Science Fiction and Religion – Doctor Who, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit

With this week being the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, it seemed a good time to do some Doctor Who posts! I’ll try not to cover the ground others do. So let’s look at the show through the lens of one of our recurring elements: Science Fiction and Religion.

Religion doesn’t frequently come up in Doctor Who, at least not in what I have seen. They are careful not to mock religion or just treat it like it has just been disproven, like you get in some science fiction. They visit different planets and races and cultures, after all, who have different beliefs and rituals. However, many go back to the same sort of underlying causes or reasons, like the fear of the dark being based on the Vashta Nerada.

I recently watched the episodes The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, from series 2 of the recent Doctor Who. This two-parter delves into one aspect of religion, at least: into the heart of evil. These episodes are about the Beast. These episodes leave us without solid answers, certainly not any from the Doctor. And as far as religion and science fiction goes, I think this is just the right result. Read on for more thoughts from the episode, and spoilers aplenty!

What Makes It Science Fiction and Religion?

Since I’ve been looking at the definitions of things, I figure, let’s not assume things about this. After all, the Doctor doesn’t assume anything in the episodes – one way or another.

First, as to it being science fiction. Well, beyond making a statement like “all of Doctor Who is science fiction.” Based on the working definition of science fiction I have been working with, I think these episodes deal in two major themes about humanity.

One is a question of slavery, often set in a science fiction backdrop in relation to robots – but in this case, with an alien race. The Ood. Born to serve, much like a robot might be built to serve – but still, are they being taken advantage of?

And then, as the Doctor observes, here humanity is, the edge of space, on an impossible planet. And why are they there? Because it was there. The human curiosity, the need to explore.  The backdrop of much of science fiction, but still ridiculous to find themselves there – and yet, so very human.

So, as to this being religion – and not just another alien. The Ood, channeling the voice of the Beast, say:

The Beast and his armies shall rise from the pit to make war against God.

However, they do more than use the idea of Satan in the episodes – though their presentation is very good of this ancient evil force. No, they also have to question faith. In this case, the Doctor’s faith – what he believes in. After all, he’s a Time Lord, galavanting around the universe like he knows everything.

But does he really?

So from here, the two major focuses really are the Beast, and the Doctor.

I Am The Temptation

Towards the end, we see a gigantic Beast, an evil form, an incarnation of Satan, a vision we might expect to see. But it’s nowhere near as simple as that.

For one thing, they play with the idea of evil being Legion, and it takes over the easiest things. The things it does not need to tempt. It takes over the computers. It takes over the Ood.

And it tempts the rest of the crew – sees into their minds, plays with their fears and doubts. In all of this, we see strong hints that this is not a bodied experience, but one of the mind.

So while the Doctor encounters the large, physical, brooding Beast, it’s not really there. The Beast is a mind, is a will. No, the Beast is an idea. Evil is an idea.

After all, Evil requires an opposite: Evil exists only in relation to Good. And Good exists only in relation to Evil. If everything were one, or the other, it would instead be called “normal.” And for each of us, there is some relativism: this would manifest differently. There are many evils we might fall prey to: but we don’t tend to each of us fall prey to all of them. This means evil is in the end personalized, is an aspect of ourselves, something we each understand in our own way.

Yet there are also ideas of it that we can all see and agree on. And, like other Doctor Who ideas, this is one that they seem to be saying is universe-wide, is large and before.  The Beast declares that it is from before the Universe, from before Time. And the show gives us all the evidence for this that it can: a language that the TARDIS cannot translate, a place where Rose’s phone that can make calls through Time and Space doesn’t work, and a planet which does not fall into the gravity well of a Black Hole.

Pretty strange stuff, really, even for Doctor Who. The Doctor takes issue with it, eventually. With the claims that the Beast comes from before Time, something a Time Lord would not understand.

I Believe In Her

When told that the Beast comes from before Time, from before the Universe, he says, “Nothing could have lived before then.” The Beast replies,

Is this your religion?

This is an interesting question. Is the Doctor’s religion Time? Or the beliefs and knowledge of the Time Lords? Perhaps. But then, he’s not the most normal of the Time Lords, not by any means like the others. The Doctor is the one who ran away. Or as the Beast says,

This one knows me as I know him – the killer of his own kind.

The Doctor, the man who killed the Time Lords. More than a little evil in his past, methinks. More than we know – at least more than we know before the 50th Anniversary special!

The Doctor makes other claims about who he is, and what he believes in, instead. He says that he keeps traveling to be proved wrong. So while indeed he might have faith in the knowledge of the Time Lords, might believe they knew everything – he’s willing and wanting to be disproved.

And so, this episode stands. He never disproves that this is Satan, the basis of the belief. He certainly does prove the Beast is an idea, not a physical being – but this just makes him more powerful, not less. But they escape, and for the Doctor, this is enough.

Another thing that happens in the episode is the test of faith – a leap of faith. They literally have to leap down a seemingly endless pit, and land just fine. This is how they get to the Beast. And the Doctor is willing.

And in terms of a statement of faith, the Doctor makes one. He says, “I believe in her.” Does this mean Rose? Rose, who merged with the TARDIS? Rose, the Bad Wolf? Rose, who brings life?

Alternately, the Doctor and all the rest are saved by the TARDIS. And, while they likely intended for his faith to be in Rose, I like to think that it is the TARDIS he means, that this is the “her” he believes in. But that’s a post for another day. Another day probably this week.

For one last thought, the Ood. The Doctor failed to save them, the oppressed slaves, who are taken over by the Beast and used for violence. This ends up being a recurring theme for the Doctor after this, the Ood he fails to save. He ends up with a very special – and not well defined – relationship with the Ood. I’ll be interested to see where this goes in the future, because I don’t think it’s over!

There are several clips from this episode on the DoctorWho YouTube channel – check them out!

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One response to “Science Fiction and Religion – Doctor Who, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit

  1. Pingback: Science Fiction and Religion – Doctor Who and The Doctor’s Wife | Comparative Geeks

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