"The Creature from the Pit" was broadcast in 1979 - mid way through season seventeen of "Doctor Who" - but was actually the first story to go into production that year, and thus the first story to feel the influence of Douglas Adams as the show's in-coming script editor. Coincidently, the story is often put forward as the number one exhibit by those who believe that this season constitutes the nadir in show's sad descent into self-parody, complacency and general loss of faith in its own fundamental premise. Certainly, if you were to compile a list of favourite stories from the Tom Baker era, it's hard to believe any more than one would come from this series (and that anomalous 'one' would surely be "City of Death", which, just to provide the exception that proves the rule, is probably one of the finest Baker era stories!). Baker was entering his sixth year as the TV Time Lord and was becoming increasingly demanding behind the scenes; the previous season he had threatened to quit if he wasn't given more say in production and even in directorial matters - a sure sign of increasing boredom with a role that many younger viewers by now associated exclusively with him. This was also the first story to star Baker's future wife Lalla Ward as his Time Lord (or "Time Lady", depending on how sexist the writer was) companion Romana, after the recent departure of Mary Tamm. The way the change-over was handled is another illustration of the show's now overtly frivolous attitude to its own lore, at least according to some fans: in her first story to be broadcast, "Destiny of the Daleks", Romana is shown "trying on" a succession of bodies, eventually settling for that of Princess Astra (Lalla Ward), and treating the whole regeneration process as though it were like choosing a dress. It makes for a good joke but treads all over the show's established continuity for the sake of a silly set-piece, and was the first sign that the show was no longer even trying to create a self-consistent 'believable' world, content instead to treat the whole thing as a jolly jape.
So, watching this not-particularly-distinguished four part story once more on DVD, it is somewhat disconcerting to realise that Adams' 'school boy humour' (as producer Graham Williams maligned it in the post mortem that followed the debacle) is often about the only thing that saves it from being a complete bore, although this is hardly a defence. Some of the 'humour' is dreadful stuff, unfit to grace even a seaside pantomime. The unfortunate effect of combining Baker's over-the-top - and now virtually exclusively comic - performance, with Adams' tendency to add his own jokey, parodical elements to the scripts, leads to many moments of painful silliness in this series: caricatured stock characters and performances given with an arch wink to the audience, as if to say 'this is all rather silly isn't it', abound throughout. But the fact is that if it were not for the jokes, there wouldn't be much else to recommend this particularly weak and poorly thought-out effort by David Fisher. And that's why the only thing people ever remember about this story nowadays is that 'it's the one that has a monster that looks like a giant green cock!'
When Romana (Lalla Ward) plugs in the TARDIS's emergency transceiver for the first time (she had earlier found it discarded by the Doctor in one of the ship's holds) it immediately picks up a distress signal from the planet Chloris that turns out to emanate from a giant shell-like structure that's half buried on the steamy jungle planet. The doctor is captured by the Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances), leader of a matriarchal society who dress in oriental-themed dominatrix outfits and keep people in line by setting vegetable-like creatures called Wolf-Weeds on them, big round balls controlled by a huntsman wielding a whip; meanwhile, Romana is taken prisoner by a bunch of hairy fur-clad bandits. After witnessing Adrasta's method of dealing with all dissent in her kingdom - which involves having her enemies thrown down a big hole in the ground containing a giant man-eating creature - the Doctor takes the unusual step of throwing himself down the self-same hole! In the pit he meets Adrasta's court astrologer Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon), who got tossed down there years ago after giving some misguided astrological advice, and he also meets the creature itself, which turns out to be a one-hundred foot wide amoebae- like blob with a huge phallus-like feeler on the end of it. It kills people by lumbering on top of them and smothering them to death. Meanwhile, Romana, with the help of K-9, has escaped from the bandits, who, it turns out, are scavengers who make a living from stealing precious metals (which are incredibly rare on Chloris). She also falls into the clutches of Lady Adrasta, who decides to use K-9 as a weapon with which to threaten the creature in the pit.
It turns out that the glowing green blob is really an official alien trading ambassador called Erato, who comes from the planet Tythonus. He came to Chloris in order to broker a trade agreement between the two planets. It seems that Tythonus is as depleted of vegetation as Chloris is lacking in metals - a commodity which Tythonus happens to have in abundance. Erato was hoping to exchange chlorophyll-rich vegetation for the metal that would enable Chloris to emerge from its backward agrarian culture into a new, prosperous age of metal. Unfortunately, the first person Erato came across when his shell-like ship landed on Chloris, was the lady Adrasta: a dictatorial leader who had built her entire power base upon the policy of keeping the planet’s limited supply of metal under her strict control. She imprisoned Erato in the pit, confiscating his communication device so that whenever he tried to make contact with anybody who was thrown in with him, he invariably ended up accidentally killing them!
A somewhat thin story that struggles to find enough plot to flesh out four episodes, it turns out to be the huge amount of episode padding and the comedy performances that really make this adventure more bearable in retrospect. Not to mention the infamous monster Erato, the design of which was the subject of a fraught post mortem meeting by the production team afterwards.
