|Chap with the horns there, five… no, I didn’t think so.|
It’s June 3rd, 2006. Gnarls Barkley is at number one, but is finally unseated a week later by Sandi Thom’s “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair).” Primal Scream, Daz Sampson, Ronan Keating and Kate Rusby, Nelly Furtado, and Pink also chart. In news, Ken Loach wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, John Snow resigns as US Treasury Secretary due to his intense lack of knowledge, and the Pirate Bay gets shut down, as happens from time to time. The federal government determined that New York City has no national monuments or icons, and the World Cup kicks off in Germany, with England playing their first game, a 1-0 victory over Paraguay four hours prior to the transmission of The Satan Pit.
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is an odd story, held in considerable esteem by a certain segment of fandom (more about whom on Monday) largely because it feels so traditional. You can list the Doctor Who classics this pilfers – it’s a majestic blend of Pyramids of Mars, Inferno, The Three Doctors, The Daemons, and just about any base under siege ever. For any fan who’d been sitting around for fourteen months complaining bitterly that Doctor Who wasn’t like Doctor Who, this was a revelation. Notably, even its emotional content is toned down – a couple scenes of the Doctor and Rose talking about what they’ll do now that they’re trapped in this time and place in the first episode, and a pair of muted lines in the second are the only places that those pesky emotions creep in.
Under the surface – a concept that is surely more important here than in most episodes – there’s rather more anxiety about this than the story lets on. It may be constructed out of bibs and bobs of classic Doctor Who stories, but there’s an appreciable anxiety about this. It’s notably not until the Doctor is being lowered into the pit that we get a chain of references to past stories, and his declaration that the Time Lords invented black holes comes only after the plot has been resolved. The story is, to those who recognize the elements, the most classic series indebted one we’ve seen, in many ways much more so even than School Reunion, which brought the classic series back to alter it heavily. And yet even here there’s a sense of tentativeness about the classic series.
Nevertheless, we should be careful in trying to understand that hesitation. The first season was largely scrupulous about avoiding excessive references to the classic series. More to the point, it was Davies who was most prone to inserting continuity references, where other writers shied away from them out of fear that they would make the series insular. Which is to say that the idea that Davies had any anxiety personally on the subject of continuity references is, at best, strained. It’s more accurate to suggest that he understood the potential for continuity references to be used, and deployed them strategically throughout his tenure. He wasn’t afraid of them, but he recognized that they had power.
It’s also worth noting that all of the components of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit are recognizable not just as components of past Doctor Who stories but as components of reasonably popular science fiction films. One thing that the story sneaks past its audience is just how much science fiction there is here – black holes, a reasonably complex base, the drill, the Ood, the rocket, ancient aliens, et cetera. But all of it is bog standard science fiction. It’s stuff the audience has almost certainly seen at least once.
But underneath it is iconography from a different sort of show. This is one of Doctor Who’s oldest combinations, in fact – it’s been doing “sci-fi is responsible for human mythology” for decades – so much so that this isn’t even the first devil the Doctor’s met. This is further emphasized by the conscious decision to go back and hire Gabriel Woolf, who voiced the similar character of Sutekh in 1975’s The Pyramids of Mars. Doctor Who has long been fond of haunting science fiction with the threat of a mystical world underneath it. Here, somewhat acharacteristically, it has the Doctor rattled by it too, rejecting the idea that the Beast could be from “before time.”
Normally I am loathe to spend too much time detailing the particular conceptual connections between the new series and the wilderness years, but here it’s inevitable. Both the New and Eighth Doctor Adventures made much of the concept of creatures from the spaces outside the boundaries of the universe. The New Adventures centered their appropriation of Lovecraftian mythology on the idea of beings surviving from the universe before this one, whereas the Eighth Doctor Adventures and particularly the War in Heaven plot line made extensive use of the idea. Davies was surely aware of this, and the Doctor’s incredulity at the concept stresses the real point, which is that the monster of this story is in a fundamental sense wrong. The Beast isn’t just capable of killing people, its very nature and existence is an affront to the coherence of the universe.
It’s telling, then, that he’s trapped inside an eccentric space – one whose austere and uninviting exterior gives way to a vast, cavernous interior – that seems powered by a black hole, which, as it happens, the Time Lords invented. Note that the relationship between this prison and that declaration necessarily involves the Time Lords being involved in the process that chained the Beast. It’s trivial to make too much of this, but nevertheless, we should observe the way in which the Doctor and the very premise of the show are subtly made monstrous through this story. Even the TARDIS, which is ultimately recovered just in time to wrap up the spare plot lines, becomes a source of odd menace here, momentarily seeming to belong to the Beast’s buried world.
And it is easy to equate the Beast with Doctor Who before 2005. This is even consistent with the underlying thematic concerns – the “ancient enemy rises for one last attack” concept having been a lynchpin of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, which was endlessly concerned with the idea of threats from dead history. So we get an uneasy situation in which the resolution to the plot – the TARDIS – and the threat – the Beast – are oddly equivalent. We are both saved and destroyed by the anomalous residue of the dead past.
