Creature from the Pit is one of those stories that I have fond memories of enjoying in my youth. I remember showing friends the episode as an example of good Doctor Who when they used to ridicule my watching the series. They admitted there were some good points, but they found Erato to be a little too phallic and thus laughable for their tastes.
Sadly, years later as I watch the story again, I cannot find the charm or be reminded of what I found good about the story as a younger man. The concept itself is great; a monstrous ambassador from another world with a translator is separated from his device as a power-crazed woman throws him into a pit. The Doctor arrives and he tries to piece together the elements that make up this little mystery.
Unfortunately, the plot, while great, is too thin to hold up the entire story. Other elements, such as the thieves and Karela’s schemes are just rehashes of Lady Adrasta’s. Just when you think the story should have been over with Adrasta’s death, Karela tries to form and alliance with the thieves. And then the additional tack on of the destruction of the planet only seals this story’s fate as being less than good.
There is also the simple matter of the lack of any real acting in this story. We have Lalla Ward’s awful lament over K9 being attacked by the wolfweeds. We have Karela’s way OTT acting in most scenes. It’s not as if she chews up a scene as rather she destroys it in an annoying way.
And finally, I still, after all these years, cannot get over how phallic Erato is. He really is.
There have been lots of derogatory things said about Creature from the Pit, so much that it has achieved a sort of fandom infamy for being the biggest pile of garbage and the worst excesses of low comedy and poor FX that the series could sink to. What people usually forget to mention is that it is also fabulous.
I think Creature from the Pit got its reputation when the Williams era was in especially low repute and only celebrated gems like City of Death and The Pirate Planet were praised and nobody bothered to go back and actually watch the story and realise it wasn’t in fact the embarrassing production the JNT era led fandom to believe it was. My best mate Matt thinks it is the worst travesty Doctor Who ever threw up but I am glad he is one of a diminishing number, reviews when the story came out in its belated video release were positive and encouraging others to give it another chance.
At the heart of the story is a fair few effective messages, dislike for the unlike is a powerful corruptor and a lust for wealth even more so. Through the despicable actions of the villainous Lady Adastra we can see how one person can affect the poverty of an entire planet. Chloris is a planet rich in Chlorophyll and rather than trade with alien species and introduce a further supply of metal (which is scarce) and lose her tyrannical advantage over the population she condemns them to a life of poverty.
Even better is the way the story deals with the Tythonian Ambassador. It is almost like a fairytale the way we are led to believe the Creature (it has to be spelt with a Capital C considering how much stress is put on the word!) is a brutal beast, one that skulks about in a dark pit and gobbles up all the frightened scientists that are thrown into his lair. But rather unpredictably the Creature, an amorphous blob turns out to be a friendly sort who is accidentally murdering those men because he is trying to find some way to communicate. It is marvellous to see how Adastra twists the image of the Creature; with a little tweaking she has her planet in abject fear of being munched on by the blob from hell. Glorious scenes of the Doctor trying to communicate with the Creature (widely dismissed because it looks like he is sucking the thing off) prove David Fisher is trying to create something truly alien and different from the archetypal Doctor Who monster of the two arms, two legs and human vocabulary type.
This is a further example of the brilliance of Douglas Adams’ inspired mentally unstable Doctor. This is Tom Baker at the height of his powers, relishing the glorious dialogue on offer. I have been rather critical of Tom’s season seventeen performances in the past (particularly in my own appraisal of the fourth Doctor) but re-watching these stories of late has opened my eyes to the possibilities of a manic, almost lunatic version of the Hinchcliffe fourth Doctor, one who relies on his wits and flies through the story improvising every move and most of all ENJOYING HIMSELF. What a refreshing change! Through this relaxed, charming protagonist it is a pleasure to experience the story, it is the complete inverse of the Davison era where you pick any story and it is a struggle to get through no matter how good it is because the regulars are always fighting amongst themselves (and thus the audience). Watching a season seventeen story is like going on holiday with your dream companion, someone who keeps things exciting, unpredictable and fun and that person is of course the Doctor.
Examples of his fervent eccentric-ness beam from every scene. I would spend the entire review listing every moment if I were to mention my favourite bits but selected gems would have to be…
The hysterical banter in the first TARDIS scene. I love it when the Doctor claims, “If I hadn’t produced that they were going to unravel my scarf the wretches!” when Romana comes across a huge ball of twine with a thank you note from Thesius.
