The Creature from the Pit

DVDWell, this one is full of a load of old nonsense, isn’t it? Although I was quite pleased with the “limey wimey” gag (even though anyone still trading off “timey wimey” come summer 2010 was probably pushing it a bit). After filing this piece, I remember Peter from DWM gently advised me it was felt I was quoting from the episodes a little too much. I was.

Anyway, from DWM #422…

DWM #422Ah, Erato – one of the Greek Muses – whose name means “Desired” and who inspired poetry of the most erotic order. See Erato, flaxen of hair, comely of form, strumming her lyre. Good girl, Erato.

Now see Erato in Television Centre’s Studio 6. It’s 1979 and the ginormous ball-bag’s debut on the floor has inspired not just derisory laughter from the crew, but a sheaf of BBC memos of the most un-erotic order. That’s despite the fact the thing sports the sexiest appendage ever seen on a Doctor Who monster. But still, good girl, Erato. Good boy?

Writer David Fisher really did name his creation after the Grecian goddess whose image Plato and Virgil evoked in their work during pre-Christian times. Now it’s FX man Matt Irvine who’s rendering the likeness, and in a pre-Larry Grayson’s Generation Game timeslot. He’s using meteorological balloons painted green.

We cut straight to the eponymous entity’s appearance because, when reviewing The Creature from the Pit, Erato is the elephantine blob in the room. One huge (in every sense) production short-fall, it casts a long, wobbly shadow over the adventure. It’s the reason many – including producer Graham Williams – consider the four-parter a failure. But it’s not.

Don’t worry, I’m not gearing up to launch an argument for why the ambassador from Tythonus wasn’t fatally misconceived. However, anything that prompts such treasurable lines as, “Oozing about and sitting on people, not much of a life, is it?” should be automatically allocated a little bit of love. Furthermore, as a plot point, Erato is brilliant.

“You’ve got beautiful skin,” joshes the Fourth Doctor encountering the creature. “Extraordinary skin. Green veins! Chlorophyll? I wonder…” That’s deft story-telling. From silliness into a clever and very tidy spot of exposition, it’s a template for how Doctor Who works at its best (leaving aside the fact one moment later Tom Baker’s chasing a cheap laugh by blowing down Erato’s dubiously dangling ganglion – bad boy!).

This is just one of many inversions in Fisher’s script that makes the tale of the metal-scarce planet Chloris and the beast below rather durable. “We call it the creature!” declares Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances). “It kills people. What more is there to know?” Loads, as it turns out. Because, playing against our expectations, the big green gland isn’t a monster, it’s just misunderstood. Adrasta is the one we should fear. Concerned Erato’s mission to trade metal for chlorophyll would destabilise her powerbase she’s “tipped the ambassador into a pit and thrown astrologists at him”, as the Doctor explains.

Similarly, although a female baddy isn’t all that unusual for Doctor Who, having the muscle represented by an elfin 67-year-old woman absolutely is. The decision works, though, with Eileen Way as the splendidly wicked Karela. She plays into every child’s fear of that whiskery great aunt who takes pleasure in pinching your ribs under the guise of seeing how big you’ve got, or dumping a sachet of liver salts into a glass of squash and serving it as fizzy orange… Or was that just my aunt?

Karela’s the one who undertakes the despatching, the most shocking being her last as she runs a blade through metal-obsessed bandit boss Torvin (John Bryans). “There’s another six inches to add to your collection, old man!” she cackles – one of the series’ nastiest lines. And her calling him “old”? Karela’s great.

Less successful – clearly – are Torvin and co.

When the story begins, the Doctor and Romana look through the TARDIS scanner onto the film stock Ealing Studios jungle outside. It brings to mind the Monty Python sketch: “This room is surrounded by film.” The bandits continue that theme, dressed as Python’s ‘It’s’ hermit and shambling through the tale. To be fair, their ineffectualness is intentional. “I’m not used to being assaulted by a collection of hairy, grubby little men!” hisses Romana. “She’s no call to get personal”, winces Torvin. But the Time Lady’s got them down pat: “As bandits go you’re a pretty duff bunch.”

