Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Impossible Planet written by Matt Jones and directed by James Hawes


This story in a nutshell: An old fashioned New Adventure novel turned into a two part spectacular...and a pretty good one at that.

Mockney Dude: Aside from one scene, this is one of the more responsible takes on the tenth Doctor in his first year. If he was the Doctor that was supposed to be the most human then that is achieved in spades here as he feels like a regular Joe trapped in an impossible situation and trying to do his best. He's smart and funny and personable but doesn't exhibit too many of those overt quirks that make the Doctor stand out from the crowd. It's probably what make David Tennant such an attractive prospect to the audience at large. The only moment I wanted to rip out his intestines and strangle him with them was when he was trying a little too hard to be a nice guy. Where he asks for a hug because humanity is so insatiably curious. It's the sort of cloyingly sweet sentiment I expect from Cornell...it's that New Adventures mentality that used to get me in such a state. Aside from that though Tennant is riding high on the enjoyment of his first year. He might not has realised at this point just how much the audience would take to him but it's clear there is a natural confidence and charisma that he exudes in the part.

Chavvy Chick: It is a funny old business, I do like it when there is a third companion, partly because it gives the show more dynamics to explore but also because John Barrowman and Noel Clarke genuinely bought something quite special to the show once they had settled into their roles. However when it comes the Tenth Doctor and Rose, a third wheel simply exposes the weaker aspects of their characters, namely their ignorance of how much they are hurting the third member and how involved in themselves they are. Take away the selfishness of their intimacy and their relationship is far sweeter, as it was in The Idiots Lantern and here. David Tennant and Billie Piper have something of a controversial relationship in the history of Doctor Who, fandom seems to have had an allergic reaction to them working together but as far as the general public are concerned they can do no wrong. Their chemistry this season is palpable but their carefree existence and smugness lacks the hip unity of Piper and Eccleston's relationship, it feels far more selfish. And yet it scores on such a domestic, emotional level that the audience at large could really buy into it. The Impossible Planet is where things shift up a gear, where we're building up to that extraordinary climax to the season. This is back when the relationship between the Doctor and the companion was as important as the plots, where the beats between them have a real impact. This episode exposes the richness in their partnership, both the characters and the actors. The Doctor's quiet despair at being trapped without his TARDIS is rectified slightly by the sweet moment where he and Rose talk about settling down, both of them too shy to admit they would choose to live together. This truly is a love story, the only time you could point to a Doctor and companion and swear they were so wrapped up in each other that it could actively be called a romance. Rose's admission that 'everybody has to leave home' and that being trapped in this situation is not so bad because she is with him are possibly the most mature scenes the character has ever had and all the better because they are understated and bashfully performed. Bravo. Also Rose's gentle kiss of the Doctor's helmet suggests an intimacy between them that surpasses anything we have seen before without stripping them of their dignity and getting all sweaty. It's just the two of them and for one they aren't so obsessed with each other that the situation feels insignificant. Instead the scenario that is playing out is as operatic as their relationship. The two work in real harmony.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The bitter pill. I like it.'