Tom’s wonderfully frightened tone when he examines the eggshell outside the TARDIS and says “It’s alive” followed up by his marvellous observation that ‘stands to reason’ is a stupid expression because it much easier to reason lying down!
His sudden unexpected leap into the Pit! Who saw that coming? Which brings us to the much maligned but brilliantly funny scene where he is clinging to the side of the Pit and tries to read ‘Everest in Easy Stages’ to climb out but realises it is all in Tibetan. So out comes the ‘Teach Yourself Tibetan’ book! Oh come on guys lighten up! How on Earth did we get such comedy gems as this with unenthusiastic dullards like you around? It’s just a bit of fun!
The Doctor communicating with the Ambassador, I don’t care what anybody says about the cock-shaped protuberance that Erato produces for the Doctor to blow into these scenes show the Doctor at his very best, gentle, intelligent and trying desperately to understand. I love how he doesn’t condemn the Creature for the accidental deaths it has caused and has the patience and understanding to realise it is an alien and as such does not conform to humanoid rules of conduct.
Another strong criticism about the story is the production and this is one area I can demystify at once. The jungles sets are so realistic for at least half an episode Simon thought it was filmed on location. Its colourful, its verdant and misty, is treated to some wonderful wildlife sound FX and with some imaginative camerawork and lots of humidity and sweat on characters brows Chris Barry effortlessly transports you to this lush world. There is not much wrong with the ‘interior’ sets either, remembering this is an alien world the fairytale design of Adastra’s palace seems fitting (even if she does seem to share a taste in tacky chairs with Helen A) and cave sets are two a penny in the Doctor Who world, any story that gets those simple, featureless chasms wrong has got to be in trouble (Underworld). I love it when the Doctor is first trapped down the Pit, using a film camera, clever lighting use of a match and some glorious cave sets the atmosphere is wonderfully creepy.
Perfection is an object I would rather Doctor Who not achieve, if everything about the show was flawless how would we know what was crap? There are faults in Creature from the Pit, some gapingly obvious but I am inclined to forgive them because the story comes under fire for all the wrong reasons. The embarrassing monster seems to be the object of everybodies distaste and yet there are some inspiring CSO shots of the Creature filling the cave giving a sense of awesome size. Yes it is clearly a man in a quilt but you didn’t let the snake stop your enjoyment of Kinda, the Skarasen of Terror of the Zygons, nor the animatronic cats in Survival. Doctor Who is not FX driven, the Williams era especially not and anyone who approaches the show from that angle (read non fans) is going to be sorely disappointed and missing out on the ideas and storytelling behind those FX which are magical.
The bandits are pretty superfluous but they pad out the story nicely and provide some decent comic interludes. Okay so they’re a bit too cuddly to convince and seems to have come from the Oliver! school of acting (“My lovely boys!”…sorry couldn’t resist the urge!) but considering the handful of screamingly funny moments they provide (my biggest laugh in the story comes when their stupid leader Torvin takes offence to Romana…”Who are you calling hair suit?”, “You! Do you want to make something of it?”, “No I just want to know what it means!”). They are surplus to requirement in late episodes, just there to provide some token threat (which they fail to do). Still the whistle scene is still marvellous.
I love how camp everybody is in the story. Adastra is the epitome of the femme fetale, she struts about the story reminding everybody that she is a woman of power and her dominance over men, caked in make up and with a viscous temper (she slaps Romana around the face for being cheeky). All she is missing is a cheesy sax score and a cigarette holder. Karella is just as bad, a lady of luxury who sucks up to the boss and then switches sides when the tides turn. Lets face it Myra Frances and Eileen Way are both excellent, decked out in vibrant clothes they relish their roles, annunciating every line for all the female empowerment its worth.
Lalla Ward’s debut performance as Romana is an interesting one, she claims in interviews that the script and her efforts are both effectively drawing on Mary Tamm’s initial portrayal of the character but I disagree, whilst there is a fair peppering of Tamm’s aloofness, Ward plays her scenes with a twinkle in the eye, a hidden warmth that makes all the difference. Her sadness as K.9. is smothered by the wolf weeds is far more touching than anything Romana reacted to last year. I think Ward has a presence and a vulnerability that makes her stand out, when she backchats Adastra you have some prime bitch fighting in progress!
