Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET

Of all the episodes in Series 2, apart from the Cybermen’s return to the show and the joyously bonkers fan-service finale, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, by Matt Jones, probably stand best and highest in fan memory.

Re-watching them 17 years on from their original broadcast, it’s beyond easy to see why they do so.

But let’s get one little niggle out of the way first. On a re-watch at some temporal distance, the pre-credits sequence of The Impossible Planet is a fairly cheap con compared to the rest of the episode. While the first of the mysteries is well seeded by the writing so old that not even the Tardis can translate it, and the reveal of the Ood with their tentacular and frankly vulvic faces is initially well delivered, the whole “We must feed” chant while more and more Ood encroach on the Doctor and Rose feels cheap in retrospect.

It feels intended to threaten, and the fact that it’s cleared up perfectly reasonably immediately the credits have rolled doubles down on the gag, toying with the audience – particularly those with a taste for black and white sci-fi cliches.

Once that’s out of the way though, The Impossible Planet is pure Doctor Who class all the way through. Mystery piles itself on top of mystery – a planet in a seemingly stable orbit around a black hole that otherwise does what black holes do, ripping everything that comes near it to shreds. A gravity funnel that allows a spaceship to fly down it, instead of being crushed to death by the gravitational forces of the black hole. The writing so old even the Tardis can’t translate it.

It all helps fill in the qualifications for the episode’s title. This is a planet that’s impossible by virtue of its mystery-richness. And, naturally, a bunch of humans had to come and land on it. The hug the Doctor gives Zachary Cross Flane, acting captain (Shaun Parkes) feels worthwhile, rewarding that impossible, stubborn, wonderful sense of adventure and the doing of impossible things… until something dark is revealed about the human empire that sent the crew to this benighted planet in the first place.

They enslave another species. The dangly-faced Ood that gave us our pre-credit forced scare. The Ood, as far as the humans know, live to serve, and pine away if not given tasks to do. The Ood are somehow connected to translator balls that render their thoughts into human speech, because between themselves, they communicate telepathically.

And Ood lives are expendable to these humans, because they know no different. That’s the dark thread that underlines all of the action in The Impossible Planet. The “real” Beast that threatens humanity is the one they carry with them in their ability to ignore and exploit the suffering of others (a point that will be even more explicitly made in the follow-up story Planet of the Ood, by Keith Temple).

Nevertheless, the humans in The Impossible Planet are significantly more “real” than many of the people we’ve seen in Series 2 so far. They’re relatively lightly sketched, rather than over-written, but the combination of the details we learn about them in the script, the self-possessed performances from the whole crew, and the “grimy” reality of space exploration as it’s shown in The Impossible Planet delivers a fundamentally believable picture of these people and the world they inhabit – rather than, say, an optimistic one of shining cities, cat nuns, and technologically-assisted ease.

The connection has been made since the episode aired between The Impossible Planet and Alien. There’s a logic to that, given that it’s the first real time in New Who that we see the hard edge of human space travel, and Alien did the same thing decades earlier, taking away the shiny clean “fantasy” element of most science fiction of the time – even the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey – and replacing it with the likely reality of grime, tedium, spacecraft built by the lowest bidder and a crew of mostly ordinary people.

In terms of the mostly ordinary people on the Sanctuary Base in The Impossible Planet, there’s an exceptional game of casting at play. Every single member of the team is memorable to this day, and a re-watch shows the way in which the episode became a template for some of the most exceptional Who in the years to come – the likes of Silence In The Library, The Waters of Mars, The God Complex and Under The Lake all spring from the central core of The Impossible Planet and its uncompromising cast of superbly realised human beings.

As the episode progresses of course, there are extra layers of trauma piled on, Matt Jones seeming to find extra time from somewhere to give us a lost Tardis due to an earthquake, an emotional moment between the Doctor and Rose as the thought of travelling “the slow path” together dawns on them, and a drilling project to the core of the planet that – if we’re picking nits – suddenly achieves its goal without any particular build-up, when you’d think the team might be pre-excited by the idea that they’re likely to break through today.

And then there’s Toby.

Team member Toby Zed (Will Thorp), whose job it is to translate the untranslatable writing and investigate the lost civilisation of Krop Tor. He starts hearing a threatening voice behind him, and then, in a moment of weakness, he turns round to see who’s speaking.

And finds himself covered in the sigils he’s been translating. It’s a joyous, traditional possession element, rendered beautifully creepy by Thorp, and by the “voice of the Beast.”

