DOCTOR WHO: The Ridley Scott Awesomeness of THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET and THE SATAN PIT

“THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET” and “THE SATAN PIT” – Series 2, Episode 9 and 10, Story 174 – Written by Matt Jones; Directed by James Strong – The Tenth Doctor and Rose land in a mining base at the edge of the galaxy. It seems just like any old mining base until they meet the locals and the locals totally freak out about having visitors. It’s not that the locals are unfriendly, it’s that the mining base is sitting in orbit around a black hole at the edge of the galaxy and no one should be there. But there they are, the Doctor and Rose, acting all Doctor and Rosey until an earthquake hits and the TARDIS falls into the interior of the planet. They can’t get down to have a look because the mining folks are drilling to find the massive energy source that allows them to stay in orbit and nothing else matters. Rose doesn’t mind because she gets to indulge her fantasy about having the Doctor all to herself, settling down together and being all domestic. One of the mining workers gets possessed by a deep, dark, mysterious voice, the Doctor goes down into the mine, drops into a hole, and finds Giant Satan. Because Giant Satan Is Much More Impressive Than Ordinary-Sized Satan.

THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET and THE SATAN PIT are the second of three Series 2 two-parters and these Matt Jones-penned episodes are generally pretty terrific. What’s nice about the two episodes is that they have a bit of a retro feel to them as we finally (not that we were really waiting for it) get to see the Doctor back in a rock quarry that we all pretend is an alien world. There’s also bonus points for PLANET feeling like the Doctor has been set down in the middle of Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, although by the time PIT comes around, the Doctor has stopped being Ripley and started being Gandalf facing off against a Balrog – albeit a Balrog that’s chained to the wall and is forced to listen to Gandalf prattle on about how clever everything is.

With Mickey now departed, the Doctor and Rose are perfectly content to just be with one another and there’s a pleasantness here between them that’s nice to watch. Rose isn’t being a whiny bitch and the Doctor isn’t being completely oblivious to her affections, although he’s far more interested in the mystery of the black hole than he is their potential domestic future.

PLANET is a superior episode and it’s in PLANET that Tennant is at his best as the Doctor – inquisitive, playful, hopeful, challenged, and determined. There’s a decided edge to the reboot Doctors, a tendency to make dramatic proclamations about the damage they could inflict, and of the three of them (Eccleston and Smith being the others), Tennant is, far and away, the worst of them. When he gets all gritty-teethed about what he’ll do if some baddie hurts poor wittle Wose, it’s not quite laughable but not nearly convincing, either. With Eccleston there’s just enough weepy desperation to make you think the Doctor might really follow through on his threats, and with Smith there’s a tremendous ability to tap into an oldness that lets you know whatever the front he’s putting on, he can’t get drop-dead serious if forced to it.

Unfortunately, too many episodes in Series 2 see Tennant having to go all gritty now and then and it’s just not in the dude’s bag to make it convincing. It’s still early enough in his run that you can forgive writers for giving him those moments because everyone is still working out the kinks, but writer Matt Jones is either prescient or lucky enough to bring Tennant’s better abilities to the fore of his performance.

Upon arrival at Sanctuary Base, the Doctor and Rose walk down cramped walkways that are right out of ALIEN. What I’ve always loved about Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is how he presents the future not as bright or idyllic but as dirty and hard. (This is yet another reason why Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings‘ films kicked the crap out of Lucas’ Star Wars prequels; one felt like a real world while the other felt like a photoshoot for Architectural Digest.) Jones must be a fan because he has Rose administer this very point when she says something like, “This is the future, isn’t it? It’s not easy but hard.” (I’m paraphrasing – I watched the episode six days and a roundtrip between Indianapolis and Los Angeles ago.)

As they’re wandering around Sanctuary Base, they run into the Ood for the first time, who appear threatening in a pre-credits cliffhanger, but aren’t. They’re a slave race, desiring to fulfill the orders of others, which Rose finds an appalling idea. The crew of Sanctuary Base don’t seem to mind since the Ood are doing all their work and Giant Satan doesn’t mind because they’re doing all of his leg work.

Sanctuary is filled with one of those crews that happen only in fiction, given the way their character traits and races complement each other like a pack of Skittles. Since there’s two white women, you know one of them is getting killed pretty quick, and she does.

The crew are absolutely flummoxed by the Doctor and Rose’s appearance, which is a nice throwback to the old series where he’d show up someplace he shouldn’t, people would wonder where he came from, and then the story’s mystery starts moving so fast no one can worry about why the Doctor is there since he’s doing such a bang-up job of helping figure things out.

They’re on this planet to drill for the massive energy source ten miles down that’s allowed the planet to not get pulled into the black hole. This is, of course, a Really Bad Idea, but it’s also an inspiring one and the Doctor is joyous at seeing humans exploring in dangerous situations. There’s a great sequence between him and the captain where he asks, “Can I hug you? I want to hug you.” The captain quizzically agrees.

Rose has four really great moments in this serial and it’s episodes like PLANET and PIT that make me like her, even with all the overblown romantic and emotional hoops Davies has her jump through over her two years. Here are the moments: First, she calls out the crew for their treatment of the Ood. Second, her barely contained joy whilst commiserating with the Doctor about being stuck here when they worry the TARDIS has been lost. Third is her attempt to bond with the Ood that serves her dinner; it’s reminiscent of her early days with the Ninth Doctor when she’d bond with working girls in whatever location they’d find themselves in. Her fourth really great moment in this serial is how she takes charge at the end of the story, directing the rest of the crew into action.

Rose has to do this because the Doctor is ten miles underground. He goes down with one of the mining folk to look down into the pit … the SATAN PIT. Tennant has a nice bit where he’s looking down into the pit and says something like, “For the first time in my life, I’m going to suggest retreating” as he steps back from the edge. That might make for a sound decision, but it makes for bad television, so down into the pit he eventually goes, and it’s down there that he runs into Giant Satan.

A couple things hurt this two-parter. During PLANET, when the creepiness is starting, the story is incredibly effective at keeping your attention and building dramatic tension, but it’s in PIT when the tension is supposed to pay off and it just doesn’t live up to the set-up. There’s a really silly deep, dark, scary voice and, I mean, it’s lame. It just is. They’d have been better going on with a silver-tongued Satan instead of a doom-tongued character.

Giant Satan (who they insist on calling the Beast, even though Giant Satan is a much better name) has chained up since before time or something and the Doctor has to figure out how to get out of the Pit and save the crew and blah blah blah … it’s a weak sequence because the Beast just stands there, rattling his chains, and grunting. He can’t talk because he’s put his soul or essence or voice into the body of one of the crew, who’s busy escaping with Rose and the rest of the crew’s surviving members, so the Doctor has to walk around trying to piece things together on his own. Lame.

Still, it’s nice to see a new kind of villain, especially one that tilts towards the fantastic instead of the science.

Unfortunately, the showdown between the two is a diluted penultimate sequence at the end of a really good story. It certainly doesn’t ruin the two-parter but it doesn’t send the story out with a bang. I give Jones a lot of credit for giving us an actual plot-based finish to go along with the emotional fireworks ending favored by Russell T Davies, though, and there’s much, much more to recommend than lament with this story.

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