It astonishes me when genuinely well written and goofy as hell fun stories like this one get dismissed to the bottom end of the polls when there are far more insulting examples of depth sinking (either side of this season you have The Power of Kroll and Meglos both of which never come anywhere near as low as Creature from the Pit in fan polls). It was made at a time when Doctor Who storytelling and characterisation was at an all time high, yes it does flirt with the clichés but then the reason ideas become clichés is because they are used a lot and the reason they are used a lot is because they WORK. This is an effective tale; one of tyranny and manipulated identity and it deserves a little recognition for its sumptuous production at least.
Get out the banners! Picket fences around the BBC! Creature from the Pit is fab! Sing that creed!
A previous reviewer has commented that this story has a poor reputation. Close. It has a dreadful reputation based on the humour of the time, the creature and a general tiredness with Tom Bakers portrayal of the main lead role.
As for me, I love this story, it is terrific. The plot is simple, it is extremely well shot, the jungle scenes are second only to Planet of Evil in the history of the show for me and the pace of the story never flags. The sets are also superb.
Creature from the Pit is an interesting study in the abuse of power. It is obviously in the interests of Chloris to enter into a reciprocal trading a agreement with Tythonus however if Chloris did this then Adrasta loses her power base and her wealth. Simple economics, simple supply and demand. In order to prevent this from happening she has the Tythonian Ambassador dumped down a pit where he cannot escape and then, curiously the Ambassador becomes an even more potent weapon for her to re-inforce her reign as the threat of being thrown into the pit for the slightest transgression hangs ever over the head of the subjects of Chloris. In effect it is an interesting paradox that the one thing that could bring an economic and personal freedom to the people of Chloris becomes a very useful tool of its enslaver.
Chloris is a rarity in Doctor Who, being a planet that is dominated by women with two very strong female leads and I have to say why not. In nature the female is often the strongest of the sexes however we go from planet to planet where the male holds the upper hand. It does not make sense. Here that is rectified. I agree that more could have been done with the Chlorisian society to develop and explain it however David Fisher does go someway towards addressing that in the book.
Adrasta is well realised by Myra Frances (married to Peter Egan - Ever Decreasing Circles) although some of her dialogue is delivered in a rather, shall we say, wooden manner. Karela is suitably played by Eileen Way and, God, when I first watched this I hated her with a passion. The scene where K-9 destroys her metal and thus destroys her power is wonderful.
Erato is a great concept. Why should all creatures by humanoid bipeds. Just as the Ogri were a great break with this tradition so was Erato and quite frankly for me it works. Had it been done today with the technology available no doubt it would have been a CGI effect villain and would have been very realistic. In 1979 that technology was not available, it is like judging Pertwee stories on poor CSO. It makes no sense. Willing suspension of disbelief I believe the term is. Again the book does develop the Tythonians and their society more than the TV does and is certainly worth reading if you like this story.
I see little point in dwelling on the bandits. Edward Kelsey and co have little to work with. They are nothing but cliched outlaws and are merely there for a mixture of comic relief and plot resolution. Although they do not detract from the story they do not add to it either.
I have to say I also found Adrasta, as a young 14 year old at the time, very very very sexy. Repeat viewings with the passing of age has not dimished that either. Karela, not so.
The Doc and Romana are on cracking form. Romana trying to outbitch the queen bitch, Adrasta, and coming off a poor second is great as is Romanas wonderful put downs of the bandits where she treats them with little more than scant regard. The Doc and Organon have a wonderful relationship full of sparkling dialogue which really does make the story memorable. Organon is little more than a fortune teller, a lucky one whose luck ran out and he was chucked in the pit for his trouble and managed to survive. Played by Geoffrey Bayldon, a man many thought would make a great Doctor, with aplomb his characterisation draws heavily on his early seventies hit, Catweazle.
I must admit I found the premise that as an act of revenge Tythonus would send a Neutron star across the galaxy to obliterate Chloris. This is where the willing suspension of disbelief Graham Williams was fond of talking about comes in. Ignore the physics and just enjoy. Just like the scene with the cricket ball in Four to Doomsday it does not detract from the story overall.
