Aired 10 June 2006
‘The Satan Pit’ is the concluding act to ‘The Impossible Planet,’ providing a superb resolution now that the exposition is taken care of and established and creating a true highlight episode in the process. At least part of what makes this story so successful is that it puts the Doctor in unfamiliar territory, unable to categorize the threat he faces. Whether going up against an overt evil force such as the Daleks or explaining a seemingly supernatural threat or presence away as being alien or technological in origin, the Doctor is always there to put events into context. In ‘The Satan Pit,’ however, is a grittier piece of science fiction than most stories and its central antagonist refuses to fit into a neat subset of threats from the Time Lord’s perspective. There is no explanation available regarding from where or when the Beast originates; he is simply a presence that allows the discussion of the nature of faith and fear to progress, creating something much more satisfying than a more typical alien threat.
Particularly satisfying is not the Doctor’s belief or disbelief in the Beast and what it stands for, but rather his disbelief in the notion that it comes from before time itself or near enough. It’s this disbelief that enables the Doctor to overcome the Beast, though, as he is able to talk through his fears and overcome the Beast’s notion of invincibility that it relies on in order to thrive. As he explores and discovers that the Beast’s prison is slave to the normal laws of physics just like the rest of the universe, he realizes that his survival is just another move in an ages-old battle between the Beast and its captors, the Disciples of Light.
The question of what it is that the Doctor firmly believes in has been a discussion point ever since the series relaunched with the Ninth Doctor. Despite periods of intense anger and exasperation, he’s usually quick to point out the merits of humanity and the spirit and soul of its individuals.. While that certainly explains just why he seems so focused on helping out Earth and its citizens throughout time and space, that belief resonates very firmly with Rose in this story as she is currently the pinnacle of that spirit in the Doctor’s eyes right now. Rose may not have been written as the most congenial of companions early in this series, but her dedication and invaluable assistance in getting the space station crew to go up against the Beast in this story just further exemplifies that the strength and beliefs she holds are perfectly aligned with the Doctor’s. Compared to his last incarnation where the Doctor would take no part in any action that may result in harm to Rose both so that he could keep his promise to Jackie and so that he could redeem himself after the tragedies of the Time War, the Tenth Doctor is finally willing to listen to Rose when she asks the Doctor to stop the Beast and destroy the planet even if that means sacrificing and destroying her in the process. These scenes are easily some of the most character-driven of the two-parter and provide incredibly meaningful development and context for both.
Aside from the tough situations that the regulars are put in and the superb threat that the Beast poses, ‘The Satan Pit’ is even more of a resounding success because of how well-rounded the supporting cast members are. It would have been easy to write them all as stereotypes to fill out the space station crew manifest, but each of them comes alive wonderfully well, each bolstered by energetic and believable performances. Shaun Parkes’s Captain Zachary Cross Flane is a particular standout, partially conflicted by self-doubt but knowing that he needs to do what is right for his crew while staying true to himself. This is best exemplified when he forces Rose onto the rocket near the end of the story, going directly against her wishes since he does not want to lose anyone else. Claire Rushbrook’s Ida Scott ends up being the companion of sorts for the Doctor, and the amount of compassion and humanity she is able to bring to the role as the two explore the Beast’s pit is staggering. Even Danny Webb’s security chief Jefferson is able to overcome the one-dimensional nature of his character as written and deliver some genuinely heartfelt emotion and grim determination to proceedings.
‘The Satan Pit’ is as much about its characters as it is about the Beast, and it does a superb job in showing why the characters triumph in the present without needing to delve into the horrors of each person’s past that the Beast preys upon. The visuals remain top-notch, and the tension and plot progression is kept elevated enough that even a man sitting pushing buttons is edge-of-seat entertainment as the telepathically possessed Ood aboard the ship wreak their own form of havoc. The distinction between the Beast’s body and mind is a fantastic one and overall, though there are still some lingering questions regarding Toby Zed’s fate both during possession and after the Beast’s body is destroyed, ‘The Satan Pit’ has to be qualified as a supreme triumph in a rather rocky start to the David Tennant tenure.