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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

‘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

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • The British aren’t hostile to atheists at all. Most of them pay lip service to Christianity but are functionally agnostic. Going to church every Sunday with the “God-botherers” is considered slightly quirky. Charles Darwin is pictured on the back of a £10 note (contrast that with “In God we trust”). To be brutally honest, hostility to atheism is viewed as the preserve of, well, parts of the world that are perceived as backward – like Saudi Arabia or the Bible Belt.

  • Ryan H

    Personally, I loved these two episodes. However, one thing that kept pulling me out of it was the crappy science they used for the black hole. They just don’t work like that.

    Having taken a couple astronomy courses it really bugged me. Black holes are points of gravity just like planets or stars. You can orbit around one perfectly fine. We are right now. There’s a great big one in the middle of the Milky Way that we are going around. you don’t get ‘sucked in’ any more than satellites get sucked into Earth. In fact, unless you were aiming almost right for it, you are more likely to end up in a big parabolic orbit instead.

    So, every time they talked about the black hole, I got pulled out of the story. Yes, it’s pedantic. On the other hand it would have never gotten past even a basic science adviser. A position that the IMDB doesn’t list for Doctor Who. It would have taken 10 minutes to clean up the dialog so it reflected how black holes really work.

    however, still loved the episode. I thought Tennant did some of his best work on the series hanging over the pit.

  • JSW

    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.

    Why do people always assume that those that lived thousands of years ago were any less capable of constructing fiction out of whole cloth than modern humans? They weren’t any different from us, really. Sure, we know more about the universe and live more comfortable lives due to advances in science and technology, but the human mind still works the same way now as it did then. Creativity didn’t just suddenly evolve within the last few decades, it’s been with us since we crossed that line that seperates Homo Sapiens from our nearest ancestor, if not before.

    And even if the flood stories were inspired by real events, that doesn’t mean that there would have had to be some sort of global flood at some point in our history. Even a small, everyday flood that destroyed a single village would have provided ample basis for the tale, since to someone living in the Bronze Age who’d likely never ventured more than half a day’s walk from home their entire life their village was their world.

    But when has the Doctor ever put together a flat-pack wardrobe?

    Well, we know he’s done it at least once.

  • mischief

    The real problem with the black hole is that there is no reason why a planet can’t orbit one. High-school physics actually: analyzing the Solar system, you treat the mass of the sun and the earth as if they were concentrated in a point, which is to say, as if they were both black holes already.

  • Mischief, I got the feeling from watching this episode that the planet wasn’t actually orbiting the black hole; it was hovering in a single spot above the black hole, and THAT would be impossible without some sort of propulsion system pushing the planet away from the black hole, a la the Cygnus in The Black Hole.

  • MaryAnn

    Why do people always assume that those that lived thousands of years ago were any less capable of constructing fiction out of whole cloth than modern humans?

    I didn’t say that, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply it. It bugs me, too, that people assume that, say, the ancient Egyptians or even the Cro-Magnons weren’t as fully human as we are. But, to defend my specific example, stories about a great flood permeate human mythology across widely geographically dispersed cultures. So while, of course, it’s reasonable to assume that “news stories” about localized flooding probably mutated over millennia into “mythological tales,” it’s also not unreasonable to assume that many of the same mythological tropes that occur again and again across human cultures — like, say, a son of a deity born of a virgin a few days past the winter stolstice — might have some sort of root in completely nonsupernatural reality.

    Thanks for the link to the YouTube video. That’ll definitely be a Web Video of the Day.

  • JSW

    A more likely reason for the prevalence of flood myths is the face that most ancient villages were built on riverbanks and were thus quite susceptible to flooding, so it would be a common fear among many. It’s no coincidence that one of the most prominent cultures without a flood myth was Egypt, since while the Nile did flood it did so on a regular pattern so that the people living along its bank were never caught off-guard by it.

