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Doctor Who complete reviews: The Impossible Planet

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A new alien race in Doctor Who establishes itself as a fan favourite...

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (Doctor Who)

If you're interested in the concepts of faith and religion, then you may be surprised to find that you could learn a thing or two from Doctor Who. The everyday guys 'n' gals may think of it as a sci-fi adventure roundabout, but one of the great things about the show is that a lot of the time, it's subtly educating the viewers too. Everything you could want to know about the world is actually included in Doctor Who's long tapestry – money, power, capitalism, vivisection, ecology – only a handful of a lengthy list of worthy topics up for grabs.

And one of the big daddies of discussion is religion and faith. Doctor Who has and always will be a show that promotes good over evil – but quite a few stories have looked at the concepts of religious beliefs in greater detail. We've had the subtle Buddhism message of Planet Of The Spiders. We've encountered Adam And Eve scenarios in Kinda. We've even probed into the meaning of true faith in The Curse Of Fenric. Not only that, but there's been the odd story in which the good Doctor has stumbled upon the Devil – two stories that spring to mind are The Daemons and more recently, the double whammy of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (Doctor Who)So in true Adrasta style, we call it The Impossible Pit – such a way with words for another annoying incident of calling a two-parter by two separate titles. The Impossible Pit, on the face of it, is a fine hybrid of sci-fi action and deep horror. Scrape the surface though, and there's some interesting discourses on beliefs and the age-old science vs religion argument.

This debate has been raging throughout Doctor Who since the dawn of time. The Doctor has always championed the practicalities of science rather than anything that has its roots in religious belief. Take The Daemons, in which his main mantra is that everything in life has a scientific explanation. And an interesting point to make is that in The Curse Of Fenric, when The Doctor's asked to use his faith to ward off an army of Haemovores, he quietly lists off his companions, rather than saying a prayer.

But The Doctor's beliefs are very much challenged in this two-parter, and in particular the second half of the story. When having a chinwag with Ida Scott, the tough mother hen of the expedition, The Doctor starts to discuss his beliefs, or more to the point, his own set of rules. When discussing the existence of the Devil or the Beast or whatever name it has – Arthur, maybe – The Doctor says: “If that thing had said it came from BEYOND the universe, I'd believe it, but BEFORE the universe... impossible. Doesn't fit my rule. Still, that's why I keep travelling... to be proved wrong.”

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (Doctor Who)And sure enough, The Doctor does acknowledge the existence of the Beast - “I accept that you exist,” he says when confronting it. “I don't have to accept what you are, but your physical existence, I'll give you that”. He also adds that the devil is just an idea, an idea in many civilisations that have produced false, bad, demi and would-be gods. But when it comes to the crunch, as in past stories, he's seen to have that unshakeable belief in his travelling companion (“Out of that whole pantheon – if I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in HER!”). Yes, The Doctor's willing to accept new concepts and other ways of thinking, but at the end of the day, his true faith lies with the people that he travels with.

Although he would say that in this instance, given that the Tenth Doctor's and Rose's smug yapping knows no bounds. And sure enough, there's still one or two instances when both characters are still sorely trying the patience. Whether Rose is hysterically laughing at a joke that's not really that funny, making equally useless gags about the Ood (“Well, that's... Ood!”) or being a smug nuisance while trying to muster up the remaining troops in the second part (“Mr Jefferson, sah!”), her character is getting so grating, you could use it to cut cheese.

"I'm getting the feeling that Matt Jones' script may have been tinkered with to include rubbish EastEnders references and overly annoying behaviour."

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (Doctor Who)Likewise, there's one or two irritating own-goals for The Doctor: The awful “Human beings – you are amazing!!” hug. The Walford Christmas reference – I suppose that in the latest attempt to get down wiv da kidz, Doctor Ten is studying the complete set of EastEnders DVDs in his spare time. And then there's that bizarre, OTT confrontation with the Beast – what's that all about? We get quick, alternating cuts of close-ups of The Doctor's wide-eyed, open-mouthed fizzog, and it's actually painful to watch. What's up with all the wide eyes anyway? Has Tennant been possessed by the spirit of Ohica? Or maybe he's just discovered that the horror of Fear Her is only two episodes away.

All this wacky, in-yer-face gurning and cackling is a real shame, and it jars with the otherwise outstanding script from Matt Jones, who makes his lone contribution to Doctor Who. Again, I'm getting the feeling that Jones' script may have been tinkered with to include rubbish EastEnders references and overly annoying behaviour. It's also a shame because when they're not called on to be as irritating as possible, Billie Piper and especially David Tennant are actually very good. Tennant gets some notably muted scenes, such as his slightly awkward chat with Rose about mortgages (she evidently wasn't listening to his School Reunion speech about outliving human beings) or his contemplative talk with Ida about beliefs. This is the sort of Doctor that we want, not Joe Pasquale 2: The Revenge – luckily, we'd get more of this in future stories. Take away the silly scenes, and you have a Doctor who neatly balances authority, good humour and wise old knowledge.

