The Doctor and the Devil

One of my favorite Doctor Who tropes is the use of alien creatures to explain legends and myths (as well as integrate these creatures – in a very Doctor Who-esque way – into the show).  We’ve seen a Haemovariform crash-land on Earth and be mistaken for a werewolf in Scotland in 1879 (S2,E2).  There was a band of Saturnyns creating vampire-like “brides” for their remaining male population in 1580 Venice (S5,E6).  The reason beings on most planets are instinctively afraid of the dark is explained with the presence of the flesh-eating Vashta Nerada, who we see as the dust in sunbeams (S4,E8).  The occasional movement we see flicker, out of the corner of our eye, when we look in mirrors is the “daughter” of “the Family of Blood,” forever trapped in all mirrors by the Doctor (S3,E9).  The list goes on.  But the one most fascinating to me is when the Doctor and Rose encounter “the Beast.”

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Rose and the Doctor briefly consider getting back in the TARDIS as the base may be dangerous. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

“The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” (S2, E8-9) are a two-part story where the TARDIS lands on a Sanctuary Base, a structure designed for deep space exploration.  The base is on a planet, Krop Tor, orbiting a black hole.  The crew – Captain Zachary Cross Flane, Science Office Ida Scott, Head of Security John Jefferson, maintenance officer trainee Scooti Manista, and archaeologist Toby Zed – are there to investigate the planet in an attempt to find (and, in understanding, figure out how to use) whatever power source is keeping the planet from being sucked into the black hole.  Utilizing a servant race called the Ood, they go about their business but it soon becomes clear all is not as it seems as…something awakens and begins to torment the crew.

Exactly what that something is, is what I find so intriguing about this story!

The TARDIS lands in a cupboard and, as the Doctor and Rose begin to explore the Sanctuary Base, Rose spots a sign reading “Welcome to Hell,” scrawled on the wall.  The Doctor can’t recognize the language below, which is significant, as the TARDIS is equipped with a translation matrix allowing whoever travels within it to automatically understand any foreign language they encounter, spoken or written.

The Doctor – “Hold on.  What does that say?  That’s weird…it won’t translate.”

Rose – “But I thought the TARDIS translated everything, writing as well.”

The Doctor – “Exactly.  But if that’s not working it means this writing is old.  Very old.  Impossibly old.  We should find out who’s in charge.  We’ve gone beyond the reach of the TARDIS’s knowledge – not a good move.”

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Waiting aboard the Sanctuary Base. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

This establishes a) what they will be dealing with is beyond the significant reach of the Doctor’s own knowledge and b) it’s also old enough to be beyond the scope of the Time Lords’ “technology” (TARDISes are living organisms, grown not built, but that’s the story for another post).  As they meet the crew and begin to learn about the “impossible” nature of what they are investigating, the Beast begins to awaken.

The first thing it says to Toby – to anyone in the show – is to call out his name as he’s alone.  So the first thing the Beast does is to offer a sort of…invitation.  Toby looks round but doesn’t hear or see anything else (yet).  He’s curious, naturally, but he doesn’t know what’s seeking him.  Then the lights flicker and, for a moment, he’s in total darkness.  An invitation, a call from the darkness – that’s how the Beast is introduced.

Toby rejoins the group as they are explaining to the Doctor and Rose how the gravity well holds the planet in orbit around this black hole.  Speaking of the power source Toby adds:

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Toby as he explains what may be waiting to Rose and the Doctor. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

Toby – “It’s buried beneath us, in the darkness, waiting.”

 

Rose – “What’s your job?  Chief dramatist?”

Toby – “Well, whatever it is down there is not a natural phenomenon.  This planet once supported life, eons ago, before the human race had even learned to walk.”

The Doctor – “I saw that lettering written on the wall.  Did you do that?”

Toby – “I copied it from fragments we found, we unearthed from the drilling but I can’t translate it.”

The Doctor – “Neither can I, and that’s saying something.”

Toby – “There was some form of civilization that buried something.  Now it’s reaching out.  Calling us in.”

The Doctor – “And you came.”

Ida – “Well how could we not?”

The Doctor – “So, when it comes right down to it, why did you come here?  Why did you do that?  Why?  I’ll tell you why.  Because it was there.  Brilliant!  Human beings – you are amazing.”

