Saturday, July 21, 2007

You Know Who...

An ancient evil awakens...

The new Doctor Who's second season serves up an epic two-parter with the outstanding and riveting entries "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit." I suppose the Cyberman two-parter qualifies as epic too, yet these entries are superior to that fine accomplishment. Meaning, of course, that this BBC series just keeps getting better and better (save for the occasional hiccup like the dreadful "The Idiot's Lantern.")

In "The Impossible Planet" the Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper) end up in a small research base on a most unusual world. The dead planet hangs in orbit around a voracious, all-consuming black hole. Before the Doctor and Rose's eyes, whole solar systems are crushed and destroyed. Amazingly, however, the planet sustains that orbit and isn't drawn in itself: clearly an impossibility beyond the laws of physics as we understand them. And what holds the planet in place against the unending appetite of the black hole? Well, the human scientists stationed there - a colorful bunch of "We are the World" interracial/mixed-sex folk - have pinpointed an alien power source ten miles beneath the surface of the dead world and are drilling to the cavern below, even as our protagonists arrive.

That's an inventive enough set-up; and to this the episode adds a race of unique (and scary-looking...) alien servants for the humans called The Ood. The Ood are a hive mind race. On one hand they seem like simpletons; on the other hand, there's some reason to believe that they are being influenced by something Evil...especially when one of the Ood manservants starts spouting Biblical terminology to Rose and warns about "The Beast in the Pit."

What then follows this set-up is an extremely suspenseful, thought-provoking and ingenious meditation on the nature of Evil. Essentially, this is not new territory for science fiction; or even for Doctor Who. Over the years, we have seen Gods/Devils imprisoned behind great barriers at the center of the galaxy in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ("what does God need with a starship?") , and the Doctor confronting aliens that are the source of man's myth in serials as diverse as the Pertwee era "The Daemons" (which gets a reference here - nice!) and the Baker-era "Pyramids of Mars." What makes this two-parter special, however, is its discussion of faith, Evil, and the Devil, and, particularly some wonderful story flourishes that expose a side of the Doctor-Rose relationship that has thus far remained beneath the surface, unexcavated.

On the former front, there's a terrific sequence wherein the Doctor must face the abyss (and the abyss faces him...). Our favorite Time Lord lowers himself into a bottomless pit - one that he feels powerfully drawn to - and as he goes down into perpetual blackness, he discusses with a human scientist, Ida, her concept of faith. And then - delightfully - his idea of faith. I may be misremembering (26 years of serials is a lot of territory to cover...), but I don't know that I've ever heard the Time Lord explain his notion of "faith" before, and it's nothing short of delightful that the series writers seize that opportunity here. (This fits in, I think, with the trend of making the Doctor more emotional, more humanized.) How does the Doctor feel about belief in a higher power? About the Devil? This episode gives some nice hints and not in a heavy-handed sort of way. Instead the conversation is intimate..and fascinating.

The best part of this sequence, however, involves the Doctor's eventual understanding that he - in rejecting certain beliefs - is as rigid as and as wrong-headed, perhaps, as those who believe in God and the Devil with all their hearts and without question. Because an idea (in this case, a pre-universe existence...) does not fit in with his beliefs; his "rules," he has rejected them outright. This is simply great philosophical stuff, and without taking any potshots, I again must state that Doctor Who is the only science fiction series on television these days countenancing such issues. That it does so intelligently and often humorously is to the series' credit.

But there are other wonderful character and story moments in this episode as well. There's a great joke about ventilation shafts (a sci-fi TV convention I wrote about at length in my Analytical Guide to Battlestar Galactica), and a chase scene in a vent maze perhaps inspired by Aliens (1986), but - honestly - no less effective in execution. But much more significant than that - and I know I will face some argument here - I believe that this is the episode (or rather, two parter...) that best dramatizes (without overt explanation) why the Doctor (he of many traveling companions) feels so strongly about Rose Tyler. To wit: there's a terrific moment when the Doctor is down in the cavern by the Satan Pit Trap Door - 10 miles away - and up above, Rose and the crew are being attacked by the Ood, who are now, essentially the legion of Satan. Everyone is panicking, getting hysterical (including Rose), and the Doctor very calmly, very rationally - and very cogently - says a few simple words about humanity and his perception of humanity that buoy Rose. She takes those words, the words of her friend, and runs with them. She takes charge of the situation above while the Doctor deals with the danger below and there is much unspoken going on here. Something about deep friendship; about not letting your friend down (on either side); and much more. I can't precisely put a finger on it, but the moment felt right and true and even revelatory. It's as though the Doctor said those words knowing that Rose would find the better angels of her nature and rise to the challenge. Why could he say those words to her? Why did he know they would work? Would they have worked with Mel? With Peri? With Adric? With...etc. etc.

