes the de-facto leader of the survivors and holds down the fort herself. I always love seeing the companions step up and use the skills and knowledge they’ve gained from their TARDIS travels to become heroes in their own right (like Martha in “Human Nature”, or Clara in “Flatline”), and if there’s one thing Rose has learned in the last two seasons from the Doctor, it’s how to be a good leader during a crisis. Rose focuses on keeping everyone together, keeping them calm and thinking rationally, and keeping up the team’s morale. She keeps them from shooting their own, she delegates tasks depending on the crew members’ skills and plays to their strengths, and she pools their resources wisely. Finally, she gets to deliver the killing blow to the villain of the week herself. Becoming a goddess and destroying the Dalek fleet is easily Rose’s most badass accomplishment, but shooting the freaking devil into a black hole to die, partly to make him shut up, is also a close second. I’ve given Rose flack before, but she also had some really great stories under her belt as a companion, and I’m really proud of how well she handled her adversity in this two-parter. Between almost losing her home world for good, having her heart broken when she thought the Doctor died, and nearly being sucked into a black hole to die during the climax, you will feel for Rose throughout “The Satan Pit”.

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The base under siege story is a pretty classic staple of Doctor Who adventures; in NuWho alone, there’s a bevy of them. “The Impossible Planet” is one of the better examples in the show because the cast of characters we spend two episodes aren’t just a group of a generic, interchangeable red-shirts; they’re likable, charismatic people with a decent amount of development. They’ve all developed a bond with each other out of necessity from spending months in isolation, turning to each other for companionship and amusement, and they have a healthy amount of respect for the chain of command. You actually feel something when these people die, like Mr. Jefferson’s death scene in the vents (choosing to die on his own terms before he can be killed by the Ood), or Scooti’s horrific fate of being sucked out in the vacuum of space to choke. The man in the charge of the base is Captain Zack, who is a refreshingly level-headed authority figure by this series’ standards. Zack is often very cross and stressed out from trying to keep the crew safe and trying to keep the base running smoothly, since the Captain’s position was never meant to be his in the first place. He’s simply doing his duty and filling in for the previous captain after he died, so he’s prone to a lot of self-doubt and self-deprecation throughout this two-parter. During the attack of the Ood, Zack is trapped in his quarters, acting as mission control for the rest of the crew as he tries to get them all to safety, and it always hits him extremely hard when he loses a good man or a good woman. The head of security on the base is Mr. John Jefferson, a gruff, grizzled war veteran. Jefferson is a sardonic man and he can be very stubborn, but he’s also efficient, brave, and self-sacrificing, and that line from the Beast, about some sort of ugly relationship drama that went down between him and his ex-wife, is one of many intriguing mysteries in this two-parter that will never be answered.

Danny, a rather neurotic and sarcastic man, is the technical genius of the base. Danny is the crew member who has the most fun chemistry with Rose, since he apparently doesn’t work well under pressure and gets frightened easily, compared to Rose, who has steadily been growing into an action heroine for the last two seasons. Ida Scott is an expert archaeologist and the head researcher of the base. Ida is a friendly, outgoing woman who gets along well with the Doctor through their shared wanderlust, and like Zack, she’s one of the more level-headed crew members. She’s determined to solve the mystery of Krop Tor because she’s been looking for answers for years, and at a certain point, her desire almost borders on being an obsession. When things start to get pretty bleak in the underground caverns, Ida takes a moment to reflect on the nature of irony: she spent so many years trying to find enlightenment, and her biggest discovery would apparently become her grave, doomed to die alone in the dark without reaching any conclusions. The crew members who do the most manual labor are the Ood, a slave race of eccentric, reserved aliens. The Ood are a telepathic race, always in tune with each other because of a shared telepathic field, and the group on the base become corrupted by the Beast, a telepathic monster. The Beast turns them into his own personal army of foot soldiers to dispatch the humans with, and eventually they prove to be the ultimate victims in the Beast’s scheme, getting sucked into the black hole with him. The Ood’s relationship with humans, who barely react to them and treat them more like dumb cattle than sentient beings, is one of the most intriguing bits of world-building Matt Jones does to flesh out the 42nd century setting. The Ood apparently offer themselves up as unpaid servants, because they have no other purpose in life than to serve other races, which Rose quite rightly doubts, even in the future. “The Impossible Planet” pays lip service to the idea that what humanity is doing is morally wrong, even if it’s completely accepted, but we don’t get much time to dwell on the implications before the Beast makes his move, so an entire episode is devoted to the Ood slave trade in Series 4.

