Doctor Who – The Creature from the Pit. Episode Four

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Now that the creature’s got his communicator back, the truth is finally revealed.  His name is Erato and he responds sharply to the Doctor’s questions.  “To skulk about in pits, as you so crudely put it, is not my normal habit. I most emphatically do not eat people. I live by ingesting chlorophyll and mineral salts. I would have you know that I am the Tythonian High Ambassador.”

Although Adrasta can see her authority draining away, she attempts to rally and tells the Doctor that she’ll kill Organon if K9 doesn’t destroy the creature. The Doctor’s response (and also Organon’s) is priceless – the Doctor looks a little downcast at the thought of Organon’s death, whilst the astrologer is more than a little shocked!

Is this just another gag moment or would the Doctor really have sacrificed Organon? It’s something we’ll never know as events take a different turn, but maybe it’s a brief glimpse of the earlier, more alien, Doctor seen during seasons twelve to fourteen.  There he could blank out the deaths of people he’d been friendly with, such as Lawrence Scarman, by concentrating on the bigger picture. And he does mention that if the creature (Erato) dies then two planets could also perish …

It’s something I’ve touched on before, but even during the most comedic of stories during this era there’s still occasions when the Doctor drops the clowning and shows his true mettle. This exchange with Adrasta is one such moment and it’s all the more effective because his anger comes out of the blue.

ADRASTA: Huntsman, set the wolfweeds on the Doctor.
DOCTOR: No, wait. That’s all you’ve got on this planet, isn’t it? Weeds, weeds, forest and weeds. You scratch about for food wherever you can, but you can’t plough the land, can you? You can’t do anything until you’ve mastered the forests and the weeds. And you can’t do that without metal.
ADRASTA: Don’t listen to him. It’s just the ravings of a demented space tramp. Set the wolfweeds on him!
DOCTOR: Do that, and you will hurl this planet back into the dark ages. And for what? To satisfy the petty power cravings of that pathetic woman.
ADRASTA: Have a care, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Have a care yourself. Care for your people for a change.

Erato takes his revenge and kills Adrasta, but there’s still some way to go before the episode ends. This is where things slightly fall apart – namely the fact that there’s a neutron star on the way, requested by Erato, which will destroy all life on the planet. Firstly, how convenient that it’s due to arrive at this precise moment, just after Erato’s been released and can tell them all about and secondly, why did Erato decide to effectively commit suicide?

This means that the story finishes with something of a whimper as the sight of the Doctor in the TARDIS flicking switches doesn’t generate any tension. We’re told that the fate of the entire planet is at stake, but we never feel it.

However, before that happens there’s a few scenes of interest as Adrasta’s right hand woman, Karela (Eileen Way), forms an unlikely alliance with the bandits, once she’s killed the unfortunate Torvin.  Torvin’s death is played for laughs – after Karela knifes him, his dying words are “tempered steel. Is that really tempered steel?” – proving to the end that he’s obsessed with metal (the scarcity of metal on the planet being a major plot point).  It might be a humorous moment, but it’s somewhat black humour.  It’s always a pleasure to see Way (Old Mother from An Unearthly Child) or as Gary Gillatt so memory dubbed her, Truth, Justice and the Eileen Way.

Erato’s a problem and the plot rather meanders, but Creature is still a story that entertains.  And once you’ve watched the DVD, then the brief clip from Animal Magic with a manic Tom telling the audience tall tales about some of the monsters he’s met during the years is a must watch.

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Doctor Who – The Creature from the Pit. Episode Three

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Although I’ve a lot of time for Creature, it has to be said that the plot’s fairly linear.  The first three episodes revolve around identifying exactly who or what the creature is, before episode four goes off on a different tangent completely.  I guess that David Fisher didn’t believe he could eke out the mystery of the creature for all four episodes, which is fair enough.

This episode has the unforgettable sight of the Doctor attempting to communicate with the creature via various ways, some of which look rather rude.  Why Christopher Barry let this through is anybody’s guess, although I sometimes picture him up in the gallery, rather punch-drunk from the way things have gone so far ….

Torvin and the others lead a raiding party on Adrasta’s palace.  Whilst they continue to be positioned as comedy characters, especially Torvin, this sits rather uneasily with the way they casually kill Adrasta’s guards.  There’s something of an edit in the final programme – which makes their knifing less explicit – but it’s still a surprise to see a recognisable weapon used to kill (remember that whilst Leela carried a knife, over time she wasn’t allowed to use it on humanoids).

