Deep in space, an impossible planet orbits a black hole in an impossible way. It emanates an impossible cone of gravity while beknown to the human explorers on its surface, the impossible planet has an impossible, devilish secret.
Impossible, is the theme to “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” two parter. Not just its concept, but its philosophy. This episode is as much about how the Doctor deals with the inexplicable - or should I say, the impossible - as it is an adventure trapped in a scientific absurdity.
The setting for this adventure, the impossible and unnamed planet, is crafted with an eye for detail. The base itself brings back images of all sorts of dirty science fiction TV and film shows. Visually, the story has very intentional ties to Ripley Scott’s “Alien”. As a story, it shifts slightly closer towards the science fiction horror, “Event Horizon”. There is a little of Space:1999 in the base’s external design and I thought the adjoining spacecraft had a little bit of the retro rocket ship from the likes of Buster Crabbe’s “Flash Gordon”. By taking a little from various places in the genre it gives this story its own identity playing homage to the best without mimicking or feeling like a second rate copy.
As with the New Series as a whole, the acting is hard to fault, which in a claustrophobic nightmare as in “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”, is vital. There are few minor characters to draw attention away from the main cast and being a very science fiction orientated story, you HAVE to believe in those actors. There is no question about believability which is testament to the acting and direction.
Helping them along is a wonderful script by Matthew Jones, a veteran writer from the Virgin New Adventure’s era. It has to be said that “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” certainly has a taste of those seventh Doctor novels. However, it also feesl quite “traditional Who” at the same time. This story takes from the classic show in a way I felt “Rise of the Cybermen” failed to suceed. The story doesn’t just take old formulaic ideas and integrate them (my concern with “Rise Of The Cybermen”), it takes classic devices from the old series and uses them in a contemporary context. For instance, the TARDIS is lost within a few minutes. Very traditional Who, but actually there is no specific need to do this with the tenth Doctor. The tradition is there, but upated for the requirements of the story. Iin the sixties, Doctor Who had to find a practical reason as to why the TARDIS team didn’t run away - which often lead to being severed from their route back to the TARDIS - “The Impossible Planet” actually knocks this possibility aside with its teaser - Rose and the Doctor laughing at the very prospect of leaving. Yet, losing the TARDIS early on helps create that helpless environment that is required for the episode.
Furthermore, we also have some death scenes in “The Satan’s Pit” which are very old school Who. Security controller Jefferson stays behind to fight the enemy off and thereby sacrificing his life. Very typical Doctor Who, yet, in “The Satan’s Pit”, the scene uses this formula to focus on the emotional drama. No simple scream to announce the death of the straggler - we see the man and his friends dealing with his choice.
“The Impossible Planet” is a joyous piece of writing. The idea of being caught by a black hole was a premise set up in a similar vein by the aptly titled Disney film “The Black Hole”, however the focus on this story is less on the collapsed star above, but what’s going on below. Rather than simply become a “monster vs human” affair, “The Impossible Planet” rapidly changes direction from science fiction to mythological horror. This movement from one genre to the other is seamless. The “Ood”, a willing slave race, provide the obligatory monster to keep the tension up, but the real monster is the devil in the pit. The scene in which Tobey the archeologist is “infected” by the devil is probably the scariest moment in Doctor Who. What makes it even more impressive is it relies on nothing but the actor and the production crew to create the suspense. No effects, no monsters. It’s just good acting, direction and a deft piece of editing.
The climax to “The Impossible Pit” is one of the best ones of the New Series. As with “Aliens Of London” it’s a multi cliff-hanger, which really does build the tension to impossible levels. It’s only weakness is the resolution is wrapped up rather fast and a little too neatly in “The Satan Pit”
“The Satan Pit” doesn’t start off as strong as “The Impossible Planet” ended, but it makes up for any such weakness by the final act. This episode is Doctor Who at it’s best. We have tension, we action, we have drama. The New Series Doctor Who knows when to lay off the comedy and British eccentricities and there is little of either in “The Satan Pit”. What we do have is a wonderful fusion of drama and character scenes. While Rose has the drama and action, the Doctor has the character moments and the two arcs compliment themselves beautifully.
