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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. Sheโ€™s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Bennett
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:23 am

    I'd hate to be that guy, but in paragraph two you refer to the episode as "The Impossible Astronaut" and in paragraph ten you state that Doctor Who reached its height of popularity in 2003 (I actually hope this last one isn't a mistake, and that you have a mindblowing rationale for it).

    Excellent essay though.


  2. J Mairs
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:47 am

    "Upon reaching the heights of popularity in 200[5] 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."

    Oh how times have changed…

    (But this time, it really is DOOOOOOOMED, honest!)

    "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."

    And the same cadre of fans are the same ones who will point out that these pesky emotions are unjustifed, and that the Doctor and Rose could just insert boring series of events here to get the TARDIS back (something that's since been repeated with the Pond's departure)

    A case of spectacularly missing the point (doubly so for the Ponds)


  3. Daniel Tessier
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:56 am

    I'm a big fan of both 'Love&Monsters' and 'The Impossible Satan Pit,' but they're both the kinds of stories that work sparingly. I wouldn't want to Doctor Who to be like either of them all the time. That's the joy of it of course; it's a series that can encompass such different takes on its central setup.


  4. Roderick Thompson
    July 5, 2013 @ 1:00 am

    "Notably, even its emotional content is toned down"

    It seems to me that its emotional expression is toned down, but the depth of Rose's attachment to the Doctor and the Doctor's ambivalent love for Rose are made more vivid by the understatement.


  5. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 1:33 am

    For all its fine qualities, this is one episode that always bounces me right out of it because of one simple fact that the episode just won't let me forget.

    The planet isn't impossible.

    Not in the slightest.

    Christ knows, I don't expect Doctor Who to be scientifically rigorous, but this is way beyond even something like The Three Doctors, which uses vaguely-described scientific concepts in a way that achieves some kind of mythic coherence. No, this is just stupid.

    There is absolutely nothing impossible about a planet orbiting a black hole. Lots of things orbit black holes.

    And we have this big scene where the Doctor and Ida bang on and on about how impossible this planet is. I've rewatched it specifically to see if there's any wiggle room, if maybe the planet might be suspended above the black hole (which really would be impossible) instead of orbiting round it, but no, they go on and on about how the planet is in orbit and this is impossible. (In a geosychronous orbit, no less. The significance of this with respect to a black hole escapes me, though I suppose it would be straightforward enough to define in terms of the angular momentum vector and the Schwarzchild radius. Clearly it's just stuck in there to sound sciencey.)

    This may not bother many other people, but to me it's utterly jarring. It's like having a scene in Torchwood where they go on at great length about how it's impossible to drive from Wales to England. The audience is just going to go "WTF? This is stupid" and turn off, or at least disengage from the story. Except for anyone watching who doesn't know anything about British geography, who would presumably accept this quite happily and get on with enjoying the story.

    The basics of orbital mechanics are less widely known than the basics of British geography, but they're not completely esoteric. You can get away with this sort of thing if you keep it vague and hand-wavey and don't go on about it too much. Chucking in real scientific terminology and going on and on about it, triple-underlining it so it can't be ignored, is just asking for trouble.

    If you're going to exploit a contrast between a hard-SF-style setup and a mythological intrusion into that world, you do need to make some effort to make the hard-SF bit at least somewhat convincing. Cardiff University has a small but effective gravitational physics group, any member of which I'm sure would have been happy to give some pointers in return for a pint of beer and a packet of crisps. But then, people who don't know stuff often don't know that they don't know.


  6. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 1:35 am

    I agree. That scene where Rose is imagining their future together and the Doctor is all "yeah…" is a stand-out moment for me in the developing relationship between the two leads.


  7. elvwood
    July 5, 2013 @ 1:57 am

    I can see it's going to be interesting for you when Relative Dimension gets this far…

    (Enjoyed the guillotine one, btw, and thanks for detailing its Yorkshire predecessor.)


  8. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 2:00 am

    Cheers. My wife read the guillotine one before bed. It gave her bad dreams. Mwa ha ha, etc.


  9. Ross
    July 5, 2013 @ 3:07 am

    I think the Ponds are at least a little different, though, since the "boring sequence of events" here is "Go to New Jersey and catch the train," which I'll admit is a bit of a horrific concept, but when the emotional climax of your story rests on pretending that New York 1938 is some kind of impenetrable fortress inaccessible from the outside, I think they could have spared a line of exposition to shore it up a bit, especially when the next scene is someone else planning to hop back there and visit them. "The TARDIS can never go to New York 1938 again! I won't ever be able to visit you! I mean, unless I catch a ride with my wife. Or go to New Jersey and take the ferry. Or you two take a commuter plane back to London and I meet you there. Or I go back to the 1920s and wait (Which admittedly I am terrible at). Or I just go see you in any of the seven decades when New York isn't temporally off-limits."

    (The 'problem' with the scene is that it frames the reason the Doctor can't go collect them as being about the TARDIS, when it's really about the whole presdestination-paradox stuff that the rest of the episode has been about. That's why he can't go get them, and that's a perfectly good reason, but introducing the angle of "Time's all choppy because of what we did so I can't pilot the TARDIS back into that time and place" pretty much forces us to interpret the reason in a different way, and locks us into the bizarre idea that times and places are little isolated islands, where you can't get from "New York 1938" to "New Jersey 1939" by, y'know, walking and waiting.)


  10. Ross
    July 5, 2013 @ 3:14 am

    It's because "Everyone knows" that Black Holes are magical sucking machines*, science be damned.

    If you asked 100 people on the street, they'd tell you exactly the same thing. It's one of those things that is just true by fiat. Black Holes are magic and nothing could orbit one without getting sucked in. Columbus was on the Mayflower. Frankenstein is the name of the monster**. Spider-Man's main power is that he can shoot web, Wolverine's main power is that he's got metal claws, Robin has only ever been Dick Greyson, Aquaman sucks, and Heart is a useless superpower.