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The black hole above the Sanctuary Base. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

An ancient civilization has buried the yet-unrevealed Beast and it’s been buried for a long time.  Yet, Toby theorizes, it’s reaching out.  It’s calling them.  In and of itself this is a fascinating way to frame our conception of “evil.”  It’s something long buried yet still present.  It can be a source of power.  And it calls to us.  The call is important, implying there is always a choice in regard to our participation with evil.

I also love the Doctor’s enthusiasm :).  Despite the risks, we’ll go “because it’s there.”  Even with a two-part episode anchored around the examination of “the Devil” as an actual being, they make certain to include this.  This is so important, especially within this context.  Our inclination to explore, to learn, to know isn’t in and of itself something bad.  It can be used for evil purposes, sure.  We can fall to temptations.  But it’s something to celebrate, not fear.

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The Ood who serve on Sanctuary Base / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The Beast then begins to make its presence known more clearly.  While chatting with one of the Ood who is serving her dinner, Rose asks if they get paid.  The Ood says, “The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God.”  When Rose asks, “…I’m sorry?” the Ood replies, “Apologies.  I said, ‘I hope you enjoy your meal.’”  Next, Danny hears it as the ship’s automated system tells him, “Close Door 3…He is awake…Close Door 3.”  While examining more of the ancient writing, Toby hears it again and is possessed by the Beast – seeing the ancient writing materialize all over his skin when he looks in the mirror and his eyes begin to burn red.  When Rose’s phone mysteriously rings, she answers it to hear, “He is awake.”  When Rose repeats this line in the presence the Ood, they reply, “And you will worship him.”  Trying to sort an interface she believes is malfunctioning, Scooti demands the computer tell her who went through Door 41 and out onto the airless surface of the planet.  It replies, “He is awake.  He is awake.  He bathes in the black sun.”

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The warning of the Beast comes through Rose’s phone. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

All of those lines are interesting and, to a degree, expected in a story like this.  It’s awakened.  It’s possessing.  It is seeking worship.  Bathing in the black sun also adds a nice bit of imagery.  But the line that catches my attention the most is the first the Ood says to Rose.  “The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God.”

While I haven’t watched all (or any, really) of the classic 1963-1989 episodes of Doctor Who, a bit of research easily yields this isn’t the first time the Doctor has encountered something, shall we say, Devil-adjacent.  The Third Doctor theorized the horned Daemon race were the inspiration for the myth of Satan, given the monstrous experiments they ran on ancient humanity.[1]  The Fourth Doctor stated the Osirian,[2] Sutekh, called himself many names including Satan.[3]  Both of these examples fit perfectly with the trope mentioned above.  These are two examples of aliens – a race and a particular being – serving as the source for our conception of Satan.  But “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” are doing something different.

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The Ood once under the control of the Beast / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

We see this, in part, as the Ood are invoking “the Beast” but also “God.”  The Doctor has encountered many godlike beings in his travels.  But it is obvious from the context the Ood aren’t speaking of demigods or “old gods” or aliens mistaken for deities here.  They are saying the Beast opposes God in a “big ‘G,’” ontological source of all existence, kind of way – a concept this show doesn’t traditionally traffic in.  It makes sense.  “God” is that which many of us turn to for guidance yet it – however we define it – is also ultimately unknowable.  If God is as we traditionally conceive of God to be, infinite and transcendent, then it is literally impossible for our finite human brains to comprehend the totality of God.[4]  We just can’t!  Yet we, for as long as we have been evolutionarily discernable as human beings, have been seeking it anyway.[5]  Brilliant!  Human beings, we are amazing :).

Despite its importance to human thought, it’s understandable why Doctor Who has never posited a “definitive” answer on the Divine.  The writers of the show themselves can’t begin to know the definitive truth – again, none of us can – and, the infinite transcendent absolute ground and source of all being and non-being, is quite naturally beyond even the Doctor’s understanding.  So, from a writing standpoint, I imagine it’s easier to avoid addressing these ideas straight on.  Yet their very intentional use of the Devil and God in these episodes yield important results and at the outset the place the source of all evil at odds with the source of all creation.

