As “The Impossible Planet” drew to a close and “The Satan Pit” begins, two deaths occur: A pair of redshirts take it for the team. I had to watch “The Impossible Planet” several times before locating them prior to their passing—a man and a woman; security drones working for Mr. Jefferson (Danny Webb), and they do appear in numerous scenes, subtly registering existence. The funniest moment occurs early on in “Planet”, when the Doctor and Rose are first brought before the rest of the crew. Look closely to the far right of the screen—Mr. Jefferson clearly ushers them out of the room before they can even be introduced. This two-parter sports a claustrophobic, tight-knit cast, and the pair’s existence isn’t even verbally acknowledged. They have no dialogue, no names and aren’t featured in either episode’s credits. Mind you, this is less of a criticism than an observation of the peculiar; such obvious worm dirt rarely features on Doctor Who.
Perhaps the redshirts are indicative of an even larger issue, and that being the numerous homages paid to other sci-fi & horror within the story. “The Satan Pit” unveils an intense action sequence so ripped from Cameron’s Aliens, it doesn’t even try to cover it up. Instead it proclaims, “That was one of the greats, and now we’re going to offer up our humble stab at it”. Aside from one glitch in the process, it works marvelously, too.
Rose (Billie Piper), Mr. Jefferson, Danny (Ronny Jhutti), and the dubiously intentioned Toby (Will Thorp) need to get from Point A to Point B via the ventilation shafts. Meanwhile Zack (Shaun Parkes), from above, controls the oxygen flow from section to section as they make their way—all while bloodthirsty oodles of Ood trail behind. Within this sequence, the Ood threat moves to darker places, as they scurry about on all fours. Mr. Jefferson’s sacrifice is as noble as the reveal that Toby remains under the Beast’s influence is sinister. Need I mention the subtle fart joke? And the glitch? The group exits the shafts via a grate above their heads; if there were other grates along the way, the entire concept of the oxygen flow dilemma is called into question. Best to not think too much about that one.
Mr. Jefferson: “[If you] can’t add oxygen to this section, could you speed up the process of its removal?”
Zack: “I don’t understand, what do you mean?”
Mr. Jefferson: “If I might choose the manner of my departure sir, lack of air seems more natural than, well, let’s say ’death by Ood’.”
One of the many great facets of this two-parter is its attention to character detail—not just the regulars, but every character. The crew of SB6 are well-defined people, and we come to care for them as much as we do the Doctor and Rose. Claire Rushbrook’s Ida is a standout, and so well drawn and acted that in the end I wanted her to stay onboard the TARDIS for an adventure or two. Zack and Mr. Jefferson are nearly as tight. Will Thorp does as good a job as somebody can do having had half of their dialogue dubbed over by Gabriel Woolf. Poor Danny seems mostly present for comic relief—see fart gag above. Billie Piper continues the momentum built up in the first half, and takes swift charge in the midst of a seemingly dire situation. It’s entirely believable the crew would take orders from her. By the time she’s on the rocket (A rocket - uber-retro!) screaming “Take me back!” (an echo from Season One’s “The Parting of the Ways”), there’s a genuine, painful vibe that Rose Tyler may never see the Doctor again.
The Beast’s animal form is a chunk of wonder to behold and upon first seeing it, the phrase “This ain’t your Daddy’s Doctor Who” jumps to the tip of the tongue. The sudden reappearance of the TARDIS surprisingly works—if you were as caught up in the goings-on as I was, in that moment you’d all but forgotten it was missing to begin with. One could bitch and moan and say, “Well obviously it wasn’t gone for good”, but that’s to miss the point. As viewers, we know as much, but the characters do not. This story casts a potent spell if you allow yourself to get inside both the Doctor and Rose’s heads (much like the Beast itself) and view these near cataclysmic events from their perspectives.
This is also the episode in which, for me, David Tennant became “the Doctor” (not to be confused with the Doctor—note the subtle difference), and it gradually occurred throughout the sequence in which Ida lowers him down into the pit. Tennant has had great moments thus far (most consistent being his turn in “School Reunion”), but it wasn’t until this particular blend of direction, action, character and dialogue that I was hit by his ownership of the role. I even wonder if the fact that he’s not in costume, but rather dressed as a true spaceman aided his mastery of the scene. It builds from his “urge to fall”, then his subsequent pondering of the nature of the Beast and its place throughout history, his discussion with Ida about her faith, and finally, when she in return queries the Doctor about his own beliefs, the culmination of these ideas quietly and simply happens:
The Doctor: “I believe…I believe I haven’t seen everything. (mutters) I dunno. It’s funny isn’t it? The things you make up…the rules. If that thing said it came from beyond the universe I’d believe it—but before the universe. Impossible. Doesn’t fit in my rule. So, ah, that’s why I keep traveling—to be proved wrong…If you get back in touch, if you talk to Rose, just tell her…tell her…oh, she’ll know.” (And he falls.)
Those words are some of the most revealing to come out of any Doctor’s mouth in the entire history of the series. We are used to him “knowing it all”, or at the very least we take for granted that before an adventure’s end, he’ll have figured it out along the way. “The Satan Pit” is a remarkable conclusion due to the fact that the Doctor is left with more questions than answers, and the above speech wouldn’t carry any weight had he crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” as the end credits rolled.
The story has the odd problem here and there, but nothing ever truly obscures the conviction of the material. If the intelligence of the Beast had actually left its animal form, why would it exhibit anger or take delight in the Doctor’s predicament? Because a laughing Satan engages more than a snarling monster—that’s the best answer I’ve got. But like the ventilation shaft conundrum, these complaints are minor when compared to the intensity of the story’s ideas. Normally Doctor Who would explain away the Beast as some sort of forgotten alien relic, but here it is not. It’s the triumph of a tale about faith and possession that purports to introduce us to Satan himself—sometimes there simply aren’t any answers.
Ida: You never really said. You two - who are you?
The Doctor: Oooh…the stuff of legend.
NEXT WEEK: ”Hustle’s” Marc Warren, Harry Potter’s Shirley Henderson, and plenty of Jeff Lynne and E.L.O. in “Love & Monsters”.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: ...isn’t even Doctor Who. If the faith-based popcorn philosophizing of “The Satan Pit” unleashed your inner demon, by all means see the far deeper and more thought-provoking miniseries “The Second Coming”, starring Christopher Eccleston and written by Russell T Davies.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.