    (* I knew this person back in high school…)

    (** Though recently, reinforced by Linkara, I've come to believe that the monster has an entirely valid claim to his "father"'s family name. The creator is Victor Frankenstein, the monster is Adam Frankenstein.)


  11. Pen Name Pending
    July 5, 2013 @ 3:14 am

    I had the same feeling – this was actually the episode that made me love Rose. Until Martha came along.


  12. Roderick Thompson
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:02 am

    "The planet isn't impossible."

    I had exactly the same reaction when I saw this episode and I complained about it vociferously to friends. Then I came across a book by Dennis Sciama which included a section on orbits around black holes and which mentioned a critical radius (outside the event horizon) within which orbits become unstable. I don't have the book to hand, but my recollection is that the critical radius is twice the Schwarzschild radius, and within the critical radius a particle must either go to infinity or cross the event horizon. I don't know if this is what the author had in mind, but could it perhaps provide an (unspoken) explanation for why the planet's orbit is supposed to be impossible?


  13. Spacewarp
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:03 am

    Some of those 100 people were probably shouting at the television during the Season 4 finale of Battlestar Galactica, when the Cylon Colony was found to be in stable orbit around a black hole:

    "That's impossible! You can't orbit a black hole! Doctor Who said so!"


  14. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:06 am

    Naah, it's very clear visually that the orbital distance is very much greater than the Schwarzchild radius.

    Ross is quite right, it's an authorial assumption that black holes are, as he so delicately puts it, magical sucking machines.


  15. EclecticDave
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:10 am

    Personally I chose to imagine that this was something like another example of the parallel time streams concept which Moffat seems so fond of – the New Jersey 1939 that the Ponds can reach isn't the same New Jersey 1939 that the TARDIS can reach.

    (The River we meet in this episode hasn't written the novel yet, so she is (I think!) already destined to be in New York 1938 a second time in the future, so let's assume this somehow explains things with her )

    I'm pretty sure this explanation completely fails to stand up to any real scrutiny, which is a fact I've largely chosen not to lose sleep over ๐Ÿ˜‰


  16. Spacewarp
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:15 am

    @Roderick Thompson. Yes it appears a stable orbit is achievable but only for an incredibly narrow range of velocities.

    Davies/Jones probably were aware of the concept of an orbit being "almost impossible" but didn't look into it any further. The link above does explain that they (and the Doctor, and Ida) are actually correct, but that doesn't stop the story from still feeling like they're wrong.

    It's fundamentally a problem with the writing, not the science. Joe Ordinary accepts that you can't orbit a black hole. Kevin Science Nerd gets annoyed with the episode because he knows that you can. But Carl Astrophysicist knows that actually you can't…in 99.9999% of cases.

    Unfortunately Carl Astrophysicist only makes up 0.0001 of the audience.


  17. Seeing_I
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:25 am

    I'm with you, Daniel! The three weeks encompassing these episodes were like catnip for me. One week we have space bases and Lovecraftian horror, then roll on the ELO and Scooby Doo antics. Neither one in isolation is the be-all and end-all of Doctor Who, but taken in juxtaposition, mmmmmmm that's tasty.


  18. Ross
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    As I implied before, my take is that it's not actually that he can't physically get there so much as that once he knows how someone's story ends, he's obliged not to screw it up (as this would cause the sorts of 'and then the universe explodes' kind of effects we see in Father's Day, The Wedding of River Song, and The Angels Take Manhattan). He could in principle pop round for a visit in the 1960s, but if he does so, he's taking an enormous risk that he might, say, accidentally get them involved in some intrigue that gets one of them killed. This is consistent with a bunch of other things in the show, like the Doctor's reaction to learning that the Brigadier had died (One of the complaints I saw in regards to that is "but can't the Doctor just hop back another week and visit him then?"): It's not simply that his friend has died, but that the Doctor has "touched" his friend's death, and that makes it "more real" (in both a psychological and a metatemporal sense), and it does something to explain he doesn't take on River as a travelling companion even after their marriage*: he knows how her story ends, which makes it dangerous for him to initiate contact with her. And it also, y'know, is basically what the Doctor had said back when they realized the importance of the book: time can be rewritten, but only so long as you don't know the ending.

    (* It didn't occur to me until 'The Name of the Doctor', but in 'The Snowmen', the reason he's "retired" isn't that he's mourning Amy, but that he's mourning River: at the end of TATM, he asks her to stay with him, and she agrees to. Between TATM and The Snowmen, the Doctor and River get caught back up with each other — and when the Future-Doctor and River pop into the wrong TARDIS on their last date in 'Last Night', River doesn't mention the desktop theme being different: when they start traveling together before the mid-season break, that's when the Doctor and River "use up" the rest of their time (shades of 'A Christmas Carol', and now I'm wondering if that was intentional…).)


  19. Seeing_I
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:29 am

    I always assumed they meant it was orbiting within the radius. If the show itself doesn't say so, well…let's be generous and assume that's what they mean.

    Much more irksome to me is the fact that they say several times that the planet has no name, except for the ones like The Bitter Pill. That's just bizarre. Who was script-editing?


  20. EclecticDave
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:37 am

    A man after my own heart! I hate it when they get the science wrong.

    I already spend too much of my spare thinking time trying to come up with a theory of time travel in Doctor Who which explains all the inconsistencies in the show up to and including Unit Dating. As hinted in my comment above this mostly involves parallel time streams.

