Season 28 Episode 9 – The Satan Pit, by Mark Gatiss

May 9, 2008

So. The Satan Pit. In its own right, a fairly decent episode. Taking the two-parter as a whole, this is one of the better stories since the series’ resurrection, albeit one that promises more than it delivers.

It was exciting and very well paced again, but, crucially for me, it managed to rescue the triteness of the ending to The Impossible Planet by putting a more elegant spin on the Devil references than so often happen in stories like this.

The story also provided more good philosophical points, especially about the series’ own lead character. The Doctor, like so many people in the ‘real’ world, is very happy and complacent in most of his certainties, and he assumes he is enlightened and correct because he knows better than so many of the people he has met over the centuries. And to be fair, he is undoubtedly a very knowledgeable and intelligent being by most standards.

But in large part a lot of even his intellect is still made up of assumptions, ones that he is not aware that he is making. (Making unnoticed assumptions is a failing he shares with a lot of humans, which is itself something that he is not entirely aware of.) In this case, the Doctor has always assumed that events can’t happen without time. He hasn’t in any way tested this assumption though; he only believes it because, debatably, he’s never been to a reality where time doesn’t exist.

So when the Beast taunted the Doctor with its, “Is that your religion?” remark, it was making a very good point that many a ‘modern’ person (which is to say, your average science junkie) tends not to understand. Namely that science is almost as much a matter of faith as religion is, because in an infinite, multi-dimensional universe, any explanation, be it scientific or religious, is liable to be full of holes. This is because, by definition, infinity is something about which it is impossible for all the facts to be known. For all their undoubted knowledge and genius, even the Time Lords knew only a tiny fraction of the Universe. (So even the Time Lords were ignorant, because in truth, it’s impossible not to be.)

Thought-provoking indeed.

So there’s a lot of intelligent, spine-chilling ideas here, which should establish the episode as a classic in its own right. And as a two-parter, the story possibly is a classic. But alas, The Satan Pit doesn’t do too well as an episode on its own. There are flaws, and unfortunately, some of them are biggies.

Let’s get the smaller whinges out of the way first, starting with the obvious. The ever-present crime has been committed yet again, crowbarred into the story least appropriate to carry it so far. (I’m sorry I keep complaining about the Torchwood references, but if they won’t stop crowbarring them in, I’ll not stop grumbling. And they’d better come up with a bloody good excuse – by which I mean one within the confines of the story – at the end of the season for why it keeps cropping up. If they have to insist on these having these tiresome running themes popping up throughout every season, at least they can try and make them subtle, like with the “Bad Wolf” kafuffle in the Christopher Eccleston year.)

David Tennant’s facial acting – especially in the scene when plotholing with the mindless form of the Beast – is getting increasingly OTT. I suppose that’s better than doing a Hayden Christensen and having only one expression in the locker at all, but still, it wouldn’t hurt for DT to develop a sense of embarrassment. As much as anything else, he doesn’t need to force it so much. One of the main reasons I thought he’d make a better Doctor than Eccleston is because he’s more naturally weird. DT can be alien and eccentric without having to put the visible, self-conscious effort into it that Eck had to.

Having established such a sound philosophical basis for the story, both in this episode and the last – anaysis of whether voluntary slavery is acceptable and whether science is just another faith – it would have made for a far more satisfying story if those issues were followed up on, maybe even brought to some kind of conclusion. Instead, the issues are just thrown aside in favour of destroying the Ood in a simplistic ‘kill-all-the-monsters’TM plot resolution. The Ood had no control over what they were doing. Keeping this in mind, and the earlier jolt to the Doctor’s intellectual confidence, there are some questions that really needed asking in the closing moments of the story; –

1. Did the crew of the station start to feel sorry for taking advantage of the Ood?

2. Did the surviving crew feel guilty about killing all of the Ood for crimes an outsider levered them into performing?

3. Did the Doctor, with so many cherished aspects of his worldview challenged so thoroughly, go in for a lengthy bout of self-analysis?

Here are my answers to these questions; –

1. Don’t ask me.

2. The deaths of the Ood were recorded with honours. Beyond that, the whole matter doesn’t even seem to have occurred to the crew, one way or the other.