The Good: Imagination soars as with all the best Doctor Who stories. The Ood are a marvellous idea, a slave race that only reaps pleasure from serving others but with such a stomach-churning appearance. Loads of scope to be damn creepy and yet sympathetic at the same time, slaves of the humans or the Beast. Aesthetically they are unlike anything we have ever seen before, enough to turn your stomach but proving to be rather sweet until they are used like puppets. The big reveal that the base is affixed to a lump of rock orbiting a Black Hole is well presented to make the viewer gasp and gawp, helped no end that it is visually spectacular as well but bonus points for holding this off for ten minutes. Had this been a regular one-off episode this would have been tossed in the air before the opening theme. The science might be wonky but it feels like dangerous place to be and that is vital to any horror story. It is a terrifying thought being sucked into a black hole and the episode wastes no time in demonstrating the power of this phenomenon, Murray Gold's effective strings accompanying an entire star system being consumed by the gaping maw in space. The idea of a great evil under the ground waiting to be unearthed might not be original but it is a cliche for a reason, it's an enjoyable conceit. It turns a dark and gritty episode into an unnerving one, especially when the nature of the beast below is revealed. I am not easily scared. I think Doctor Who has managed to give me the shivers maybe three or four times in its entire run but there was one scene in this episode which terrified me more than any other that I have seen in TV or film for years. It was impeccably filmed, crawled under my skin and festered. Toby stands outside the base in the airless vacuum without a spacesuit before the black hole. His eyes are blood red, his face is stained with alien scrawl and he is grinning at Scooti. A beautiful smile of pure evil, beckoning him towards her. The glass cracks and she is sucked, screaming into space. I love the tiny moment between the Beast controlled Toby and the security officer where he tells him that his wife never forgave him. It's a backstory that we are never privy too but a line that opens a world of possibility for the character. It's some skillful character writing. Part one is more about exploring the setting and concepts, the slower paced second episode is where the guest characters are vivisected but this is a story that was heavily influenced by Davies and so powerful character nuggets cannot help but creepy through. It's lovely to see some grit in the new series, I remember Russell T Davies saying how much he channel hops and stops on the show with the prettiest picture regardless of how good the show is. Doctor Who this season is perhaps a little too pretty: New Earth, Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace, and The Idiots Lantern, all feature gorgeous productions with attractive imagery but it all looks a bit too NICE. Here we've got all the style but instead we're jumping down below decks with the workers. The sets are dirty, unsteady, filled with smoke... it really helps to put across the sense of clinging on to this rock for dear life. I like the contrast of the futuristic setting with the modern costumes, nothing too flashy but casual and comfortable just how you would want to be in that environment. Lighting is exceptional throughout, especially during Toby's murder scene and the Doctor and Rose's settling down conversation. I like how well thought through the structure of a working day has been considered in this story too. In science fiction I can pretty much forgive a multitude of sins if the situation is presented in a believable way. That doesn't necessarily mean in a contemporary way but as long as it establishes its own rules and sticks to them (or breaks them for the sake of good drama) I can usually immerse myself in that world. And the impossible planet is an easy world to immerse yourself in.

The Bad: The cliffhanger is utterly deceptive, especially the way it is filmed. It looks as if something terrifying is rising out of the pit but we discover in the second episode that that wasn't the case at all. The crane shot really makes you believe that whatever is below the base is on its way out. 

The Shallow Bit: It's the base of the good lookers. Fortunately they can all act too.

Result: I remember when his two part story first aired vividly, I did not have high hopes for the story. Whilst I loved Matt Jones' novel Bad Therapy, a very sweet character piece in the final third of the New Adventures, I couldn't stand Beyond the Sun, his Bernice Summerfield novel and I regularly found his column in DWM the most annoying thing about the magazine. The episodes themselves seemed to have the least compelling 'wow factor' in series two (no sign of Cassandra, Queen Victoria and werewolves, Sarah Jane or Giles from Buffy, Mickey as a companion or the return of Steven Moffat, Cybermen or Maureen Lipman as the villain). The trailer wasn't exactly thrilling and the best thing you could say about it before it transmitted was that 'that bloke from Casualty is in it'. Oh what a stupid fool I am. Hype is one thing (who wasn't disappointed with New Earth?) but a show firing on all cylinders and proving what it can do in every department is another and that is exactly what The Impossible Planet does. It is practically flawless technically and I genuinely feel it had the strongest cast yet assembled for the new series until this point (the two parters two thirds into series three and four would eventually surpass it in that regard). The Impossible Planet was a wonderful surprise, an episode that restored the the faith in series two after three mixed episodes in the middle of the year. The script is exemplary, heavily edited by Russell T. Davies and is on par with the best of the year. Matt Jones has written a damn good script, on par with the best of either year. The story is packed with great ideas and they are dramatised very well. This is a textbook case in how to effectively build up tension, spend the first fifteen minutes setting the scene and introducing the mystery, then mid-episode introduce some major problems for the characters to react to before your big reveal in the last third which gets everybody on the edge of their seat thinking it has all gone to hell. Jones has written an extremely strong cast of characters, so successfully thought through that the death of somebody we have only known for twenty minutes has a major impact. Whilst the cast are responsible for bringing these people to life, they really don't have anything to work with if the script is lacking. At this point it was the strongest ensemble to date and the chemistry between the actors is palpable The Impossible Planet is real edge-of-the-seat drama and an attempt to be scary that succeeds on just about every level. It's a great example of Doctor Who doing its best to give you nightmares before you go to sleep. It's almost a shame it is broadcast in the daylight. Do yourself a favour and tape it and watch it later in the dark on your own. I was captured by this when it was first broadcast and it holds up very nicely almost a decade later: 9/10

2 comments:

Michael said...

Agreed Joe! This is one of my favorite two-parters. I love the scenes of the Doctor descending into the pit. The first time I watched this I remember feeling that there was a bit more risk and danger to the situation our heroes were in this time, compared to other eps... Actually come to think about it, I feel that way whenever the TARDIS is "lost" in an episode... Despite it now being a familiar trope.

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