This moment is followed up later - in a climactic moment - by an instant that, again, felt fresh and revelatory for Doctor Who. Rose and the Doctor are still separated, but each one fighting the Prince of Lies independently. They can't communicate with each other. But Rose and the Doctor - though separated - each trust each other to "get it," to figure out the "trap" on their own, and survive. Again, I must add, they are unable to aid each other. The Doctor can't rush in to the rescue. All he can do is trust in (have faith in, as he states, ) what he knows of Rose's "character:" that she will figure out all the angles. This relationship touch is beautifully handled and for those who rightly ask why Rose is such a special companion that the Doctor might fall in love with her, I believe we find much evidence of the answer in this two-parter. It's a spark of insight; a spark of kinship, but even that doesn't get to the heart of it.

The Doctor is an enigma. We don't know by what (presumably alien) criteria he selects his myriad traveling companions. Could be a combination of luck, opportunity, gut feeling, instinct. Who knows (literally). He certainly doesn't interview for the position of Companion, or Tegan and Turlough and a few others wouldn't have made the cut, methinks. Given series history, I never expect for the series to come right out and say "The Doctor thinks Rose is special because...," but "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" - more than any serial I've watched thus far - demonstrates why he feels strongly for her; and why she is, indeed, extraordinary. Listen, I love Leela and Sarah Jane Smith as much as the next fan boy and can argue their merits and talents till Kathryn drags me away from keyboard kicking and screaming, but "The Impossible Planet" and "Satan's Pit" gets something very right in the writing and acting and execution. Without explanation, it SHOWS us why Rose and the Doctor are kindred spirits. Again, it's something you have to work your way around; something between the actors and between the lines. It's about magic personal chemistry, perhaps, but more concretely it's about the kind of trust you can only truly share with a soul mate. I said to Kathryn after I watched it, if we were faced with that very situation (and this sort of thing happens all the time to us, I assure you...), I would have "faith" in her abilities too; that she would figure it all out. And she would. She said the same for me, but honestly, in that scenario, I'd worry more about me figuring it out than her!

Anyway that's what love is. And yeah, I've had other girlfriends (and Kathryn other boyfriends that she dated before), and who we got on with rather well. But how many of those also-rans did we trust like totally and completely understand a situation and - without guidance or discussion or debate - arrive at the one solution necessary to "resolve" a crisis, whether a a simple family issue, a job problem, or an incursion into our galaxy by a giant horned, fire-breathing Lucifer? Outwardly, perhaps, Rose does not seem extraordinary. Not by herself, arguably, but in conjunction with the Doctor. How many of us feel that way? That in combination with the one person we love, we form something "better" and "stronger" than what we can be individually? Also, it's wonderful that the Rose/Doctor relationship fits into the resolution of the crisis here, because it stands in strong counterpoint to the Ood. The Doctor and Rose form a unit, a hive mind, of a sort, that operates well, even over vast distances. The Ood, by contrast, cannot beat the Devil because they lack the individuality that goes into the Doctor/Rose cathexis. They lack imagination, humanity, drive and more perhaps. So they are susceptible to the call of Evil where the Doctor and Rose are not.

You can tick off all the elements that make this two-parter a wonderful Doctor Who installment. There's the thrilling, breakneck pace (this show barrels like a freight train, even at two parts), an inventive and fascinating location (a planet in orbit of a deadly black hole), a great villain (hard to beat Satan on that front.), a fascinating science fiction premise (the susceptibility of a hive mind to demonic Possession), a theme that involves not just Doctor Who's universe, but which says something to all of us human critters (about the nature of evil - that the Devil is most powerful as an "idea"). And then on top of that, it has great character fireworks, and a rock 'em sock 'em climax that brings everything together in emotional fashion

This remark will be written off by some as unnecessary hyperbole, but what the hell? This is the best science fiction series on contemporary television.


  1. Anonymous2:38 PM

    Hey John,

    I'm enjoying your Who thoughts immensely. As always, even when I find I don't agree with your assessments, I always understand and appreciate the thinking behind them.

    Concerning the series in general, I find we're in agreement more often that not. On the subject of Rose, I'm afraid I must agree with some of the comments previously posted by some of your readers. By this point, I was more then ready to see her go. More on that later...

