Doctor Who: The Creature from the Pit (UK - DVD R2)
Is this story really the pits? The Wilson Bros take a deep breath and find out...
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We must stress that we are not misogynistic in the slightest (our respective other halves would kill us if we were!) and anything that could be mistaken for misogyny is merely humour and no offence is intended in the slightest.
Now we‘ve cleared that up, on with the review…
Hot on the heels of the release of The Horns of Nimon in the Myths and Legends set, 2Entertain are releasing another story from Doctor Who’s seventeenth season. Aside from the never-completed Shada (which we hope the Powers That Be will do something special with eventually), the release of The Creature From The Pit means that the only unreleased story from this season is Nightmare of Eden.
The activation of an emergency transceiver causes the TARDIS to materialise on the planet of Choris, a jungle planet that is teeming with life. The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) discover that metal is in short supply on Chloris and has become a precious commodity. The tyrannical Lady Adastra (Myra Frances), head of a gynarchy that controls the only metal mine left on the planet, is determined to hold onto her power, despite being the target of scavengers and bandits. Adastra has wolfweeds to enforce her tyranny, balls of green weeds that can attack on command; Adastra also has a nasty habit of throwing anyone who crosses her into a pit that contains a fearsome creature.
The Doctor is captured by Lady Adastra, whilst Romana falls in with a group of scavengers who are determined to get their grubby paws on Adastra’s stash of precious metal. When the Doctor is eventually cast into the pit, he meets the creature and suddenly events become much clearer and the true nature of the creature is revealed.
Though this was still deep in the Graham Williams era of Doctor Who, the unseen hand of Douglas Adams was still leaving its visible fingerprints over the script, with the sort of amusing dialogue that could only really come from the mind of a half-crazed genius with a cavalier attitude toward deadlines. The Creature from the Pit is buoyed by some of these touches that were inserted during the script editing stage, as it allows a story that would have seemed a little too pompous to breathe.
The story opens with a sacrifice being thrown into the titular hole in the ground to meet a grisly fate at the hands of the eponymous monster. There are some who would say that the actor concerned should have considered himself lucky, as he did not have to suffer the indignity of appearing the rest of the story.
When we mentioned to a Who-obsessed friend of ours that we were going to be reviewing The Creature from the Pit, he exclaimed ‘oh, it’s the one where Tom Baker meets the giant green phallus!’, to which we replied ‘yup, that’s the one’. Whilst watching this story for the purposes of writing this review, one of us had one of our nephews present for the first couple of episodes; he’s seven years old and fanatical about New-Who, but we introduced him to the classic series and he’s been enjoying them. When the distinctly phallus-like creature appeared onscreen for the first time and bobbed its way toward the Doctor, the one of us watching it with our nephew started to snigger slightly (probably because a couple of pints of ale had been consumed beforehand) and our nephew turned and said ’I know what this looks like’, which he was given the reply ’so do I’ and we spent the rest of the episodes both suppressing giggles at Doctor Who’s most penis-shaped adversary. It’s amusing to note that at one point Baker appears to try and fellate the thing in order to communicate with it—well, that’s certainly one way of trying to elicit a response…
Speaking of anatomically reminiscent baddies, one could only wonder if the Tythonians and the Vervoids ever decided to join up Warriors of the Deep-style and invade Earth—whatever the outcome would be, the planet will be fucked.
The Creature from the Pit has something of a bad reputation and is generally not well-liked amongst Doctor Who fans. We certainly watched this story when it was originally broadcast (as we mentioned in previous reviews, this season was the first one that we consciously remember being exposed to), and we caught it again a few years ago on satellite television. We were too young to fully absorb the different levels the story operated on originally, but when we saw it again, it was during a period when we were catching up with the Doctor Who stories that we had missed, and the result was that we quickly became jaded and The Creature from the Pit was one of those casualties.
Speaking of Douglas Adams (as we were a few paragraphs back), one of his unmistakable traits is evident here—the throwaway gag that would later cause a continuity headache; the Doctor makes a reference to Time Lords having ninety lives and that he had already used up one hundred and thirty—this is very reminiscent of casually mentioning in the radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that Zaphod Beeblebrox had two heads, which became something of a nightmare when translating the show to a visual medium.