The best thing about this story is guest player Geoffrey Bayldon, otherwise known as Catweazle and the Crow-Man in “Worzel Gummage”. Strangely enough, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for this astrologer character to be in the story at all: he serves no function in the plot and merely ends up being someone for the Doctor to talk to while he’s in the pit - that is until he’s able to get hold of the Tythonion communications device (Adrasta keep it hanging on the wall of her throne room) which utilises the vocal cords of the person trying to talk to the creature, thus allowing Tom Baker to natter merrily away to himself for a large chunk of episode three.
Lalla Ward admits on the commentary track that, at this stage, she had no idea what she was supposed to be doing with the role of Romana. It’s not her fault, since the story had clearly been written before she was even cast in the role, and gives her little option but to attempt an impersonation of Mary Tamm. Consequently she gives a peculiar haughty, girlish reading of the doctor’s assistant, which bares little resemblance to the capable, resourceful character she became in later stories (although ,of course, this story was broadcast half way through the series, thus making her performance appear somewhat inconsistent).
Myra Frances gives us a pantomime dame villain, but delivers her excessively melodramatic lines with so much commitment she almost gets away with it. K-9, now being voiced by David Brierley who had taken over from John Leeson, starts to turn the trundling electronic dog into a bad tempered version of C-3PO for the rest of the season. The production design on this story, which was the last one to be shot by veteran Who director Christopher Barry, is especially noteworthy though. A large part of the story was shot at Ealing Studios, and a larger proportion of it than usual seems to have been shot in 16 mm film rather than the usual video, giving the lush jungle set much more of an extravagant filmic feel than the series was usually able to muster in this period. The restoration team who polish up all these episodes for DVD release, seem to refine the process a little more with each new release, with the result that this story looks unusually splendid on DVD: the misty jungle scenes are bathed in greens and emeralds, while the video-taped scenes in the pit glow garishly with Erato’s sickly green luminescence.
Once again, 2Entertain lavish us with extras on this disc, even if the story is one of the least-loved in Who history. “Christopher Barry - Director” is a 17 minute to-camera piece by the aged director who gives us a verbal tour through his professional life behind the camera: breaking into films after leaving the air force after the 2nd World War and eventually moving to the BBC Drama Department after a stint under Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios. Barry directed the first Dalek story with William Hartnell in the role of the Doctor, and directed under every Doctor up to and including Tom Baker. “The Creature from the Pit” was his last story for the series. He moved to “All Creatures great And Small” and tells of advising Peter Davidson not to take on the role after the young actor told him he’d been offered the part of the Doctor soon after Baker’s departure in 1980!
“Team Erato” is the strange tale of how the BBC’s flagship sci-fi children’s programme came to produce a monster that appeared on the TV screens of the nation looking like a giant green blancmange with a male member stuck on the end of it! An amusing, no-holds-barred piece that sees Mat Irvine, the chief visual effects designer at the time, and all of his assistants - Steve Bowman, Steve Lucus and Morag McLean - who were responsible for constructing the creature from his design, coming clean on the whole fiasco. Christopher Barry, the director, is also interviewed again here. It seems that the whole sorry episode became the subject of heated debate after the show was transmitted, with each participant blaming the other. Really though, Irvine and his team never had a chance of realising what the script called for on a limited budget like the one “Doctor Who” enjoyed in those days. One could even see the results as entirely in keeping with the story’s main theme. The planet Chloris is after all entirely run by women, with the men all seemingly forced to scratch a meager living as impoverished comedy bandits who act like they should've been appearing in the nearest production of “Oliver”. With that in mind, a massive penis that gets trapped in a gaping black cavity seems like the perfect visual metaphor! Although what we should make of the sequence in which Tom Baker attempts to communicate with Erato by blowing down the end of his phallic appendage is a question best left to one side!
“Animal Magic”: This is a short sequence filmed for the children’s show about animals that featured presenter Johnny Morris providing comical voice-overs for footage depicting zoo animals behaving 'amusingly' (i.e.: like bored, caged captives). Baker appears on the set of Chloris at Ealing talking about the various fictional animals and monsters he has encountered on his travels through time and space. A strange idea, but Baker was never one to turn down some extra screen time.
The commentary track features Lalla Ward, Christopher Barry, Mat Irvine and Myra Francis and, once again, Ward dominates proceedings, mainly with her embarrassment at her own performance during her early days as Romana. Infamous among some Whovians for her unrestrained, often defamatory opinions on the show and her time on it, personally I’d rather have someone be honest in their opinions than simply dealing in shallow blandishments as many participants are wont to do. Ward is excessively partisan when it comes to K-9 and Douglas Adams, who can do no wrong as far as she is concerned, but that’s to be expected. Barry and Irvine almost get into a spat at one point when the subject comes up of some re-shoots which Barry ’demanded’ on the last episode because the special effects weren't good enough. Otherwise, this is an amiable ramble down memory lane, as these un-moderated commentary tracks often are. Ward’s inveterate cattiness at least keeps things lively!
The disc also features a fact-stuffed information track full of production info that fills you in some more on all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, via various written production memos and other sources of information; and there is a PDF file provided, with Radio Times listings for each episode. Subtitles, a photo gallery scored with Radiophonic Workshop audio effects and a “Coming Soon” trailer for the forthcoming “Kamelion” box set round off an entertaining haul of extras that manage to make a substandard Who adventure into an unusually interesting dissection of a show in crisis at the end of the seventies.