Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit

Something I've talked about several times is the unfortunate default format of the Davies-era show (and, to this point, the Moffat era, though he seems to be moving away from it).  See, for most of Doctor Who's run, the normal story length was four 25-minute episodes, making for stories lasting just over an hour and a half.  And there's a reason that's the right length.  Because Doctor Who is about a madman with a magic box that can take him to any time and any place, and because it's very character-driven, it has a greater burden than most shows: every single story has to succeed at world-building, convincingly transporting us to a brand new time and place.  Every story has to develop a new cast of characters.  And it has to take the time to tell a compelling story.   It's really difficult to cram all that into 45 minutes.  Not impossible, but you are restricted to only one or two compelling characters and a simple plot.  And Doctor Who can be and should be so much more than that.

Which brings up another point, something I've probably hammered too much: this show shouldn't be restricted to Earth.  Not that we should never spend time on Earth, but we have all of time and space.  Earth gets kinda boring after a while.

This isn't to say I dislike the Davies era.  On the whole, I'm very fond of Davies' version of the show.  I think he made it fresh, energetic, exciting, modern, and very dramatic, and gave us several of the finest stories in the show's history.  And what's more, he really didn't give us more than a small handful of duds along the way.  Even the lesser stories in his era were usually more mediocre that truly bad.

That said, Impossible Planet, as a well-structured 90-minute story set on a fantastic landscape, is exactly what I'd been waiting for from the new series when I got to it.  It opens exactly where it's been needed for a season and a half: somewhere not-Earth.  Eighteen stories into the new series, and this is the first time that the Doctor, actually sets foot on somewhere that isn't Earth, or Earth-orbit, or New Earth.  It's truly somewhere new.  And what a spectacular setting!  A station on a planet orbiting inside the event horizon of a black hole...

And now, with modern effects and a little money, it looks absolutely stunning.  The world-building is superb.  It's not only imaginative and well-produced; it has a strong sense of geography, crucial for what turns out to be a base-under-siege story.

And then it one-ups that with the introduction of the Ood.  Not only is it a fantastic makeup job, but they're a genuinely fascinating race.  Here, in their first appearance, they're voluntary slaves, a terrific concept that brings up all sorts of moral dilemmas that the show will later only sort of deal with.  They also bounce very effectively from convincingly friendly to absolutely terrifying.

Next, the Doctor is cut off from the TARDIS - of course - but this time, it seems permanent.  It's not nearly as convincingly just gone like in Frontios where it outright disintegrates in front of the Doctor's eyes, leaving only a hatstand never seen before or since.  I mean, it just fell down a cliff.  No big deal.  But there's a more important difference here: there, after the stunning cliffhanger, Frontios just sorta forgets about the TARDIS disappearing until it shows up at the end.  No discussion, no wondering what's next for our stranded explorers.  Even the Doctor doesn't seem that upset.  Here, though, it actually thinks through what it would mean to the Doctor to really, truly lose the TARDIS.  His discussion with Rose about their future is perfectly written, nailing their relationship.  Rose, of course, talks about settling down, maybe together or something, you know, but the Doctor totally ignores her.  He loves her in his own way, but that's not how things are.  It's a complex relationship, beautifully captured in just a few short lines of dialogue.

Besides, we all know he just lost his true love. (actually, he says as much, pretty much right to Rose: "I need my ship! It's all I've got! Literally the only thing!")

Of course, it's not long before things start getting really, really bad.  One of the crew members, Toby, is possessed by an evil entity and starts killing everybody without getting noticed, the Ood go crazy, and the impossible planet seems like it might not be far from doing exactly what it should be doing and going straight into the black hole.  The base under siege elements are excellent.  There's a genuinely sense of escalating terror and reduced spaces.  There's also an excellent sense of geography; you feel like you could draw a map of the base after the story ends.

There's one particularly riveting sequence in The Satan Pit where the surviving characters are forced to crawl through the vents.  It's an old cliche, but it's done brilliantly, particularly in the absolutely chilling shot where Toby suddenly goes from screaming for his victims to help him to silently giving his orders to the Ood.  Great stuff.

Rose is nicely characterized.  She's brave and loyal and pours herself into things, but it's also characteristically narcissistic: all her work to bring together the crew and stuff is solely to save her Doctor.

The crew is all nicely written and superbly acted.  They seem like complete, individual personalities.

And then there's Toby, the possessed.  Will Thorpe's performance is absolutely sensational.  I could site virtually every scene he's in as an example; he's just amazingly creepy.

The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit stand out in nearly every way, with a brilliant setting, strong characterizations, superb acting, and some terrific horror scenes...

... but if Doctor Who was going to take on Satan himself, it would have been nice if its depiction of the Devil had been a little more sophisticated than the version in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.

I guess you could argue he isn't necessarily the Devil, but building him up like that forces the result to aim pretty high.  For The Devil, this guy's a pretty weak, uninteresting character. I swear, there is a more powerful monster somewhere in every single season of the show -- he isn't anywhere near as compelling or as threatening as villains like Edrad, or the vampires in State of Decay, or even, say, the steampunk Cyber-King thing.  It's a really weak villain.

I mean, he has the power to, what, possess one person? If and only if that one person reads his symbols one too many times? He also influences the Ood, but honestly, that doesn't seem like that big of an accomplishment. The Doctor mentions the Devil who appears in legends throughout the Universe, but on Earth, at least, in many religions and myths, the Devil is the great liar, the master manipulator. In most versions, he's a trickster -- Satan, Loki, Mara -- not just an ordinary monster. The Doctor taking on that challenge, of an evil far trickier and more manipulative than he is, should be fascinating. Instead, it's boring because this villain, for all his build-up, isn't all that powerful by the Doctor's standards, and isn't actually interesting for any other reasons.

Its defeat is the final insult: his plan succeeds, succeeds: he has escaped the unescapable prison, has a ride to an inhabited planet, and tricked the Doctor into a wild goose chase, leaving the Doctor to give his awesome Doctorish monologue to himself.*  The only thing he has to do, literally the only thing, is not tell everyone he's possessing Toby's body.  But no, in one of the most hilarious uses of the Talking Killer Syndrome ever, he turns monstrous and starts ranting and raving.  So, of course, Rose kills him cleverly, and then quips... no, no, you can guess it.  It's not a good quip.  Nothing clever or interesting.  Just the most obvious possible one.

* Clever idea on the writer's part, by the way.  It'd be brilliant if the actual conclusion was satisfying.

And that kills it for me.  I find the villain totally laughable.  More laughable than the Creature From the Pit, or the Menoptra, or, hell, the Optera.   The story will throw out a brilliant scene like the Doctor ruminating on the existence of God, and then has some laughing giant with horns appear, and don't even have the courtesy to give him a good rock-off.
"I'm the Devil, I can do what I want
Whatever I got, I'm gonna flaunt
There's never been a rock-off I've ever lost..."

You know, if the climax wasn't so lame, I'd be a lot more forgiving.  But yeah, he doesn't die because the Doctor is clever, or he falls to his flaws, or anything like that.  He dies because he starts monologuing when that is the single thing that could possibly kill him.

And that's it.  Everything I wanted in a Doctor Who story except one thing, but that one thing is so bad it ruins the whole thing.

But hey, it's not on Earth!


* * ½

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if I'm going to end up marching my way through all of these (or at least the ones for episodes I watched) but it seems like I'm going to try.