1 June 2016

The Impossible Planet

Superior episode that shows all that is great about this era of the show.

A sure fire way of knowing just how much Doctor Who has permeated popular culture is when you see kids playing a scene from the series. Ten years ago I was in a shop when I heard a familiar refrain - “We must feed”. Sure enough, two children were pretending to be Ood in public as if it was the greatest thing ever. They were re-playing what is both an excellent opening scene and also one of the best gags the show has done. And after that the episode never stops delivering on every level. Those kids obviously loved it because it’s big, colourful and packed with incident. It’s got the spine tingling voice of Gabriel Woolf who chilled another generation thirty years or so earlier. It’s got the Ood one of the few classic monsters the modern series has created. Yet it also has a mind bending concept and an undercurrent of devilish behaviour. It looks fantastic, it moves at just the right pace, it manages to show a convincing lived in and worked in base. It has a great roster of characters. In fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it! 

As concepts go a planet that is somehow managing to orbit a black hole that is otherwise sucking in whole galaxies is pretty mind blowing and what I love about this story is its ambition and scale. You’d imagine the production team scratching their collective heads over how such a thing could possibly be realised on a television budget but they manage it with aplomb. Excellent sound effects (an often neglected aspect of the series) and James Strong’s powerful direction combine with the special effects to deliver one of the most convincing outer space scenarios the show has ever done. The look of the episode combines the savage beauty of what is happening outside with the menace inside. When we watch a whole solar system in its final few minutes, it looks like a beautiful galactic vapour trail yet it is also a moment of horror.

Even more impressive is the fact that this kind of episode- the so called `base under siege`- is normally a thriller and nothing more. We see how the threat changes the characters involved but in the end it’s about how they are picked off one by one. `Impossible Planet` though hints at the more cerebral second part to come and its menace may be none other than the Devil. By the time we get to the last few minutes the action has the tenor of a feature film with the impressive underground sequences. The possessed Ood are quite odd but also a brilliant threat.  Looking like messy pasta eaters, their expressive eyes and subservient voices make them a natural enemy in the tradition of the Voc robots.

Gabriel Woolf is the key actor here even though we never actually see him, His silkily malevolent voice is back like some returning ghost. Treated with a slight electronic distort it’s off screen presence sends a chill through the base. In one of the (many) stand out scenes, it toys with Toby Zed and you can almost feel the temperature dropping even though there is nothing behind him at all.

The script also does that Russell T Davies era thing of managing to economically introduce us to characters so that we know them very quickly. This is harder than you might imagine – other productions I’ve seen spend scenes trying to build up characters yet this episode can do that in a handful of lines of dialogue. Zachary’s self doubts, Jefferson’s chequered past (one sentence about his wife is all it takes), Ida’s awe at their mission (“how could we not?” she says when the Doctor asks why they came). Ood handler Danny is especially good; his jokey nonchalance dropping away into near panic at the first sign of danger. The episode also catches the Doctor/  Rose relationship so well- the scene where they discuss an imaginary home is like watching two teenagers yet is imbued with the adult perspective of them (and us) knowing it will never happen.

Another intriguing element is the fact that the Doctor does not really know everything. His omnipotent knowledge has been commented on in relation to the show since the 1980s and there is a feeling that the stories which work best are those in which he knows a little more than everyone else but by no means everything. So he is vexed when the TARDIS translation faculty fails to decode the ancient language scribbled on the walls and again when he cannot see a way they will be able to escape. This only encourages his enthusiasm though- he has no idea what he might find in the pit but this acts as an impetus for him to volunteer his services. Seeing the Doctor as an explorer rather than some kind of super space agent brings more rewarding narrative results as this episode proves.

Tardisode: An interesting nugget showing the original commanding officer Captain Walker receiving  a briefing about the mission. As he leaves we see an Ood who declares “and the Beast shall rise from the pit.”

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