Geoffrey Bayldon continues to mine (sorry) his role for maximum comic effect.  Organon’s meeting with Adrasta isn’t terribly pleasant (she’s more than disappointed to find out that the creature hasn’t eaten him) whilst he’s less than impressed after she orders him to find out what’s happening with the creature.  Adrasta has a convincing manner about her though.  “If you don’t go, my friend, that guard standing behind you will cut your throat from ear to ear.”

It becomes clear that the raiding party existed for one reason only – to enable the bandits to pinch what turns out to be the creature’s communication device and then, via a mysterious compulsion, be forced to deliver it up to him.  This leads into an unusual cliffhanger, which sees Adrasta react in terror to the creature.

ADRASTA: Don’t let it get me. You mustn’t let that thing get me! It’ll kill me!
DOCTOR: What? An evil thing, killing. Why should it want to kill you? It didn’t want to kill me, did you, old fellow? Do you know something? I believe he wants to kill you.
ADRASTA: Keep it away from me. It’s, it’s going to eat me.
DOCTOR: Oh, come on. You know it really doesn’t eat people, don’t you? But you know what it does eat and you haven’t been letting it get any, have you. No, you just stuck it in a pit and threw people at it.

If the episode had concluded seconds earlier, then it would have ended with Adrasta holding a knife to the Doctor’s throat. That would have been a more obvious cliffhanger, as showing the villain under threat is much more uncommon although not totally unheard of (for example, episode for of The Daemons finds the Master menaced by Azal).

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Doctor Who – The Creature from the Pit. Episode Two

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At the end of episode one the Doctor decided to join Doran in the pit.  This was rather unexpected, although it appears that he merely planned to hang about until everyone had left and then climb out.  Quite why no-one could spot him from the pit entrance is a slight mystery, but no matter.

There then follows the (in)famous scene where the Doctor attempts to climb his way out of the pit with the aid of a book, Everest in Easy Stages.  Unfortunately it’s in Tibetan so he then pulls out another handy book – Teach Yourself Tibetan.  If you’re not a fan of the humour present in the series at this time then I don’t think this gag is going to impress.

With the Doctor apparently dead, Adrasta is keen to utilise Romana’s knowledge to destroy the creature.   There’s a nice hard edge to Adrasta, which is demonstrated after she gives the wise-cracking Romana a swift slap.  Ouch!

The Doctor, having fallen into the pit, then makes the acquaintance of Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon).   Bayldon is simply delightful as the cowardly astrologer and is obviously one of the serial’s trump cards.   He gets plenty of good lines (“Seer to princes and emperors. The future foretold, the past explained, the present apologised for”) and works excellently with Tom Baker.  Tom always seemed to thrive when he had strong actors to bounce off against and Bayldon is a fine example of this.

And then the creature turns up.  It’s not good (although the model shots don’t look too bad).  What’s fairly astonishing is that none of the production team appear to have seen it before it was unveiled on the first studio day.  You’d have assumed someone would have kept an eye on how things were going, but no.  In the post-mortem that followed, Graham Williams put the blame firmly on the shoulders of the visual effects department, but this seems more than a little unfair.  With a very limited budget, just how do you create a monster of almost unimaginable size?

That neither Williams or Douglas Adams ever stopped to ask whether such a creature could be effectively realised on Doctor Who’s budget is very perplexing.  But whilst the monster doesn’t impress, the byplay between the Doctor and Organon does.

ORGANON: Ahem. What do we do when we find the monster? Have you thought of that?
DOCTOR: Shush. I don’t know.
ORGANON: You don’t know? What do you mean, you don’t know?
DOCTOR: I haven’t made up my mind yet.
ORGANON: Well, haven’t you got a plan?
DOCTOR: A plan? Oh yes, I’ve got a plan.
ORGANON: Well then?
DOCTOR: I just don’t know how to apply it, that’s all.

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Doctor Who – The Creature from the Pit. Episode One

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Watching episode one with no knowledge of the (very large) problematic monster to come, this is more than decent fare. The jungle filming at Ealing is glossy and well mounted (that Tom is made to look a little sweaty heightens the illusion that we’re in a lush, tropical environment).

Adrasta might be a rather one-note villain, but Myra Frances does her best with the material and the fact she’s rather easy on the eye doesn’t hurt.   There’s also a gang of comedy bandits lurking about, led by Torvin (John Bryans).  Torvin is the least subtle Jewish stereotype (“my lovely boys”) you’re ever likely to see, for all the world he seems to be playing Fagin from Oliver Twist.