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Compared to the non-threatening Wire in the last episode, the Beast proves to be a fantastic, unnerving, manipulative villain throughout this two-parter, making “The Impossible Planet” a cross between a base under siege adventure and a good old fashioned ghost story. The Beast’s introductory scene – where he stalks and haunts poor Toby from the darkness, letting him know he’s coming and giving him false hope of escape before he consumes him – quickly establishes him as a psychological threat, someone who likes to instill fear, discontent and paranoia into his victims ahead of time, partly to weaken their defenses and partly to indulge his own sadism.  The Beast’s ancient hieroglyphics etching themselves onto Toby’s skin, declaring him a marked man, is unexpectedly disturbing, but they’re only the prelude to a sequence that’s darkly mesmerizing. He steps out into the vacuum of space for a walk, enjoying having a new vessel and being free to walk around for the first time in millennia, reveling in the desolation of the planet. Scooti seems almost entranced by the unnatural sight for a few moments, before Beast-Toby decides to get rid of her. For the rest of “The Impossible Planet”, the audience is a few steps ahead of the Doctor and Rose, who don’t know about the danger Toby poses as a mole and a ticking bomb, allowing for some tension about when the Beast will strike again. The Beast exerts his control over the base to turn it against our heroes, and he turns the Ood into an army of his personal pawns so he can start killing people off, one by one. And while he’s doing that, he shares little tidbits about their past that he shouldn’t know about with them, along with foreboding threats about their future so he can frighten them and destroy their morale. The Beast is willing to play the long game; sometimes he will strike when our heroes at their most vulnerable and leave them scrambling, and other times, he will fall back and lay dormant for a while to lull them into a false sense of security.

One of the my favorite treacherous moments in “The Satan Pit” is when the Ood corner a seemingly frightened Toby in the air vents, and their master turns to them with his signature red eyes, raises a single finger to his lips and orders them to back off so he can keep working, before letting out a hilariously fake call for help. Up until now, the audience has been under the assumption that the Beast had been stepping into Toby’s body periodically, possessing him unexpectedly, but now it’s clear that Toby has been dead for a long time, ever since the Beast first stepped into him, and the Beast has been putting on an elaborate facade, pretending to be him the whole time. Partly so he could manipulate Rose and the others into doing what he needed, and partly so he could have a front row seat of his chaos. He is the devil, after all; of course he’s a sneaky bastard. The Beast is incredibly old, incredibly powerful, and incredibly arrogant, boasting about being the embodiment of all evil, but he is not infallible, not by a long shot. It’s frequently hinted that there’s something lurking below the base, in a pit within the planet, and the Doctor finally uncovers the truth when it’s almost too late. The Beast was an ancient evil so powerful that he needed to be sealed away by another under powerful force, under a black hole in a perfect prison, and even then he still managed influence intelligent races throughout history. He’s been terrorizing the humans and killing them off, while taking Toby as a new vessel, so they would evacuate the base and help him finally escape his own personal hell, so he can rebuild his empire anew. His evil, ingenious plan almost works, but he gets a bit ahead of himself in the eleventh hour and is promptly thwarted by the Doctor and Rose. At the end of the day, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the Beast, whether he was just an ancient alien influencing mythology or if he actually was the Devil, and it’s better that a way. A bit of ambiguity in Doctor Who is good from time to time.

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Like “The Age Of Steel”, “The Satan Pit” is clearly a story that much of the season’s budget was spent on, and while most of the episode’s action is set inside a cramped space base, “The Satan Pit” ironically feels larger in scale than a lot of the episodes in Series 1, helmed by director James Strong. The set designers get to flex their muscles, bringing an impressive, industrial space base to life with a winding maze of tunnels, and a labyrinth of claustrophobic air ducts; trying to emulate both “Star Trek” and “Alien” and succeeding. The exterior shots of the planet Krop Tor were filmed in a British quarry (with the aid of CGI), a very old tradition for Doctor Who when it comes to creating alien planets. The costume department is given an interesting challenge as well, creating a new species of alien called the Ood, the most elaborate and complex design they’ve worked on since the Slitheen in “Aliens Of London”. Unlike the Slitheen, the Ood look mostly humanoid except for their pale heads with tiny, beady eyes and unsettingly long, squidlike, deadly tentacles. I’m rather pleased to see that many of the stunts and visuals effects in “The Satan Pit” were done with practical effects, so CGI is sparingly. And it’s used for the things television CGI is best at: creating and embellishing locations like the black hole Krop Tor orbits, or the underground caverns the Doctor and Ida explore. The weakest effect in “The Satan Pit” is the Beast’s true form, and even that is passable. Murray Gold’s score is in fine form again this week: the main, recurring theme of the two-parter is “The Impossible Planet“, a distinctively Greek lament which is noticeably never used again outside of this two-parter. Murray reworks a lot of his older material, reprising “The Doctor’s Theme” and “Tooth And Claw” for the story’s last quarter. I’m especially glad to notice that “The Lone Dalek” is used extensively throughout this two-parter, since it was one of Murray’s most beautiful and sorrowful pieces in Series 1, and it fits the occasionally bleak but ultimately hopeful tone of “The Satan Pit” perfectly.