    Way back when I wrote an insanely long comment on my theory and tried to post it against Phil's review of the Hartnell "The Time Travellers" book – but Blogger ate it. Which, let's face it, is probably for the best ๐Ÿ˜‰


  21. Adam Riggio
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:41 am

    Anal retentive fan talk. There's a scene where the Doctor and Rose look at the black hole from the observation deck (I believe the start of the "mortgage" scene) where he says it's a special kind of black hole. "It just eats."

    That would fit with the Time Lords being involved with trapping the Beast. The star/black hole containing the entrance to Omega's universe would have been a special one too.


  22. J Mairs
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:44 am

    "I think they could have spared a line of exposition to shore it up a bit, especially when the next scene is someone else planning to hop back there and visit them. "The TARDIS can never go to New York 1938 again!"

    Actually, River is cut off from them as well. She has the same emotional reaction, and she doesn't talk about visting them – she knows she has to write something up and she knows Amy has to recieve it; so her horrific sequence of events is relying on the postman.

    I thought it was pretty obvious in that episode that the fault line was Amy & Rory themselves rather than 1938's New York.

    As Complex Space Time Events, neither the Doctor, the Tardis or River should step anywhere near them.

    But you do make a very good point about "Last Night" – I'd never thought about that either and it kind of makes perfect sense that after the Ponds are gone, the Doctor would… "wrap up the loose ends"; He had to have some event that made him realise it was time to meet River for the last time and I doubt there can anything better than this.


  23. J Mairs
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:47 am

    All in favour of rebranding the episode "The Implausible Planet"…


  24. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:50 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  25. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:51 am

    What that site doesn't explicitly state is that it's for particles orbiting a black hole at distances of the same order of magnitude as the Schwarzchild radius. (That's what it means by "near a black hole".) Carl Astrophysicist knows that objects can orbit a black hole, because space is full of binary systems where one component is a black hole. The Possible Planet is clearly at a distance very much greater than the Schwarzchild radius, given the apparent angular size of the black hole, and its slow apparent motion.

    (Meanwhile, Carla Mathematician knows that this is all a trivial consequence of Gauss's Divergence Theorem, and wonders what all the fuss is about.)


  26. Adam Riggio
    July 5, 2013 @ 5:07 am

    See, I like The Impossible Planet for totally different reasons than the traditional subset of fandom does. The mashups of a pile of sci-fi concepts are good fun, as is the way it plays with our conceptions of the Ood, and I found it brilliantly executed in its buildup of creepiness throughout episode one, and the tightest base under siege / supporting cast pickoff since pretty much ever.

    Yes, the clear philosophical angle of the story — conflicts of scientific reason and faith — is an angle I like to explore. Of course, because it's at the thematic forefront of the episode, there's no reason Phil would concentrate on it here, for the same reason Marsfelder's Star Trek blog, Vaka Rangi, is staying away from analyzing Kirk's promiscuity. It's bloody obvious and has been done to death. But I enjoy how, in The Satan Pit, the Doctor's form of secular faith (he believes in Rose, in continuity with his faith that drives away the vampires in The Curse of Fenric, faith in his companions and friends), ultimately defeats a villain whose power rests in the more traditional faith in superstition/supernatural.

    And I loved that the relationship between the Doctor and Rose was such a driver of the story. Your more traditional anorak might be happy to get on with the action and dispense with this crying and talking for girls. But I found their relationship was played subtly throughout — the mortgage scene, the helmet kiss, her determination to go back for him throughout The Satan Pit. Their belief in each other drove their actions without having to be explicit all the time. By now, I know how much they care about each other, and this episode just got on with showing us instead of telling us.

    Here's what I really loved. The Impossible Planet is a challenge to the traditional sci-fi way of thinking about the universe as an inherently rational or at least coherent place, but doesn't set the ontological conflict in an either/or framework. The technology that traps the Beast is explained as traditional technological science (and associated techno-babble), though it's articulated in a cod-mystical way, and the Beast explicitly identifies himself as a supernatural/mystical being. But the Doctor and Rose don't choose either of these sides. Instead they make their own, based on their relationship and their actions: the convergence of a rock, a nailgun, and their belief in each other.


  27. jane
    July 5, 2013 @ 5:19 am

    "That scene where Rose is imagining their future together…"

    Rose's head held high, a beatific expression on her face; the Doctor's head hung low, with the embarrassed dread of an anorak.


  28. Spacewarp
    July 5, 2013 @ 5:40 am

    Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series of novels has a wonderfully timey-wimey conceit in it that would warm the cockles of any Who-fan's heart. Thursday's father, Colonel Next, is a member of the Chronoguard and continually drops in on her at different times in her life (and of course crucial plot points). But his age constantly varies as he meets her in a non-linear, very "River Song" kind of way.

    There are numerous occasions where he tries to continue a conversation that to him is in the past but to her hasn't happened yet, and at one stage he dies, only to reappear a few minutes later because of course this is a him from earlier in his time-stream (a fact that he acknowledges and is quite comfortable with).

    He continues to meet her throughout the novels, because (like River)he's just a long complicated event wound through space-time. I'm not sure if the concept of River Song helps you understand Colonel Next, or the other way round, but if anyone following this blog hasn't read the Next novels, I'd strongly advise you to give them a try. Start with "The Eyre Affair".


  29. Wm Keith
    July 5, 2013 @ 5:48 am

    Nothing's impossible in a future where they haven't invented the three point seat belt.


  30. Theonlyspiral
    July 5, 2013 @ 6:02 am

    Bang on there Ross. I love that reading of the Doctor's depression. That makes "Snowmen" a lot more interesting. Also I had a big long post stewing in my head about how Rory's very existence is a Paradox and that the TARDIS would definitely not be comfortable around him because of it but J.Mairs hit it right on the nose. So bravo to you both!


  31. Froborr
    July 5, 2013 @ 6:12 am

    Lots of things orbit black holes.

    For instance, everything in every spiral galaxy.

