If you're interested in the concepts of faith and religion, then you may be surprised to find that you could learn a thing or two from Doctor Who.
The everyday guys 'n' gals may think of it as a sci-fi adventure roundabout, but one of the great things about the show is that a lot of the time, it's subtly educating the viewers too. Everything you could want to know about the world is included in Doctor Who's long tapestry – money, power, capitalism, vivisection, ecology – only a handful of a lengthy list of worthy topics up for grabs.
One of the big daddies up for discussion is religion and faith. Doctor Who has and always will be a show that promotes good over evil – but quite a few stories have looked at the concepts of religious beliefs in greater detail. The subtle Buddhism message of Planet Of The Spiders. Adam And Eve scenarios in Kinda. The meaning of true faith in The Curse Of Fenric.
Not only that, but there's been the odd story in which the good Doctor has stumbled upon the Devil – two stories that spring to mind are The Daemons and more recently, the double whammy of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.
In true Adrasta style, we call it The Impossible Pit – such a way with words for another annoying incident of calling a two-parter by two separate titles. The Impossible Pit, on the face of it, is a fine hybrid of sci-fi action and deep horror. Scrape the surface though, and there are some interesting discourses on beliefs and the age-old science vs religion argument.
This debate has been raging throughout Doctor Who since the dawn of time. The Doctor has always championed the practicalities of science rather than anything that has its roots in religious belief. Take The Daemons, in which his main mantra is that everything in life has a scientific explanation. An interesting point to make is that in The Curse Of Fenric, when the Doctor's asked to use his faith to ward off an army of Haemovores, he quietly lists off his companions, rather than saying a prayer.
But the Doctor's beliefs are challenged in this two-parter, and in particular the second half of the story. When having a chinwag with Ida Scott, the tough mother hen of the expedition, the Doctor starts to discuss his beliefs, or more to the point, his own set of rules. When discussing the existence of the Devil or the Beast or whatever name it has – Arthur, maybe – the Doctor says: “If that thing had said it came from BEYOND the universe, I'd believe it, but BEFORE the universe... impossible. Doesn't fit my rule. Still, that's why I keep travelling... to be proved wrong.”
Sure enough, the Doctor does acknowledge the existence of the Beast - “I accept that you exist,” he says when confronting it. “I don't have to accept what you are, but your physical existence, I'll give you that”. He also adds that the devil is just an idea, an idea in many civilisations that have produced false, bad, demi and would-be gods. But when it comes to the crunch, as in past stories, he's seen to have that unshakeable belief in his travelling companion (“Out of that whole pantheon – if I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in HER!”). While the Doctor's willing to accept new concepts and other ways of thinking, at the end of the day, his true faith lies with the people that he travels with.
Although he would say that in this instance, given that the Tenth Doctor and Rose are still enjoying a session or three of smug yapping. Despite a positive step in the right humility direction, there are still one or two instances when both characters are still sorely trying the patience. Whether Rose is hysterically laughing at a joke that's not really that funny, making equally useless gags about the Ood (“Well, that's... Ood!”) or being a smug nuisance while trying to muster up the remaining troops in the second part (“Mr Jefferson, sah!”), her character is getting so grating, you could use it to slice cheese.
Likewise, there are one or two irritating own-goals for the Doctor: The awful “Human beings – you are amazing!!” hug. The Walford Christmas reference – I suppose that in the latest attempt to get down wiv da kidz, Doctor Ten is studying the complete set of EastEnders DVDs in his spare time. No wonder he gets a long face in his final adventures if he's watching the current pitiful run of episodes featuring Uncle Fester and a surly chav who's stolen the voicebox of Granddad from Only Fools And Horses.
Then there's that bizarre, OTT confrontation with the Beast – what's that all about? The quick, alternating cuts of close-ups of the Doctor's wide-eyed, open-mouthed fizzog, are actually painful to watch. Possibly, Tennant been possessed by the spirit of Ohica from The Brain Of Morbius.
All this wacky, in-yer-face gurning and cackling is a real shame, since it jars with the outstanding script from Matt Jones, who makes his lone contribution to Doctor Who. Like in the previous tale, I'm getting the feeling that Jones' script may have been tinkered with to include rubbish EastEnders references and overly annoying behaviour. It's also a shame because when they're not called on to be as irritating as possible, Billie Piper and especially David Tennant are actually very good.
Tennant gets some notably muted scenes, such as his slightly awkward chat with Rose about mortgages (she evidently wasn't listening to his School Reunion speech about outliving human beings) or his contemplative talk with Ida about beliefs. Take away the silly scenes, and you have a Doctor who neatly balances authority, good humour and wise old knowledge.
The Impossible Pit feels like one of the more traditional Doctor Who stories of old. It takes its roots from the late '60s 'Base Under Siege' stories, while adding a dash of Gothic horror from the mid '70s. Both these tips of the hat are suitably updated for the 21st century, resulting in a story that's an unqualified success.
