We call it the pit.
In seasons past, one would have expected David Fisher’s “The Creature from the Pit” (Story Production Code 5G) to provide exactly what the title promises: a beastie in an underground labyrinth posing a deadly threat. Season Seventeen, under producer Graham Williams and script editor Douglas Adams, continues to subvert expectations, with the featured creature instead being a well-spoken interplanetary ambassador on a thwarted trade mission, albeit an envoy some two hundred feet in length, covered in a sickly green membrane, festooned with unfortunate appendages, and given to crushing people inadvertently.
Deadpan humor abounds in this story, which sees the Doctor and Romana landing on the planet Chloris—a verdant jungle world, in case the Nation-esque planet name didn’t give it away—after homing in on a distress beacon being sent out by what appears to be a giant egg shell. Unbeknownst to our time travellers, however, they have landed in the “Place of Death,” so named because anyone found there is put to death by the servants of Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances), the most powerful person on the planet thanks to her monopoly on metal. The Doctor’s curiosity about the shell leads Adrasta’s lady-in-waiting, Madam Karela (Eileen Way), to spare the Doctor and Romana, so that Adrasta can question them.
No sooner do they head off for Adrasta’s palace than a group of bandits waylays them, intent on stealing as much metal as possible, kidnapping Romana in the process. The bandits’ scruffy appearance, particularly in comparison to Adrasta’s sharply attired guards, serves to highlight her power and wealth and the poverty of the rest of the planet, but the social commentary disappears as soon as the bandits begin to speak. They come across as greedy bumpkins, driven solely by their desire for metal of any kind; their predations stem not from penury but from avarice. While their behavior does emphasize the scarcity of metal on Chloris, the comedic presentation drains them of any degree of menace or threat, a danger sapped even further when Romana just sternly orders them to let her go, which they do, with a little help from K-9.
Comedic moments in Doctor Who work best when they provide a counterpoint to the drama and the action, when they stem from the events on screen rather than being the whole purpose of a scene. The earnest yet literal-minded detective Duggan from “City of Death,” for instance, and the glib con-man Garron in “The Ribos Operation,” lighten the mood because they are juxtaposed against more serious events rather than attempting to be humorous in and of themselves. “The Creature from the Pit” feels like everyone wants in on the funny business, from veteran director Christopher Barry through to the deposed court astrologer Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon), who survived being thrown in the dreaded pit after displeasing Adrasta. When the Doctor meets Organon, after he jumps in the pit himself to escape from Adrasta’s clutches, the two exchange such a wildfire patter of witticisms and bon mots that one almost doesn’t notice the green pulsating creature stuffing itself through a doorway, trying to reach them…
It’s churlish to hold effects work against Doctor Who, particularly given the stringent budgets the effects team had to work with and the limitations of both a compressed shooting schedule and available technology. Sometimes, though, someone within the process needs to intervene and acknowledge when an idea will just not come to fruition even within the most generous of suspensions of disbelief, as with the floaty fog CSO caves in “Underworld.” The main creature—Ambassador Erato of Tythonus, to give its full name and title—simply does not work; the enormity of the creature comes across well, but the close-up moments, particularly the bulbous appendages and the obvious fabric stretch of its green skin, create an unintentional humor that, when added to the intentional laughs, completely undercuts any hope of the story being taken seriously.
The underlying plot of this four part story hints at a strong tale when it does peek out from the vaudeville stage curtains, with the underlying theme being the maintenance of a monopoly and the power associated with such control. Fifteen years prior, Adrasta ordered Erato, who journeyed across the stars in an egg-like spaceship, thrown into the pit—the disused mine that once provided the only metal on the planet—because it offered to trade metal, which its kind can create, for plant life, which its world lacks and which Tythonians require to live. The thought of losing her monopoly over what metal remains drove Adrasta to such ends, and she worked to cover up any evidence of Erato’s arrival by declaring its landing site to be forbidden territory while simultaneously engaging inept scholars to postulate what the odd, shell-like remains might be, hiding the evidence in plain sight.
Once the story starts trying to build on that foundation, though, it falls apart. Whatever domains Adrasta controls, they seem small and petty, at least by the evidence on display. Neither is there any sense of the culture at large and the struggles it faces. Chloris appears to be matriarchal in structure—the relative uselessness of men is touched upon a few times by Adrasta and Karela, and Romana’s ability to cow her captors simply by raising her voice stems from some force beyond mere charisma. All other speaking characters from Chloris are male, though, most admittedly bumbling but far more in evidence than females within this culture, a jarring ratio for a supposed matriarchy.
Neither Fisher’s story nor Barry’s direction provide any sense of a living world beyond the three interior sets we see on screen. No one seems to lack for food or shelter; the implication is that the local civilization has stagnated for lack of metalworking. It’s a meagerly sketched world to inspire such a drastic action as imprisoning an alien for fifteen years and occasionally raiding the pit for any metal droppings it might leave. Interstellar travellers are also not considered to be outlandish in this world, with the suggestion that Erato, Romana, and the Doctor hail from the stars being greeted with shrugs rather than incredulity. The setting remains under-baked throughout.