    Yeah, that drove me nuts, too. I normally don't care whether Who is scientifically accurate, but for some reason (probably because getting it right would have required ZERO effort and had ZERO effect on the episode) this particular error feels more egregious than most.


  32. Froborr
    July 5, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    I hated this two-parter. I have been busy and fallen behind, so I actually haven't rewatched this or or the previous episode yet, but I recall finding it just utterly brainless and obnoxious. The Ood are horrible here; "oh, they actually like being slaves" was historically used by real-life slave owners as a justification for the practice, which the Doctor should know. You just can't put a race like that into an episode of Doctor Who and have the episode be about anything else!

    As for the Beast, well, that's a concept I just despise. The Devil is a dumb concept that exists solely to try to pin the blame for people's dickery onto supernatural causes. I much prefer the original conception (as a concept, I don't believe in any supernatural entities because it's an oxymoron) of ha-Satan, the Prosecutor, a loyal servant of God whose function was to persuade people to express the evil in their hearts so it could then be properly assessed.

    It especially irks me in a Doctor Who episode because I regard one of the central themes of the show as being the banality of evil. Evil isn't a grand sweeping cosmic force wreathed in flame and wielding divine power; it's a ranting, crippled lunatic or a useless self-defeating wanker with a rubbish beard.


  33. Froborr
    July 5, 2013 @ 6:32 am

    Wish I had an edit button because I missed the obvious example of how well Doctor Who usually does at depicting evil as being pathetic and ridiculous without detracting from it being seriously evil: the most feared, monstrous, destructive beings in the universe are oversized salt shakers with egg whisk guns and toilet plunger arms.


  34. Ross
    July 5, 2013 @ 6:41 am

    Evil isn't a grand sweeping cosmic force wreathed in flame and wielding divine power; it's a ranting, crippled lunatic or a useless self-defeating wanker with a rubbish beard.

    And yet, you didn't like the story where they show us the actual literal devil, and it turns out to be Just A Big Brainless Red Dude?


  35. Froborr
    July 5, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    No, I don't, because it's still saying that Big Brainless Red Dude is the reason Davros created the Daleks, as opposed to it being because Davros is a dick.


  36. Ununnilium
    July 5, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    See, to me, this story always felt like it leaned heavily on the emotional content. The Doctor's big speech where the thing he believes in is Rose, the scene where the Doctor and Rose literally discuss becoming domestic…


  37. Ununnilium
    July 5, 2013 @ 7:29 am

    See, I just figured it was too close. I don't think "the apparent angular size of the black hole, and its slow apparent motion" needs to be anything but a visual effect. It'd be more satisfying if it was "right", but it's a minor detail, in my entirely biased opinion.


  38. Alan
    July 5, 2013 @ 7:51 am

    Yeah, I'd just assumed that the fact you could see the black hole by looking out the window meant that the planet was much too close to avoid being pulled in absent the MacGuffin Effect that was holding it in place. I did wince at the "geosyncronous" line though.


  39. Dr. Happypants
    July 5, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    This is the story in NuWho that annoys the living bejeezus out of me more than any other. It's not a bad episode across the board, clearly, and I don't want to turn into one of those types Phil's been talking about, who freaks out whenever an episode isn't perfect. I love plenty of crap things! But there's one thing about the story logic here that jumped right out at me on first viewing and that has killed the whole two-parter stone dead for me ever since, even though the premise should be right up my street…

    I was willing to forgive "black holes don't work like that": it annoyed me to see such basic errors of even schoolboy science, but fine, this is Doctor Who after all. I can forgive details like that. Here's what I can't forgive.

    Suppose you're a scientific expedition from an advanced far-future spacefaring society, where telepathy is a fact of everyday life that can be manipulated technologically. You encounter a strange entity that taunts you with secrets from your past. Do you assume this entity is…
    A) the mythological DEVIL from a specifically western, pre-21st-century conception, or

    Every single character needs to be gobbling down Stupid Pills by the handful to even remotely take seriously the possibility that the Beast could really be some kind of cosmic horror. He's just a low-grade jerk, but everyone keeps acting like he's King **** of **** Mountain. It doesn't even work for me as a reversal where the cosmic horror is revealed to just be some jerk in the end, because there is never a point in the story when anyone should take seriously the possibility that he is a cosmic horror. Everyone has to carry an Idiot Ball to make the storyline come off.


  40. Ross
    July 5, 2013 @ 7:58 am

    Doesn't that assume that the subjective experience of having satan dick around with you wouldn't be somehow inherently distinguishable from a telepath dicking around with you?

    I mean, you seem to be very angry when there's actually nothing in the story that suggests that these people don't know exactly what it feels like to have a telepath goof with you, and can plainly and simply perceive this to be different.


  41. Alan
    July 5, 2013 @ 7:59 am

    Agreed. I loved the episode at first until I sat and thought critically about it and realized that its biggest selling point was Gabriel Wolfe's voice (which I could listen to for weeks — seriously, I want a Gabriel Wolfe Tom-Tom). But, I thought the last ten minutes of the second half were cringingly bad, from Tennant overlong "I believe in her rant" (directed at a mindless Beast because there was no one around to monologue at) to utter nonsense of how Rose killed the Toby-Beast.


  42. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:02 am

    There's a moment on the commentary for The Satan Pit where Davies admits he got the science wrong, then calmly proclaims that this is a insert name black hole, which is a special sort of black hole, and that this declaration is canon.


  43. Dr. Happypants
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    There's no acknowledgement of it either, or any sign that they experienced anything apart from unease at their secrets being found out. I'm not saying it's impossible to think of an explanation. But it is a point that really jumped out at me that the story does not address in any way, and that strikes me as the #1 most obvious detail that ought to be addressed given what else the story establishes about its premises. You aren't a bad person for forgiving this. But this story, more than any other, just rubs me entirely the wrong way and leaves me totally uncharitable.