    The two-parter you cover here is one of my New Who favorites, and I'm not at all surprised you enjoyed it as much as you did. To me, "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" felt more like the classic series than just about anything else Davies and company had produced up until that time. The plot is given room to breathe and the supporting cast actually seem to matter (And they're not even related to Rose! Imagine that!).

    On the question of the Doctor and faith, I can only recall the old series addressing this once. In "The Curse of Fenric", our heroes are plagued by vampiric monsters called Haemovores. As it turns out, these creatures are psychically sensitive to and ultimately repelled by the power of faith.

    During the story, the Doctor (as played by Sylvester McCoy) becomes trapped in a church which is surrounded by a horde of Haemovores. A church would seem an ideal place to hold out against such monsters, but it seems the local parson is having a crisis of faith, which is only compounded by the appearance of moldy, blue, fish-faced vampires from beneath the sea.

    Anyhow, as I'm sure you recall, the Haemovores get in, and just as the Doctor is about to be devoured, he closes his eyes and begins to mutter very softly to himself. This act repels the Haemovores and saves the Doctors life. Viewers may not catch what he's muttering on the first pass, but if you watch and listen closely, it's clear that he is invoking the names of his companions, one by one ("Susan, Barbara, Ian, Vicki, Steven..." ). Above all, the Doctor has faith in his friends.

    In this scene, as in others, the message that "The Curse of Fenric" puts forward is that faith is powerful and vital, but what or who you have faith in is your own darn business. I know this probably isn't really the answer you were looking for, but it does bring us neatly around to the question of "what's so special about Rose?".

    I see where you're point here, truly, but it doesn't quite work for me personally. You ask if the Doctor's message would have moved Mel or Peri or Adric as it did Rose. I see what you're getting at, but I don't think that's playing fair, as we're talking about three of the weakest and least liked (Peri's figure aside) companion characters that Classic Who ever gave us. If you were to ask me if I felt Sarah or Leela or Barbara or Jamie would have been so moved, I'd answer "yes" in every case. I'll even go so far as to say that I believe, without a doubt, that good ol' bubble-headed Jo Grant would have. And here, my friend, is the rub: I don't need the writers to spell it out for me as they do in "The Satan Pit." I don't need such moments to tell me that Sarah is brave or Jo is compassionate, because I've seen them make choices and take actions that demonstrate these qualities without the benefit of flowery speeches from the Doctor or supporting characters who always manage to be less brave or caring than they are.

    I am by no means suggesting that the old show was never lacking in subtlety, nor do I want to give anyone the impression that I don't like this new one (it's still my favorite show by far). It's simply that, while I feel that Davies and the others have adequately demonstrated what makes Rose ideally suited to be a companion, they never show us what makes her shine so much brighter than (most of) the companions that have come before her that the Doctor would actually fall in love with her. And while I do understand this makes me sound like a grumpy old fanboy, I have to believe that new school fans will eventually find themselves questioning how the series' presentation of Rose reflects on the companions that come after her. Unless, of course, the Doctor is going to fall in love with them too.

    -Tony Mercer

  2. Hey Tony!

    Thanks for writing. I enjoyed your comment, and was - in fact - looking forward to it!! Glad you wrote. I'm right with you on your opening point: even when we don't agree I enjoy hearing your point of view. That's what criticism of film and TV is for in my book; to spur debate.

    "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" is a great Who story, and I guess it had a little bit of an emotional impact on me.

    The moments with Rose and the Doctor hit me a certain way, aroused a certain glimmer inside, I suppose, and awakened a realization in me.

    And it could be a case of me reading into it entirely too much. (And I may not have been playing fair by mentioning Peri, Mel and Adric. My intent there was simply to state that all companions are not created equal; either in our minds, or likely the Doctor's).

    But in particular terms of Rose and the Doctor, this two-parter got me thinking in terms of the mysteries and vicissitudes of love. Why we fall in love; whom we fall in love with.

    And I realized that given a certain dispassion and distance, our choice in love does not come down, necessarily, to rational decisions based on comparative personal qualities and attributes.

    To make it personal. Kathryn is exceedingly wise, smart, gorgeous, loving and every other wonderful adjective I can think of. All these qualities make her eminently lovable. Yet, I would wager all my money to say that the exact same thing is true of your Lady Friend. And that you feel the same way about her.

    So what makes me love Kathryn, and you love your lady? Why not the other way around? If there are two wonderful ladies out there, why does one strike your fancy? The other strike mine?

    And in considering such things, that's when I realized what love really is. I can stand back and objectively state (in terms of Who), what's the logic in preferring Rose to Sarah Jane? Or Rose to Leela, or Rose to....K-9? Or Rose to Romana? I don't get it, I don't see it! I would choose...(fill in the blank), not Rose.