What works is the fact is that the base members are played for real. The crew members are everyday people with everyday flaws and skeletons in the cupboard. Zachary Cross Flane, the slightly insecure acting captain. The no-nonsense Mr Jefferson, a man who's making up for past sins (his wife has never forgiven him for a past act – adultery or something more sinister). The awkward intellectual Toby Zed. The blustering Danny Bartock. The mother hen of the group, Ida Scott. And let's not forget the short-lived amiability of 20-year-old Scooti Manista.
The guest cast are very good indeed. They add depth to well-crafted characters, delivering outstanding performances. Particularly good are Danny Webb (a man so ubiquitous on TV, I'm surprised he doesn't deliver weather reports) as the ultimately brave Jefferson, Shaun Parkes, who convinces as the world-weary Zach, and Will Thorp, who does an excellent job as Toby. I think prior to this, Thorp was on Casualty or some other TV wallpaper, so I wasn't expecting great things – but he does very well with the two sides of Toby's character, whether it's socially awkward mumbling or evil grin terror. MyAnna Buring also does an excellent job in her few scenes. Her portrayal of slowly rising hysterical terror at the hands of the possessed Toby is chilling in the extreme.
The possession of Toby harks back to the Hinchcliffe days, when some hapless soul would be taken over by an alien force. Toby joins the ranks of Marcus Scarmans, Noahs and Harrison Chases, and his other-worldly possession nicely clashes with his rather timid persona. The scene in which he stands outside the base without a protective suit and kills an uncomprehending Scooti is a particularly memorable one, as is the brief scene in the tunnel when he briefly shooshes the Ood, just when you think he's been freed of the influence. It's a classic bit of writing – making the audience unsure as to whether the character's still possessed or not. The make-up and the red eyes add to the terror, not to mention the deep, booming voice from the one and only Gabriel Woolf in a great In-No-Way-Is-The-Big-Bad-Sutekh cameo.
There's a great deal of dread and terror running throughout The Impossible Pit, particularly the first part. Take the initial Beast contact with Toby – like all effective horror films and books, the scene works on a very simple gimmick, the old 'Don't Turn Around' scenario. It's the sort of thing that kids play, whether in schools or in the back garden, so tapping into these everyday games and putting a threatening spin on them sells that deep-rooted primal fear.
The first instalment has a queasy air of claustrophobia running through it, with darkened tunnels, flickering lights and eerie blasts of Ravel's Bolero. The story marks the début of director, James Strong, and he takes to the show like a duck to water. He's got a good grasp of producing imaginative, well-considered shots, such as the cross fade from the port hole to Toby's magnifying glass, and also a good talent for knowing when to alternate between fast-paced action and moody contemplation.
The production values for The Impossible Pit are superb – the so-called flat pack industrial interiors are very convincing, as are the scenes on the surface of the planet, all murky shadows and rocks. The Beast too, is well realised, although the Innovation Awards this time around, go to the Ood, one of the best new alien races presented in the reboot of Doctor Who.
There are a number of reasons why the Ood work so well. One is that they are visually striking creatures. They are exceptionally well designed, a cross between a bald cat and a jellyfish. They're suitably alien beings, far better than boring old androids, and they also add to the viewer's mystery of whether they are good or bad. This is a key element of The Impossible Pit – throughout the story, we're never too sure what to make of the Ood. At first, they are set up as the Monsters Of The Week, closing in on the Doctor and Rose with a repeated chorus of “We must feed”. Which turns out to be a red herring, as the viewer finds out that they are, in fact, a basic slave race, designed to carry out mundane tasks like serving food and drinks.
But despite their benign demeanour, they still become threatening in another clever twist. They are possessed by an outside force, and become brutal killers with their dreaded soap dirigibles of doom. Even at the end, the Ood are to be pitied, since they are killed off en masse – surprisingly, the Doctor doesn't find a way to save them, and so, there's the feeling that they've been unwilling pawns in a bigger game. However, they'd prove to be popular enough to return many times in Doctor Who, notably in the excellent Planet Of The Ood and in the Tenth Doctor's swansong, The End Of Time. Personally, the Ood are one of my favourite alien races.
There's very little to criticise when discussing The Impossible Pit. There's a fair point that the second half isn't as psychologically unsettling as the first part, since it becomes more of a straight-ahead battle for survival. If the first part's a throwback to the first Alien film, then the second part's the sequel, all blazing gun battles and manic escape plans.
Still, this is a churlish comment, since at least the second part wraps up the story in a neat, logical fashion. All of the loose ends are tied up, the Beast and Toby are defeated, and the Doctor and Rose move on to pastures new.
All in all, The Impossible Pit is one of the main accomplishments of the season. It can be enjoyed on whatever level you want, and there's something for everyone here. Horror fans can revel in the darkness of the first part. There's plenty of fuel for action-packed drama addicts. And for the more contemplative, there's greater food for thought to chew on.
This story puts the Ood into Good.
* More alien worlds to discover in my ebook guides to the adventures of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Doctors. Travel to the links below!
JON PERTWEE ERA - £3.86
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1 - £3.07
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2 - £2.51
PETER DAVISON ERA - £2.98