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The Doctor and Rose struggle to grasp how the Sanctuary Base could not be pulled into the black hole above them. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

As they struggle to understand what’s happening in the Sanctuary Base, quite suddenly, the drilling stops.  They have reached the source of the power emanating from the planet.  When the Doctor and Ida go down to investigate they find the remains of an ancient civilization.  Inside a giant temple gate they find a massive metal seal in the floor, covered in the same markings they’d found above.  Simultaneously, Toby proclaims, “These are the words of the Beast and he has woke.  He is the heart that beats in the darkness.  He is the blood that will never cease.  And now he will rise.”  All of the Ood then begin to speak in unison, “We are the Legion of the Beast.  The Legion shall be many and the Legion shall be few.  He has woven himself into the fabric of your life since the dawn of time.  Some may call him Abaddon.  Some may call him Kroptor.  Some may call him Satan.  Or Lucifer.  Or the Bringer of Despair.  The Deathless Prince.  The Bringer of Night.  These are the words that shall set him free.  I shall become manifest.  I shall walk in the might.  And my Legions shall swarm across the worlds.  I am the sin and the temptation and the desire.  I am the pain and the loss and the death.  I have been imprisoned for eternity.  But no more.”  As “The Impossible Plant” comes to an end, the seal crumbles and the Doctor and Ida hear a voice in the darkness declare, “The Pit is open.  And I am free.”

There is SO MUCH there to deconstruct!  But what I want to focus on is the Ood’s declaration, “He has woven himself into the fabric of your life since the dawn of time.”  How amazing is that?  First, it’s saying that even though the Beast has been locked away, it’s still been present throughout creation.  So, we can have evil even in the absence of the literal presence of the Devil.  Second, it perfectly captures the idea of systemic sin.  This is the idea that sinful practices, that very real evil, are just a part of our society and we participate in it without even noticing.  Think of systemic racism or sexism or a punitive attitude towards the poor.  These are all inherently evil, all are anchored in beliefs that are demonstrably false.  Yet many of us believe them, unthinkingly, all the same.  Evil is around us, in big and small ways, all the time – woven into the fabric of our lives since the dawn of time.  Lastly, it illustrates that evil has always been with us.

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Toby possessed by the Beast / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

We begin to see the Doctor’s hesitance at the beginning of “The Satan Pit.”  Over the coms Rose asks, “Is it Satan?”  The Doctor replies, “C’mon Rose, keep it together.”  She asks again, “Is there no such thing?  Doctor?  Doctor, tell me there’s no such thing.”  But the Doctor doesn’t.  The Doctor can’t – or won’t – confirm Satan doesn’t exist.

The Beast speaks to the crew, the Doctor, and Rose again through the Ood, broadcasting over the comms in the station.  When Zach asks the voice to identify itself the answer is chilling.  The Beast says, “You know my name.”  It implies both that the crew know what this is but also that we, as the viewers know the truth of the Devil too…even if we seek to deny it.  The Doctor relentlessly pushes the issue.

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The Doctor as he debates with the Beast on his way into the Pit / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The Doctor – “If you are the Beast, then answer me this.  Which one?  Hmm?  ‘Cause the universe has been busy since you’ve been gone.  There’s more religions than there are planets in the sky.  The Archiphets, Orkology, Christianity, Pash Pash, New Judaism, San Klah, Church of the Tin Vagabond.  Which devil are you?”

The Beast – “All of them.”

The Doctor – “What, then you’re the truth behind the myth?”

The Beast – “This one knows me as I know him.  The killer of his own kind.”

The Doctor – “How did you end up on this rock?”

The Beast – “The Disciples of the Light rose up against me and chained me in the Pit for all eternity.”

The Doctor – “When was this?”

The Beast – “ Before time.”

The Doctor – “What does that mean?”

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The Beast – “Before time.”

The Doctor – “What does before time mean?”

The Beast – “Before light and time and space and matter.  Before the cataclysm.  Before this universe was created.”

The Doctor – “That’s impossible.  No life could have existed back then.”

The Beast – “Is that your religion?”

The Doctor – “It’s a belief.”

The Beast – “ You know nothing.  All of you, so small.”