The Doctor states that he was born over the sign of crossed computers—would these computers be the same ones that he and Romana had the TARDIS materialise in Australia 1980 to gratuitously plug…?
One thing that does stick in the throat about this story is the way that the scavengers are depicted; they come across as the sort of stereotypical Jewish caricatures that were prevalent in the fifties and sixties; primarily interested in the acquisition of material wealth and little else. It could be argued that writer David Fisher was simply taking a classical character (Shylock or Fagin are the closest examples) and transplanting them into science-fiction, which is what some of the best sci-fi has always done. This is all well and good, but what is depicted on-screen still leaves something of a nasty taste in the mouth and would be questionable if attempted in this day and age.
Baker is still on great form as the Doctor—this was before he got bored and spent his final two seasons being firstly way over the top, and then eventually looking bored to tears. His portrayal of the Doctor in this story is particularly good, as he embodies all the best elements of the character; being open-minded and welcoming of an alien life-form he hadn’t previously encountered, being disgusted by tyranny and the abuse of other life-forms, not to mention exercising his dry wit on the tyrants concerned and most importantly, finding an amicable solution to a conflict that would result in minimal loss of life for both sides.
It’s pretty interesting to bear in mind that this was Lalla Ward’s first story as Romana— Destiny of the Daleks would be the first to be broadcast, but the shooting schedule was such that The Creature From the Pit was the first to be filmed. You can see that Ward was still trying to get a handle on her take on Romana (she had some pretty big shoes to fill considering how much of an impact her predecessor, Mary Tamm, had on the show)—Ward still hasn’t quite gotten her sparky banter between herself and Baker as polished as it would eventually become and the outfit she is wearing seems to be completely at odds with the rest of her wardrobe during her time on the show. And as for that maternity smock she wears at the start of episode one—yeesh! Had the Doctor gotten Romana up the poke? We’re sure that K-9 could have run a test to find out—doubtless the Doctor was hoping that K-9’s reply was ’negative, Master’…
Speaking of K-9, this was the first story (in transmission order) where the new voice of the tin dog was heard properly—in the season opener, Destiny of the Daleks, K-9 was unceremoniously written out of the story by saying that he had contracted laryngitis. This was seemingly cunning way of prolonging the amount of time between John Leeson leaving and David Brierley replacing him, so viewers would be more accepting of him due to the general absence of home video recorders at the time. Though K-9 would be primarily written out of episode one of The Creature from the Pit in a very ’go guard the door, Shemp’ manner, he would eventually play quite a major part in the rest of the story, more so than many of the others we can remember. Ward is required to carry K-9 around for part of the story and it she was given the lightweight version to work with—it’s a pity that Ward didn’t spend some time at the Marcel Marceau acting school and picked up tips on how to make something seem heavy.
The supporting cast are fine, with Geoffrey Bayldon as great as always as Organon, the astrologer who was cast into the pit; Bayldon has always known how to mix humour and drama well and is a good match for Baker when he shares the screen with him. Myra Frances is great as Lady Adastra, bringing a steely determination and sneering nastiness to her role, showing that a female despot can be every bit as stupid and as pig-headed as the male ones in Doctor Who.
It’s moderately fascinating to mentioned that there are similar story elements between this story and season fourteen’s The Masque of Mandragora in that both involve mystics and astrologers, both set in times that could be looked upon as medieval-esque and in both stories the character whom the audience believe is the principle antagonist is dispatched early into the third act, only to by a character who comes to the fore as an even bigger threat.
The Restoration Team have done their stuff once again and The Creature from the Pit looks better now than it has ever looked before. In the absence of the original elements, they have cleaned up the film sequences and the results are most impressive, displaying a certain vibrancy that has been absent from the video release all those years ago. Colour Doctor Who stories always seemed to take on a more cinematic feel when there were extended scenes shot on film and this is augmented by the work that the RT have performed; maybe it’s the blueness of his eyes or the yellowness of his nicotine-stained teeth, but there is an almost luminescent quality to Tom Baker during film sequences here. The videotape scenes look wonderfully clear, as the original tapes survive—the pulsating greens of Erato are particularly pleasing on the eye—and generally this is another fine restoration job from that dedicated bunch of Doctor Who obsessives.
What is there to say? Dialogue is clear and Dudley Simpson’s music sounds fine, with a surprising amount of dynamic range when played through half-decent amplification. Good stuff.