The Impossible Pit again feels like one of the more traditional Doctor Who stories of old. It takes its roots from the late '60s 'Base Under Siege' stories, while adding a dash of gothic horror from the mid '70s. Both these tips of the hat are suitably updated for the 21st century, and on the whole, the story is an unqualified success. What works is the fact is that the base members are played totally for real – they're everyday people with everyday flaws and skeletons in the cupboard. We have Zachary Cross Flane, the slightly insecure acting captain, the no-nonsense Mr Jefferson, a man who's making up for past sins (his wife has never forgiven him for a past act – adultery or something more sinister), the awkward intellectual Toby Zed, the headstrong Danny Bartock, the mother hen of the group, Ida Scott and finally the short-lived feisty chick, Scooti Manista.

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (Doctor Who)Largely, the guest cast are very good indeed – they add depth to well-crafted characters, and even if Ronny Jhutti's bordering on wooden at times as Danny (although I love the fart gag in the tunnels), the majority of the cast deliver outstanding performances. Particularly good are Danny Webb (a man so ubiquitous on TV, I'm surprised he doesn't deliver weather reports) as the ultimately brave Jefferson, Shaun Parkes, who totally convinces as the world-weary Zach, and surprisingly, Will Thorp, who does an excellent job as Toby – I think prior to this, Thorp was on Casualty or some other TV wallpaper, so I wasn't expecting great things – but Thorp does very well with the two sides of Toby's character, whether it's socially awkward mumbling or evil grin terror.

The possession of Toby harks back to the Hinchcliffe days, when some hapless soul would be taken over by an alien force. Toby joins the ranks of Marcus Scarmans, Noahs and Harrison Chases, and his other-worldly possession nicely clashes with his rather timid persona. The scene in which he stands outside the base without a protective suit and kills an uncomprehending Scooti is a particularly memorable one (although Scooti's death is a bit too much like Lynda With A Y for my liking), as is the brief scene in the tunnel when he briefly shooshes the Ood, just when you think he's been freed of the influence. That's a classic bit of writing – making the audience unsure as to whether the character's still possessed or not. The make-up and the red eyes add much to the terror, not to mention the deep, booming voice from the one and only Gabriel Woolf in a great In-No-Way-Is-The-Big-Bad-Sutekh cameo.

"The production values for The Impossible Pit are absolutely superb"

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (Doctor Who) - OodAnd there's a great deal of dread and terror running throughout The Impossible Pit, particularly the first part. Take the initial Beast contact with Toby – like all effective horror films and books, the scene works on a very simple gimmick, the old 'Don't Turn Around' scenario. It's the sort of thing that kids play, whether in schools or in the back garden, so tapping into these everyday games and putting a threatening spin on them really sells that deep-rooted primal fear. The first instalment has a queasy air of claustrophobia running through it, with darkened tunnels, flickering lights and eerie blasts of Ravel's Bolero. The story marks the début of director, James Strong, and he evidently takes to the show like a duck to water. He's got a good grasp of producing imaginative, well-considered shots, such as the cross fade from the port hole to Toby's magnifying glass, and also a good talent for knowing when to alternate between fast-paced action and moody contemplation. The production values for The Impossible Pit are absolutely superb – the so-called flat pack industrial interiors are very convincing, as are the scenes on the surface of the planet, all murky shadows and rocks. The Beast too is surprisingly well realised, although the Innovation Awards this time around, go to the Ood, probably one of the best new alien races presented in the reboot of Doctor Who.

There's a number of reasons why the Ood work so well. One is that they are are visually striking creatures. They are exceptionally well designed, a sort of cross between a bald cat and a jellyfish. They're suitably alien beings, far better than boring old androids, and they also add to the viewer's mystery of whether they are good or bad. This is a key element of The Impossible Pit – throughout the story, we're never too sure what to make of the Ood. At first, they're set up as the Monsters Of The Week, closing in on The Doctor and Rose with a repeated chorus of “We must feed”. Of course, this turns out to be a red herring, as the viewer finds out that they are, in fact, a basic slave race, designed to carry out mundane tasks like serving food and drinks. But despite their benign demeanour, they still become threatening in another clever twist. They are possessed by an outside force, and become brutal killers with their dreaded soap dirigibles of doom. And yet even at the end, they're to be pitied, since they are killed off en masse – surprisingly, The Doctor doesn't find a way to save them, and so, there's the feeling that they've been unwilling pawns in a bigger game. However, they'd prove to be popular enough to return many times in Doctor Who, notably in the excellent Planet Of The Ood and in the Tenth Doctor's swansong, The End Of Time. Personally, they're one of my favourite alien races.

"The Impossible Pit is one of the main accomplishments of the season"

There's very little to criticise when discussing The Impossible Pit. There's a fair point that the second half isn't as psychologically unsettling as the first part, since it becomes more of a straight-ahead battle for survival. If the first part's a throwback to the first Alien film, then the second part's the sequel, all blazing gun battles and manic escape plans. Still, this is a bit of a churlish comment, since at least the second part wraps up the story in a neat, logical fashion. All of the loose ends are tied up, the Beast and Toby are defeated, and The Doctor and Rose move on to pastures new.

All in all, The Impossible Pit is one of the main accomplishments of the season. It can be enjoyed on whatever level you want, and there's pretty much something for everyone here. Horror fans can revel in the darkness of the first part. There's plenty of fuel for action-packed drama addicts. And for the more contemplative, there's greater food for thought to chew on, and as a bonus, there's not an Aled Jones in sight. This story puts the Ood into Good.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, The Idiot's Lantern

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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