They’re the light relief, and they know it. But Torvin gets a bit tiresome, playing that “I’ll be rich… I mean we’ll be rich!” gag over and over and fussing around his “lovely boys” in the most Fagin-esque fashion. He only just stops short of instructing them “to nick a sprocket or two” when clearing out Adrasta’s hoard of metallic nick-nacks.

Astrologer Organon fulfils a similar function. He’s a whimsical foil for the Doctor (not to be confused with the whimsical aluminium foil which saves the day) but Geoffrey Bayldon infuses the role with charm, in the main because this is the sort of character we like to see him playing – bonkers. Organon escapes the natural justice the Who universe usually metes out to those who claim to divine the future, by lieu of being a gleeful fraud. Eyeballing the scroll the Doctor hands the Huntsman at the story’s close, he pretends its contents have come to him by celestial means: “It’s a draft contract for a trading agreement,” he intones. And then nabs the adventure’s lovely outro line, fingers crossed to mitigate for his fibbing, “It was written in the stars”.

Aside from the titular creature’s failure, the other much recorded ‘fact’ about this story is it was the first recorded by Lalla Ward as Romana and David Brierley as K9. The latter does a fine job, although it feels like a performance in stasis, as though he’s been briefed to continue what John Leeson established. Ward, meanwhile, isn’t quite the noblest Romana of them all. Not yet. Much like Brierley she’s mainlining her predecessor, Mary Tamm. The way she takes control of the bandits is fabulous, but as for being condescendingly referred to as “dear” and slapped around by Adrasta, it’s as out-of-character for the Time Lady as that mimsy piny she wears at the top of the tale.

The Creature from the Pit is an easy watch. Yes, the massive dollop of wibbly-wobbly limey-wimey in the middle is an issue, but there are always bits of business going on to divert the attention, from the guard napping in Adrasta’s throne, to the Doctor’s post modern exchange with the Huntsman who makes with the end-of-adventure thank-yous too early in part four (“Don’t say it – not yet!”). Erato and friends perhaps can’t live up to the epic romanticism of the Greek Muses – and this story is hardly poetry – but they do amuse.

Extras

Much like this review, the DVD extras get busy addressing Creature’s shortcomings. In Team Erato, Matt Irvine reflects the monster was like, “A big blancmange with a four-foot phallus.” But there is a happy ending, as Irvine reads out a contemporary letter from Mrs Drabble, whose kids were terrified of Erato. “Great,” he says. “We won.”

Christopher Barry: Director is a pleasant chat covering the man’s Doctor Who career – which began with the first Dalek story in 1964, and ended with Creature. It’s quietly candid (Barry describes himself as “a good jobbing director”) if over-scored (the unctuous incidental music just won’t let up).

The disc also sports a commentary track from Lalla Ward, Myra Frances, Matt Irvine and Barry himself. “You could say the monster from the pits!” he moans, while Irvine puts forward the notion 1970s Doctor Who was akin to a sitcom in the way it was produced. “I’m going to get my five-and-a-half year-old grandson’s opinion on this,” reckons an emboldened Frances. “It was better than I remembered, and I was worse!” declares Ward. Best bit is the very end, with Barry moaning modern day TV credits don’t roll unmolested. “Nobody gives a…” and then the final fuzz of the Doctor Who theme drowns him out: Shhzzzzzz.

But my absolute favourite thing is a snippet from Animal Magic, filmed on the set of Creature. Here’s the Doctor in stocks: “Hello! I’m on the planet Chloris, and they think they’ve got the upper hand. But never mind, that’s another story…” What follows is his appraisal of Who monsters, and is all this canon? The Shrivenzale ate six buffalos a day “and two wheelbarrow-loads of coconuts. Unbroken!”, while the Wirrn had “a sting so fierce it could have done an elephant in five minutes.” Then Tom bursts into a huge laugh and ambles off-camera: “Oh, God forgive me!”

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2 thoughts on “The Creature from the Pit

  1. Hi Miche. Very kind of you to take this site’s comment cherry. Creature from the Pit, sincerely, is rather good. It’s funny in the right bits, and some of the storytelling is remarkably clever. But then, I guess I’ve already said all that above.

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