Doctor Who: The Creature from the Pit

5

September 16, 2012 by Aidan

Title: The Creature from the Pit
Placement:
Season 17, Serial 3
Broadcast Dates:
27 October to 17 November, 1979
Writers:
David Fisher
Director: Christopher Barry
Characters: Fourth Doctor, Romana II

The Blurb: Making a forced materialization on Chloris, the Doctor, Romana and K-9 become embroiled in the political machinations of its ruler, the Lady Adrasta.

The lush vegetation of the planet’s surface hides a ragtag group of bandits, a giant eggshell, man-eating Wolfweeds and, within the depths of an old mining pit, something very large has a terrible secret which threatens the destruction of Chloris itself.

(Summary taken from Region 1 DVD Cover)

Well, to be fair I had a couple of gadgets he probably didn’t, such as a teaspoon and an open mind.

The Production: For better or worse, any comments about The Creature from the Pit have to start (and perhaps end) with the realization of the titular creature, Erato. From the moment that the glowing green creature first rolls onto screen and extends its long, thick frontal attachment, it becomes impossible to take this story seriously. This monster is too silly and looks too rude to be the source of much terror.

‘Stands to reason.’ Stupid expression. ‘Stands to reason.’ Why doesn’t it ‘lie down’ to reason? Much easier to reason lying down.

Though Erato is a failure as a design, I do think it would be a mistake to lay all the blame at the special effects team’s feet. Their mistake seems to have been simply being too close to the project to realize what it was looking like until the piece was situated in studio.

Instead I place more blame with the scriptwriter and script editor, both of whom ought to have known the limitations of the production team when planning out this serial. After all, the previous season had given us an island-sized monster in the form of Kroll and there too the piece’s scale had presented some technical challenges and did not look particularly convincing. As good as the story concept is here, David Fisher and Douglas Adams ought to have known that what was described would be impossible to realize and adjusted the story accordingly.

The sad part of all this is that, ignoring the creature’s unfortunately phallic appearance, its motives and history are actually quite intriguing and serve to shift this from being a creature feature into something much more interesting. After two episodes of build up, we take much of what we have been told about the creature for granted so when the Doctor is finally able to communicate with it, its explanation comes as some surprise.

I also enjoyed the technique used of having the creature only able to communicate through the voice of other characters. This not only probably kept the costs down but serves to make the creature seem all the more alien and strange, while also giving us some nice moments where one character has the creature accusing them with their own voice.

As for the other special effects, the surprise to me with this story was how good some of the other pieces of effects and design work were. Though the wolfweeds are a very silly concept, they move really well across screen and I liked the webbing effect applied after their attacks. The costumes are also quite wonderful and lend the story an almost storybook quality while still being believable as clothes that characters might choose to wear.

Indeed I thought a number of elements of this story’s setting proved to be really quite effective. The discovery of the enormous egg in the first episode is a very striking moment, lending the story an element of mystery, while the idea of a world lacking as common a resource as metal is interesting in itself. The handling of these ideas is at times a little simplistic but taken as a means to make Chloris feel distinctive it works well enough.

Perhaps the biggest reason I enjoy this story though is that it has some wonderfully funny moments and lines, some of which are even intentional! Moments like the Teach Yourself Tibetan gag are certainly silly and might derail a more serious tale but in the context of this story just seem to fit, while Geoffrey Bayldon’s performance as the very theatrical soothsayer displays a wonderful sense of comic timing as he interacts with Baker’s Doctor.

Even the comedic elements that don’t quite work for me, like the strange group of metal-seeking highwaymen who bicker about what to do and are a far from impressive fighting force, have their own charm. This is not a clever satire like The Sunmakers or farce like The Romans, but it is a well constructed lighthearted runaround.

Astrologer extraordinary. Seer to princes and emperors. The future foretold, the present explained, the past – apologised for.

Perhaps the reason the story works in spite of the failure of its most important prop and its somewhat simplistic plot is the quality of the guest cast. As I mentioned earlier, Bayldon’s astrologer is a real comic treat and he certainly makes the most of his scenes but his is not the only strong performance.

Adrasta is a memorable villain, not because she is particularly cruel or effective but because her motivations seem so real. Her goal is not to aggressively expand but instead she is ruthlessly seeking to maintain her own status at the expense of her people’s comfort. This everyday villainy is striking because it is so at odds with the ludicrousness of rolling, pack-hunting plants, whip-carrying leather-clad guards and enormous, erotic space-vegetables.

I liked the way that her underlings are given strong personalities and emerge as the story plays out, each taking advantage of her fall to attempt to take power. Certainly the moment at which the Adrasta’s bodyguard chooses to disobey her orders and hear the Doctor out is a striking one and I think it plays out nicely on screen.

Really the only characters who fall short for me are the collection of roguish, pirating types. Though their performances are suitably lively, the script really never does much with them beyond having them threaten Romana and list off various types of metal lustfully and so they are largely wasted here.

What’s that creature doing here? Pure brain, a hundred foot across, stuck at the bottom of a pit, oozing about and sitting on people. Not much of a life, is it?

There are problems with the story’s conclusion, much of which plays out in model shot and effects form. In part this is because the extended model shots sequence looks silly but it also seems to diminish the role the Doctor and Romana are playing in saving the day.

In Review: Clearly it is hard to look past the unfortunately comical appearance of Erato which removes any tension that might have built up the moment it appears on screen. In spite of these design issues though, I do enjoy the comedic moments in the story and though the story lacks balance between comedy and drama, it made me laugh enough to keep me engaged and entertained.

5 thoughts on “Doctor Who: The Creature from the Pit

  1. HelmStone says:

    Interesting review, I find that I don’t remember anything about this story at all; the Lean Tibettan and the monster in the pit are familiar and I am reasonably sure I would have seen this one but it has completely passed me by with the passing of time. You make a lot of good points about the ambition of the writer versus what can be realised on screen particularly in the Classic Who period. Another reason why the pictures are better on the radio and why I mostly prefer the Big Finish production!

    • Aidan Brack says:

      I had the same ‘have I seen this’ response when I last watched it. The story often seems familiar yet it never made a huge impact on me, save the creature itself (which I may just have seen clips of). The Target novelisation is actually pretty good so I think your pictures are better on radio comment is very apt for this story!

      • HelmStone says:

        I do find that I don’t remember (if I watched) a lot of stuff from the Fifth Doctor onwards, so I suppose if nothing else that is a source of more things to spend money on!

  2. Charlene says:

    You know I really didn’t think the Creature could look as bad as all that, but from the last picture- you are completely right! I don’t think I’ve seen this episode, but now I want to cause your review makes it seem like it will be a laugh! Glad to see you posting again!

    • Aidan Brack says:

      It is definitely worth watching. I showed it to my wife for the first time lately and we laughed the whole way through. Admittedly much of it is unintended laughter but we had a good time with it.

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