Notably, this tension is never resolved within the story. The series remains haunted by its material past. There’s no way of shaking this. Which is, in point of fact, true. Its status as the darling of television doesn’t insulate it from the fact that it was previously a ropey sci-fi show for pathetic anoraks. In fact, it confirms it. Upon reaching the heights of popularity in 2005 Doctor Who has been trapped in a narrative of perpetual decline, with The Guardian fretting about its declining ratings in the second season as though it was doomed. (Never mind the fact that airing in the summer when there’s a lot of football around doesn’t do the show any favors in any season) Doctor Who, both within and without, plays host to two narrative logics here. On the one hand it’s the show that came back and that always will come back in some form. On the other, the fact that it came back means that it died. The inevitability of its eventual return means that its eventual departure must be equally inevitable. Right now we’re just in the midst of the wilderness years between cancellations.
And here the series becomes aware of that within its own narrative, acknowledging its own death drive – the urge to fall, as the Doctor puts it. It’s worth underlining that, as it’s explicitly contrasted with Ida’s suggestion that the urge is a desire to jump from tree to tree. It’s not the desire for progress and advancement that’s symbolized elsewhere in this story, but an aggressively self-destructive, self-annihilating desire. A desire that cannot fully be contextualized within the series. Staved off, for now, at least, but not understood or explained. Nothing can quite account for why we, or the series, wants to undo itself. But it does. And more to the point, somehow we want to help it do so. As I’ve noted before, and will discuss at some length on Monday, this is a strange phenomenon of fandom. We’re never so happy as when we’re hating the show, and we hate it more than anyone else.
As ever, lost in all of this are the ordinary people. Not just the impressive number who get massacred over the course of this, but the Ood, kept carefully off to the sidelines so that their death could be trotted out at the last second to subvert the ending of the story. This is an interesting point worth exploring. The end of the story reveals in hindsight that the story was about the Ood all along. And yet little about the story leading up to that ending appears to be about them. On one level this is just Davies and Jones playing a reasonably effective trick. The episodes aren’t about the Ood – they’re handled so that we do forget about them and treat them as disposable monsters. This is at least somewhat unsettling, especially as it depends on tricking us into just accepting that the Ood are a mindless slave race, and then tricking us again into accepting that they’re generic monsters. And they’re a great design in this regard, as they just look terribly creepy, making it easier to write them off. The ending reminds us that we made these assumptions, and it’s quite clever in that regard.
Notably, we lose our initial sense of outrage over the Ood’s treatment as the whole Satan plot ramps up. This is appropriate. The Beast is consciously designed to be the single most epic Doctor Who villain ever. There’s a kind of marvelous simplicity to it, really – that the creature that looks for all the world like it’s the Devil turns out to be… the Devil. But more important is the tacit connection between the epic sweep of the Doctor confronting the Devil itself (though note that this confrontation is oddly averted, with the Devil having lost its mind by the time the Doctor makes it down) and death. The closer the story gets to the Devil the more the perfectly nice people of the base just get slaughtered and the more our sense of the Ood as anything other than cannon fodder diminishes.
All of this, of course, seems lost on the segment of fandom who considers this one of the pinnacles of Doctor Who. It’s not that they’re wrong – this is a quite good episode, and while I think it’s a stretch to call it the best of Series Two, I also think any list of the season’s highlights that excludes it is self-evidently incomplete. Rather the situation is more akin to my views on one of the stories this riffs on the most – Inferno: it’s a perfectly good story that just isn’t the story most of its admirers seem to want. This isn’t a hymn to traditional Doctor Who – it’s a story that’s profoundly and fundamentally unsettled by traditional Doctor Who as a concept.
And it’s worth contrasting this story’s solid reputation with the deeply divisive next story. The two stories are mirror images of one another in more ways than people given them credit for being, and it’s on one level not at all surprising that people who love this aren’t as fond of Love and Monsters, and, I imagine, vice versa. (Certainly I’m unabashedly in the tank for Love and Monsters, and generally find little to distinguish this from Tooth and Claw in terms of quality) It’s interesting to note how this is in some ways by chance – this story evolved quite a bit in drafts, and at one point featured a little girl in place of the CGI Beast and the Slitheen instead of the Ood. Eventually Davies and Jones realized that wasn’t going to work and Davies created the Ood, but it’s still worth noting how close this came to being the sort of script that a particular type of fan hates. (It’s also worth noting that Davies did a huge amount of the writing here. The amount that Davies rewrites a given script is not always known, but it’s usually fairly easy to guess. Both this and Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel just feel like Davies scripts in a way that School Reunion and The Idiot’s Lantern don’t. But even in the scripts he doesn’t functionally write Davies often has a profound influence – virtually every story goes through twenty drafts or so with Davies giving sweeping notes on the scale of “drop the army base and set it at a school,” and then Davies does a full and uncredited rewrite on a subset of those. The extent of this wasn’t entirely clear during Series Two, leading people to act as though this and Love and Monsters were by completely different writers when, in practice, they weren’t.)
But more to the point, those that adore this episode seem, troublingly enough, to do so in a straightforward way that the episode does not entirely support. They are more comfortable with the Beast’s haunting of the show than the show is, admiring this episode for its old-fashionedness while missing that the very tradition they praise is treated with considerable suspicion by the episode itself. As we’ll see when we look at Love and Monsters, this is terribly ironic. But first, a kind of fundamental question: who the hell are these people?