    There is only one answer...and it's the connection of kindred spirits. And I submit that's what "The Satan Pit" reveals and dramatizes for us; that connection that Rose and the Doctor share. It is based on more than the easily quoted characteristics I listed which "empirically" make me adore Kathryn. It's those amazing things about her I can't explain; can't put into words; can't scientifically judge It's...a feeling. It's the intangible but completely wonderful (chemical?) thing that makes one person special to another person.

    So Rose and the Doctor. Do I totally get it? Do I see the logic of it? Not exactly, but given the reality of love, I accept it. I guess that's my bottom line. I'm not aggravated or pissed off by it, even if in my heart, I might choose someone different for the Doctor; like a certain brunette journalist.

    So, I totally understand why someone could say, why Rose over Sarah Jane? Why fall in love with HER? But I accept it, given the evidence of my eyes, that Rose and the Doctor share something special.

    I consider the weight of history important, as should Who fans, that the Doctor doesn't fall in love all the time (but didn't Eight have a thingie with what's her name from the Fox movie?).

    But consider too the prerequisites for the Doctor falling in love. He feels very alone. His entire race is gone (or so he thinks, I suppose, if I'm reading my tea leaves right...), and he needs a connection to someone. Rose enters his life at a time, perhaps, when he's open to a different kind of connection. Is that plausible? Should it be spelled out, or remain ambiguous? I don't know the answer.

    And thank you for the reminder about "Curse of Fenric." I really like that story a lot, but I haven't seen it in 10 years (which is why I put in the disclaimer there that I might be forgetting something...). But at least it's good to know the Doctor's "belief" is consistent: finding faith in his companions, and by extension humanity itself.

    Thanks for writing today, buddy. Now tag, you're it! :)

  3. I think that the "Rose-as-love-interest" thing is spurred on by the this case, Billie Piper is a hugely popular pop personality in the UK. Who's infatuation/interest in her mirror's the public's. Plus, her character's class and age give viewers of that class (working to lower middle class Britons) and age (persons, especially young women, in their teens and early twenties) someone to directly identify with.

    I don't think she is all that rounded as a character - though I do appreciate the subplot with her father from season one - so I understand not liking her.

  4. Anonymous10:46 AM

    Hey Kevin,

    I agree that marketplace concerns may have been a factor in the Doctor/Rose relationship. In addition to the points you raise, I get the impression that the creative team thinks the modern audience is too "hip" or "wise" (read: jaded) to accept that the Doctor would travel 'round with an attractive young lady without any sort of hanky panky going on.

    As for you, Muir, you old softy... ;-)

    Seriously, that was great, and I read you loud and clear. I seem to want the series' writers to show me why Rose is the one person that the Doctor can fall for, after all these years. Perhaps, given the realities of love, such an expectation isn't entirely realistic. Love just doesn't work that way. If we cannot easily articulate, from couple to couple, as observers or (perhaps even) from our own experience the essential qualities that cause one person to fall in love with another, should we expect this series' writers to be able to produce a "reason" that the Doctor loves Rose? Could they ever produce a reason that would please every viewer?

    Perhaps, as you suggest, the Doctor has reached a point in his life (lives) where he is ready to love someone in that way. From a creative perspective, perhaps the Doctors experience with Rose is meant to remind him that it's best not to get involved with these fragile creatures, thereby underscoring his loneliness. I can get behind that. I see "The Girl in the Fireplace" (my pick for best episode of the season) as a shining example of how to do just that, and do it the "right way". I could even argue that writer Steven Moffat manages to show me why and how the Time Lord could fall in love with Reinette (I think you said as much yourself in a previous post).

    I realize this is all subjective. I've never had a problem believing that Captain Kirk fell head-over-heels in love with Edith Keeler, and we're probably given less on-screen "reasoning" for that than anything in discussion here. Then again, I've yet to meet the Star Trek fan who nay-says that relationship, just as I've never met one who buys that Kirk would fall in love with that android lady from "Requiem for Methuselah". This leads to me to suspect that, despite the realities of love, or hell, maybe *because* of them, there is a way to present these things, somewhere in the alchemical process of making this sort of drama, that will get the majority of an audience on your side.

    I guess I've been talking around my real problem with all of this, which is that I think it's a mistake to have the Doctor fall in love with a companion. I mean any companion. I feel it's precarious and potentially dangerous ground on which to tread when you take a long view of the series. And when "taking the long view", I'm not just considering the series' past, but also it's future.

