Ranking a lowly 211 out of 241 stories in DWM’s recent poll would imply that The Creature from the Pit isn’t a favourite of many. But apart from one (admittedly large) problem it’s difficult to see why.
The positives far outweigh the negatives – the jungle scenes at Ealing give the episodes a glossy sheen, Myra Frances is a gloriously hissable villainess, Tom’s on great form, Lalla looks lovely and there’s an entertaining guest turn from Geoffrey Bayldon.
The problem? Well you can’t really avoid it. Erato is a vast, shapeless blob that is said to stretch for miles. How do you realise that on Doctor Who’s budget in 1979?
The answer is, of course, that you can’t. So Erato looks like an inflatable green bag with a rude appendage. But the scenes in the pit are nicely lit and Erato’s green glow is quite eerie, so it’s not a total write off.
Producer Graham Williams was in no doubt that the special effects department had let the programme down and after transmission made this point in an internal memo. But it’s hard to imagine how this monster could ever have been successfully created, so you do have to wonder why this was never queried at the scripting stage.
New script editor Douglas Adams wasn’t terribly experienced, but Graham Williams had been around for a while and should have twigged that a mile wide green blob was simply asking for trouble. But whatever the merits and demerits of Erato, there’s plenty to enjoy in this story, so let’s take a closer look.
Chloris is a planet rich in vegetation but low on metal. The Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances) owns the only metal mine on the planet and therefore is able to rule with a reign of terror.
But the arrival some years ago of an ambassador from the planet Tythonus has threatened her grip on the planet. Erato proposed a trade – they have plenty of surplus metal but Tythonus is extremely low in vegetation which Erato’s people need in vast quantities.
Adrasta quickly understood that if she no longer had the metal monopoly then her power would dissipate. So she arranged to banish Erato to the pit and would henceforth throw anybody who displeased her down there.
Although transmitted third, this was the first story of Season 17 to be recorded, so it was Lalla Ward’s acting debut as Romana. Her performance here is subtly different as she was still feeling out the part. There’s some nice moments from her though – particularly when she confronts the bandits in their lair.
The guest cast is uniformly solid. Myra Francis manages to be gorgeous and deadly at the same time. Eileen Way (Karela) had appeared in Doctor Who’s first story back in 1963 and is good value as Adrasta’s right hand woman.
Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon) is a hapless astronomer who falls foul of Adrasta and found himself flung into the pit. Managing to avoid being crushed by the monster he has lived a lonely existence until the Doctor turned up. Bayldon, best known for Catweazle, sparks off Tom very well and their scenes together are highly entertaining.
Also skulking around the jungle are a group of inept bandits, lead by Torvin (John Bryans). There has been some criticism of this character over the years, so the viewer will have to decide if he’s a riff on a Fagin-like character or simply a broad Jewish stereotype – “My lovely boys”.
So while Creature has its flaws, if you can ignore the glowing green bag there’s plenty of entertainment here. Unloved for decades due to its feeble dinosaurs, in recent years there seems to be more appreciation for Malcolm Hulke’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974). So maybe one day the same thing will happen here and fandom will learn to stop worrying about Erato and love The Creature from the Pit.