  44. Ununnilium
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:25 am

    Ahhhhhhh, very nice.


  45. BerserkRL
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    "[T]hat the critical taste does not depend upon a superior principle in men, but upon superior knowledge, may appear from several instances …. A fine piece of a decollated head of St. John the Baptist was shown to a Turkish emperor: he praised many things, but he observed one defect: he observed that the skin did not shrink from the wounded part of the neck. The sultan on this occasion, though his observation was very just, discovered no more natural taste than the painter who executed this piece, or than a thousand European connoisseurs, who probably never would have made the same observation. His Turkish majesty had indeed been well acquainted with that terrible spectacle, which the others could only have represented in their imagination. … In poetry, and other pieces of imagination, the same parity may be observed. It is true, that one man is charmed with Don Bellianis, and reads Virgil coldly; whilst another is transported with the Æneid, and leaves Don Bellianis to children. These two men seem to have a taste very different from each other; but in fact they differ very little. In both these pieces, which inspire such opposite sentiments, a tale exciting admiration is told; both are full of action, both are passionate; in both are voyages, battles, triumphs, and continual changes of fortune. The admirer of Don Bellianis perhaps does not understand the refined language of the Æneid, who, if it was degraded into the style of the "Pilgrim's Progress," might feel it in all its energy, on the same principle which made him an admirer of Don Bellianis. In his favorite author he is not shocked with the continual breaches of probability, the confusion of times, the offences against manners, the trampling upon geography; for he knows nothing of geography and chronology, and he has never examined the grounds of probability. He perhaps reads of a shipwreck on the coast of Bohemia: wholly taken up with so interesting an event, and only solicitous for the fate of his hero, he is not in the least troubled at this extravagant blunder. For why should he be shocked at a shipwreck on the coast of Bohemia, who does not know but that Bohemia may be an island in the Atlantic ocean? and after all, what reflection is this on the natural good taste of the person here supposed?"

    (The mystery here is why Burke confuses Don Bellianis with Shakespeare.)


  46. BerserkRL
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    The technology that traps the Beast is explained as traditional technological science

    Of course it's science! The secret science of the Daemons!


  47. James V
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:41 am

    Thanks for typing that all out so I wouldn't have to! Yeah, those are pretty much the reasons I love this story.

    A lot of my favorite moments in Doctor Who are ones where the Doctor is shown to be wrong, mistaken, terribly flawed, or otherwise just put on the back foot. This is one of the best stories to showcase that. The scenes between The Doctor and Ida in the Pit are just phenomenal. I think it helps that Tennant, like Pertwee, plays "the Doctor at a disadvantage" tremendously well.

    "Here's what I really loved. The Impossible Planet is a challenge to the traditional sci-fi way of thinking about the universe as an inherently rational or at least coherent place, but doesn't set the ontological conflict in an either/or framework."

    I think, like many of us here, I'm a guy who loves sci-fi aesthetics (spaceships, planets, robots, rayguns) but prefers the themes and narrative devices of fantasy. So yeah, I love it when Who gives a deliberate "up yours" to its stodgy "Hard SF" fans.


  48. James V
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:44 am


    It is currently blowing my mind that there's an audience overlap between here and "Atop the Fourth Wall." Other than myself, anyway…


  49. encyclops
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    The first time I watched this it annoyed the flaming hell out of me because it seemed to be suggesting, "oh yeah, this really is the literal Devil, ergo Christianity is real, ergo science FAILS, ergo blah blah blah." The second time I paid more attention. I'll probably have to watch it a third time to see if I can satisfy myself about what it IS suggesting, but that's pretty much all that stood in the way of my enjoying this (and for the record, I adore "Love and Monsters" and like "Tooth and Claw" a LOT less than either of these).

    Well, that and the Ood, about whom I agree with Froborr. I'm hoping Dr. Sandifer can help me come to terms with the fact that they seem to be slaves who like being slaves, turn into a homicidal menace at the drop of a hat, and then ultimately become mystical magic slaves who know more about the universe than the rest of us crackers. This seems at least as bad as anything you'd criticize in "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," so I have to assume there's something I'm missing that subverts this or means I'm reading it wrong.


  50. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 5, 2013 @ 8:52 am

    Planet of the Ood establishes that they don't actually want to be slaves and that it's only imperialist exploitation and atrocities that gave that sense in the first place? I really had no problem with it – the ethics of the Ood are carefully made unsettling in this story, and then Davies pays it off.


  51. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 5, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    Friendly "be civil to each other" notice inserted here.


  52. encyclops
    July 5, 2013 @ 9:03 am

    I'm kind of the opposite. I find sci-fi aesthetics a bit done. We so rarely get fresh takes on "what the future looks like" or sci-fi settings where ordinary life is taking place and we're not mired in some military imperialist / colonial / frontier concept of space exploration. One of my favorite things about the TARDIS is that it doesn't HAVE to look like an ordinary spaceship (even though it often does).

    On the other hand, I love it when we get to break out of or subvert the themes and narrative devices of fantasy, and particularly when the mystical is debunked or when the mythic is resolved at a practical level or through human decision.

    I'm not sure where it fits into all this, but I find myself thinking of Dune, which in my mind mixes aesthetics in a stimulating way and features a hero who really IS the foretold messiah and really does have the powers predicted, but is also the product of an extensive breeding program and the beneficiary of a myth that's been created and utilized by a calculating human elite. Maybe this is what you mean by not living in an either/or framework?


  53. Ross
    July 5, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    I should really go back and watch this one again. At the time, I didn't dislike it or anything, but it left me cold, largely because I spent the whole time being troubled by how easily everyone accepts the Ood.