    Grumpy old fanboys like me will always want to know what makes this new gal so special, or more to the point, "what makes her better than MY favorite?" If they so choose, the creative team can easily dismiss questions as to how their choices will affect audience perception of the series' past. But I wonder how these choices will affect the current series as it develops. Because the one thing all companions have in common is that they leave. They leave, or must be left behind, an issue which "School Reunion" handles beautifully.

    So Rose must leave, or be left. What happens with the next companion? I actually know the answer to that question, but I won't drop any spoilers here. Still, what happens with the next, and the next? I believe there will come a time when the new generation of fans will begin to ask "why Rose, and not MY favorite?" Are they going to serve up romantic and/or sexual tension for every companion? Are audiences meant to be thinking "Oh, the poor Doctor, will he ever love again?" Is that what Doctor Who is about?

    The Doctor's apparent asexuality is part of what identifies him as alien, as "other". It's part of what keeps him mysterious. He is a myth, a legend, a superhero. It's vital to humanize him somewhat (you know I'm a Hartnell fan), but potentially destructive to his character to humanize him too much.

    Of course love, romance and sex are essential to the human experience. They're certainly right at the center of my personal universe. But, let's face it, these things are easy to come by on television. How thoughtfully they're handled can certainly varies, but most television drama keeps a focus there. Traditionally, Doctor Who has dealt with human relationships in terms of friendship and trust, while focusing on things like ethics, personal freedom, the value of life and the triumph of reason over fear and superstition. And, you know, fighting monsters. I feel such things are much harder to come by on TV.

    By the way, since I've been getting a bit uppity in all this, I'd like to take a moment to point out that I realize I'm mostly preaching to the choir here. But you know how I get when I'm on my soapbox. So, uh, why did you cast me as Bill again? :-)

    -Tony Mercer

  5. Hey Tony!

    I love your comment!!!!

    You make some good points there; that, as you say, are actually beyond the specifics of the Rose/Doctor relationship and more about the show in general.

    And I do understand exactly what you are saying. I comprehend your concern: that some aspect, perhaps, of the Doctor's integrity and alienness is compromised by a romantic relationship with a human companion (ANY companion). I think you have good cause and concern to feel that way.

    But man, Kathryn and I watched "Doomsday" this weekend (future blogging...) and we both wept at the Doctor's farewell to Rose! Shit! Pass the kleenex...

    There seems to be SOMETHING (again, perhaps alchemical...) there, shared between them. Which on one hand is beautiful, and on the other hand, as you suggest, is problematic. How will we ever feel the same about the next Doctor/companion relationship? Is the Doctor going to be falling in love over and over again?!

    I have no answer for that because the future (at least for us non Time Lords) is not yet written. I'd hate to see Doctor Who go down such an easy path in terms of narrative.

    But I'm also a sucker for tragic love stories (note: THB is a tragic love story...) and in this case, for whatever reason, the Doctor and this companion (Rose) share an exceptionally intimate (emotionally-speaking...) relationship if we are to believe our eyes.

    I rejoice in the idea that in this incarnation, in this time, Doctor Who has done something DIFFERENT and interesting in terms of art.

    Love it or hate it, the Rose/Doctor relationship was different and daring and something new for the series, and as long as the creators of the show don't attempt to repeat that chemistry over and over again, we're fine, aren't we? (If you've seen future episodes, you've got a better feel for that than I...).

    I'm trying to think of precedent in the series, and all I can say is that occasionally (occasionally!!!), Dr. Who gives itself a creative boost with an alteration in format. There was the Key to Time experiment; the Trial of a Time Lord Experiment, and the experiment of the first Pertwee year when the Doctor was trapped on Earth.

    In the grand scheme of Who history, the Rose/Doctor relationship is as daring, perhaps, as any of those format changes. Maybe more so. And thus, bound to be controversial.

    Notice that these expeirments (Key to Time, etc.) didn't all turn out so great (at least in my opinion). But damn if they aren't fodder for some great debates and evidence that the show isn't running on autopilot (like, dare I say it, Voyager or Enterprise...)

    Any series that lasts this long simply must try something new and pioneering, and there's no better show on which to experiment. Dr. Who has that remarkable elastic format that can accommodate period pieces, future pieces, outside-of-time-and-space fantasy pieces, and more. It's done comedy, horror, space opera and mystery. So why not a love story?

    For me, I feel rather satisfied. I have seen a Doctor love story with a companion - at last! Great!

    Now all I say is: Next!!! (Show me something different and exciting and new...don't repeat past glories).