Rose’s role in “The Satan’s Pit” is probably the best use of the character this series. She gets to work on her own story arc rather than just tagging onto the Doctor’s. Giving both Rose and the Doctor space from each other really helped the characters to breathe. It’s only when they are pulled apart as in this story does one realise how their natural dynamic just suffocates the pair when they are together. My only silly quibble with Rose in this episode was during the finale where she dispatches the monster by blowing out the window with a bolt gun. It’s a nice idea and a lot of fun, but when the villain is strapped next to you, you’d think your instinctive reaction would be to fire it into the villain’s chest not blow open the cabin and undo his belt. Far more dramatic - and I appreciate there is only so much cold blood you can dish out to a companion, but this sort of reaction seems a little out of character for anyone in Rose’s situation! Oh, and while we’re on minor quibbles, a superficial suggestion is for makeup to lighten up on the eyeliner. Rose has black eyes that a panda would envy.
The finale is a great piece of television full of suspence and growing tension. The whole plot resolution was a relief as I was beginning to question some of the episode’s plausibility (if there is any in a story set on an impossible planet to begin with).
The devil is established as such a powerful omnipotent villain, yet when the crew fight back, he goes strangely impotent. Now this happens a lot when shows pit a mighty power against lesser powered heroes; the writer has to de-power or empower one of the two in order to create a victory for the underdog. With the characters successfully fighting back from the might of the Ood, it suddenly feels as if we’ve seen the devil suffer some power withdrawal. Thankfully, the end makes it clear this was never the intention.
With a whole story so steeped in mystery, the audience are kept one step behind which really serves the storyline. This is after all, unusual territory for Doctor Who; no blasé explanation of godly powers, no affirmation that this is an advanced alien.. the details are kept to a minimum all the way to the end. The story, in essense, makes a battle against formula and leaves the audience wondering in which direction it’s going to go: Will it expose the enemy as a powerful alien? Or is this the first unholy terror we’ve seen in Doctor Who?
The story has a great balance between dark and light. It is a tense watch, but the ending has a joyous lift which feels appropriate for the show. I suppose one could see it as a metaphor; escaping the dire gravity of the situation is almost like escaping the Black Hole’s pull.
Throughout, the music is wonderful. A collection of the standard Murray Gold motifs, with a natural earthy mix of strings akin to “Firefly” and Chris Carter’s “Millennium”.
Any grumbles? A couple. The Rose and Doctor relationship explored in “The Impossible Planet” still feels naff. While “The Satan’s Pit” gives us a little glimpse into what the Doctor sees in Rose, she still seems very childish. Her dreams of settling down with the Doctor in this story, the selfish possessiveness of the Time Lord she’s exhibited throughout the season - she doesn’t feel like a character you’d imagine someone as old and well travelled like the Doctor falling for. I suppose one could argue he has so much respect for the instinctive drive for mankind - as referenced a great deal in this story - someone who is so honest to their whims - to the point they are discourteous to others, may be strangely attractive to him. Either way, it’s still not something I’m personally keen on the series exploring. Madame De Pompedeau seemed a more realistic pairing. The romance isn’t the issue - it’s the subject of the romance I question.
[Article for Outpost Gallifrey June 2006]
One grumble we’re sure to hear is how conveniently the Doctor finds the TARDIS after his wonderfully dramatic test of faith in front of the demon. To me, it was a perfect resolution. This story is about the nature of the inexplicable; that there are some things that we can’t explain. Finding the TARDIS shows that same inexplicable circumstances that brings us the devil in this story - only in a more positive form. For me it made the episode, but considering how certain sections of fandom found the lack of science in having a “Impossible Planet” hard to get by, such solutions in “The Satan Pit” are bound to agitate.
An excellent story from start to finish. Best two parter I’ve seen. Yes, I believe it’s better than “The Empty Child”. Tennant is great, Piper does a wonderful job in part two and the whole performance shines. This is truly an ensemble story and no one let’s the side down.
”The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” is some scary Doctor Who that mixes wonderful homage and classic Who concepts into a story which feels fresh exciting and brimming with drama. Comparing individual episodes in such a diverse series as Doctor Who is hard, but, this has to be one of the best episodes of Doctor Who - period. Honestly dear fans, we’ve never had it so good.