  54. Spacewarp
    July 5, 2013 @ 9:27 am

    One could argue that in a series that has all of time and space to play with, the Doctor is oing to arrive in places where the prevailing moral attitudes are different. Not necessarily wrong, just not the same as ours. After all, for most of human existence slavery has probably been considered acceptable. The last couple of hundred years could just be a blip. We already know that supposedly by the 51st century everyone's going to be omnisexual (although strangely whenever the Doctor visits this time period nobody other than Captain Jack ever hits on him. Even River seems relatively heterosexual).

    Plus the thing that this story keeps ramming home is that the Ood want to be your slaves. So does that actually make them slaves? Emotive word that. If the story had said "the Ood want to be servants" would there have been an objection to it? The base crew obviously have the same attitudes towards the Ood as the rest of their society, which seems to be along the lines of "you want to serve us, ok we'll let you." That's what the Ood effectively do. They serve. Because they want to. They don't harbour secret resentments, continually try to escape, and get punished for it, which is suspect is why the Doctor doesn't seem too bothered by it.

    I also suspect the word "slave" was only used to give Rose a narrative excuse for some righteous indignation.

    As far as the facts of the Ood's predicament established in "Planet of the Ood", I'm sure that's retcon, as that story didn't exist when this one was written and there's no indication here that the Ood are anything other than willing.


  55. Assad K
    July 5, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    I was just amused that the 51st century Spacesuit had the same colour options as the ones from Space:1999. Or is there an even longer history to that colour combo?


  56. Assad K
    July 5, 2013 @ 9:50 am

    It seemed a bit odd, though, not unlike the Doc's casual abandonment of Rose & Mickey for the charms of Mdm dePompadour.. doesn't everyone keep beating us about the head that he is deeply dippily in love with her?


  57. Seeing_I
    July 5, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    I disagree – the Doctor categorically refuses to believe in the Devil, and Ida speaks for RTD I think when she defines evil as "the things men do."

    The Beast identifies itself as the literal Devil, and certainly was a powerful enough force of malignancy that the ancients went to a lot of trouble to imprison it, but I think the story itself does not buy its claims for a minute. Its claims to Devilhood are, to my mind, a combination of Von Danniken-style atavistic memory (a la the Daemons, the Silurians, the Malus, and the Quatermass Martians) and a shed-load of psychic powers.

    Don't worry, I think canon still accepts that Davros is a dick. ๐Ÿ™‚


  58. encyclops
    July 5, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    I really had no problem with it – the ethics of the Ood are carefully made unsettling in this story, and then Davies pays it off.

    I'd agree it's not something we're expected to accept blithely. "Planet of the Ood" is next in my rewatch, so I'll pay attention to what it decides to say. Even if it is a retcon, there's nothing wrong with deciding to go back and rethink something problematic.

    If the story had said "the Ood want to be servants" would there have been an objection to it?

    There would have from me. I don't think that makes it better. And it's one thing (not necessarily a good thing) for the story to be "slavery's acceptable again," and another to say "this species is predisposed as a species to love it."


  59. Froborr
    July 5, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    I also both read Phil and watch Linkara.


  60. Froborr
    July 5, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    Plus the thing that this story keeps ramming home is that the Ood want to be your slaves. So does that actually make them slaves?

    The Doctor's already answered that one for us:

    "Is a slave still a slave if he doesn't know he's a slave?"

    One could argue that in a series that has all of time and space to play with, the Doctor is oing to arrive in places where the prevailing moral attitudes are different.

    You don't need to travel in time and space to encounter this one. You cannot step outside your house without encountering people who have different values than yours–and if you don't live alone, you don't even need to go outside. No two people have precisely the same values.

    The Doctor encounters people who have different moral values than him ALL THE TIME. As a general rule, we call these "villains," and cheer as the Doctor takes them down. Because that is what you do when you encounter values so different from your own that conflict becomes inevitable: you find a way to have that conflict in a way consistent with your values.


  61. David Anderson
    July 5, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    I really didn't like Planet of the Ood. It takes what in this story is a thought-experiment, designed to be ethically unsettling (even if there were a race who were apparently willing to be enslaved would it be ethical to enslave them), and uses it as a pretext for an orgy of moral self-righteousness. (As Phil pointed out about The Song of Megaptera, it's a deft decision to start with your ethical opinion of whaling upfront, and then explore the moral complexities; rather than concluding that whaling is wrong. Planet of the Ood not only leaves its conclusion to the end, but its conclusion 'slavery is wrong! Especially when it involves lobotomy!' is not exactly controversial in the 21st century UK.)
    This story is deliberately playing around with the idea of a race that are willingly enslaved, and the moral ethics that raises. In the same way that the Beast plays on the individual guilts and anxieties of the crew, it also plays on the repressed collective guilt which is their largely unquestioning use of the Ood. (It's notable that the ethical adviser doesn't seem to be especially concerned about ethics.)
    It's a base under siege, but the disparity between the sf setting and the use of supernatural horror fiction imagery raise it above that. The use of horror fiction tropes undermines some of the problematic elements of the base under siege (as Phil discussed back in White Darkness). And the base is obviously physically fragile.
    The 'Rose is not a victim' speech, while a little clunking, suits Tennant's talents. (I usually think Tennant and Davies magnify each other's weaknesses, but not in this case.) That said, it would have saved us a couple of unnecessary runarounds if the Doctor had remembered it in Doomsday.


  62. Triturus
    July 5, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    I agree. I really enjoyed the fact that the programme went from the 'traditional' sci-fi of Impossible Pit(which I really enjoyed) to Love & Monsters (which I really enjoyed) in the space of a week.

    I don't see any reason that liking one should imply a dislike of the other. And yes, this is a very comfy fence.


