Reviewed by Paul Mount
The TARDIS materialises aboard a Sanctuary Base, an exploration encampment on a planet far out in space. The Doctor and Rose are immediately baffled by a series of incomprehensible hieroglyphs and, no sooner have they encountered the bizarre alien Ood and their masters, the humans working on the base, than the planet is rocked by an earthquake. The humans explain that they?e on a planet somehow locked in orbit around a devastating black hole and that they themselves are investigating a mysterious power source buried deep beneath the planet? cold, airless surface?n
Classic DOCTOR WHO specialised in what became known as ?ase under seige?stories. In the 1960s, budget constraints forced the show to set its stories in one or two restricted environments with their casts trapped in one general location while something nasty was trying to get in from outside. Some of the greatest DOCTOR WHO stories of all time have adhered to this basic template and here we see the new series recreate that template in possibly the second-best single episode of the series since it was resurrected last year. ?he Impossible Planet?is the perfect marriage of an immaculate production paired with a slick, confident script, giving the series a gritty edginess it hasn? always aimed for in its determination to be family-friendly.
This is deep space, far out in the future and, as Rose notes, it? about as far from the slick, glossy sci-fi world of teleports and clean white spaceships as you could possibly get. The pioneers on Sanctuary Base live in a rattling, ramshackle compound where steam gushes out into every corridor, the doors and walls are grimy and oily and there? an air of suffocating claustrophobia about the entire place. The crew are weary and wonderless, engineers and archaeologists doing a thankless job in a pitiless environment. There? no glamour out here on the edge of the Black Hole, just a handful of professionals staring Death in the face.
It? into this world ?entirely unrecognisable from the austere optimism of the early 1950s where we last saw them ?that the Doctor and Rose step and it? not long before their usual cheery confidence is hit for six when an earthquake causes them to lose the TARDIS forever (yeah, sureu and the pair are left to pondering their future, the Doctor aghast at the prospect of settling down, living in a house, getting a mortgage. It? a prospect Rose doesn? seem to dread quite as much in a beautifully-pitched emotional moment which reminds us just how wonderfully different modern DOCTOR WHO is from the old show.
?he Impossible Planet?is the first of a two-part story (thankfully promising a lot more than the recent disappointing Cybermen two-parter) and as a consequence the story has time and room to breathe and the situation can develop at a less breakneck pace than usual. The pre-publicity for the story promised ?ne of the most terrifying episodes of DOCTOR WHO of all time?and while I? far too old to be terrified of anything these days (except very large spiders) it? plain to see that there? plenty here which could give serious jitters to those of a nervous disposition. The Ood themselves are an impressive creation, humanoid aliens with quivering, frond-like mouths and unpleasant to look at but they?e still just men in rubber masks; the real chills here are from the hidden threat, the mysterious force buried underground which reaches up into the base, manipulates the machinery and possesses their personnel. The voice of the Beast, the imprisoned creature struggling to break free, is played by Gabriel Woolf, best-known to long-term fans as Sutekh in the 1975 yarn ?yramids of Mars? His rich stentorian tone gives the Beast a terrifying edge and the scene where the disembodied voice communicates (and later possesses) archaeologist Toby Zed (Thorp) is pretty hair-raising. Equally nasty is the scene where Toby, totally under the power of the Beast, his eyes blazing red, his face covered in hieroglyphs, steps out onto the windswept planet? surface (the best use of a quarry location in DOCTOR WHO history!) kills the lovely Scooti by depressuring the Base and sending her out into the void of space.
?he Impossible Planet?wears its influences quote proudly. This is part ALIEN, part EVENT HORIZON and there? even a little bit of OUTLAND thrown into the mix. The Mill? special effects reach a new standard here; the planetscape and Black Hole effects are bettered only by the frankly gob-smacking scenes where the Doctor and Ida, in full spacesuits, travel down the borehole to the vast chamber below where alien artefacts and carvings tower above them and where a massive metal portal leads down to something which may be very nasty indeed. We?e reaching the point now where, visually at least, DOCTOR WHO is easily the equal of your bog-standard Hollywood blockbuster and, of course, DOCTOR WHO had the added benefit of clever, witty scripts ?always a bonus.
Pretty much your pitch-perfect modern DOCTOR WHO episode, the only real room for improvement might still be in a slight fine-tuning in the still-too-cocky-for-their-own-good Doctor/Rose relationship. Oddly (or even Oodly) this has been the only real problem with this second series; Tennant is generally excellent but tends to overplay the wackiness sometimes, Billie Piper? only now beginning to find the warmth of her character again after a string of episodes where she was little more than spoilt, petulant brat. The smugness is still there, the sense that the Doctor and Rose, this starstruck pair of intergalactic lovers, can do what they want, where and when they want; it? been suggested that they?e heading for a fall. I have to say it can? come soon enough for me. It? also a shame that, despite the confrontation scene in ?chool Reunion?where the Doctor implied that their little romance was doomed by virtue of the Doctor? status as an ageless Time lord, they?e still barrelling around the Universe like lovestruck teenagers with Rose still under the impression that he? the man of her dreams. Tonal criticisms, really, and ones which do nothing to diminish the raw power of ?he Impossible Planet? an episode which gives DOCTOR WHO back its guts and gives its audience a genuine excuse for scurrying back behind the sofa.