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SYFY WIRE Religion in Genre

Doctor Who’s 'The Satan Pit' and believing in people over prayer

By Courtney Enlow

"The Devil is an idea. In all those civilizations, just an idea. But an idea is hard to kill. An idea could escape."

In the Doctor Who two-parter "The Impossible Planet" / "The Satan Pit," the Doctor is forced to confront the existence of a devil, allegedly The Devil. Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, whatever — it's this guy. 

Doctor Who The_Beast

It's a classic genre move. You have the logical, pragmatic atheist or agnostic confronted with the existence of something beyond their worldview, a god or God or the potential of something more, some "higher power." And they are often either outright proven wrong or at the very least accept there might be something, that they might be wrong about the worldview that has guided their entire existence.

These characters are often scientists, people who have chosen science and the act of understanding and explaining the inexplicable as their careers, their entire lives. We spend maybe 90-180 minutes with these people and take this specific journey with them, so when that big revelation happens, it's satisfying or at the very least understandable. But to process that the thing you have determined as your defining quality, the view of the universe you most identify with and are certain of, is wrong? That's bigger than the revelation itself, and difficult to contain within a single narrative unit.

"If I destroy the prison, your body is destroyed. Your mind with it. But then you’re clever enough to use this whole systen against me. If I destroy this planet I destroy the gravity field. The rocket. The rocket loses protection, falls into the black hole. I’ll have to sacrifice Rose."

That's why it's so important that the Doctor frankly spends maybe moments dealing with what he's seeing, this literally massive, hulking thing, and then turns his mind to what is more important to him: people. Or, rather, a person. Rose Tyler.

Whether you, like me, saw the relationship between the Doctor and Rose to be one of powerful friendship, or you are a die-hard Rose/10 shipper (clearly canon is on your side, I merely disagree), what they have between them is greater than any religion, greater than any God, god, or gods. Faith is intangible. For some, that faith is directed at this concept of a supreme omnisciant being. But to me, to the Doctor, the faith we put stock in, our true religion, is in other people. In their goodness, their badness, the ways they affect our lives and the ways we affect theirs. Whether there is actually some being or system of beings watching over us, or a post-mortal series of rewards and punishments in place for us when we leave this mortal coil, ultimately, all that matters in the end is how we treat each other, and our ability to put faith in one another.

"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."

To believe that there is some greater purpose, something that will save us or deliver retribution or in some way influence our existence is to put faith in the unknown. Having faith in other people is trickier. Because people are flawed. People are imperfect. People are scared, and cruel, and beautiful, and wonderful, and terrible, and everything and anything between and beyond. To put faith in people is to rely upon that which is unreliable. To trust another person not only with your own life but the lives of the entire world, that is hard. Impossible, even. We believe in the 1000-plus-year-old being with two hearts and a ship that makes no sense, but to believe in a human? To believe in humanity in the face of all the things humans do, the wrongs and the evils and the cruelties? To see goodness when humanity brings so much awful?

That's faith. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.