Monday, 14 October 2013

The Creature from the Pit written by David Fisher and directed by Christopher Barry

This story in a nutshell: There is a big green blob down a very black hole and it's eating people…

Teeth and Curls: How can you not love the Doctor of season seventeen? This is the Doctor at his most delightfully irreverent and frivolous, seeking diversions, fun and adventures. Gone is the patronising Doctor of old or even the brooding wild-eyed portent of doom from his early years, this is one period of his life where he simply seems content. Look at how he proudly talks about his old adventures but turns his nose up at dull old Gallifreyan technology because he finds calls and summons to Gallifrey such a bore. He doesn't want to waste his time amongst the stuffy cloisters of Gallifrey when there is a wild universe to explore. He enjoys reading Peter Rabbit with K.9. Go watch how Tom Baker plays the scene where he first touches the shell and declares it alive, this is an unpredictable actor at his best selling unrealistic material as though it is deadly serious. They really sweat him up in the jungle, he looks hot and uncomfortable. The Doctor is quite handy in his manacles, bonking people on the head during the ambush and escaping from Adastra’s clutches. He has a teaspoon and an open mind so naturally he learnt more about the egg than Adastra’s scientists. Look at his recklessness at the end of part one, selflessly throwing himself down the pit to discover more about the creature. Teehee – Teach Yourself Tibetan, I am the perfect audience for this lame undergraduate humour and I am laughing with rather than at the script (it is so much more fun that way). He is born under the sign of cross computers (the maternity sign on Gallifrey). If you can get past the look of the creature then the Doctor attempts to communicate show him at his best; sweet, understanding, intelligent and complimentary. Tom Baker plays those potentially catastrophic scenes with some skill (although blowing down the creatures protuberance might be the rudest thing you or I have ever seen the character do). I was cracking up at the Doctor’s reaction to Adastra’s threat to kill Organon: ‘Goodbye old man.’ Creature from the Pit is one of the lesser regarded Doctor Who adventures and Tom Baker is heavily criticised this season for tripping over into farce and yet I found this story to be littered with gorgeous moments from his Doctor. He might be a little too farcical in paces during season seventeen but this was the point where Tom Baker had been playing the part for six years and was starting to improvise madly to keep himself entertained. Some of those moments miss but boy do some of them hit and in that insane spontaneity lies moments of absolute genius.

Aristocratic Adventurer: She is the Doctor’s commander. Never was a truer word spoke behind the scenes. As Lalla Ward points out this is still very much written in the characterisation of the Mary Tamm version of the character, always talking down to people and walking around as though there is a nasty smell in the room but she plays it with such imperious  conviction I wont complain. Watching her dominate the Bandits is worth the admission price alone (somebody had to sort out the unruly lot). She becomes something of a wet drip when K.9 is surrounded by wolf weeds which I thought rang false. I really like the exchange where Romana lips back to Adastra and she gets a slap round the face for his cheek, its quite shocking to see a companion get a clout around the face for her sarcasm. Romana thinks she is improving (at hat we never learn) but she is shockingly flippant towards the creature when they are looking for answers. You would think she would have learnt enough about not judging by external appearances from their travels together. Because these stories were transmitted out of order it is strange to have the confident, classy Romana of Destiny and City of Death followed up by a clearly uncertain Lalla Ward in Creature (the first story she filmed this season). Things would be much more steady for the character and the actress from this point on.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Stupid expression. Stands to reason. Why doesn’t it lie down to reason? It's much easier to reason lying down.’
‘The future foretold, the past explained, the present…apologised for.’
‘Here’s another six inches to add to your collection old man!’ – that’s a really nasty line considering she has just stabbed Torvin in the back.

