Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Doctor Beats The Devil

Doctor Who
The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit
Series Two, Episodes Eight and Nine

Back in 2005, few would have guessed Doctor Who could be a runaway success.  (Not even Russell T Davies, who said he would have been happy just to get 13 new episodes made.)  With no desire to fix what ain't broke, Series Two does a lot the same as Series One: a silly first episode to ease you in, a trip to the past to meet a famous person, a trip to the future to go "Ooh!", a wacky two-parter with playground-friendly monsters, and later, an Actually Good Properly Scary Two-Parter.  The Empty Child had brilliant monsters, a memorable setting and neat writing.  Your move, Series Two.

The Impossible Planet aims to unsettle you right from the start.  We're on an alien planet, for real this time.  The TARDIS doesn't want to land.  The Doctor and Rose emerge in full smug mode, but they're out of their element.  There's spooky writing the TARDIS can't translate, odd-looking aliens who seem intent on murdering them as soon as they arrive (foreshadowing!), and they're on a planet perilously orbiting a black hole.  At any moment they could all be killed.  The whole setup radiates doom and hopelessness, perfect for wiping the smug grins off the Doctor and Rose's chops.  Before you know it, the TARDIS falls down a bottomless pit.  Even the sonic screwdriver won't get him out of this one.  (And he doesn't use it once!)

Okay, he points with it.  Once.  Happy now?
At every turn, the Doctor and Rose are taken out of their comfort zone.  This is a great way to let us know we're in serious trouble, and it puts an interesting strain on their relationship.  The Doctor says the TARDIS is "all I've got, literally the only thing!" we don't see Rose's reaction, but you can bet she's not happy to hear that.  Later, when he's faced with a normal life and getting a job, joking slightly, the Doctor recoils at the thought of sharing a mortgage with her.  A lot of fans like to rhapsodize about the Tenth Doctor's love for Rose, but take a look here.  It's obvious she's got it bad for him, as she's quite unfazed about being stranded with him.  ("Everyone leaves home in the end.")  And he doesn't mind in the slightest, but take away the TARDIS and he's not so sure.  Meanwhile, dangling over a precipice without Rose, he's comfortable making a semi-romantic declaration but then he's got a 50% chance of falling to his death, and he'll probably never see Rose again.  With no domestic nightmare ahead of him and no Rose to hear it, suddenly he can say what he likes.  (And he doesn't say he loves her.  "She knows" could refer to their friendship.  Or to him being the one who finished off the biscuits.)

This doesn't say anything nice about the Doctor, or specifically, this Doctor.  (And fair enough.  Doctor Who shouldn't only say nice things about its characters.)  But when the Third Doctor was exiled to Earth, losing his TARDIS didn't make him any less brilliant or interesting.  Minus his motor, the Tenth Doctor is just another bloke, with prospects amounting to a lift home and a job in the laundry.  Despite all that's good in this episode, and there is a lot, a few of the things I really don't like about the Tenth Doctor are here.  He's a hugger.  He can make Eastenders references.  On two occasions, he shouts for someone's attention and it doesn't work.  David Tennant does a lot of great work I'll get to that but this guy's not my Doctor.  He's just too normal.  (Although saying that, the mortgage scene nicely underscores the ways he isn't human.  Tennant and Piper get across all that intricate awkwardness fabulously.)

Looking on the bright side, it's good to see the Doctor vulnerable.  The situation is scarier if he's not in control, and for once his "SPEAK TO ME-AH!" routine fits the story.  He doesn't know what he's up against, and he's not calling the shots.  The Doctor (and Doctor Who) is generally atheist, so being faced with The Beast Commonly Known As Satan is terrifying more for what it implies than what the monster does.  The Doctor's understanding (and command) of the universe is shaken.  Though not that much.  Everyone in this ponders the Devil's existence.  No one asks about God...

