There are a lot of candidates for the award for 'worst looking monster to ever appear in an episode of Doctor Who.' Who could forget the Myrka from Warriors of the Deep, a giant plastic pantomime horse, for example? The creature on the top of my list however is the title character from an otherwise enjoyable Tom Baker episode, The Creature from the Pit. Laced with humor and some interesting ideas, the show manages to work well even with a creature design that instills more laughter than fear. Recently released in region 1, now North American fans can add this classic monster to their Who DVD collection.
The TARDIS receives a distress signal and materializes on the planet Chloris, next to an impossibly enormous egg shell. The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (in her Lalla Ward incarnation) barely have time to examine the artifact when they're captured by soldiers under the control of the domineering Lady Adrasta. It turns out that Chloris is a very metal-poor planet and Adrasta had the only mine on the planet, one that has recently been tapped out. She rules thought fear, throwing anyone whom she dislikes into a pit called aptly enough "The Pit." Down in the depths is "The Creature" who kills everyone who enters. Not being one for unsolved mysteries, The Doctor jumps down into the pit himself rather than being imprisoned by Adrasta.
Deep in the subterranean caverns, The Doctor discovers that things aren't exactly as they seem, and along with a surviving astronomer named Organon attempts to contact The Creature, a 200 yard long amorphous blob, and find out exactly why he's been killing people. Add in a group of bandits who steal metal and manage to capture Romana, a pack of 'wolf weeds', trained vegetation, and a neutron star weapon and you've got an entertaining Doctor Who Adventure.
The main reason this story is still remembered today is for the creature itself. Described in the script as "a giant, feathered (or perhaps scaled) slug of no particular shape, but of a fairly repulsive grayish-purplish colour...unimaginably huge. Anything from a quarter of a mile to a mile in length." What were they thinking??! Did one of the producers really think that they'd be able to create something passable for a typical episode's special effects budget? In any case, the special effects team was given little to work with, either description-wise or with money, and the result is laughably bad. The first time it appears the monster looks like a giant phallus. It was obviously not what the BBC wanted, but they had to film with what they had. When filming ended at 10 PM, the creature was taken back to the shop and designed, and it had to be completed in time for the next day's shooting. This time they changed it to have a forked 'arm' and a second single appendage. It looked a bit better (at least it was no longer pornographic) but not by much. Finally the creature was turned into armless green sheet of plastic. Not the show's greatest moment.
Aside from the hysterically bad creature, the show was pretty good. The script had just the right mixture of humor and drama, and it worked well, thanks in part to the work of Douglas Adams who was script editor at the time. Tom Baker is in top form leaping into danger without a care, just a snappy line and a grin. (Barker's Doctor often reminds me of Bugs Bunny, so terribly confident that he'll be able to pull a win out of any situation that he doesn't bother to worry about something like impending death.)
One weak part is the performance of Lalla Ward, who recognizes that this wasn't her finest job in the commentary track. This was the first story she filmed (though it was the third to air) and she was still getting used to the character and how she would play the female Time Lord. She comes across as a bit unsure and it seems that she's never sure if she should be a damsel in distress or the hero. Still she'd grow into the role in a short time.
One of the things that are really appealing about this adventure is that they introduce some interesting ideas about the culture of Chloris, though they don't really have time to expand on them much. The society is run by women, for example, with both the leader and her second in command being female. The males are still soldiers, but it's clear that they don't wield the power. It was also interesting seeing a culture evolve where metal was rare. Without it they it was tough to plow the land, which severely limits how much a city can grow. There were some odd choices, like having eating plates made out of metal... you would have thought that weapons and plows were a higher necessity, especially for a dictator who had to keep her people in line, but that a minor quibble.
The mono soundtrack has been cleaned up and is very good. It is nice and clear with no hiss or background noise to take away from the story. Being a mono track, there's really not much more to say about it.
The full frame video has been cleaned up by the Restoration Team and it looks good. The original cinematography wasn't that impressive, there's a few spots where whites bloom and the color design is very drab, but the disc reproduces that well. The whole serial was recorded on sets so videotape was used throughout and the picture isn't as sharp as it would have been with film. The colors are solid though and the level of detail is decent. This is an average looking Doctor Who disc.
There's a solid set of extras along with this four episode adventure. There's a commentary track featuring actors Lalla Ward and
With a creature as infamous as the one in this story, they couldn't just ignore it in the extras so there's a nice 15-minute featurette, Team Erato, where the people responsible for the monstrosity (pun intended) discuss the pressures they were under and how the design came about. Christopher Barry - Director is a short (19-minute) look at the work of the director who started on Doctor Who with the very second story The Daleks. This was his last Who outing, and he reminisces about how he became a director and what it was like working on Doctor Who.
There's also a single extended scene (the metal bandits killing a guard) and a very bizarre piece entitled Animal Magic. This has Tom Baker, in costume from the show, talk about some of the fantastic (and fictional) animals he's faced. Make sure you stay tuned to the end to hear him yell "Oh God! Forgive me!" after he walks off camera.
There is also an 'info-text' option for each story. This is something that the other Who releases have and I'm a big fan of them. This pop-up text options allows viewers to read about the shooting schedule, changes between various story incarnations and the final version and learn about the history of the supporting actors. It's well worth watching, though it can be distracting so watch the story without it once.
The extras are wrapped up with a three minute Radiophonic Workshop music demo, a photo gallery, and the usual Radio Times listings.
No true Doctor Who fan can be without this story, solely because it has one of the most unbelievably bad creatures in the history of the show, and that's saying something. If you can look past that, it's a very solid effort that really works better than many fans might remember. It gets a strong Recommendation.