3. The Doctor smugly classed himself and Rose as the ‘stuff of legends’ at the end, so… obviously not.

Also, there were some glaring plot omissions, if not outright mistakes, and they’re actually quite serious ones (although to be fair, that’s probably a reflection of how ambitious the story was).

Firstly, it was still never really explained how the planet was kept from falling into the black hole for all these billions of years. (I still have my own explanation, and it looks like it would have fitted the scenario after all.) Given that the story opened with the big mystery of how the planet survived in the first place, just leaving at as the result of ‘divine will’ feels like a bit of a cop-out.

Secondly, the whole point of the prison goes unexplained too; if the nameless people from before Time were able to imprison the Beast in orbit around a black hole, why didn’t they just chuck it into the black hole and have done with it? I’m not saying explanations for either of these are impossible, you understand – for the second one for instance, maybe execution was illegal in the pre-Time society – it’s just we were never really offered any.

Also, why did the Beast seem to be mentally ‘luring’ the Doctor to drop into the pit? There seemed to be nothing for it to gain by drawing him down there. It just seemed to be doing it to give the Doctor an opportunity to scupper its plans, which was implausible stupidity on its part. **

But the biggest mistake for me was that the Beast showed even greater stupidity, and at exactly the point where the Doctor was grudgingly applauding its ‘intelligence’. It’s clear that the Beast was able to read the minds of all the people on the base. Indeed this was how it came up with the plan of escaping on the spacecraft with Rose, as it believed that the Doctor wouldn’t dare to destroy the prison as long as Rose’s survival depended on the Beast’s. It does sound very clever at first. But if you think about it, there are numerous reasons why the Beast wouldn’t have resorted to this; –

The most important one is that it should have realised straight away that the Doctor would be prepared to sacrifice Rose for the greater good. The Doctor has, on more than one occasion in the past, made it very clear that he believes (to put it in Star Trek terms) that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Recent incarnations have been less loud or explicit about it than, say, the Sixth Doctor always was, but on the whole, the Doctor has always been pretty consistent on this. He wouldn’t even see a choice to make if sacrificing four lives would prevent the oppression of whole worlds. Hell, there are even suggestions that in his ninth incarnation he sacrificed all of Gallifrey to defeat the Daleks. Anyone who would destroy his own homeworld, if it was the only way to save thousands of others, wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice four people, even if he happened to love one of them. The Beast had read the Doctor’s mind, and clearly in some detail. So how was it so unaware that using Rose as a kind of ‘human shield’ was not going to work?

Notwithstanding the fact that, as mentioned before, there’s no clear reason why such an elaborate plan would have been necessary anyway; as long as the Doctor didn’t find the prison, there was no way he could have stopped the Beast. And yet for some reason the Beast instead lured the Doctor straight to the prison! I mean, did it want to lose or something?

Rose’s “Go to Hell!” line at the end was neat, but all the better for the relaxed, even restrained, way that Billie Piper delivered it. (This was a much better performance from Billie than others recently, by the way. For once she came across as authoritative rather than smug, and assertive rather than broody or self-absorbed.) Rose also displayed an impressively ruthless edge when necessity demanded it, by hurling Toby into space in order to destroy the Beast. But even there, the line feels just a little out-of-character.

So the story ultimately misfires somewhat, as the resolution of the plot depends entirely on immense stupidity from a character that has been established as far too intelligent to be that stupid. This inconsistency is a great shame, as many of the individual ingredients of the story were actually far more intelligent and shrewd than can be found in most episodes of the David Tennant era.

The story as a whole gets an 8. This individual episode is downgraded to a 6 because of the enormous logic errors and the intellectual missed opportunities. I might have given it the benefit of the doubt over them if it hadn’t been for that crime, which I think should be punished by death from here-on.

** I watched The Satan Pit again a few weeks later and heard a line that I missed the first time I saw it, and so suddenly the Doctor’s decision to jump into the pit makes a lot more sense; it was the Beast’s ancient captors, not the Beast itself, who put that impulse into his mind. There are still numerous other plot-holes and non-explanations in there, but the most important one in the progression of the story is resolved. I might have re-graded the episode to a 7, but the Torchwood crime must be punished.

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