The Creature From The Pit
October - November 1979
"Astrologer extraordinary. Seer to princes and emperors. The future foretold, the present explained, the past - apologised for."
Gosh, the last Classic Doctor Who review was back in January! We must rectify that problem immediately. Onwards, I say. Let's get the sniggering about the phallic looking, green glowing blob of an alien ambassador out of the way for starters. Yes, it looks rubbish, it unintentionally must be one of the most sexually offensive 'things' ever to grace tea-time telly (well, almost) and then Baker goes and gives it a blow job. Well, it's one way of making friends I suppose. For the rest...well let's get the plot out of the way first. There's a creature, in a pit, on a planet with no metal. A nasty lady has imprisoned it there cos she wants to monopolise the supply of metal and stay in power. The Doctor and Romana wander in and sort it out.
...the dramatic situation turns out to be a big green phallus in a pitOne of my bug-bears about the Williams era was the ever growing use of 'humour' and the generally flippant tone that pervaded the series. Now, I like a laugh and you can accuse me of perhaps taking this particular era of the series too seriously if you want. But there's one scene in this that totally epitomises why I don't like the way humour was used in the series at this point. Yeah, the infamous 'Everest In Easy Stages' scene. The Doctor's allegedly hanging on for his life in the pit, he pulls out the 'Everest' book and then seeing that it's written in Tibetan, then proceeds to pull out a 'Teach Yourself Tibetan' book in order to proceed. For me, it's absurdist humour that isn't funny. It just makes me groan. And as I understand it the absurdist humour, the injection of 'comedy' per se into the series, can only work surely if it is in counterpoint to a bleaker, dramatic and tragic situation that follow it or preceeds it (see Love And Monsters to get an idea of how RTD handled it, or didn't, according to your tastes). It's a classic set-up device. But here and in other instances, the set up fails because it's too absurd (comedy has rules just like everything else) or the dramatic situation turns out to be a big green phallus in a pit.
It dovetails into my own observation that during the Williams era, instead of his, and Adams' particular, desire to understand the role of the villain, the purpose of threat and the nature of evil they were actually having a 'reductionist' effect on the role of the monsters/villains in the adventure. The threats become emptier and emptier, lacking dramatic force and the necessary pay off to make the surreal and absurdist comedy work. If Williams was trying to position the show as a comedy/SF vehicle then for me he only managed that on rare occasions. He was justifiably proud of City Of Death and rightly so because at least there the comedy and the science fiction ideas shared responsibility for the authenticity of the narrative. Elsewhere, he was on shakier ground, to the point where the show did dangerously veer off into self-parody and the pantomimic.
And of course the other element contributing to the stripping away of dramatic power in the stories at this point is the Doctor, and also, Romana. For me, the Doctor and his companion(s) are the centre point around which everything else plays out. With the Doctor/Romana/K9 line up, the series has swapped the audience's view of the mysteries and dangers of the universe for the nonchalance and egoism of two Time Lords and an 'electric dog'. I think it's a good line up in some ways and I enjoy the 'fun' relationship between the three but I do think it was to the detriment of audience identification, dramatic tension and authenticity. Creature is the first in a line of three stories that for me really illustrate all of the above points. So are there any pleasures to be had? Naturally, there are. I often feel that even the worst stories do have some redeeming features.
Production wise, the filmed sequences of the surface of Chloris, particularly in episode one, are very fine and the sets are in the same league as those produced at Ealing for Planet Of Evil. They are atmospheric and set up the landscape of the narrative. Effective world-building. The studio sequences are variable, the pit scenes are again atmospheric and lit accordingly but the interiors of Adrasta's palace and Torvin's hideout suffer from being over-lit. Visual effects are on the whole pretty good - the models of Erato's ship and the TARDIS are up to the good standard of the team. The only let down is Erato himself with the life size versions, despite best efforts, looking embarassing. There are a couple of CSO scenes with the full size version and the actors matted in that aren't bad at all.
...clumsy stereotyping that wouldn't darken any screen these daysApart from the Tom/Lalla mutual admiration society, the story does feature a nicely judged, self-deprecating performance from Geoffrey Bayldon as the astrologer Organon. He manages to carve out some moments of whimsy and pathos for himself and he plays off Baker very well. Myra Frances as Lady Adrastra just turns the 'camp' switch up to full and shouts a lot. She's about as threatening as a fart in a hurricane and the dramatic clout that the story needs ends up being delivered in the manner of a pantomime dame. However, despite the vamping, she does further emphasise the refreshing attitude Williams had to making 'villainy' an equal opportunities activity. And yes, the Thatcher parallels are all intact even if she's just the token xenophobe of Chloris - an inhuman human if you will. And she gets some genuinely funny lines. If anyone should be slapped across the legs for dis-service to the thespian craft then it should be John Bryans as Torvin, leader of the scavengers. Or should that be Fagin. Lazy acting and characterisation and clumsy stereotyping that wouldn't darken any screen these days.
David Fisher's script is actually very good when you strip away much of the production flummery. There are some interesting observations about the deceptiveness of appearances, the nature of communication, xenophobia and the economics of power. It subtly mirrors much of what was happening politically and economically in the UK at the time. Just a shame it all ended up looking and sounding like a production of Oliver Twist meets Aladdin. And finally, David Brierly voicing K9. He really does make him sound, like an irritating, smug know-it-all. Just like his master, then.
THE CREATURE FROM THE PIT (BBCV7266 VHS Cert PG - deleted)
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who The Creature From The Pit