So to summarise, this is a terrific story and shows, like City of Death and Androids of Tara, that when the humorous approach is done well then it can offer a story as good as any other from any other era. I would rate this story as highly as Inferno, Daemons, Ark in Space and Pyramids of Mars. All favourites of mine. Doctor Who has a place for all styles and all genres. Creature from the Pit is most welcome in that.
'The Creature From the Pit' has a poor reputation. Notorious for its poor realization of the eponymous creature, its dodgy grasp of the laws of physics and its daft humour, it is often derided and dismissed by fans as being an example of the worst excesses of the Williams era. In fact, it's very entertaining and, depending of course on the viewer's sense of humour, highly amusing. But it is very, very silly.
After his sublimely witty performance in 'City of Death', Tom Baker continues in much the same vein for 'The Creature From the Pit', getting a large number of humorous lines and generally clowning about. This is evident from the very start, as he reads Peter Rabbit with K9 during a particularly flippant TARDIS scene, and it continues throughout from his glib response to Karela's grave warning that he has been found in the "place of death" onwards. Perhaps most notorious is the scene in which he hangs in the pit from a crampon and fishes out a book entitled Everest in Easy Stages, only to discover that it is written in Tibetan - whereupon he produces a book on learning Tibetan. Daft yes, but also rather funny if the viewer is in the right mood. And so it continues, with the Doctor bursting through Erato's metal barrier in Episode Three, his constant ribbing of Organon, and so on. As in 'City of Death', it works because Baker is seemingly eccentric enough to carry it off without it seeming too unnatural and because of his sense of timing. Also as in 'City of Death', Lalla Ward is called upon to play Romana relatively straight, the only intentionally silly scenes she gets depending on the responses of others (such as when she calls Torvin "hirsute", which I'll come back to later…). This has the benefit of contrasting the different response that Adrasta has to the two of them; she tolerates the Doctor's impudence in Episode One, but slaps Romana when she answers back in Episode Two. The main difference in tone between 'City of Death' and 'The Creature From the Pit' however is that whereas in the former the overtly humorous dialogue was confined largely to the Doctor, here it permeates further, with at least two other characters seemingly intended to provide comic relief. And this has rather mixed results.
There are various examples of humour scattered throughout 'The Creature From the Pit', including former Director Morris Barry's Engineer Tollund's attempt to hide inside his cowl, but most of it falls to Geoffrey Bayldon's Organon and John Bryans' Torvin. Organon is a hugely entertaining character, and serves several purposes, the most obvious of which is to act as a foil for the Doctor; he gets some great lines, most notably "Astrologer extraordinary. Seer to princes and emperors. The future foretold, the past explained, the present… apologized for", and he alternates between worry and indignation beautifully. He also gets to round off the story in suitably daft style by sneaking a look over the Huntsman's shoulder at the trading agreement provided by Erato and then pretending to know what it is due to his skills as an astrologer, which says a great deal about where his real talents lie! Bayldon plays the part well, and in particular I love his indignant reaction to the Doctor's apparent willingness to let Adrasta kill him instead of allowing himself to be blackmailed into ordering K9 to kill Erato. In story terms, he serves another purpose, which is to provide some background detail; he tells the Doctor something of Adrasta's past and reputation, but more importantly he also provides hints of a world more complex than that seen on screen by talking of courts all over Chloris. I noted when I lambasted 'The Armageddon Factor' that making an effort to elaborate on a world's society and history can add much needed depth, and whilst I'm not about to pretend that Chloris comes across as a deep and distinctive society, the token effort made on David Fisher's part is nevertheless appreciated. Further detail is provided by references to Chloris's astrological signs, again adding a light smattering of background detail. In summary, Organon is an entertaining character who is well acted (or at least, acted in a manner suited to the overall tone of the production), and he makes a nice addition.
Torvin however, is another matter entirely. Bryans' cringe worthy performance is a blatant and thoroughly unsubtle Fagin pastiche and turns the character into a one-dimensional cliché. The role of his group of thieves is presumably to illustrate the social unrest caused both by Adrasta's tyranny and the lack of metal on Chloris, but they are played entirely for laughs, which dilutes this role and is also entirely inappropriate for a band of cut-throats who are seemingly happy to kill people (Romana for example) on a whim. Romana's ability to easily escape from her silly captors does admittedly make her look capable, but she would benefit even more if they actually seemed dangerous; whilst much of the humour in 'The Creature From the Pit' appeals to me, Torvin's baffled question of what "hirsute" means really is just stupid.