“The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit” is definitely the best story from the second half of Series 2, and not just because of how creative and surreal the premise is. I really appreciate how much of a strong character study it is for the Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler, especially since we’ll be saying goodbye to Billie Piper in a few episodes as Series 2 draws to a close.

Rating: 10/10.

Side-Notes:

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* “Since when does the human race need slaves?” *Glances back at the last 2,000 years of human history* Rose, you sweet summer child.

* “Do you actually get paid, though? Do they give you money?” “The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God” “I’m sorry?” Rose’s face when the Ood starts talking crazy out of nowhere is priceless.

* “No signal. That’s the first time we’ve gone out of range. Mind you, even if I could. What would I tell her?”

* “He is awake” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “He bathes in the black sun”.

* “Don’t forget to breath. Breathing’s good”.

* “Well, we’ve come this far. There’s no turning back” “Oh, did you have to? No turning back? That’s almost as bad as nothing can possibly go wrong, or this is going to be the best Christmas Walford’s ever had”

* “We are the Legion of the Beast. The Legion shall be many, and the Legion shall be few. He has woven himself in the fabric of your life since the dawn of time. Some may call him Abaddon. Some may call him Kroptor. Some may call him Satan or Lucifer. Or the Bringer of Despair, the Deathless Prince, the Bringer of Night. These are the words that shall set him free”.

* “For once in my life, Officer Scott, I’m going to say retreat. Oh, now I know I’m getting old”.

* “Are you going to start shooting your own people now? Is that what you’re going to do, is it?” “If necessary” “Well then, you’ll have to shoot me if necessary, so what’s it going to be?”

* “This is Captain Zachary Cross Flane of Sanctuary Base Six, representing the Torchwood archive. You will identify yourself” It’s good to know Torchwood still exists 2,000 years into the future. I’m guessing Captain Jack has something to do with that?

* “You little things that live in the light, clinging to your feeble suns which die in the end. Only the darkness remains, only my domain”.

* “The valiant child who will die in battle, so very soon” “What does that mean?” “You will die, and I will live”.

* “There’s all sorts of viruses that could stop the Ood. Trouble is, we haven’t got them onboard” “Well, that’s handy, listing all the things we haven’t got. We haven’t got a swimming pool either, or a Tesco’s”.

* “I regret to inform you, sir, I was a bit slow. Not so fast these days” Well, there’s a particularly painful callback to “Dalek”.

* “Thank you, Ida” “Don’t go!” “If they get back in touch, if you talk to Rose, just tell her… Tell her… Oh, she knows”.

* “Take me back to the planet! Take me back!” “Or what?” “Or I’ll shoot” “Would you, though? Would you really? Is that what your Doctor would want?”

* “If I destroy this planet, I destroy the gravity field. The rocket. The rocket loses protection and falls into the black hole. I’d have to sacrifice Rose” Yeah, more than just Rose is on that rocket, Ten. Are you implying you’d be more okay with just sacrificing them?

* “It doesn’t make sense. We escaped, but there’s a thousand ways it could’ve killed us. It could’ve ripped out the air or, I don’t know, burnt us, or anything. But it let us go. Why? Unless it wanted us to escape?” “Hey, Rose, do us a favor. Shut up” For a few brief seconds, the Beast channeled Rose’s hatedom.

* “I’ve seen a lot of this universe. I’ve seen fake gods and bad gods and demi-gods and would-be gods, and out of all that, out of that whole pantheon, if I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in her“.

* “Nothing shall ever destroy me! Nothing!” “Go to hell” “Waaauugggghhhhh!!!” If the Beast somehow survived getting sucked into a black hole, I know he hates Rose with a fiery passion.

“Hang on though, Doctor. You never really said. You two, who are you?” “Oh, the stuff of legend”. Fun fact: the coda of “The Satan Pit” was actually the last scene Tennant and Piper filmed together in Series 2, which makes it even more bittersweet.

Further Reading:

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5 Responses to Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (2006) Review

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