I take back what I said about Series 2 being more pitched at children. This story was srs bsns. I can scarcely believe this is the same show as New Earth. This was the deepest the revival has gone into the realms of hard science-fiction (or at least science-fantasy) yet: a thematic and stimulating discussion of religion and empirical reality, packed into an atmospheric and chilling adventure. Although I wouldn’t want to see this sort of thing every week, this is nevertheless the quality of storytelling that I watch Doctor Who for. We endure the likes of Aliens of London and New Earth for stories like this.
I thought the plot was really exhilarating. The setting—a mysterious lonely planet in orbit around a black hole in some inaccessible, arcane corner of the universe—was intriguing and well-conceived, even the sci-fi equivalent of a romantic setting. It was hair-raising and claustrophobic in its best moments, and the action sequences involving the Ood were marvellously directed and acted. The moments where we were getting closer to the heart of the mystery about the Beast, as the Doctor and Ida descended deeper into the pit, were quite captivating. The whole sequence involving the Doctor and Ida in the pit, and their dialogue, was genuinely masterful writing. Furthermore, the Ood were a really well-conceived and very creepy creature. There’s something about them that makes you uneasy even when they’re politely offering you a cup of tea—and this discomfort (dare I say mild xenophobia?) was really effectively played upon by making them the murderous, wild-eyed minions of the Beast.
The best thing about this two-parter was that it offered a really intelligent and provocative commentary on religion and the limits of perceived reality that I found quite invigorating (I mean, insofar as a television drama can be intellectually invigorating…) This being Doctor Who, they obviously weren’t about to outright state that “the Devil is real”. Doctor Who has always had an atheistic, or at least sceptical streak, that prompts it to offer rational (in the sci-fi sense) explanations for the supernatural. But here, the show didn’t go the completely predictable and unsatisfying route of saying “the Devil is just a big scary alien”, it left the question hanging. The Doctor met the Devil. What the Devil actually is remains unclear. Something from “before time”, as it said, or was it lying? The Doctor, who always had the answer to all manner of supernatural superstitions, was made to question himself and his whole worldview. He came face-to-face with something that didn’t fit into his notions of how the universe worked, and it scared him. The point being most effectively made was that the universe is more vast and unknowable than we can possibly comprehend, than even the Doctor can possibly comprehend, and it isn’t advisable to assume, even with the illuminating revelations provided to us by modern science, that there is not something out there that would throw the very way we understand the universe into question. Contrary to what some of Doctor Who’s militant atheist fans insist, this story wasn’t bullsh*tting religion—quite the opposite: it was humbly acknowledging, considering the vastness of the universe and the limitations of our knowledge about it, that there is the very real possibility that reality may be very different from how we understand it. And that—open-minded agnosticism—is perhaps the most intelligent and rational position to take, and it is a credit to the writers that they were prepared to go down that route rather than offer some faux-rational explanation for the mysteries of life, the universe and everything. As always, Shakespeare said it best, in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I thought Rose was, in parts, well-written in this story. She showed leadership and resource when the Doctor was trapped in the pit, showing how much her experiences with the Doctor have changed her. In this way, it was very telling the way she took charge of the group and mobilised them in the Doctor’s absence. However, I thought she was acting like something of an irrational clingy girlfriend when she insisted on staying behind to wait for the Doctor when he was assumed to be dead near the end of The Satan Pit. Arguably this was the moment when it was confirmed beyond doubt that Rose had fallen in love with the Doctor (and the Doctor with Rose, considering “Tell Rose… oh, she knows.”) I thought the Doctor was generally well-written, and David Tennant delivered a competent performance, especially in the Doctor’s confrontation with the Beast. However, I, and others, find the “Humans are amazing!” thing to be very tiresome and cringe-inducing. What happened to “stupid apes”? This was an unnecessary insertion of cheese on the part of the writers into an otherwise perfectly good script. That said, the Doctor had a point. This story was an ode to the indomitable human spirit, something I felt quite emphatically when Rose was rallying the crew to work together to get themselves out of a seemingly hopeless situation. That, at least, was an effective display of how humans are “amazing”. Remember: show, not tell.
This is the best kind of Doctor Who. Action-packed and exciting, but at the same time cerebral, intelligent and subtle. This is an all-round high-quality story, competing with The Girl in the Fireplace for the best story of Series 2.