Fortunately however, 'The Creature From the Pit' benefits from a decent villain, who doesn't really need the presence of disgruntled outlaws to emphasize her role. Myra Frances plays Adrasta (one of the series rare female villains and the second to appear in a script by David Fisher) very straight and she comes across as a nasty piece of work. Her motivation, whilst modest (or as the Doctor puts it, petty) is believable; she doesn't want a trading agreement with Tythonus because her current monopoly on Chloris's scant resources of metal is the key to her power. Ruthless, and generally nasty, she is totally unpleasant and as such her rapidly diminishing grip on her power in Episodes Three and Four is hugely satisfying, as the Doctor outwits her and then the Huntsman turns against her before Erato crushes her to death. She also gets a memorably nasty henchwoman in the shape of Karela, played by Eileen Way (previously Old Mother in '100,000BC'), whose equally selfish desire for power brings Chloris closer to destruction in Episode Four. Karela's obsession with power is such that she is entirely willing to face destruction before surrendering, until the Doctor renders her ambitions futile in Episode Four by literally demolishing the basis of her power.
All of which brings me to the eponymous creature. I love the concept of Erato; having a massive green blob that crushes people turn out to be relatively friendly and misunderstood is a nice idea and is clearly designed to confound the expectations of at least some viewers. Indeed, Erato is generally a very novel idea, from his ability to synthesize metal from his own body, to his need to borrow a larynx to communicate, an unusual idea for the series. Unfortunately, discussion of Erato brings to the story's real weak points. Firstly, a note about the realization of Erato; the model shots of Erato skulking about at the end of a cavern is actually quite good, and complements the generally impressive production values of 'The Creature From the Pit', which include good cave sets and arguably the most convincing jungle set ever to appear in the series (as in 'Planet of Evil', shooting the jungle scenes on film helps). Unfortunately, attempts to show Erato interacting with actual actors results in extremely dodgy realization of the creature as a rubber inflatable, which at one point looks hilariously like a set of knackers. As usually, such poor effects work fails to detract from my enjoyment of the story, but I can't help thinking that the production team should have foreseen the effects of budgetary limitations at the scripting stage. What does detract from my overall enjoyment of the story however is the crass stupidity of the last fifteen or so minutes. For starters, the script initially portrays the Tythonians as intelligent and civilized beings; this being the case, it beggars the question of why, on receiving a distress signal from one of their own, they don't send a rescue party, but instead decide to blow up the entire solar system from which the signal originates. This subplot seems to have been crow barred into the story at the last minute in order to raise the stakes and show the Doctor saving an entire planet rather than just righting a comparatively minor injustice. Secondly, the entire sequence at the end in which the TARDIS holds a neutron star steady whilst Erato spins an aluminium shell around it is just utter bollocks in every respect. Even somebody with the most rudimentary understanding of such things must realize how insanely ludicrous this is; IT'S A NEUTRON STAR!! How could Erato possibly get near enough to it without being crushed, with or without sub-Star Trek tractor beam in place? How can the TARDIS possibly make an object of that mass change direction? Why wrap it in aluminium, which clearly isn't going to reduce its density or mass? Aargh! Suspension of disbelief goes out the window…
Finally, I should just mention K9. Blasphemous thought this might be, I actually prefer David Brierley's vocal performance to John Leeson's, since his haughtier tones are more appropriate to my perception of the often smug robot than Leeson's are. Having said that, he gets K9's voice close enough to Leeson's version so that it isn't hugely noticeable (and for those who do notice, there's always the silly laryngitis issue from 'Destiny of the Daleks' to explain why he sounds different). Having been sidelined for the previous two stories, K9 also gets plenty to do, and as in 'The Pirate Planet' he gets his own opponent in the form of the Wolf Weeds, mobile green tumbleweeds who manage to incapacitate him. The Wolf Weeds are also quite silly, but then that sums up 'The Creature From the Pit'; it is very silly. It's also, for the most part, tremendous fun.