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

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE SATAN PIT

The Impossible Planet – the first part of the story which The Satan Pit closes - was one of the freshest takes on the “base under siege” story famous from (in particular) Patrick Troughton’s era of Doctor Who that we’d seen so far in the 21st century.

The invention of the Ood, a “basic slave race,” the irresistible idea of pitting the Doctor and Rose against the actual Devil, and a whole host of “versions” of the villain – including the joy of Gabriel Woolf’s Voice of the Beast, the sigil-covered Toby Zed (Will Thorp), and the whole set-up of the impossible planet itself – orbiting a black hole, held in place by a gravity field deep beneath the surface. It was all both magical and fantastical, while looking and feeling like it ruggedly belonged in the world of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies.

It's one of the best examples of its type, not just because of the unnerving design of the alien Ood, or the multi-layering of the points of plot and villainy, but also because of the strongly-sketched and beautifully differentiated characters of the officers of Sanctuary 6 base.

The point of this recap is to explain that one modern episode like that is wonderful – but having two episodes like it back-to-back wouldn’t work. You need the second part to do something different.

That’s important, because one of the fan-criticisms of The Satan Pit is that it’s a lesser episode than The Impossible Planet, where really speaking, for the most part, it’s just a different episode, in both tone and content.

Opening up with a massacre of the Ood, who’ve gone all red-eyed and Satanic as the Beast in the Pit has swamped their telepathic mind immediately puts us on a different footing to The Satan Pit. There’s more action, more movement right from the off, and a plan is relatively quickly formed to give the Ood a brainstorm by getting a virus into the base’s computer system and give them what amounts to a full-on stroke.

Cue the “computer game”-style plot strand of the episode, as Acting Captain Zachary Cross Flane (Shaun Parkes) in the control room has to press important buttons, while our plucky band of would-be Ood-slaughterers scramble through unventilated ventilation shafts, hoping not to zapped by the Ood along the way, and being fed oxygen by Zachary, one section at a time.

It’s altogether unwise to submit this storyline to too much analysis, because it has a tendency to fall apart if you do. It’s there to provide a mission, some action, and one bizarre, untimely death between the starting proposition of the episode and its final act.

Meanwhile, in the rather more philosophical and sedate storyline in the episode, the Doctor and Ida Scott (Claire Rushbrook) are stuck down a big hole in the planet, with two options – either to come back up to the surface and join the others, hoping to evacuate the base before things get any weirder, or to abseil down into an even bigger, darker hole in the middle of the planet, to find the source of the power that stops the planet falling into the black hole.

Those options are significantly curtailed when the Rent-A-Gob Doctor gets to have a conversation with the Voice of the Beast. It’s worth noting that this is a phenomenal sequence in itself, as a result of the combination of Matt Jones’ writing, and Gabriel Woolf’s gloriously deep disdain as the Beast.

Going around the crew of the base, the Beast expertly delineates their chief motivating flaws, including the secrets they keep hidden. Cross Flane, the “Captain” who doesn’t feel up to the responsibility. Mr Jefferson (Danny Webb), whose wife never forgave him, though he hoped she would. Danny, the boy who lied (Ronny Jhutti), Toby, the viiiiirgin, Rose Tyler, who will die in battle, and – perhaps most breathtakingly for a family show, Ida Scott, “the scientist still running away from Daddy.”

The implications there are clear, and slimy, and deeply unnerving, while also being all too common and believable.

That’s the thing that separates Gabriel Woolf’s first Voice of Evil, Sutekh in The Pyramids of Mars from his second as the Beast – the first is all self-revolving grandiloquence, and the second is never afraid to have a good old rummage round the locked-up attics of the human mind, specifically to wrong-foot and unnerve his victims.

But in the short terms, the conversation with the Beast exists to push the second storyline along, with the Doctor going into the deep hole to see what’s at the bottom of it. As he dangles there in the darkness, there’s time for the Doctor and Ida to exchange ideas on life, death, faith, and whether the thing that holds their lives in its hands is the actual Devil.

In a foreshadowing of the end of the second series, the Doctor tries to explain what he feels for Rose, before, frankly, bottling it and muttering “Oh, she knows.” Then he drops into the abyss, potentially forever,

After which, The Satan Pit becomes an episode largely about physics, with a smattering of theology along the way. It delivers two strong confrontational set-pieces, a joyfully full explanation of what the whole two-parter has been about, and the Doctor and Rose each expressing their active faith in one another.

The Doctor, faced with the chained behemoth of the Beast-body, effectively holds down the drama by himself, working out why the Beast is chained, and why it can’t speak to him. He puts himself into the shoes of those who somehow found a way to chain the Beast, knowing its supreme cunning, and devised the perfect prison for it. And he works out the game the Beast has been playing since the Tardis first arrived on Krop Tor.

Meanwhile, Rose, evacuated against her will with the rest of the humans, is constantly bugged by the idea that the whole thing has been too easy.

That said, as a fundamentally pleasing sop to the Christians among the Who audience, the Beast would have completed its ascension, in the body of Toby Zed, had it not begun to give itself away – first by a laugh as they pull away from the planet, and then by going full-on red-eye, sigil-skin demonic, and ranting about how undefeatable it is.

It’s the Beast, in Toby’s body, that finally sows the seeds of its own defeat and destruction, by its own words and boasting – and it sends Toby, who listened to it, into a calamitous fall, just as Scooti was lured into oblivion by the Beast first. One man, one woman, lured to destruction by a force that represents all Mankind’s lusts, jealousies, curiosities and more.

All you’re missing is the apple.

And, of course, a touch of salvation – while hurtling into the black hole, the Doctor finds the Tardis, picks up the oxygen-starved Ida, and then tows the otherwise-doomed crew of the Sanctuary 6 out of the deadly grip of the black hole.

Ultimately, yes, there’s a sense of The Satan Pit being a lesser episode than The Impossible Planet – but only just. That’s an important distinction, because the standards of The Impossible Planet are high enough to mean that MOST episodes are lesser than it.

But with its high-speed chase through the ducting, its pauses for theological reflection, the elegance of the trap in which the Beast is held, and the skin-crawling embarrassment of the scene where everyone’s secrets are revealed – not to mention the superb visual effects of the Beast itself, which gives a scale to the evil that’s rarely been matched in Doctor Who – The Stan Pit is only SLIGHTLY lesser than The Impossible Planet, and between the two, they make for one of the standout storylines in the whole of the New Who era.

Does it still stand up, 17 years on? Beyond all shadow of doubt. If you get a chance on any day, run these episodes through your brain. Ahead of David Tennant’s return, they’re a chance to remember just how good his Doctoring could be.

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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