What’s It About
The Doctor and Romana arrive on the planet Chloris. It does not take them long to be captured by the power-hungry Lady Adrastra, who controls the metal-mining industry on the planet. A mysterious shell in the forest has captured her attention, and she demands the Doctor’s help in studying it. But the Doctor soon discovers that the shell is connected to a creature that is in a pit, a creature that eats those who cross Lady Adrastra.
She tipped the ambassador into a pit and threw astrologers at him
I’ll go ahead and state outright that I don’t really care for this story, and, apart from a few funny lines of dialogue, I was largely bored by it. It is obvious Lala Ward is trying to refine her portrayal of Romana (as this was her first filmed story). Eratu, while getting points for not being a humanoid creation, is rather odd and hard to take seriously in some of its more phallic moments. And the pace is a bit of a mish-mash. Christopher Barry, while generally a good director (at least, I like him in the First and Second Doctor eras), doesn’t seem to find a good pace for this one. Part four especially seems uneven.
These things aside, there is an interesting idea at the center of this story. The first time I watched it, I largely read it as a “the monster is really quite civilized and the humans are really not” story. We’ve had this in Doctor Who in the past, “Galaxy 4” being a notable example. But what struck me about the story this time around was that the savages, characters who the Doctor would often ally himself with in other stories, were no better than the oppressive regime of Adrastra. Fisher is subverting a Doctor Who trope here, and when the obvious villain has been defeated, the savages and an advisor quickly attempt to fill the power vacuum. And so, this story isn’t really about a misunderstood monster; it is about power structures—in this case, economic since the entire conflict was initiated by an attempted trade agreement. Eratu was attempting to offer the people of Chloris a mutually-beneficial trade agreement that would bring prosperity to both planets. It just happens to upset the balance of power on Chloris. So, “The Creature from the Pit” is actually high-concept science fiction, and it is certainly a theme worth exploring.
And yet, for me, it is hard to watch. The story certainly looks good in many places: the costumes are great, the sets are well-realized. But the pace and directing don’t really emphasize the ideas in this script, and much of the silliness, while helping to maintain interest in the story, doesn’t really bring attention to the ideas lurking beneath the surface of the story. For me, this story was an ambitious failure, which is a shame because I normally enjoy David Fisher stories. But while I may not enjoy the execution, I admire the ambition.
On the whole, and I may have more to say about this in a future post, I feel sorry for the Graham Williams era. Sure, there are some great stories in it, but I feel that this era of the show is one of identity crisis. Doctor Who is trying to find its place in a post-Star Wars world. Williams had the unenviable position of producer when these films came out. He was producer when Doctor Who had to move from gothic horror to light-hearted science fiction. Season seventeen is the season where this identity crisis comes to a head—the very first scene is Romana trying on different regenerations, searching for a new identity. And “Creature” fails to find its voice, unable to find the balance between the high concepts in Fisher’s script, the silliness of Tom Baker and Douglas Adams, and the directing of Christopher Barry.