Audio Commentary: This sonic reminiscing of times past includes the participation of actresses Myra Frances, along with director Christopher Barry and special effects maestro Matt Irvine. It’s the usual routine with Ward—she bitches about aspects of the production, takes verbal jabs at Tom Baker and sings the praises of Douglas Adams on numerous occasions. Ward makes it perfectly clear that when the story was filmed, she was basically required to impersonate Mary Tamm and the wardrobe she wore in this story reflected this. Barry and Frances don’t really get much of a look-in when Ward is in full-flight—to misquote her idol, Ward could talk all four legs off an Arcturan Mega-Donkey—but Irvine really is the star here, chipping in with some very down-to-earth (not to mention very funny) anecdotes about the production.
Christopher Barry – Director: This nineteen minute featurette focuses upon the contribution of this particular director; it’s quite a poignant affair as Barry speaks about his life and professional career. Shot on location in the quiet little village of Albourne in Wiltshire, which was the setting for the classic Jon Pertwee story, The Daemons, Barry is a genial and thoughtful subject and could quite possibly be the final in-depth interview that he will give on his life, so watch and treasure it.
Team Erato: Erato, indeed! This year has seen several comedy extras on Doctor Who releases; the results have been decidedly mixed— ’Beneath the Masque’ was fitfully amusing and the less said about ’A Holiday for the Doctor’ the better—but this featurette trumps both of these because it’s not only hysterically funny, but because the humour comes simply from the interviewees themselves and is edited in a way to maximise the laughs. The principle members of the effects team face the cameras to explain the chain of events that led to the creation of the most phallic-looking creature in the history of the show. Matt Irvine’s earthy sense of humour works wonderfully here and the others interview all flesh out the events. We defy you not to at least giggle when everyone recalls the reaction of the cast and crew when the Erato was wheeled onto the set for the first time. This truly is first-rate stuff and it’s great how many different terms for a penis are employed by the interviewees–did someone have a thesaurus on-hand to avoid repetition?
Animal Magic: This truly is a bizarre little offering, with Tom Baker in costume and on the set of The Creature From the Pit, doing a piece to camera whilst incarcerated in the stocks talking directly to the fans, recalling some of the creatures that he has encountered on his more recent travels. This is strange to say the least, but it’s wonderful to have the opening titles of Animal Magic, along with the old ‘wah-wah’ guitar music. It would appear that the original elements were used for this, as it looks remarkably fresh, vivid and film-like—the biggest indication of this being obtained from the unedited master comes when Baker walks off at the end and is heard to exclaim ’Oh God, forgive me!’
Extended Scene: This very short sequence shows the hairy mob attacking some poor sod in the palace and killing him in a manner that was deemed too bloodthirsty for a Saturday teatime audience. It’s a pity that they didn’t put this piece back into the story itself.
Photo Gallery: A series of stills from this story is presented with sound effects playing over the top of them. It also includes a picture of Erato at its most phallic.
Production Subtitles: As always, you will be bombarded with more information that the human mind can comfortably absorb when you select this option—a whirlwind of dates, times and interesting bits of production trivia will appear before your very eyes, so much so that by the time you have finished, you will almost have assimilated the knowledge of the late producer Graham Williams.
PDF Materials: Pop this baby into your PC and you will have access to the original Radio Times listings for all four episodes of The Creature From The Pit. Oh, at the bottom of each listing is a gratuitous plug for the release of the theme to Doctor Who on vinyl.
Coming Soon Trailer: This gives you a little taster of the Kamelion box-set that was delayed from earlier this year, which contains The King’s Demons and Planet of Fire.
We might have misjudged this story somewhat—though there are some holes in the plot that you could pilot a neutron star through, it’s still very entertaining and the cast give it their all. Though the somewhat questionable portrayal of the scavengers is a little dubious, there is much to like here, especially seeing Baker genuinely enjoying himself and what’s not to like about a story involving a pulsating green monster with a giant phallus…?
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 3rd May 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Christopher Barry - Director, Team Erato, Animal Magic, Deleted Scene, Production Subtitles, PDF Materials, Photo Gallery, Coming Soon trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Christopher Barry
Cast: Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, David Brierley, Geoffrey Bayldon
Length: 94 minutes
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