Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit Review
Oh, now hold on just a minute, this is a bit much, isn’t it? We’ve only just been made to suffer through the terrible The Horns of Nimon in last month’s Myths and Legends box set, and we’re no sooner out of hospital and starting the long, slow road to recovery than we’re socked with another Season Seventeen atrocity to set our rehabilitation back months. What’s going on? Have 2|Entertain decided to take advantage of the excitement surrounding the new series to sneak out a few stinkers while no one’s paying much attention? Over the past three months we’ve had The Space Museum, The Horns of Nimon, Underworld and now this. Pity any poor newbie, thrilling to the fast exciting adventures of the new Doctor and willing to give the classic series a bash, being confronted by this sorry selection on the shop shelf – should he or she take the plunge not only will they get quite the wrong impression what Classic Who was really like, but it’ll probably put them off it for life. Pity us too: I’m getting a bit sick of writing negative things about a series I have a vague, distant memory I’m actually quite fond of much of the time. I’m half tempted to mount a rebellion and give this a five star review, ignoring all the rubbish and just concentrate on the good bits, just to remember what it feels like. Would it be so hard to do? After all, the sets depicting Chloris are quite convincing in their own, obviously-studioy-bound way. And the jokes aren’t so bad – well, except for “Tibetan for Beginners,” that is - and it’s not like there’s a Soldeed in there, although you can’t escape the fact that Lady Adrasta is a pretty rubbish villain... And then, sigh there’s the wolfweeds, which no review can really ignore, and even just writing the plot out will make it sound pretty hackneyed... and the scavengers are a bit Maid Marian, and then, dear God, there’s Erato.... Ugh. It's no good. If the schedule had been shook up a bit, and this had been Underworld or The Space Museum or even The Monster of Peladon I probably could have found enough reasonable things to say to cover their many glaring deficiencies and stop this review being yet another trashing. But I can’t. The truth must be faced. It’s almost impossible to find anything positive to say about The Creature of the Pit.
Let’s start with the script, by David Fisher. The previous year he had contributed two superbly lusty, exuberant stories in The Stones of Blood and The Androids of Tara but this time inspiration seems to have deserted him. Following on from the traditions of Terry Nation in giving his planets names that describe their main function (see Aridius and Mechanus in last month’s The Chase for good examples), Fisher sets his story on Chloris, a planet stuffed full of vegetation but almost wholly bereft of any kind of metal. The only ore mine is owned by the story’s villainess Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances), a pantomime harridan who spends her time mainly crowing about the fact she has a pit with a monster, into which she can chuck people she doesn’t get on with. The Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward) encounter this charming woman and for reasons not entirely clear don’t immediately leave, preferring instead to investigate her dark hole. Look away now if you don’t want to know the outcome, but it eventually transpires that the creature is actually called Erato, an ambassador from a world replete in metals of all kinds who had come to offer the Chlorians some trade but whom Adrasta has entrapped to stop him, in the hopes of maintaining her control over the planet. Given that said control seems to extend mainly to the aforementioned scavengers it’s not a particularly glorious aim, but then it’s not a glorious story. Galaxy Four did the whole monster-turns-out-to-be-the-good-guy-schtick fourteen years earlier with considerably more style, while as mentioned Adrasta is not a remotely menacing threat - you feel at moments the Doctor and Romana are just indulging her because they're a bit bored and want a laugh, not least at the end of Episode One when, far from being terrified at the prospect of being thrown into the pit, the Doctor actually jumps in. Ha! That showed her. Add in the fact that Fisher is forced to chuck in characters – the peasants, and, really, Organon – who serve no purpose other than to pad the thing out, and that even then the plot runs out at the beginning of Episode Four, necessitating the introduction of a whole new subplot about the planet’s destruction of which there has been no sign before, it’s terribly thin stuff.
Which means that were one to try and find some crumb of comfort in this thick, vegetative, mess, it would be that the performances, while hardly superb, are at least excusable, given what they have to work with. If John Bryans, as the head of the scavengers Torvin, is channelling Ron Moody in Oliver! it’s at least easy to see why he’s doing it, so that even though every time he’s on screen one can only think “Look at him there pretending to be Fagin,” it’s not particularly to his detriment. Likewise Ward, recording her first story as the Doctor's companion, is more Romana I than Romana II, both in fashion sense and her aloof attitude, but you can forgive her that. She's also helped along by Douglas Adams slinging her the odd bon mot and the fact she isn’t distracted by such things as proper dialogue or character development, given that Romana’s main role in this story is to carry K9 around, waving him about as one of the most unwieldy lasergun the genre has ever known. Frances’s Adrasta is pantomime – and, in fairness, not especially strong pantomime – but her old crone sidekick Karela, played by Eileen Way is quite fun, constantly whispering her in her ear and in the end proving to be something more of a threat than her mistress. Likewise Geoffrey Bayldon, reprising his Catweazle act, makes for an amusing foil for Baker’s by now firmly tongue-in-cheek Time Lord (and also managing, unlike Crowden in Horns, to be over-the-top without looking like he’s desperate for the laughs) so that, even though his character doesn’t actually have anything to do in the plot, at least he’s reasonably entertaining to watch.
