The Creature from the Pit ★★

A patchy effort with electrifying Lady Adrasta and Erato – "a giant green blancmange with a four-foot phallus"


Season 17 – Story 106


“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” – the Doctor

Lady Adrasta has a stranglehold on power on Chloris, a jungle planet scarce in metal: she owns its only mine – the Pit – into which she throws all who oppose her. A gigantic green blob lurks at the bottom, which the Doctor learns is Erato, an ambassador from Tythonus. He arrived 15 years earlier hoping to trade metallic ores for chlorophyll. The Doctor, Romana and K•9 must thwart Adrasta, free Erato and avert retaliation from his fellow Tythonians – a neutron star aimed at Chloris’s sun…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 27 October 1979
Part 2 – Saturday 3 November 1979
Part 3 – Saturday 10 November 1979
Part 4 – Saturday 17 November 1979

Filming: March 1979 at Ealing Studios
Model filming: April 1979 at BBC Visual Effects Workshop
Studio recording: April 1979 in TC6

Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Romana – Lalla Ward
Voice of K•9 – David Brierley
Lady Adrasta – Myra Frances
Karela – Eileen Way
Organon – Geoffrey Bayldon
Torvin – John Bryans
Edu – Edward Kelsey
Ainu – Tim Munro
Doran – Terry Walsh
Tollund – Morris Barry
Huntsman – David Telfer
Guardmaster – Tommy Wright
Guard – Philip Denyer, Dave Redgrave

Writer – David Fisher
Designer – Valerie Warrender
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Script editor – Douglas Adams
Producer – Graham Williams
Director – Christopher Barry

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Whatever else a Doctor Who story offers, it can stand and fall on the effectiveness of its monsters. A feeble effect or tatty costume will attract ridicule and opprobrium – a fact Graham Williams appreciated only too keenly. Hence his ploy to keep monsters largely incidental, a trend that slackened towards the end of his tenure as producer.

If you commission a serial called The Creature from the Pit, then you have to show that creature, more’s the pity, even when it turns out to be a “giant green blancmange with a four-foot phallus”, to quote Williams’s own horrified internal BBC memo. You may spot that Erato’s offending appendage undergoes a design tweak between episodes two and three, but there’s no erasing the image of Tom Baker grasping the Tythonian’s protuberance and giving it a damn good blow.

The bouncy-castle/sickbag-with-willy that is Erato aside, I’d completely forgotten, in the decades since I sat through this four-parter, how visually impressive the rest of the production is. The pit itself is sturdy and atmospherically lit, while the jungle set at Ealing Studios has a filmic sheen and depth, lush greenery contrasting with the locals’ burgundy costumes.

Christopher Barry achieves a great deal with very little. Which shouldn’t come as a massive surprise: he directed the more effective episodes of the first Dalek story in 1963/4, was entrusted with Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker’s debut stories, and helmed such classics as The Daemons and The Brian of Morbius. Sadly, this production was not a happy memory for him and would also be his last.

His authority was challenged by Tom Baker, who’d become a domineering force since their previous collaborations. Barry disliked the silliness that undermined dramatic impetus. The fear factor and violence had been toned down drastically, in compliance with new BBC drama department edicts, since the gory days of Morbius.

And while Barry was a master of video trickery (and there are some neat CSO shots here), the demands of the plot were beyond the budget and visual effects department. Model shots of the police box and giant egg in space had to be remounted and there was an interdepartmental inquest into the most wretched underachievement – the rendering of Erato.

David Fisher’s story trots along with a simplistic but workable premise, and a clutch of vivid characters. Eileen Way, who played a cave-dwelling crone in An Unearthly Child, is cast as a similarly vindictive misery here. Geoffrey Bayldon has had a bath since Catweazle and is great fun as the charlatan stargazer Organon, working well alongside Baker.

Myra Frances is simply terrific as Adrasta, lifting her above the one-dimensional bad girl on the page. She’s electrifying in the bizarre, villain-in-peril part three cliffhanger (surely the most dramatic moment of the entire season). After her early demise in part four, the energy plummets.

The bandits are a tedious bunch, impossible to take seriously and, as figures of fun, hopeless. Their leader Torvin, a sort of fat Fagin, gets zapped by K•9 and looks for somewhere comfortable to fall down – common practice in this period.

Other minor roles smack of desperation or jobs for mates. Two of Adrasta’s advisers are played by stuntman Terry Walsh (accomplished in his own field but not a gifted actor) and Morris Barry (a distant relative of Christopher and a director of 1960s Who).

Despite its position at the mid-point of a curtailed season, The Creature from the Pit was actually first into production, which probably explains why a little more money has been spent. And also why Romana doesn’t quite seem herself. The scripts were written for Mary Tamm’s blend of glamour and grandeur, and Lalla Ward looks uncomfortable in a floaty maternity dress, liberal eye-shadow and lippy, and over-fussy hairdo.

K•9, too, has undergone a perceptible change. In narrative terms, he’s overcome a bout of laryngitis! Off camera, voice artist John Leeson has been replaced by David Brierley. So the petulant but endearing class swot tones make way for those of a rather effete, querulous schoolmaster. In concert with the fourth Doctor at the fag-end of his era, this set of Tardis occupants is arguably the least appealing to date.

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[Available on BBC DVD]