I?l get this off my chest from the start; ?he Satan Pit?may be the best single episode of DOCTOR WHO ever made. That doesn? necessarily mean it? the best story in the show? long and tangled history; it just means that, visually and technically, for me at least, this was something very very special indeed. This was DOCTOR WHO as gritty space adventure, as glossy horror story, as a piece of philosophy and as about as challenging as a family adventure series is ever likely to get. Here? an episode where any faults don? seem to matter because what the episode sets out to do ?to present the Doctor with an enemy which completely subverts everything this very traditional, rational hero has ever believed in ?is just so extraordinary. Never mind that the resolution to last week? thunderous cliffhangar ?nothing comes out of the Pit and everything returns to normal ?is entirely underwhelming. Never mind that the science is at best dodgy ?hoary old black hole clich?abound, the narrative plays fast and loose with the deadly properties of the vacuum of space. Never mind that the show is still irritatingly prurient in its depiction of violence ?the Ood are ruthlessly machine-gunned but we never see one fall, security chief Jefferson is killed in the ventilation pipes but we see nothing of his death. None of this gubbins matters because at the core of this story is the concept of the Doctor facing up to something he Cannot Understand, something beyond Time and beyond Creation. That? pretty freaky.
Trapped in the underground cavern and with his oxygen supply running out, the Doctor has no option but to winch himself down into the Pit where he faces a creature which can? exist and yet does. Back on the Sanctuary Base Rose and the human survivors are fighting a rearguard action against murderous tentacled Ood, under the control of the Beast. Cue much running and shouting and gunplay and, at last, a lovely little runaround in a cramped air duct. This is all fine and dandy and directed and performed with typical gusto. But this is very much the Doctor? episode, with our hero pitched into a situation which forces him to question so much of what he believes in.
The Beast itself, probably the very finest CGI creation the Mill have yet come up with for new DOCTOR WHO, a monster which wouldn? disgrace your average LORD OF THE RINGS blockbuster, is quite clearly depicted and presented as Satan. Blood-red and enormous, horns flowering out from its head, its gaping maw roaring furiously as it remains chained up inside the pit, this is the Devil as we?e seen him in countless films and TV shows, as we?e seen him depicted in stories and fictions since the dawn of the age of story-telling. The Beast describes itself as a creature which existed and was imprisoned in a time before Time, before the Universe itself was created. This, reasons the Doctor, is impossible. Before Time there was nothing. Or was there? So vivid is this devilish manifestation that the Doctor can only conclude, on our behalf, that the appearance of the Beast has informed every legend of Satan/the Devil throughout history on every civilised world in the Universe. The concept itself is staggering, suggesting a shared ?ace memory?which has crossed all Time and all Space to influence the cultures of every civilised world. It? a beautiful conceit, a genuine science-fiction concept in a series which, it has to be said, has cared little for the tropes of the genre since its resurrection and generally paid lip service to the science of the fiction. The Doctor? struggle to communicate with a creature which can do nothing but roar impotently, and the way he pieces together not only its (possible) history but also the way to defeat it, is magnificent to watch. Even at the end of the story the Doctor has to admit that, despite his theorising, he doesn? really know what the Beast was, where it came from and what it was doing chained up in the bowels of a doomed planet. This is virtually unique in DOCTOR WHO where loose ends are generally tied up, sometimes hurriedly and often not completely convincingly.
Last week? opener, ?he Impossible Planet? together with this episode, form an epic story which is about as broad and big-screen as DOCTOR WHO has even been. The visuals here are just astonishing on any budget, let alone on the same sort of funds which apparently put a standing-about-talking episode of other BBC dramas like WAKING THE DEAD on the screen. Here we have a planet shaking apart, a convulsing black hole, a fantastic three-pronged retro-style spaceship (referred to constantly as ?he rocket? and a marvellous space rescue by the TARDIS. Speaking of the TARDIS, we all knew the machine wasn? really lost in last week? earthquake and whilst the Doctor? recovery of his home was extremely convenient in plot terms it was also one of those moments where you just have to jump up from your seat and punch the air.
DOCTOR WHO? first proper 21st century voyage to another planet (New Earth was just too?ell, earthy to really count) has been a stunning success on just about every level. The production team have shown that it? possible to take the show away from its preferred cosy Earth settings and take its audience to a totally alien environment, albeit one populated by pioneering humans. Let? hope future seasons build upon this triumph and, maybe, show us a few genuine alien civilisations full of proper aliens. This awesome two-parter will do for now; a red-blooded, pulsating space adventure which asks some difficult questions and offers few cosy answers. A real DOCTOR WHO masterpiece. The stuff of legend, indeed.