While the Doctor fights the idea of this being the actual Devil through the episode, what they posit here is intriguing.  Just as we often conceive of the Divine Truth – whatever that may be – being experienced in different forms and proclaimed in different ways by prophets from the Buddha to Lao Tzu to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad and beyond, this is saying the Devil, the “Evil One,” is similar in nature.  There is one source from which all our understandings of evil and all our mythic representations of evil flow. 

(Note, as I often like to point out, the idea that a myth is something “false” is one of the great crimes of the Enlightenment.  Traditionally, a myth is a story used to express a deeply spiritual truth, a truth larger than “fact” that can only be expressed in poetry and metaphor.[6]  So to say stories or representations of the Devil, or God for that matter, are  myths is not to say they are false.  Rather, it is to say they seek to express the largest sort or truths in the only language capable of approaching such truth.)

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The Doctor and Ida in the Pit / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

This point is pushed further when, trapped in the Pit with their air running low, the Doctor has Ida lower him further down into the Pit, seeking a way out.  He tells Ida, “You get representations of the Horned Beast right across the universe, in myths and legends of a million worlds – Earth, Draconia, Velconsadine, Daemos, the Kaled god of war.  It’s the same image over and over again.  Maybe that idea came from somewhere, bleeding through, a thought in the back of every sentient mind.”  She asks, “Emanating from here?”  The Doctor replies, “Could be.”  Ida continues, “But if this is the original, does that make it real?  Does that make it the actual Devil though?”  The Doctor says, “Well, if that’s what you want to believe.  Maybe that’s what the Devil in, in the end.  An idea.”

Here they play more with this – a being versus an idea.  Just what, really, is the Devil?  Is there a dark, evil force somewhere in the universe?  Or is it an idea conjured to help explain the suffering we see?  In a two-part episode that is already doing so much theologically, the show offers one of its most poignant moments as Ida and the Doctor discuss faith as she lowers him down.

The Doctor – “I didn’t ask.  Have you got any sort of faith?”

Ida – “Not really.  I was brought up Neoclassical Congregational, because of my mum.  She was.  My old mum.  But no, I never believed.”

The Doctor – “Neoclassical, have they got a devil?”

Ida – “No, not as such. Just, er, the things that men do.”

The Doctor – “Same thing in the end.”

Ida – “What about you?”

The Doctor – “I believe…I believe I haven’t seen everything.  I dunno.  It’s funny, isn’t it?  The things you make up.  The rules.  If that thing had said it came from beyond the universe, I’d believe it.  But before the universe?  Impossible.  Doesn’t fit my rule.”

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The Doctor pondering the issues of faith as he descends. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

Again, they are playing with that line – is the Devil a real, physical being or not?  Ida tells the Doctor her faith sees “the Devil” in “the things that men do.”  The Doctor agrees, “Same thing in the end.”  Again, along with the Doctor the viewer is forced to consider.  Is that what the Devil is?  A name for our own evil, destructive actions?  Or is there something more to it?  Before releasing the cable, the Doctor continues:

The Doctor – “Still, that’s why I keep travelling.  To be proved wrong.  Thank you, Ida.”

Ida – “Don’t go!”

The Doctor – “If they get back in touch, if you talk to Rose, just tell her…tell her…oh, she knows.”

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Rose says “goodbye and good luck” to the Doctor before he and Ida descend into the Pit. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

No matter how many times I watch this episode, that always strikes me.  The Doctor may be about to die.  He may be about to face Satan itself.  And in the face of all that he can’t articulate all Rose means to him.  The Doctor can’t say how special she is.  The Doctor can’t say he loves her.  That…is so damn haunting.  All the Doctor’s faced, all the Doctor’s done, but most strikingly because of all the Doctor’s lost, he can’t say it.  He can’t say, Rose, I love you.  It’s heartbreaking.  It’s also understandable in its own way, too.

This episode always leaves me wondering, is love scarier than facing true evil?  Is it easier to “be the hero” than to own your love, voice your love, share your love…only to risk it not being returned or to lose it?  Is that scarier than confronting the Devil itself?  For the Doctor, a this moment in time, the answer seems to be “yes.”  And there may be some truth to that.  Nothing heals us like love, nothing nourishes us like love, nothing completes us like love and, because of that, nothing can hurt us like love.  As U2 sing in “Walk On,” “Love, is not an easy thing / the only baggage, that you can bring / is all that you can’t leave behind.”  The reason we can’t leave it behind is because, in love, we offer the most essential parts of ourselves, all that we can’t leave behind.