"I told you, I don't do domestics!
Did you tape Eastenders?"
That's probably enough on character development and (blimey!) theology.  What about the scary?  Well as is often the case with two-parters, most of the really creepy stuff is in the first part, when we're setting up the threat.  Take the scene where archaeologist Toby is confronted with a voice just a voice, creeping up behind him, urging him not to turn around.  It's archetypal nightmare-fodder, and hooray, they don't over-do it.  (The voice is Gabriel Woolfe: Sutekh in fan-favourite, Pyramids Of Mars.  Insert fan-theories here!)  Even better is the bit where a possessed Toby stands on the planet's airless surface just stands, grinning, looking at someone through the glass.  There's something deeply wrong about that image, and that wrongness is scarier than any CGI critter.  It feels like a nightmare.  There are other disconcerting non sequiturs, like the writing that won't translate and a computer voice making random pronouncements, which constantly work at one's nerves.  The whole thing drips with atmosphere.

And then you've got the Ood, monsters that work on many levels.  Hideous but friendly, servile and happy to be exploited, they cause instant discomfort for Rose, who instinctively tries to help the oppressed.  (She's not the only one: there are apparently Friends Of The Ood, much to other people's annoyance.)  Is it right that they want to serve?  Is it our place to tell them it isn't?  Is it wrong to enjoy their services?  I don't know, and that's the point: there's food (or possibly, Ood?) for thought, something you rarely get with monsters in Doctor Who.  Still, happy slaves or not, they're an obvious time-bomb.  At some point, we know it will go off.

They add loads to the already uneasy atmosphere, subtly at first when their translators go wrong and they say evil things.  (This is scary and hilarious.)  When they're controlled by The Creature Sometimes Nicknamed Lucifer, they become slightly more conventional things-that-will-come-and-get-you, which is effective, if a bit standard.  (Using their translator balls as weapons is a bit desperate, and the crawling-through-air-vents stuff is a bit too much of an Aliens rip-off.)  But in the end the Doctor's sad that he can't save them, and quite right; they are accorded some respect in death.  Right to the end, the whole Ood situation is refreshingly complex.  (As for the Doctor failing to rescue them, "I didn't have time" seems a pretty lousy excuse when you have a time machine.  Just sayin'.)

"I told you, I can't go back and rescue people!
But I can rescue one person.
And tow spaceships."
The supporting cast are mostly well rounded, which is just as well as the episode often strays away from the Doctor.  (Hey ho.)  The highlight is probably Shaun Parkes (David Tennant's Casanova co-star) as the captain.  Lacking any confidence and quietly expecting he'll get everyone killed, he feels reassuringly real.  So does Ida, a scientist who's as keen as the Doctor to explore dangerous places (and makes a less irritating companion than Rose).  Will Thorpe is brilliant as the possessed-or-is-he? Toby Zed.  The rest vary from Ood-fodder to ever-so-slightly hammy Ronny Jhutti labours most of his lines but the deaths generally hit home.  (And unlike The Empty Child, they stay dead.)

It's probably an important episode for Rose, since she defeats The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (Of Darkness), but I really struggle to see past how much I don't like her.  Some of this is deliberate: her usual inappropriately-timed jokes fall on deaf ears, so she stops making them.  (More comfort-zone-removal.)  Some of it may not be deliberate: her various attempts to empathise with the Ood, all very companion-like and sweet in theory, but... doesn't quite work.  "We have nothing else in life."  "Yeah, well I used to think like that."  Really?  I know she prefers traveling in the TARDIS to working in a shop and eating chips, but that's taking the piss.  She's meant to be caring, but it comes across more like Everything Is About Me.  No wonder the Doctor would rather jump in a bottomless pit than share a mortgage.

Oh yeah, him.  David Tennant.  Not my Doctor as I've said, but he puts in his usual (enormous) effort and is utterly watchable at all times.  That's not something to sniff at: he spends a good five minutes talking to a green screen at the end, and manages to keep it genuinely exciting.  But he's even better when he lays off the shouty stuff.  His quiet ponderings about the universe and the Devil, sometimes talking to Ida and sometimes to no one, are among the most gripping moments here.  It's not often you see the Doctor really wonder about the world, and that's at the heart of these episodes, and what makes them excellent.  Enjoy it while it lasts: as much as I loved seeing Ten and Rose knocked off their pedestal, they're right back on it at the end.  "The stuff of legend", if they do say so themselves.

