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?|
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?"
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."
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.