  • Katie

    I love these two episodes, ‘The Satan Pit’ especially. The Doctor’s journey down the pit actually haunts me, the conversation he has with himself is just…wonderful. It’s the kind of conversation that everyone should have with themselves but sadly too few people do. It’s also the part that I watch over and over. Just a great scene and wonderfully delivered by DT.

    And what would near eternity be without a little mischievous behavior now and then?

  • mischief

    Except that the episode explicitly describes it as orbiting.

    Not in an unstable orbit. Not even in an orbit within Roche limit. Just in orbit.

  • In which case, RTD and the other DW writers need to bring on a science consultant to point out the simple, stupid errors that they occasionally insert into their scripts.

  • MaryAnn

    Does any of it really impact the story, though? If a simple change of wording of one line would fix the error, I would say not.

  • memoriesinmy

    That hasn’t really been my experience with atheists at all, actually.

    Most that I’ve come into , somewhat ironically, argue like fundamentalists:
    “I know I’m right because all this SCIENTIFIIC EVIDENCE says so, and therefore yopur experinces are invalid. Not only does god not exist, but all religious people are an active force for evil!”

    Consequently I ususlly think people of your perspective are agnostic – “a-religious” and humanistic, not “atheistic” and defining their identity in opposition.

  • MaryAnn

    I disagree. As soon as the scientific evidence tips over in favor of the existence of a god, you won’t find most atheists continuing in their disbelief.

    I’m not sure that most atheists would say that a believer’s “experience” of the presence of a god is invalid, merely that it not proof of anything other than a subjective experience that cannot be demonstrated independently.

    That said, if the experience of believers that they sense the existence of a deity constitutes proof of that deity’s existence, then why isn’t the lack of a sense that a deity exists considered proof of that deity’s nonexistence?

  • The problem with a scientific proof of God/god, as I see it, is that if there is a God/god, then by His/its very nature, He/it must be of a different level of existence, and His/its existence is therefore unprovable. Otherwise, God/god is nothing more than a very powerful alien form of life who may or may not be responsible for our existence. Science and faith are utterly at odds with each other, because science, by definition, is what you know; faith is what you believe. There is a difference between saying “I know what the answer is” and “I believe what the answer is”. Knowing does not require belief, and vice versa… but sometimes people confuse the two.

    It’s like what DNA wrote God saying in his (DNA’s, not God’s) bit in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “‘I refuse to prove that I exist’, says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'” I am not an atheist, more of an agnostic, but that one sentence kinda sums up for me the gulf between science and religion.

    That’s not to say that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. The problem is that they each occasionally lay claim to the other’s bailiwick… for example, how the world was created.

  • MaryAnn

    sometimes people confuse the two.

    Sometimes? Try most of the time. And it always seems to be the people who don’t understand that just because *they’re* talking to an invisible old man who supposedly cares deeply and personal about who they sleep with, doesn’t mean we all are.

  • Here’s another good “God is not provable” quote from SF… one of the hyperintelligent alien computer Starglider’s responses, from Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise (Clarke is a known atheist, but he still sometimes leaves a little crack in his writings for God to slip through if He does exist):

    2069 June 08 GMT 1537. Message 6943. Sequence 2. Starglider to Earth.

    The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason.

    If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.

    This is the old “Who created God?”, “It’s turtles all the way down” problem.

    Logically, if God does not exist, then can there truly be a Satan? Or is Satan just some alien form of life that gets off on messing with everyone else and trying to control everything?

  • MaryAnn

    Of course God is not provable. But that’s not a good thing, as many believers seem to think it is. The Almight Invisible Purple Unicorn is not provable either, but we don’t go around worshipping it or pretending it cares whether we put cheese on our hamburgers.

    The creature in the this episode is not Satan. It’s a factual basis for a myth of Satan. Just because Santa Claus doesn’t exist doesn’t mean there might not have once been a man called Saint Nicholas about whom stories developed…

  • JSW

    A guy on a message board I frequent put it nicely: God does not exist because He was eaten by my invisible god-eating dragon that you can’t prove doesn’t exist.

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