Oh boy, the voice of the Beast.

If you’re going to create a modern classic in Doctor Who, and you want to touch base with evil gods as they were represented in Classic Who, you’re going to go to one of two people. In 2006, you’d either go to Stephen Thorne (famous as both Omega and Azal in the Pertwee era), or you’d go to Gabriel Woolf (most notably famous in Who for the voice of Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars).

Going with Gabriel Woolf in this instance is a masterstroke, because he lends the Beast real, rolling menace and meanness, toying with his playthings in a manner that’s almost too childish to be genuinely cruel. It’s a breathtaking performance, and on a rewatch in 2023, it’s still the kind of element that makes you want to stand up and applaud.

When the drilling is done, the centre of the planet – from which the magnetic force that both keeps the planet in orbit and maintains the gravity funnel that allowed the crew to land is emanating – needs to be explored, and Ida Scott (the perennially perfectly pitched Claire Rushbrook) and the Doctor go down to investigate it.

Jones gives us flashes of on-screen warning of what’s about to come that work with precision to heighten the sense of mounting disaster – those malfunctioning Ood translator balls have the Odd calmly predicting that the Beast will rise from the pit and make war upon God, for instance, and behind shoulders, scanners briefly show a monumentally impressive CGI… well… Devil, roaring before they blink back to normal.

And then we get an example of this new Beast’s cruelty in Toby’s grinning murder of junior crewmember Scooti Manista (MyAnna Buring).

After which, it’s fair to say, the whole episode goes properly tonto as it runs towards its cliff-hanger. The Doctor and Ida discover a monumental trap door that ultimately begins to open, shaking the place apart.

The Ood are psychically overloaded to a point which means they should be brain-dead, but aren’t. Toby is revealed to be carrying the literal marks of the Beast, and disseminates his power to the Ood, who begin going on a killing spree, somehow (it’s best not to ask how) using their translator balls as deadly weapons. In another callback to robots of Death, it dawns on the smallish crew of humans that their slaves outnumber them significantly, and that they appear to be in the process of a murderous rebellion, overpowered by a superior “programming.”

And then, just for fun, the gravity field begins to collapse, meaning the whole planet’s about to fall into the black hole.

Annnnd credits.

As episodes of Doctor Who go, they don’t really come much better than the Impossible Planet. There’s build-up, there’s thrill, there’s grime, there’s mystery, there’s real, raw humanity, there’s human stupidity and thoughtlessness, there’s a seemingly omniscient threat that can know and manipulate the secret of a human heart to its own twisted ends, there’s a great new visually arresting alien species, there’s the first quarry to be used in modern Doctor Who…

Apparently, RTD was against the use of the quarry location for the Krop Tor scenes, but 17 years on, we have to say, it’s Doctor Who – sometimes you have to just #EmbraceTheQuarry.

And there’s a multiplicity of threat that you can rarely get away with. There’s the voice of the Beast in the gloriously sonorous Gabriel Woolf. There’s the human avatar of the Beast in Will Thorp’s Toby Zed. There’s the army of the Beast – the helplessly possessed, red-eyed and murderous Ood, whose translator-ball voices give their pronouncements the anodyne quality of the robots of death and somehow make the whole thing more shudderworthy, like being killed by an Alexa with legs. There’s the flashing image of a roaring Satan which would have been easy to get wrong, shattering the tension completely, but which is delivered well and adds to the thrills.

And then of course, there’s the threat of the removal of the impossibility – the thing that keeps the planet relatively safe to stand on, the gravitational power that keeps the planet in orbit around a black hole, where no planet should ever really be.

All of that is packed into an episode which seems to travel far further in its run-time than should be possible, without ever feeling unnecessarily pushed for pace or like it ever skips the opportunity to take a breath and creep the audience right the hell out.

The Ood – like the Voc Robots before them – feel like an accusation against mankind, able to reflect whatever is shown to them, be it kindness, courtesy, cruelty or disdain. Woolf’s Beast is a superb addition to Series 2, which elevates the story above pretty much anything that’s come before it in New Who, and the performances from the crew of the Sanctuary Base are so believable that The Impossible Planet hooks you in almost immediately after the credits roll, and never lets you go, slamming you into the cliff-hanger at its end and demanding you come back to find out what happens next in The Satan Pit.

Nearly 20 years on, the two-parter from Matt Jones still stands as an epic, imaginative highlight of New Who, and if you haven’t given it a re-watch any time recently, be kind to yourself and give it a replay as soon as you can. The Beast commands you…

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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