The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit do what's expected, i.e. scaring the pants off you.  But they don't stop there, sneaking in some interesting ideas on slavery, and a few genuinely interesting questions about the nature of evil.  Not bad for an old show about rubber monsters and cliff-hangers.  There are still a couple of hiccups, like why the Beast is imprisoned at all when chucking him in the black hole carries no consequences, and there's the hilarious scene where Ida says "How can this planet have a name?" and then tells us its name.  But, that's all nit-pickery.  In many ways, this is as good as it gets.


  1. Right on the nose. Great review as ever :)

    This story's one of my favourites, even with the slight niggles.

    1. Thank you very much!

      This episode's an absolute corker, isn't it? Lots to like. I quite enjoy looking for niggles even when it's one I enjoy - makes it more challenging.

  2. Watching the 50th Anniversary Special a month or so ago made me realise how much I miss David Tennant as the Doctor. Which is funny, because I kind of half-hated him while he WAS the Doctor. Too many big shouty-spit-spraying-self-righteous-monologues. Too much sad-emo-eyes-while-standing-in-the-rain. Too much 'I-Miss-Rose. But beneath all that there was this quirky, affable, happy-go-lucky chap with his weird word obsessions and massive, immediate interest in everything he encountered, and THAT Doctor was extremely watchable and fun. Not so much of that on display here - here he's all wide-eyed and terrified in a way he wouldn't be again until 'Midnight', and it's compelling stuff. I think this is the story that finally warmed me up to David Tennant. He can do the silly stuff fine, just sort of breezes through it, but give him something dark and scary to work with and he's fantastic.

    Right from the get-go the Tenth Doctor is a bit of an arrogant prick, deposing Harriet Jones and robbing Britain of its 'Golden Age', gloating about how he cured everyone in the Cats' hospital, poking fun at Queen Victoria and so on, it's no wonder that Rose became so unbearably smug around him, given that she was so smitten with him. I think Billie Piper did a fantastic job with her even in Series 2, and that I have any affection left for Rose at all is testament to phenomenal Piper's acting. Good points about how the mortgage conversation shows that she's way more into the Doctor than he is into her, subtle stuff, but I think you're right. Without the travel and the adventure, he just doesn't seem all that enthused about spending his life with her.

    Love the Ood. They are hands-down one of the best alien designs the show's ever done, and they really suit this story with its Lovecraftian undertones. The contrast between their frightening look and their calm, polite voices is great, and the unexpected and ominous things they say gave me chills when I first watched this story. And that scene with the disembodied voice sneaking up on Toby, and the sudden appearance of the marks all over his face and hands, spooky stuff. I absolutely love this one, so well done on doing it justice with a great review - I look forward to more :)

    1. Thanks very much! Always nice to see eye to eye. The Ood are probably one of the show's best ever ideas, although that probably won't influence my Planet Of The Ood review, which may contain swearwords...

      I'm aiming to polish off Series Two soon, and then the rest, eventually. The Impossible Planet has been a big hold-up for months. I just didn't fancy reviewing it; I thought, well what's to say? It's a good one! You don't need to dissect those ones! I find it easier to review the disasters...

      I've always struggled a bit with David Tennant, but I do love his performance in certain episodes, and he's great here. I'm glad you mentioned Midnight, he's incredible in that one. There are bits where he literally can't do anything but wiggle his foot, and yet it's totally compelling. Love a bit of understatement! Contrast that with the sort of grandstanding you get in Voyage Of The Damned and so forth, and I just wish he was written better.

      School Reunion's one of my favourite performances from DT. Toby Whithouse seems particularly good at giving us a cross section of the Doctor. I hope he gets to write for Peter Capaldi.