The story’s strength, then, stems not from the background or even the plot, but rather from how the Doctor confronts an ostensible monster and, through understanding, realizes it to be benign, or at least just severely misunderstood. The Doctor saves the day because of who he is and what he believes, rather than being driven by plot beats. So when the Doctor manages to communicate with Erato, by means of an incredibly convoluted series of events that sees the bandits hypnotized into bringing a telepathic device that conveys Erato’s thoughts through the larynx of someone touching the device, one assumes the story will take the shape of a standard “humans are the real monster” story.
Doctor Who has utilized this reversal of structures frequently, being so beloved in the Third Doctor’s run that actual monsters were genuinely shocking in a Pertwee story. But in another of those nifty subversions in Season Seventeen, once Erato smushes Adrasta as payback for its subterranean exile, after politely excusing itself for doing so, the Doctor stops short and warns Romana—and the viewers—that he doesn’t trust Erato any further than he could throw it. Even this revelation, though, that the monster may still yet be a monster, is marred by an extensive bit of badinage between Romana and the Doctor in which the Doctor answers “yes” to every question she asks.
The final episode, then, completely changes gears, shifting from Adrasta’s reign of terror to whatever Erato might be planning. David Fisher goes big here, skipping over any petty revenge on the Tythonian’s part and heading right to stellar annihilation. The distress signal that drew the Doctor and Romana to Chloris in the first place has reached Tythonus and, as is apparently standard in these situations, the big plant blob planet launched a neutron star at Chloris with the intent of destroying its star and the entire solar system in the process, as retribution for the act of violence against their ambassador. The death star is, thanks to plot magic, a scant hour away once Erato is freed from the pit. (One does wonder, though, why a civilization capable of stellar engineering needs to trade metal for plants with a primitive culture in the first place. Surely hydroponic gardening is simpler to master than propelling collapsars through space?)
A bit of technobabble and clever-sounding science-ing sees the Doctor and Romana use the TARDIS to grab hold of the neutron star while Erato, in its newly reconstructed egg-ship, spins an aluminum shell around it in a magnanimous gesture despite its long years of imprisonment. Thus ensconced, the neutron star hurtles off harmlessly into space, saving Chloris and enabling the two planets to complete an ore-for-chlorophyll trade deal after all.
Stories such as this, and indeed all of Season Seventeen to date, filled with wordplay and repartee, are right up Tom Baker’s alley, and he seems to be enjoying the role quite a bit. He’s central to almost every scene, and his interactions with both Organon and Adrasta benefit from the strong performances of his guest stars. Myra Frances in particular embraces the hauteur of Lady Adrasta, throwing herself into the part with a seriousness that most of her co-stars lack. She alone of the main performers has (mostly) avoided the temptation to indulge in a bit of silliness. Geoffrey Bayldon, as the wizened astrologer, plays off of Baker’s mannerisms quite nicely, being reasonably (though humorously) offended when the Doctor is seemingly willing to let him die to preserve the life of Erato.
Interestingly, because of the shooting schedule for this season, “The Creature from the Pit” marks Lalla Ward’s first actual scenes as Romana, this being the initial story produced during the block. She jumps right in, and one would be hard pressed to tell that she didn’t have several episodes already behind her. It helps that Fisher gives her a strong script, particularly the first half of the story where she operates on her own, apart from the Doctor. Though even she gives in to a bit of humorous hamminess, alas, cheering just a bit too enthusiastically when K-9 fends off the “wolf-weeds” that Adrasta uses as guard dogs.
It’s a wonder that K-9, now voiced by David Brierley instead of John Leeson, didn’t get in on the act. The tin mutt finally makes a fully fledged appearance in this season, mostly for its firepower, as a threat to destroy Erato when Romana is being held captive by Adrasta. It also serves to provide background information on Tythonus and neutron stars, as the plot requires. Because of repeated run-ins with the wolf-weeds, though, K-9 spends much of the story immobile and is carried through quite a few of the scenes by either Romana or one of Adrasta’s guards, leading to frequent scenes where whoever is carrying it must stand facing a wall, so as to prevent the metal mongrel from using its stun ray.
The term “companion” makes yet another appearance, now featuring twice in three episodes after a two year absence:
Doctor: No, no. She’s not my commander. She’s my companion.
Rarer still, this occurrence marks one of the few times the Doctor himself has used the term companion throughout the entire series to date.
At its best, Doctor Who is funny in one of two ways: subtly, through curious and humorous juxtapositions, often of the Doctor’s nonchalant approach to a seemingly dangerous or serious situation, and usually driven by wordplay; or indirectly, where the earnest concepts on offer pile up one on top of another, creating moments of pleasant absurdity. When the show goes out of its way to earn a laugh, something Tom Baker engages in frequently with his (often ad-libbed) knowing asides, and as seen throughout “The Creature from the Pit,” the results prove less satisfactory. There’s genuine comedic talent available, Baker very much included, but with a series that verges on the comic already, just because they’re trying to put a different fantastical world on display every week with a budget barely sufficient for a three-camera sit-com, leaning into the humor isn’t conducive to good storytelling. Letting the laughs come more naturally in this story would have resulted in a stronger—and funnier—outcome. Too often, we’re laughing at “The Creature from the Pit,” not with it.
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(Next Story: Nightmare of Eden)
Post 109 of the Doctor Who Project