In other circumstances the performances would rank as mediocre to poor, but in my scrabbling-round-for-any-crumb-of-comfort they are probably the most bearable element of the story, certainly more so than the general production. The sets, as mentioned, are passable, but Christopher Barry, directing his last Who, makes an uncharacteristically poor job of it, with scenes choppy, badly paced and poorly, statically staged. To a certain degree he was hampered by having to deal with the wolfweeds and Erato, but even in the effects-less sequences it’s heavy-handed stuff, showing none of the lightness of touch he brought especially to the likes of The Daemons. Possibly he looked at the wolfweeds, thought “I’m getting too old for this shit,” and just tried to get through the farrago as quickly as he could. If it wasn’t for Erato, these marauding balls of green vegetation, which look like they’ve rolled out of a sprout version of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, would consign the serial to the dumps on their own. There’s an old episode of Star Trek in which Leonard Nimoy frantically tries to convince us his leg is trapped under a boulder, despite the fact said rock is clearly made of polystyrene and is thus so light it looks like it might float up to the ceiling were the actor to let go. The same is true of the wolfweeds, which Baker and co virtually have to drag on top of themselves to give the slightest semblance the green tumbleweeds exert any sort of threat whatsoever.
But they are as nothing compared to Erato, the great big green hulking behemoth at the centre of the story. Before this DVD was released I've always imagined that the only possible way a monster this bad could have come about was because of some perverse bet made by a designer late one night in a pub when he’d had a few. “Hey George?” “Yeah?” “You know how Doctor Who is always being criticised for its rubbery monsters?” “Yeah?” “I bet you I can get away with making one a hundred times worse than any seen before.” “Get away with you, you couldn’t!” “I bet I could.” “I’ll have that for a tenner.” And off he went, and two weeks later came back with a massive green mattress with some vaguely-skin-like textures on it. And his co-conspirator looked at it critically and says, “Hmm. It’s good, but... I dunno, it’s missing something... It’s rubbish, but it’s not laughably rubbish. It’s not yet in the so-bad-it’s-good category. On a scale of OMG to WTF, it’s only ranking about a ‘meh’ at the moment.” “That’s hardly fair. Look! It has no fingers! No arms! No legs! No everything!” “Sorry, mate, it’s just not quite there yet. As far as rubbish monsters go, it’s a bit bland.” And the designer gave it some thought, and then said, “Hmmm. I could put it on little wheels.” “Nah, that's too Chorlton and the Wheelies.” “Alright, how about giving it a high squeaky voice?” “What, you mean like Alpha Centauri?” "I could scrap this and just make him a man in a white chicken outfit flapping about?" "Don't be ridiculous." At this point the designer, utterly exasperated, just snapped. “Fine!” he barked, “I’ll just shove a great big cock on it. How’s that suit you?” And his friend laughed, patted him on the back and headed home, secure in the knowledge his ten pounds were safe. And then a few weeks later he turned on his television and watched, jaw dropping, as a massive green mattress with a giant cock shoved on it lumbered into view to attack Tom Baker who - but of course - responded by blowing on said organ, thus rendering the hideous monster entirely complaisant. And the next time they met up in the pub, he looked at the designer, shook his head in wonder, and with a rueful smile pulled out his wallet to hand over his money.
Only now, thanks to the amusing Team Erato featurette on this DVD, do I find that's not roughly what happened, but that instead Mat Irvine, the poor designer in question, was entirely serious when he came up with the monster, which somehow lends the whole affair a whiff of tragedy. In a way, having Organon staring wild-eyed at it helps – had Erato featured in a less overtly-comic story it would have made the design far worse, whereas it least it’s in keeping with in the house style of the time, and raises what would otherwise be a boringly poor story into something more fun. There have been other dubious monster designs down the years – the Vervoids from Trial of a Time Lord spring to mind, as does the “one-eyed” creature Alpha Centauri from January’s Peladon boxset – but Erato, in its purity, is the daddy (ahem) of them all – it is literally impossible to look at the tentacle wiggling towards Tom Baker and not think of anything else. Even if you’re six. Especially if you’re six. The creature doesn’t work on any level – even when it starts talking by some communicator device we don’t buy for a moment this hulking mass is living in any way.
