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maryann johanson | takeaway only

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit”

(intro to my Who blogging, please read before commenting / previous: Episode 7: “The Idiot’s Lantern”)

It’s like Milliway’s, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, except without the bar, this station on the impossible edge of a black hole, hovering at the edge of oblivion, and for what? Really, for what? The human need for exploration? Is that enough? Sure, it gets you a hug from the Doctor — the Doctor who loves the human sense of adventure: “I’m gonna hug you,” he warns Zachary, and then hugs him (perhaps he has some sort of residual memory of actor Shaun Parkes costarring as the best friend and traveling companion of Casanova, who was played by David Tennant). What do they humans expect to gain? Is it just a case of the black hole being there, and that’s reason enough to want to conquer it, or to figure out how someone else conquered it? Or did the “Torchwood Archive,” which the mission is representing, have some hint of what, exactly, this impossible planet was guarding?
I don’t ask these questions as a criticism of the storytelling of these two episodes: I think the undertone of those unspoken questions is actually pretty vital to appreciating these episodes on the whole, appreciating the choice of telling this particular story in this particular venue: the venue of Doctor Who. Showrunner Russell Davies is an atheist, and for him to choose to tell a story about the roots of Satan is, well, pretty telling. (These episodes were written by Matt Jones, but still: it’s Davies’ ethos that informs the series.) These two episodes aren’t about the “truth” of religion but about, in the subtext, the vast chasms of philosophical differences that separate faith and atheism. Believers often trot out canards about the supposed historical proof of the existence of a man named Jesus, as if this — were it true — would have anything to do with the value of religious faith, as if it were argument enough on its own to justify abandonment of faith, in the nonreligious sense, in the worthiness of people over that in an entity, a god, whose presence and action upon the world can only be inferred, by the most generous stretch of the imagination, second- or thirdhand. “Maybe Jesus was real,” is, I believe, a fair assessment of the beliefs of most atheists, “and maybe there is a god. But without direct and concrete evidence of that, which is sorely lacking, it’s better to trust in the goodness and value of human beings, even if that sometimes fails us, because there doesn’t appear to be anything else logically worth trusting in.”

So: so what if there is a historical and actual basis for the mythological character of Satan? That doesn’t change the importance of esteeming empirical truth over the paranormal. (It’d probably be nuts, actually, to think there wasn’t a factual basis for most of what endures in our mythology; you know, like maybe the story of the flood is left over from some natural disaster at the end of the last ice age, when all the glaciers melted and retreated.) It doesn’t change anything. Whatever the reality or the power of the monster imprisoned in the pit, it is still just “playing on basic fears,” nothing supernatural or genuinely worth fearing about it. And it “is alone — we are not”: that’s the power of humanism, that there’s a lot of us, and collectively, we can be smart and we can fight back.

And yet, too, it’s fascinating to see the Doctor’s belief in himself rattled… and when we’ve barely seen him as a spiritual person at all before. When asked what his religious beliefs are, he says, “I believe I haven’t seen everything. I dunno. Funny, isn’t it, the things you make up, the rules. That thing, if it 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 traveling, to be proved wrong.” Funny, isn’t it, how he’s an alien, an outsider, but he can echo what many down-to-earth humans feel? I don’t know how hostile England is to atheists — I would have thought it wouldn’t be quite so bad as the toxically religious environment of the United States, but maybe it is. Maybe only an alien character in a science fiction show can safely voice what lots of Earthlings think: that we recognize all manner of religious and areligious thinking as human-created, as designed by ourselves to encapsulate our own levels of comfort with how we frame our own existence, and that it might be nice to learn that things are bigger and wider and more strange than we’d thought. We gotta see it, though, experience it, not just be told it…

Funny, too, how all this is merely in the subtext of this story about the Doctor bouncing around the universe on a whim, getting himself deliberately accidentally into trouble. I love, love, love how Rose sums up everything about the Doctor’s character with: “If you think there’s gonna be trouble, we could always get back inside and go somewhere else,” and then she laughs, and so does he, because they both know how ridiculous that suggestion is: what else would he do with himself if he wasn’t getting into trouble? (In the meta sense, of course, they’re summing up the show: what fun would it be if he didn’t get into trouble every week?) (Also: The Doctor never used to laugh so much. His companions didn’t used to be able to make him laugh. Rose has no idea what lonely company she is in among the Doctor’s former companions.)

What would he do? He contemplates that when he thinks they’re stuck, when he thinks the TARDIS is lost. “Me, living in a house? That is terrifying.” He’d be driven crazy to be stuck anywhere, sharing a mortgage with anyone, even Rose, even if he believes in her above all the “fake gods and bad gods and demi gods and would-be gods” he’s met. He is not meant to be settled down anywhere… not that that’s news to us.

Random thoughts on “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit”:

• Rose, Rose, Rose, you’ve got it all backwards: first you kiss the Doctor, then he puts the helmet on. Who wants to kiss a helmet?

• The Doctor stroking the TARDIS door, fretting about her “indigestion”… I think he’s got it backwards, too: the TARDIS steers him into trouble, not away from it, because she knows trouble is what makes him happiest.

• The Doctor seems awed that these people have any kind of control over the black hole… but isn’t the Eye of Rassillon, which powers Gallifrey, a black hole that’s been harnessed? Is the difference that the Eye was artificially created instead of naturally occuring? (I myself think the Eye is an Ancient artifact, but that’s just my crossover-fanfic-crazed mind at work. That trapdoor in the pit here, with its impossibly old writing, looks Ancient, too, like a Chappa’ai.)

• Great quotes:

“Some sort of base, moon base, sea base, space base… They build these things out of kits,” the Doctor says. “Human design. You’ve got a thing about kits. This place was put together like a flat-pack wardrobe, only bigger, and easier,” Ah, so that’s why these space stations all look the same. But when has the Doctor ever put together a flat-pack wardrobe? He may know about them, but he couldn’t know how frustrating they are to put together unless he’s done one himself.

“People back home think that space travel’s gonna be all whizzin’ about and teleports and antigravity. But it’s not, is it? It’s tough.”–Rose. Nice.

“We’ve come this far, there’s no turning back.”–Ida
“Oh, did you have to? ‘No turning back’? That’s almost as bad as ‘Nothing could possibly go wrong’ or ‘This is gonna be the best Christmas Wolford’s ever had.’”–the Doctor. That last one, for the uninititated, is a reference to the British soap opera Eastenders. Maybe that’s what the Doctor is taping on that Betamax VCR

(next: Episode 10: “Love & Monsters”)

MPAA: not rated

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