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 this...to 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.