So maybe, actually, I'm wrong. Maybe there is something to be said for The Creature From the Pit after all, a spark of infamy that elevates it above the likes of blandly dull stories (sorry, Underworld, but I still can't get over how tedious you are.) It's fairly basic that if a story gives its lead monster the honour of being the title, said monster should, even if everything else falls apart, stand up on its own (sorry), so to a certain extent it's all a bit of a heroic failure. However, one laughable monster on its own does not make a hundred minutes bearable. What with these recent releases, and Victory of the Daleks last week on TV, I'm beginning to doubt my own memories. Surely not all Doctor Who is this bad?
Following the box sets of the last couple of months it’s back to a single story release for The Creature From the Pit, which follows the normal Classic Who template, from reversible cover sleeves onwards. Grey menu? Check. Clips running alongside the options? Check. Everything subtitled bar the commentaries? Check. Amusing Easter Egg? Che- oh, wait no. No amusing Easter Egg. There’s nothing funny about The Creature From the Pit. The Video and Audio has had its usual scrubbing from the Restoration Team – the studio, recorded-on-video, sections, which make up most of the running time, actually look better, both clearer and with slightly stronger colours, than last month’s The Horns of Nimon, while the few on-film sequences are perfectly acceptable if not always particularly sharp. Audio is as usual fine, with no problems.
The Commentary features Barry, Ward, Visual Effects Designer Mat Irvine and Lady Adrasta herself Myra Frances and makes for an unusually tiresome listen. The first two episodes feel as though they consist entirely of Ward moaning that she’s giving a rotten performance and the others, particularly Frances, protesting – “Oh no, Lalla, you’re being very hard on yourself, stop it!” Ward is on caustic form, while Irvine, who surprisingly still seems traumatised by the whole thing, is notably defensive, remarking at one point that the show isn’t quite as bad as he remembered. Throw in some bitching about Tom, and not even Barry, who sounds a placid, nice sort of chap, and Frances can redeem what is not a high point for the tracks. Compensation of a sort is offered, however, from the Production Subtitles which this time are pretty witty as well as informative, having fun with the swapping of the K9 prop amongst other things.
If there was nothing else on this disc there had to be a “What on Chloris were they thinking?” featurette looking at the monster, and sure enough we have Team Erato (14:49). The rising sense of panic amongst cast and crew comes across well, and Irvine, who ended up getting a severe rollocking when it all went pear (blob?) shaped, is far more resigned about the whole affair than he is in the commentary. Sadly, no one feels the need to put forward the opinion that it was all a bit of a cock-up, but otherwise it's an amusing featurette. That’s about it as far as story-specific features go, the only other inclusion being a clip from Animal Magic (2:38) in which Baker, on the Chloris set, tells the show’s young viewers about some of the fearsome monsters he’s battled down the years, including the Wirrn and the Fendahl (doing an impression of the latter). He's on good, boggle-eyed form, and with his hands stuck in the stocks the young viewers must have wondered just what excitement lay ahead for the Doctor. Poor them.
There is also a genial interview in Christopher Barry: Director (19:04) but, given it’s filmed at Aldbourne, the location of The Daemons and doesn’t mention TCftP at all, appears to have wandered onto the wrong DVD by mistake. It’s a gentle retrospective of a man who obviously views his DW work – of which there was quite a bit – as just another job, admitting that his favourite show to work on was All Creatures Great and Small. Rounding things off, the Photo Gallery (4:52) is a little shorter than usual, but comes with the expected collection of production stills and behind-the-scenes shots, while the obligatory Radio Times listings for the story are, as ever, accessible as PDFs. Finally there’s a Coming Soon trailer for next month’s The King’s Demons & Planet of Fear, neither of which are classics but are both considerably better than the drivel of the last few releases.
I've always had a bit of a mental block about this story's title. Is it The Creature IN the Pit? OF the Pit? In a list of prepositions, From actually comes fairly far down the most likely. From that bald say-what-you-see title on, this is a loser, and in the end you won't care about Lady Adrasta's dark hole or the monster she put in it, you'll just wish you hadn't spent your money on this rubbish. Happily, this DVD embraces the fact it's old tat, but one amusing documentary on its own is not enough to merit a purchase. Avoid unless you're a completist.
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