Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit - "All these things I don't believe in, are they real? Speak to me!"

The Impossible Planet (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 2, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #174a)

It's the classic Base Under Siege premise making a return. But it's fun. This impossible planet, orbiting a black hole, that's a heck of a base. And it's under the siege by, apparently, the freakin' Devil himself. A cool base, a worthy villain, the only other ingredient you need to make a Doctor-Who-Base-Under-Siege story work is an interesting crew working the base; luckily, we've got that here. It helps too that the base looks good. It looks lived in, like a battered base getting rocked by quakes should. The black hole viewed through the skylight when the shielding is effectively realized. All the elements of the production come together well to sell the implausible scenario.

The Ood are introduced here, and they're going to be important to this Doctor's journey, but at this stage we only get to know them as a race that seemingly wants to be in servitude, which is deeply disconcerting. They're referred to as livestock, yet they are intelligent, humanoid, and telepathic. I wish I'd watched "The Sensorites" before re-watching this one to write about it because I gather the Ood are implied to be related to or inspired by the Sensorites in some way. I'll have to circle back to that when I do watch that story for the first time. Cognizant that I may be missing some relevant context, I'm a little off-put by how we're introduced to the Ood. Are we supposed to think of them as a sort of a remora fish species that have glommed on to humanity? Rose and the Doctor are deeply skeptical of their apparent willing subservience, as they should be, so they're role in the society we're shown makes us wonder if something is defective in this human civilization, that they would use an intelligent species as servant class?  The questions are raised here, and Rose's continued questioning of it makes it seem important, or relevant to the story somehow, but the Ood are only used and a convenient group for the Beast to take over to menace the humans.

All the horror movie techniques, flashes of evil, voices that make the characters question their perceptions, intimations of a rising evil, even the camera work ... it's all effectively creepy and comfortably within the tradition of the classic series that those of us who've lived through all the stories this one models itself on, the story beats we experienced before, while it must feel like a different sort of story for those who had only experienced the new series to this point. This, we might be tempted to tell the newly converted to fandom, this gives you an idea what the old series was like, or at least trying to be like without the ability to really pull off. Well, without the romance-y feels.

The Satan Pit (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 2, Story 9 (Overall Series Story #174b)

So in a story where the villain is the horned Beast from before Universe, when the question of faith comes up, as a blogger whose main interests apart from Doctor Who are progressivism and secularism, I'm listening hard for the Doctor's answer. Here's the exchange where he explicitly raises the question and has it back to him:
DOCTOR: I didn't ask. Have you got any sort of faith?
IDA: Not really. I was brought up Neo Classic Congregational, because of my mum. She was. My old mum. But no, I never believed.
DOCTOR: Neo Classics, have they got a devil?
IDA: No, not as such. Just er, the things that men do.
DOCTOR: Same thing in the end.
IDA: What about you?
DOCTOR: I believe, I believe I haven't seen everything, I don't know. It's funny, isn't it? The things you make up. The rules. If that thing had 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 travelling. To be proved wrong.
The devil, evil, is bad acts of moral agents, to paraphrase Ida explaining her faith tradition's understanding of the concept. The Doctor goes along with that. Seems fine. No supernatural agency implied or endorsed.

So what about his answer to the question about having faith? I cringed in the brief pause after "I believe ..." but was relieved to hear him say that what he believes is he hasn't seen anything -- that is to say, he doesn't know it all. The "I don't know" implies a brand of agnosticism which leave open the possibility that he could discover that there is a supernatural agent worthy of some sort of worship in which he could believe. What he's seen, as a Time Lord, the entities he's encountered ... I'm surprised he seems to be leaving that door open, but OK, the humility of admitting you don't know everything, and don't know the full scope of what you don't know, that's a reasonable approach to take to questions of faith and epistemology.

What are we to make of his objection to the idea the Beast comes from "before the universe"?  It seems his problem with that is the idea of preceding the universe leads to the possibility of being a causal agent in the creation of the universe. That an entity, a god or gods to use the terminology of the faithful, might exist is an impossibility in his mind. But he also questions his adherence to that rule and he's willing to interrogate his certitude. Again, a reasonable position in general, and especially in the context of this story. That bit about travelling to be proved wrong is a bit surprising, it makes him more of a philosopher than he's shown himself to be. He's not just exploring, he's not just running, he's not just trying to do good ... he's out for deeper understanding and personal growth.

You can also read "To be proved wrong" as an admission that he doesn't have religious faith, but he wants to find a reason to have some, that he wants his rule to be proved wrong so he can believe. He might as well hang Fox Mulder's "I want to believe" poster on the TARDIS wall under that reading. Wanting to believe in something irrational is, let's be frank, the sort of romanticism that makes folks vulnerable to charlatans, confidence men, and authoritarians. A sense of marvel, of wonder, of awe, is a reasonable, even mystical response to the grandeur of the universe, a belief in magical being running the show is, it seems to me, a corruption of that sense of wonder that's the result of intellectual torpidity.

Whether the Beast is from before the universe or not, there's not reason to think it's root of the myth of the Christian, or any other faith tradition's, devil figure. Look, we already know Sutekh is that guy. Or Azal is. Lots of contenders running around for that ur-devil mantle.

Anyways, back to the episode. The Doctor outwits the Beast by putting his faith in Rose. It's one of his leaps of faith, but I like that it's a leap of faith in human capacity. Or, a human's capacity. A sort of humanism in any event. Along the way we've got red-eyed Ood doing horror movie tricks, Toby making us wonder if he's ever not possessed, and as taut and fraught an episode as we've had in a while. We've also got more touching, affectionate moments between Ten and Rose, continuing the build up to the inevitable tear down. But it's cute the way she throws out the idea of them sharing a house when it seems they may not recover the TARDIS. (Too neat the way that just turned up when it was needed, wasn't it?) But at least this story dealt with the implications of the TARDIS possibly being lost or destroyed in a comprehensible way. (Again, I'm reminded how irritating "Frontios" was on that point.) Rose also gives the Doctor a kiss on the faceplate before he descends the mineshaft, they're really becoming quite domestic.

As an aside, this two-parter was written by Matt Jones, who's written for Torchwood and has novels in the Virgin New Adventures line. He also penned the strongest episode of Dirk Gently, the one with the AI that killed in self-defense.

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