The Good Stuff: Shot on film, arcing with curtains of steam and lush with fauna and flora, Chloris is without a doubt the finest jungle set built and filmed in Doctor Who. Another example of production values in the Williams era that triumph where others have failed. Maybe I will have to re-evaluate the look of this era. The sound effects fill the jungle with verdant life. The opening is an unusually silent action sequence talling you everything you need to know through mute gestures. I find the wolf weeds an enjoyable idea, something a bit different and nutty but I can understand why they embarrass others. Eileen Way is scary without even trying because there is something sinister in those lazy psychotic eyes and her casual bloodlust, just the look of her  makes my skin crawl. The design of Adastra’s soldiers is rich and visually appealing; red wine coloured tunics, leather masks and ceremonial swords. Christopher Barry makes some attempts to make the creature menacing before we are exposed to its design, an unseen glowing green threat slurping and pulsating down a very black hole. Nothing could quite have prepared me for the thickest green phallus of death searching exploratively through the tunnels. I'm going to make a solid defence of the creature so please try and hear my out. What we have here is a piece of design that hasn't quite succeeded but like every other monster in season seventeen it is going for something a bit different to the usual monster traditions (elsewhere you have intergalactic pepperpots, a splintered spaghetti faced monster, monsters that turn into narcotics and swarms of deadly parasites). I always applaud non-humanoid monsters because they are always ambitious and conceptually a bit different and interesting and to try and pull of a creature that can pour itself into a mine shaft and fill every crack is a very nice idea in theory. The fact that the creatures bucks the usual trend and turns out not to be the antagonist is a lovely twist. Once you have gotten over how vulgar the thing looks there is actually a great deal to admire. Indeed, the long shot of the Doctor and Organon approaching the full size creature is fearsome and gives some idea of what they were trying to achieve.Organon delights (I love the ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Oh beyond the stars’ ‘So I was right then?’ exchange) and Geoffrey Bayldon is another character actor of such high calibre that you know he must have appeared in Doctor Who at some point (like Graeme Crowden and Peter Jeffrey and countless others). Weaving the walls, that’s novel! It’s interesting to see a villain screaming with horror at the end of an episode, again the Williams era delights in subverting the conventions of a traditional Doctor Who story. How can you fail to laugh during the glorious moment when the Doctor walks through the wall of shell so unexpectedly? The creature borrowing the larynx of those holding its communicator is another imaginative concept. I often find the final episode of Doctor Who stories the weakest, the writer having to stop indulging and tie his adventure up. Much like the rest of season seventeen the last episode is very satisfying and what the collaboration of Douglas Adams and David Fisher achieves here is to take an unsuccessful monster tale and turn it into something much more dexterous. Adastra's is the mistress of her own undoing and her own voice is used to expose her villainy. A mutually beneficial trade between two worlds was on the cards until she realised that she could exploit and blackmail the creature for a monopoly in the supply of metal. Adastra’s death is very satisfying and nasty, crushed underfoot by the creature she has imprisoned. The egg is revealed to be part of the creatures ship and the photon drive is concealed in pieces hidden in the pit. All the pieces of the solution to this tale have been scattered around the story like perfectly disguised plot pieces. Typhonians live for 40,000 years so the creature’s 15-year imprisonment is like taking a nap, a fortunate quirk of this species. A neutron star is plunging towards Chloris’ sun and Erato manages to spin a web around it - some lovely hard science injected into the conclusion (by Adams or Fisher I couldn't tell you since they were both well read). The creature looks awesome bulging into the doors and windows of Adastra’s palace and perhaps this should have been the extent of how much we witnessed it physically. Organon’s ‘something terrible is going to happen’ and then bop made me chuckle in the way only Adams' humour manages. A draft contract for a trade agreement hints at good times ahead for both planets, a happy ending for a fairy tale adventure.

The Bad Stuff: David Brieley’s K.9 voice sounds irritatingly middle class and camp. It is very hard to warm to him in the same way as it was John Leeson's dainty and precious version. The sudden cut to the pantomimic Torvin inspecting his metal sees a sudden dip in the quality of the direction, the video and film footage contrasting sharply. A lot of people cite her as the best thing about this story but I find Myra Francis’ Adastra painfully wooden in places. I don’t get any sense that anything is going on beneath her thin characterisation despite some fun moments along the way. It can't be a co-incidence that once she departs the tale it suddenly takes an upswing in quality. How odd for a director who brought to life some of the best known Troughton stories to turn up years later in a bit part (Morris Barry). I suppose that is the joys of Doctor Who's longevity. I've seen some lazy falls in Doctor Who but Torvin lies down as though he is going for a nap when K.9 shoots him. The cliffhanger to episode two lacks any finesse. Let's here it again from the crusty probing penis that worms its way along the corridor. It is simply astonishing.

Result: Creature from the Pit plays like a pantomime complete with an ice queen, comedy bandits, a monster and a moral. If you cut away one episode and the bandits this would be a much sharper piece and probably enjoy a better reputation. Tom Baker is enticingly good but Lalla Ward has yet to perfect her interpretation of Romana. With old school actors such as Eileen Way and Geoffrey Bayldon present the story feels a lot more necessary than it has any right to be but I do love how the script suddenly pulls itself together in the last episode and surprises with a trip into hard science after all the mucking about in caves. The creature is an attempt to do something wildly different that doesn't quite come off but you can see what they were aiming at in certain scenes (Tom Baker helps immeasurably to sell the likelihood of such a creature) and it even works in execution during some shots. This story is best watched at Christmas with young children, a teaspoon and an open mind. It isn't a favourite of mine by any stretch of the imagination but it is always a story that I enjoy: 6/10

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David Pirtle said...
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