The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit ★★★

This tale of a black hole, the Ood and satanic possession starts creepy but ends up convoluted – even David Tennant's Doctor is annoying

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Story 174

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Series 2 – Episodes 8 & 9

“This lump of rock is suspended in perpetual geo-stationary orbit around that black hole without falling in. Discuss” – Ida

Storyline
In the 42nd century, the Doctor and Rose arrive on Krop Tor, a desolate planet in orbit around a black hole. The crew of Sanctuary Base 6 are drilling ten miles through the surface to identify a mysterious power source. Descending the shaft, the Time Lord discovers a cavern with a huge trapdoor. It opens onto an abyss wherein lurks a satanic Beast, imprisoned since ancient times. The creature transfers its consciousness into the minds of crew member Toby and the human’s slave race, the Ood, in a bid to build an army and spread its evil across space

First UK transmissions
Saturday 3 June 2006
Saturday 10 June 2006

Production
February–April 2006. Main locations: Wenvoe quarry, Vale of Glamorgan; Clearwell Caves, Gloucestershire; Johnsey Estates, Pontypool. Studios: Unit Q2, Newport; HTV and Enfys Studios, Cardiff; Pinewood Studios, Bucks.

Cast
The Doctor – David Tennant
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Mr Jefferson – Danny Webb
Zachary Cross Flane – Shaun Parkes
Ida Scott – Claire Rushbrook
Toby Zed – Will Thorp
Danny Bartock – Ronny Jhutti
Scooti Manista – MyAnna Buring
The Ood – Paul Kasey
Voice of the Beast – Gabriel Woolf
Voice of the Ood – Silas Carson

Crew
Writer – Matt Jones
Director – James Strong
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
(filed 10 June 2016)
This two-parter is something of a fan favourite and I’ve tried to embrace it. I’ve tried to love it; really I have. But it left me cold in 2006 and, watching it again ten years later, I still can’t muster much enthusiasm.

As a production, it looks pretty damn fine. Let’s not forget this was the first time the team making the revived series felt confident enough to set a story on an entirely alien world (not a spacecraft or rather earthly New Earth). The sets and hardware of the Sanctuary Base look impressively solid and distressed. The CGI of the black hole, the planet surface and the cavern below have a weird beauty. For the first time, the production team braved filming in a quarry (which had become a bit of a joke in 20th-century Who and Blake’s 7) but, with a carefully lit night shoot, it works.

The two episodes provide a distinct contrast from those around them and were largely formulated by Russell T Davies (settings, concept and monsters). He handed the brief to Doctor Who fan and established TV writer Matt Jones (who’d also script-edited Russell T’s Queer as Folk and exec-produced Shameless). Was it a happy experience for Jones? At a time when all Doctor Who writers were eagerly giving interviews to Doctor Who Confidential, Doctor Who Magazine and Radio Times, it’s significant that Matt Jones refrained from doing so. Although he had attended an RT photo shoot in the early stages of publicity.

In developing this story, Davies admitted having mined other sources: Prince of Darkness (a John Carpenter horror flick from 1987, dubbed “tedious” in the Radio Times Film Guide) and more blatantly the Alien franchise – hell, they even cast Danny Webb who’d been in Alien3. The Impossible Planet also blithely recycled and remodelled Doctor Who’s own past.

The Ood are updates of one of the series’ earliest alien species, the Sensorites – telepathic, bulbous-headed baldies from 1964. Russell T even hypothesised that their home world might be the Ood Sphere (and later named it so on screen) in concert with the Sensorites’ Sense Sphere. The satanic horned Beast is also clearly influenced by Azal from The Dæmons (1971); indeed the Doctor mentions Azal’s home world Damos. OK, both the Ood and the Beast expand upon the design and concept of their antecedents, and perhaps that better serves a modern audience, but I can’t be alone in wishing they’d simply revived the Sensorites and the Dæmons.

In another blast from past Who, a chilly and judicious one, the voice of the Beast that haunts Toby belongs to none other than Gabriel Woolf, who played Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars (1975). He was also a sadistic destroyer, imprisoned for aeons and capable of possessing humans. Woolf’s Beast, though, sounds closer to the Shadow (William Squire), the bad guy from The Armageddon Factor (1979), which is intended as no slight upon the mellifluous Woolf. And all the scenes of Toby possessed are terrifically creepy.

So far, fairly positive. What do I not like? Astrophysicists will have their own issues with the proposition of a spaceship that has flown down an energy funnel to a planet in orbit around a black hole. Sure, the episode title prepares us for the “impossible” and the bafflegab served up in dialogue covers the bonkers milieu insofar as Doctor Who ever does. My beef is why whoever imprisoned the Beast on this world decided to do so. Why not simply dispatch the fiend into the black hole and be done with him? There’s insufficient explanation.

More nonsensically, the awakened Beast reaches out and, with ease, possesses Toby; then extends his control to the inoffensive Ood in order to raise an army and destroy the humans. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to possess all the humans instead and save himself the bother?

The Sanctuary Base crew are loosely sketched, fleetingly likeable and wrestle with some cringe-inducing dialogue – all that “You really don’t know, do you?” guff intended to instil awe. Claire Rushbrook as science officer Ida, who buddies up with the Doctor to descend into the cavern, is the most effective of this misfit bunch. The fidgety actor playing “ethics committee” Danny would be the most irritating man in any circumstance, let alone a crisis.

Crucially, for much of the adventure, I also find the Doctor and Rose insufferable. It’s partly the writing, mainly the presentation. Billie Piper’s mascara looks like it was applied with a palette knife; at times she “enunciates” as though stricken with lockjaw. Both leads often gabble or mumble. David Tennant is mugging for Gallifrey. His interminable confrontation with the Beast is a study in over-enthusiastic green-screen acting. Earlier, he approaches the commander Zach and burble-squeaks: “Just stand there, because I’m going to hug you… Oh, human beings. You are amazing!” Vom.

What one should never long for in Doctor Who is the permanent separation of the Doctor and his companion by an abyss or even an event horizon. Here I do. I wish that Rose would vanish in the spaceship with the survivors or plunge into the black hole. I ache to see Tennant’s cocky Doctor scorched or, at the very least, singed by the flame-breathing Beast.

The final clang of dissatisfaction sounds when the Time Lord stumbles a few feet along a cave, which, remember, is in the abyss, which is itself beyond the hatch, which is at the bottom of a ten-mile-down cavern… and lo, quite miraculously, he finds the Tardis. He is then able to rescue Ida, then Rose, Zach and Danny, but not the poor old Ood, who are dismissed in an unconvincing throwaway remark: “I couldn’t save the Ood. I only had time for one trip.”

The improbable I can stomach. I’ve never had much truck with the Impossible.

*

RT Archive

In 2006, RT’s Doctor Who Watch went behind the scenes with Russell T Davies and introduced the Ood.

For the second episode Russell T Davies teased readers about his devilish new foe.

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David Tennant and Billie Piper – rare RT photos from 2006

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