If I believe in anything, I believe in her
There’s a certain camp of the audience who would hold this episode up as the best of each of the Doctor Who two parters – certainly, the best of the Tennant era in any case. Of course, right now, I can’t really comment on that (I try my best to make sure not to make such sweeping generalisations without having, you know, seen the episodes within the past few years) but I can certainly attest to the fact that this episode really is pretty damn good.
In my reviews I do tend to focus on the writing side of things, because that’s typically what I’m interested in – I like to think of myself as something of a writer, so it’s the story side of things that I’m most concerned with when it comes down to these reviews. To an extent I’ll also talk about the acting, but I know that I often let that fall by the wayside. It’s rarer still that I refer to and commend the direction, the score, or the set design; in part, because they’re not really my area of expertise, but also, admittedly, a tendency on my behalf to take them for granted.
Now seems as good a time as any to rectify this, because The Satan Pit is an impressively well-constructed piece of television.
James Strong, the director, did a wonderful job of making this a very atmospheric episode. Something that stood out to me at the time – and has remained with me ever since – is the ventilation shaft chase. It’s a brilliant sequence, which is genuinely, properly tense; probably one of the best air vent chase sequences I’ve ever seen. Jefferson’s death is particularly chilling, in fact, and well portrayed by all involved.
Last week I spoke about the design, and how impressive it was – largely, though, I was focused on the base. I didn’t really mention the underground cavern; impressive though it was, it didn’t really get a lot of screentime last episode. It’s a really lovely design though; a wide expanse, hinting at an impossibly old civilisation. When Ida says it’s beautiful down there, well… she’s right.
As ever, of course, there’s also Murray Gold’s music. He comes under criticism at times for overdoing it – making the scores very overt, telegraphing exactly how you’re meant to feel at any given time – but the musical cues are, I think, undeniably quite effective here. There’s one recurring motif that crops up quite often in this episode, and it’s absolutely the right sort of piercing noise for this quite frightening episode.
One of the central ideas of this episode is the fact that the Doctor confronts the Devil. On paper, that’s both insane and irresistible – the Doctor confronting the ultimate evil? It’s reaching for something so grand and so compelling that it’s a hugely rich concept in and of itself… but it’s also very difficult to execute, isn’t it? I mean, on some level, doesn’t that implicitly do away with the vision of the Doctor as just a guy with a box, if he’s someone who comes up against the Devil? Then again, perhaps it’s an idea that’s more palatable following the Time War – even then, though, what do they say to each other? How do you write that dialogue? What does the Devil say?
At first glance, they avoid this confrontation. Just write around it entirely, really; the Doctor never does speak to the Beast. He confronts only the body – only the animal. Except it’s not really true, there, because what the Doctor is actually confronting is the iconography of the Beast – the image of evil, and the idea of it. He’s forced to examine his own beliefs; right at the beginning of the writing process, that was the pitch for this episode. To write a scenario where the Doctor has to genuinely assess what he believes to be true. You can see him genuinely having to take pause throughout; not just in terms of whether or not the Beast can be “before time”, but also whether or not there genuinely is one single entity of evil. He’d normally take the same stance as Ida, in her neoclassical church, that evil is simply the actions that men do… but what if?
Rather fantastically, though, this debate is woven through the fabric of the episode itself. Because the beliefs the Doctor has been espousing so enthusiastically across this two parter – about the ingenuity and curiosity and initiative of the human spirit – is one that is in a fundamental diametric opposition to this endless, inconceivable evil. It’s brought up early on, of course, when the Beast first starts sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the crew, but it’s always there as a creeping undertone.
And, ultimately, it’s left down to interpretation who wins out in the end. The Doctor’s fall is stopped – so perhaps that niggling desire to fall is bested by the positive desires to explore. But then he does have to fall; he has to be subsumed by the unknown. You’ve got Jefferson’s death – is it a noble sacrifice, or pointless brutality? Right at the end, the focus of the episode isn’t the Doctor’s faith in Rose; the final word goes to the Ood. The last note of this story is death.
Maybe the Beast was sent into the Black Hole. But if the Devil really is just an idea… who got the last word?
Also following on from last week is the further development of the relationship between the Doctor and Rose.
And I can wholeheartedly say that they are indeed blatantly in love with one another.
It’s quite clear throughout, really; they’re genuinely distressed at being separate from one another, far moreso now than ever before, because here it seems like it might be permanent. Rose is terrified of a life without the Doctor – even to the point of being more willing to stay in the base, facing certain death, than she is to face a life without the Doctor.
Earlier in the episode, you’ve got the moment where the Doctor is about to fall into the pit – facing god knows what, with no way of knowing whether or not he’d come back. Facing, quite possibly, a far more permanent death than ever before. And his final thought is of Rose, but he still can’t quite articulate it. He’s about to say he loves her; we all know that – but he believes she knows it too. It’s a nice little parallel (or more accurately, piece of foreshadowing) to what’s coming at the end of Doomsday.
What’s most interesting, though, is that in the face of the Beast, what they ultimately assert is their faith in each other. If the Doctor believes in one thing, he believes in her – and that is the best statement of their relationship that exists. Certainly, it’s this episode which deserves to be held up as one of the most iconic of their relationship, because this is the story where their relationship is most emphatically defined.
It’s a really, genuinely triumphant moment – when the Doctor says at the end, all he knows is that they beat the Devil… the reason for that was because of the bond he shares with Rose. That, according to Doctor Who, is what you need to beat evil – faith in the people around you. The people you love.
That’s probably the most innately Doctor Who philosophy that this episode could ever have proposed. A really, genuinely, properly Who thing to say.
So! A very good episode this week. I enjoyed it a lot.
(Gotta say, I am hugely looking forward to next week, because the episode that follows this one is amongst my favourite Doctor Who episodes of all time. Yes, honestly.)