I have to confess it was only recently that I connected him to his Blakes 7 roles (Bercol and Shrinker) which just goes to show what a beard and a broad accent can do.  Romana is captured by Torvin and his associates, although she’s not terribly impressed by them.  “I’m a traveller. I’m a Time Lord. And I am not used to being assaulted by a collection of hairy, grubby little men”.  Few actresses could do haughty like Lalla Ward, it just seems to come naturally ….

As an actor, Terry Walsh was a great stuntman.  Bless him.  But it makes sense to give him a speaking part, since his character, Doran, would be the next victim to be thrown into the pit to be consumed by the mysterious creature.  And the sight of Walsh’s terror stricken face as he spies something off-camera, glowing green, is another well-mounted moment.  At present, with the creature still unseen, the imagination can work overtime to create an impression of what it could possibly look like.

I wonder if the reality will match our imaginations?  Next time we’ll find out.

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A teaspoon and an open mind. Doctor Who and the Creature from the Pit

“We call it … the pit”

Ranking a lowly 211 out of 241 stories in DWM’s recent poll would imply that The Creature from the Pit isn’t a favourite of many. But apart from one (admittedly large) problem it’s difficult to see why.

The positives far outweigh the negatives – the jungle scenes at Ealing give the episodes a glossy sheen, Myra Frances is a gloriously hissable villainess, Tom’s on great form, Lalla looks lovely and there’s an entertaining guest turn from Geoffrey Bayldon.

The problem? Well you can’t really avoid it. Erato is a vast, shapeless blob that is said to stretch for miles. How do you realise that on Doctor Who’s budget in 1979?

The answer is, of course, that you can’t. So Erato looks like an inflatable green bag with a rude appendage. But the scenes in the pit are nicely lit and Erato’s green glow is quite eerie, so it’s not a total write off.

No, sorry I can't think of any caption.  Please add your own.
No, sorry I can’t think of a caption. Please add your own.

Producer Graham Williams was in no doubt that the special effects department had let the programme down and after transmission made this point in an internal memo. But it’s hard to imagine how this monster could ever have been successfully created, so you do have to wonder why this was never queried at the scripting stage.

New script editor Douglas Adams wasn’t terribly experienced, but Graham Williams had been around for a while and should have twigged that a mile wide green blob was simply asking for trouble. But whatever the merits and demerits of Erato, there’s plenty to enjoy in this story, so let’s take a closer look.

Chloris is a planet rich in vegetation but low on metal. The Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances) owns the only metal mine on the planet and therefore is able to rule with a reign of terror.

But the arrival some years ago of an ambassador from the planet Tythonus has threatened her grip on the planet. Erato proposed a trade – they have plenty of surplus metal but Tythonus is extremely low in vegetation which Erato’s people need in vast quantities.

Adrasta quickly understood that if she no longer had the metal monopoly then her power would dissipate. So she arranged to banish Erato to the pit and would henceforth throw anybody who displeased her down there.

Although transmitted third, this was the first story of Season 17 to be recorded, so it was Lalla Ward’s acting debut as Romana. Her performance here is subtly different as she was still feeling out the part. There’s some nice moments from her though – particularly when she confronts the bandits in their lair.

Sigh.
Sigh.

The guest cast is uniformly solid. Myra Francis manages to be gorgeous and deadly at the same time. Eileen Way (Karela) had appeared in Doctor Who’s first story back in 1963 and is good value as Adrasta’s right hand woman.

Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon) is a hapless astronomer who falls foul of Adrasta and found himself flung into the pit. Managing to avoid being crushed by the monster he has lived a lonely existence until the Doctor turned up. Bayldon, best known for Catweazle, sparks off Tom very well and their scenes together are highly entertaining.

Also skulking around the jungle are a group of inept bandits, lead by Torvin (John Bryans). There has been some criticism of this character over the years, so the viewer will have to decide if he’s a riff on a Fagin-like character or simply a broad Jewish stereotype – “My lovely boys”.

Myra Francis and Tom Baker
Myra Francis and Tom Baker

So while Creature has its flaws, if you can ignore the glowing green bag there’s plenty of entertainment here. Unloved for decades due to its feeble dinosaurs, in recent years there seems to be more appreciation for Malcolm Hulke’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974). So maybe one day the same thing will happen here and fandom will learn to stop worrying about Erato and love The Creature from the Pit.