  63. Matthew Blanchette
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    My apologies. ๐Ÿ™


  64. Theonlyspiral
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    I think that's a reductionist look at Planet of the Ood. I think it has a message about unbound corporate ethics if one takes any time at all to look. Slavery is wrong is the most basic take away. The real message is "To be willingly blind to the realities of what our businesses are doing will only lead them to ethical lapses".

    It's about what happens when we blindly let corporations do what they will so we have have the shiniest toys.


  65. Nyq Only
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

    I made a similar observation when The Name of the Doctor was broadcast. I think it is interesting this was left as a puzzle for fans to work out rather than stated in the episode – presumably to prevent the Christmas being bookended by death and despair.

    I rewatched the Snowmen the other day and it is much better knowing this background to the Doctor's self imposed isolation.


  66. Nyq Only
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    Suppose you're a party goer from a modern affluent consumer society, where psychoactive drugs are a fact of everyday life that can be manipulated technologically. You encounter a strange entity that taunts you with secrets from your past. Do you assume…
    A) the mythological DEVIL from a specifically western, pre-21st-century conception, or
    B) somebody spiked your drink


  67. Triturus
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    Maybe the Ood / human dynamic in this story is an oblique commentary on 24-7 BSDM relationships. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of voluntary slave contracts. But there are people who want to sign them.


  68. BerserkRL
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

    No two people have precisely the same values.

    Actually there are two. One is a hilsha fisher in Bangladesh and the other teaches theoretical physics at Harvard and writes opera in her spare time, but nevertheless they have, bizarrely, the exact same values in every detail, a recent scientific study has shown. But they are the only established case.


  69. Nyq Only
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    I think the Ood created a narrative tension. Both naive viewers and sophisticated viewers would know that is is unlikely that the notion of a intelligent species being 'natural' slaves is one that is inimical not only to the Doctor but also to the shows ethos and that of its writers. This underlined by the Beast's use of the Ood as his slaves which sets up a parallel between Satan as the slave master and the Humans as slave masters. At the end of the twoparter that tension is not resolved – and that is good. It is like music – we know the resolution that must come (the Ood aren't naturally slaves, they want to be free and the Doctor will free them) but we are denied it.
    The planet of the Ood resolves the tensions. Naturally that isn't as meaty an episode as one in which the tension is establish.

    Lastly it is the Ood that become Tenant's signature 'monster' – which I think is wonderful.


  70. Nyq Only
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:30 pm


  71. Triturus
    July 5, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    Presumably the devil, being the devil and all, would know what level of psychoactive experience the person he was messing with was used to, and would make sure that there was a noticeable difference.

    I mean, if God existed, and wanted to make me believe that he existed, he would know to manifest himself to me in a way that was not like taking LSD in the 90s. I'm sure the devil has similar tricks up his horned sleeve.


  72. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

    I want a Sylvester McCoy Tom-Tom. Seriously. I would pay proper cash money for that.

    The only thing that would be better would be a Sylvester McCoy Siri. That would finally convince me to embrace the Cult of Apple.


  73. Iain Coleman
    July 5, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

    @ Nyq Only

    Ha! Nice one.


  74. Triturus
    July 5, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

    Just on the subject of how impossible the impossible planet is, I do sympathise with the "bah they got the science wrong" viewpoint. But on the other hand, its generally accepted that the sonic screwdriver is an impossible but useful plot device. So I don't see that there's that much difference. Dr Who plots have rarely hinged on the exact application of the laws of physics, after all.


  75. Adam Riggio
    July 5, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    Ross, I've been mulling your comment through my thoughts all day, and it's completely transformed how I understand Series 7. This is something Moffatt loves doing, I think: implying long periods of the Doctor's activity that we don't actually see on screen. It's almost as if he's making gaps of mysterious time in the Doctor's narrative, both to make him more mysterious as his life is filled with adventures we don't get to see, and to give the secondary material of novels, comics, and audios huge landscapes to play in. When Matt Smith is 45 and the BBC doesn't care about holding exclusive control on the early period of the revived series, he can easily come back and record a pile of audios taking place in the long gap periods Moffatt has put in the life of the Eleventh Doctor. In comparison, the Tenth Doctor just doesn't have any room for the grandchildren of Nicholas Briggs to write new stories about.

    (Not quite related coincidence: since reading this this whole blog post, I've been listening to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden all day, and it's been one of the more productive writing days for my philosophical work that I've had in a long time. So thanks, Phil, I think.)


  76. Nicholas Tosoni
    July 5, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    RE: Assad K

    There's such a thing as being in love with the IDEA of love. We saw that with him and Madame de Pompadour…then, in "The Impossible Peanut," we see him actually coming to grips with what "the slow path" really means.

    I WANT to say that he knows about the Madame's fate, and is allowing her and himself to live a fantasy or dream, if only for a little while.


  77. Ununnilium
    July 5, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    Ehhhhh… the thing about the science here is that they're intentionally invoking it. If you intentionally invoke science, you should get it right.


  78. Triturus
    July 5, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

    But there's never really been a tradition of getting the science "right" in Doctor Who. All those Zigma beams, reversed neutron polarities, charged vacuum emboitments and block transfer computations had to do was sound vaguely plausible.

    By the way, this is quite a fun read, but the main take-home message from it is "very little of Dr Who can ever happen" ๐Ÿ™‚


  79. encyclops
    July 6, 2013 @ 8:10 am

    "In about 100 meters, turn rrrrrrrrrrright!"


  80. Alan
    July 6, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    Not to mention the fact that NuWho is rather overtly "magical" in a way the old series wasn't. This season we get The Beast. In the next, we get the Carrionite witches, who work what is quite obviously witchcraft with the barest patina of "well, there's a scientific explanation but I'm not going to bother sharing it with you" from the Doctor to cover it. By the time we get to Matt Smith, the Doctor might as well just call himself a wizard and be done with it.


