The lighthearted previous adventure is well and truly behind us now; this next one is deadly serious (and really good!). Space-age humans, ever curious, are digging beneath a remote and ancient planetoid, uncovering the relics of a lost civilization, while it orbits a deadly black hole. An accident causes the Doctor to lose his Tardis beneath the surface, stranding them there and putting him in a uniquely vulnerable position, while he learns the evil below them is older than anything could possibly be.
Let’s just take a moment to talk about this supposedly “impossible” planet, because the Doctor’s reaction is one of utter disbelief that he could be standing on a rock orbiting a black hole. My admittedly limited understanding of astrophysics says that this isn’t actually impossible at all. A black hole is simply a large body of mass like any other (just packed in smaller), and a planet would have no more difficulty orbiting it stably than it would any other star, so long as it wasn’t within the event horizon. Given the Tardis can so casually dismiss the effects of gravity at the end, the Doctor’s disbelief is even more incongruous (would he not have first thought “hey, where did you guys get Time Lord technology” rather than “hey, it’s impossible to do what I can do so easily”?). Perhaps his shock was more in the fact that he could actually see the black hole, which ought to be impossible for something that bends light around it. But I digress! The setting is visually striking and isolated by its nature, which makes it fantastic for this story.
Speaking of event horizons, this two-parter shares more than a passing similarity to that flavour of sci-fi, not least of which because a devil-like creature possesses a member of the crew, but also the small roster of characters who cop it one-by-one. The dirty, grimy, industrial aesthetic is very much in the same vein (see also: Alien), and even on a BBC budget, this looks really great. This is, of course, a family-friendly interpretation, so you won’t see the gore or violence of a film like Event Horizon (note, for instance, even the Ood are never shown gunned down, despite being fired at repeatedly). That said, the image of Toby with red eyes and weird symbols all over his face, standing out in the airless rocky surface, is some grade-A spooky stuff. In terms of tone, direction, lighting and overall production, this is amongst the best Doctor Who has ever looked.
Even the music has settled down. The slower-paced Satan Pit features some gentler orchestrated pieces that set the tone and complement the dialogue nicely. The Doctor and Ida, ten miles down, cut off from any rescue, and talking about what they believe in, is unusually solemn but absolutely lovely. If you didn’t know the Doctor always survives, you’d seriously question how they will get out of this. Never have the lights of the Tardis been such a sight for sore eyes.
Prior to this, the Doctor is his usual cocky self. It wouldn’t have stuck out at the time, but watching it now, he’s like a parody of himself, with a full spread of Tenth Doctorisms, from “humans are fantastic” to his increasingly common “I’m so sorry” spiel. The supporting cast range from good to bland, with a couple of them you’d like to see survive that don’t (poor Jefferson!). The devil helpfully points out all their character flaws/traits, meaning they don’t have to. Then there’s the Ood, who will be making further appearances in future. For now, they’re just a creepy squid-like slave race – monsters in smart suits, like an army of polite Doctor Zoidbergs.
The idea of the devil being based on historical fact, somehow spreading its influence over all of time and space, is not in itself an entirely new idea, but I like watching science-fiction that deals with this sort of big concept, particularly when it’s so brilliantly executed, stylish and creepy as this. Ultimately, it is a story about people overcoming their own demons and beating the odds, whether that be the crew working together and fulfilling their potential, the Doctor dealing with the loss of his Tardis and challenging his beliefs, or Rose taking charge and refusing to accept the Doctor is gone. But despite the devil being defeated, there is the ominous threat of death looming over Rose’s head, something that will come to pass before this season is over…