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The Doctor stands before the Beast in its chains. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The Doctor’s unvoiced love of Rose becomes the pivot point of the Beast’s escape.  Staring at the giant horned monster in chains, the Doctor is still skeptical.  He tells the Beast, “I accept that you exist.  I don’t have to accept what you are.  But your physical existence, I’ll give you that.”  The Doctor soon realizes the “impossible planet” is part of the prison.  Should the Beast ever become free, the gravity well will collapse and it will be drawn into the black hole.  But while the Beast is in chains before the Doctor, it’s mind is gone.  The Doctor understands the mind is escaping in Toby’s body, in the shuttle just launched from the crumbling Sanctuary Base…the shuttle also carrying Rose.

The Doctor tells the creature, “But then you’re clever enough to use this whole system against me.  If I destroy this planet, I destroy the gravity field.  The rocket.  The rocket loses protection and falls into the black hole.  I have to sacrifice Rose.  So, that’s the trap.  Or the test.  Or the final judgment, I don’t know.  But if I kill you, I kill her.  Except that implies in this big grand scheme of gods and devils that she’s just a victim.  But I’ve seen a lot of this universe.  I’ve seen fake gods and bad gods and demigods and would-be gods and out of all that, out of that whole pantheon, if I believe in one thing – just one thing – I believe in her.”  YES!  Ahhhh, I love it!  While the Doctor may not be able to voice his love, he can voice his faith.  The one thing he believes in is the Beloved.  I love what this says about the Doctor’s relationship with Rose and I love what it says about Rose as a character.  She’s not the damsel in distress.  The Doctor knows she can and will handle herself.  The Doctor brings down the gravity field and it’s Rose who, upon learning the Beast is on the shuttle with them, shoots the window while unbuckling Toby’s possessed body, sending the Beast hurtling into the black hole.

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Rose saving the day and sending the Beast into the black hole. / Photo Credit –Doctor Who

So the day is saved but, even in the end, the Doctor is still unsure what it was they confronted.  He is unwilling to speculate, too.  Back onboard the TARDIS, as they prepare to leave, Ida asks the Doctor the question over their comms:

Ida – “But Doctor, what did you find down there?  That creature, what was it?”

The Doctor – “I don’t know.  Never did decipher that writing.  But that’s good.  Day I know everything?  Might as well stop.”

Rose – “What do you think it was, really?”

The Doctor – “I think we beat it.  That’s good enough for me.”

This ending is so perfect.  The Doctor has an explanation for everything…except for this.  He doesn’t know – or, perhaps, can’t accept – what it was they encountered.  Is this saying something about the nature of evil?  Is the true reality of evil always beyond our comprehension?  Is this saying something about the nature of the Devil?  If this being of ultimate evil exists, is it something beyond the grasp of our finite minds, like the true nature of the infinite as traditionally envisioned within the Divine?  Is it because even someone as brilliant and well-travelled and old as the Doctor can’t full grasp the mysterious truth of evil and suffering?

Ultimately, I don’t know.  And I deeply respect the show’s writers – Matt Jones in the case of this two-parter – for being wise enough to leave it unanswered.  The Devil?  God?  Good?  Evil?  We can’t ever be certain we know the Truth.  But the Doctor doesn’t know either, and that’s important too.  Part of human existence is wrestling with questions and seeking answers that will forever be beyond our ability to comprehend.  But we keep going, because that’s what we do – human beings, we are amazing :).  In all the uncertainty, we take solace in the few things we can know for sure and we find there is no greater source of strength, no more worthy deposit of our faith, than those to whom we are truly bonded in the divine, mystical, sacred experience of love.

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Rose Tyler – the one in whom the Doctor believes above all else. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

 

 

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[1] “Satan” TARDIS Data Core: The Doctor Who Wiki.  Accessed March 21, 2020.  https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Satan

[2] “Sutekh,” TARDIS Data Core: The Doctor Who Wiki.  Accessed March 21, 2020.  https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Sutekh

[3] “Satan.”

[4] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.  (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 56-7.

[5] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), xix.

[6] Campbell and Moyer, 71.

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