  81. Ununnilium
    July 6, 2013 @ 9:00 am

    Yeah, but those things aren't real science in the first place, ergo the same expectations aren't in place.


  82. Alan
    July 6, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    There is a Brian Blessed Tom-Tom available, I believe. IIRC, he got the job as a result of a massive fan-sponsored Facebook campaign. So perhaps there's hope for McCoy yet.


  83. Alan
    July 6, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    I do think that the Ood are vastly more interesting here with the implication that they are a race of willing slaves and that Planet of the Ood pretty much ruins them by making them "magical space-Negroes" cruelly subjugated by evil white men until a nice white man comes to free them. Given the pace of technological development, the idea of one race created and designed by another to serve as slaves (which is what I thought the Ood were at first) is salient. It's the same idea behind the Alpha Primitives created to serve the Inhumans in Marval Comics and who will just sit around in a funk if prevented from doing the tasks they were born to do. Or, to pick a more recent example, the house elves from the Harry Potter series, who (Dobby excepted) would wither and die if freed by their masters.

    One final thought: would anyone have given two shits about the Ood if they'd been robots who clearly were sentient enough to pass the Turing test but who still had a programming imperative to serve others?


  84. Lewis Christian
    July 6, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

    "There's a moment on the commentary for The Satan Pit where Davies admits he got the science wrong, then calmly proclaims that this is a insert name black hole, which is a special sort of black hole, and that this declaration is canon."

    I do love both Davies and Moffat for this. Unlike fans who get miffed, they just make stuff up. They theorise just like we do to fill their own plot holes.

    Also, Moffat's Impossible Astronaut wasn't impossible either. I think it's a word Who uses to be "improbable". "Impossible" certainly pops up a LOT more in the near future.


  85. Lewis Christian
    July 6, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    Best Tennant story ever.

    Okay, I'll just leave that there.


  86. Lewis Christian
    July 6, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    Adam, whilst I agree that appears to be what Moffat's doing (and allowing his Doctor to span a huge length of time to perhaps add depth and age him etc.), I also find it somewhat of a cheat sometimes.

    If we keep learning of big gaps between TV adventures, why should I/we care? In some ways, it could be a cheat/an excuse to change his motivations or character a bit to fit in with the next plot. If a story requires him to be a lot moodier than usual, well, "after the events of the previous one, he had 50 years worth of off-screen adventures which made him moody."

    That's a very basic/general example, but I hope my point comes across. For me, I don't mind gaps but I prefer them to be short gaps or not-too-long gaps. But that said, we are talking about a time traveller who can do five million things in five minutes.


  87. Kit
    July 6, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

    John Leeson Tom-Tom!


  88. William Silvia
    July 6, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    I'd never heard of people actually enthusiastically liking this story before this article. I love it in a cheesy Sci-Fi Fantasy sort of way with the Doctor versus the Devil, and I have a love/hate relationship with the Doctor's speech (which I once saw on a "10 worst Doctor Who speeches" list and had no comeback) with simultaneously highlights the strengths and ridiculousness of Ten and Rose's relationship. But to openly, unironically and intelligently like the episode (besides the one point that even the Doctor would turn out to be ashamed of) is an eye opener, and makes me a bit less ashamed of my initial reaction.


  89. William Silvia
    July 6, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

    River kind of solves this gaffe: "He doesn't like endings". Granted, that was an atrociously written episode, but it features some of the best River Song in the entire show. The Eleventh Doctor refuses to acknowledge that someone will age, or die, or go away, and he would rather mope in depression forever rather than acknowledge that he's seeing somebody while being aware of the year and place that they are going to do. Whether 12 or 13 will decide that's poppycock is up for another time.


  90. William Silvia
    July 6, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    Love and Monsters wasn't an episode of Doctor Who; DW only cameoed in the first five minutes or so.


  91. William Silvia
    July 6, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

    I love how there seems to be shock about a comic riffer who loves Doctor Who and a Doctor Who analyzer who also is a comic fan share an audience.


  92. William Silvia
    July 6, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

    At least the Doctor was ashamed of not paying attention to the Ood when he returned to them. In his defense, thousands of years of police box travel does kind of get you used to terrible institutions that will end in historically significant ways. That, and he's usually running.


  93. William Silvia
    July 6, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    A Sylvester McCoy Tom-Tom would have strange instructions, like "enter the location of your worst childhood trauma" and then make you drive through it every time you went on vacation.


  94. Assad K
    July 7, 2013 @ 6:50 am

    I now want to see 'The Impossible Peanut'. ๐Ÿ˜€


  95. Theonlyspiral
    July 7, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    Don't the Ood rise up and take their Freedom?


  96. Alan
    July 7, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    NuWho does seem to like defining "impossible" as "something slightly odd."


  97. Alan
    July 7, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

    IIRC, the rebellion would have ended with the destruction of the central brain absent the Doctor's timely intervention. Regardless of whether the Doctor gets the credit for freeing them, however, my larger point stands: they were more interesting as a way of exploring the ethics of creating an artificial slave race than they are as an example of a slave race that successfully revolted. YMMV.


  98. othemts
    July 7, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    I don't recall the characters thinking there was so much of a "cosmic horror" as much as having to deal with running away from killer Ood while the planet is crumbling beneath them. There were so many real threats I don't think that they even had time to think of a cosmic horror.

    As for the Doctor, the only one who went down into the pit, he was driven by the same old mad curiosity.


  99. Seeing_I
    July 8, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    Well you can count me as an unabashedly enthusiastic fan of this one. Of the the series' highlights as far as I'm concerned. Great production design, the Ood are wonderful, the music is good, some wonderfully creepy scenes, great guest cast, and that lovely scene with the Doctor and Idea discussing evil. I might have to rewatch it now lol


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