Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Serial 106: The Creature From the Pit

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companions: Romana II, K-9

Written by: David Fisher
Directed by: Christopher Barry

Background & Significance:
One of the things that strikes me most about working writers (or anyone in the professional entertainment industry, for that matter) is the notion of "Why do sucky people keep getting rehired even though their work sucks?" Take the Baker/Martin team for example. Those guys wrote literally the worst Doctor Who stories ever (or if not that, then my least favourites) and they were around for years and years and years, asked back over and over again. But why?

The answer to this, of course, is that they got the work done. Someone might not be the best writer or director, but they got the job done in good time and on a good budget. Quality is irrelevant. Money was saved.

Such is my thought on David Fisher, who returns to Doctor Who for the Douglas Adams season of Doctor Who with the last story of his we're going to be talking about here at the wonderful(?) Classical Gallifrey. Now, in the previous season he was responsible for the [what I still consider to be] absolute genius "Androids of Tara" and the very very strange "Stones of Blood", which was good except for the bit where it made a really weird and unwelcome left turn two thirds of the way through episode three and became a story I wasn't quite interested in. It's hard to count "City of Death" (because that was much more Douglas Adams than it was Fisher, who just did the base concept), so those two Key to Time stories and this one are all we really have to go on when it comes to judging David Fisher's contributions to the show.

But more on what he does with that in a little bit.

This story was the first story shot in that one Douglas Adams season and is surprisingly low budget seeming for such an early story (let's be honest, though: "Destiny of the Daleks", "City of Death", and "Shada"? Not cheap). It also is the first to not only feature Lalla Ward as Romana, but more specifically Romana II. It's a weird change, especially considering David Fisher had written all the scripts for this story before Lalla Ward was even cast (it was assumed Mary Tamm would be returning) and if you watch this you can totally tell that Fisher is writing Romana with a definite inspiration from her first incarnation than the second (it's the costume and the dialogue more than anything).

It also sees the return of veteran director Christopher Barry, who hadn't been seen on Doctor Who in three years (he'd previously done "The Brain of Morbius") and would never be seen on the programme again. The reasons are understandable, though. If that was the creature the production team came up with, I'd have left and never come back too. Same too with K-9, seen first here done by the voice of guy-who-is-not-John-Leeson, which is not exactly welcome. All in all it's a kickoff to this season I don't consider myself a huge fan of, which is weird because it's technically the third story of the season.

What I mean to say is it's a lot of things. Plenty. Too much. Worth discussing (yeah, boy). Ultimately a bit sour.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

One of the things I love about the first part of a story (no matter how bad; well okay, maybe not the bad ones, these tangents sometimes happen before the sentence has fully formed in my head) is you can always retrospectively see the groundwork being laid for the rest of the three parts to come next.

I mean, right off The Doctor and Romana establish the beacon call that will come into play in the unfortunate last fifteen minutes of this story as well as the “giant egg shell” that plays a part moving forward. We also start with an opening scene of Lady Adrasta almost ceremoniously tossing the philosopher dude into the pit, thereby setting up something about her character that will come back time and time again as we tell this story. Quite honestly it’s a good scene, dark and mysterious like it is. But it doesn’t really set the tone for the piece, which is a rompy, comedic, sci-fi yarn.

That’s not from lack of trying, I think. It’s clear that Fisher (or is it Chris Barry?) is interested in the mystery behind Chloris and the… atmosphere and tone created by a planet populated entirely by plants with little to no metal resources.

Unfortunately, that sorta feel is dropped once the action moves from the jungle territories into locales like Lady Adrasta’s humble abode and the tents of the scavengers. From then on out it feels like… well… most other Doctor Who stories from around this time. The Doctor confronts the bad guys. He talks a lot about stuff. There’s posturing. Mystery. It’s all… rather generic. Good. But generic. And then by the time they’re back in the forest the story is back to that really cool mysterious tone that the planet of Chloris seems to have.

Another thing that strikes me this time around is… the insane silliness of this story.

In a lot of ways this does feel right in the Graham Williams wheelhouse, in all the best and worst of ways. The interior of Lady Adrasta’s house feels very standardly generic Williams, but there’s certain times like in the forests of Chloris where it feels rich, lush, and like a completely different environment. It’s also a very simple, very basic story and very clearly directed at children what with the bumbling scavengers and the humour. It’s not exactly super challenging. And that’s fine, just not exactly the Doctor Who I’m most interested in.

Nor, for that matter, am I exactly interested in this TARDIS team.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but Tom Baker is a bit too self-aware at this point in his career as The Doctor. Sure he’s doing a good job in places and he’s certainly funny and stuff, but you can tell he’s much more caricaturized than he was towards the start of his run. Also a problem is Romana, who doesn’t have the playfulness she has later on. I mentioned in the background that she’s written more as Romana I in this, but it’s… very true. She’s got her nosed turned up slightly and is very smug in her intelligence. It reminds me a lot of why I’m not so hot on Romana I, but at the same time I think Mary Tamm did capture all the good things about Romana I in her performance. It’s just weird to see Lalla Ward try to fit into shoes (and a dress) that are clearly not made for her.

Also, I think I hate the replacement guy for K-9 because he sounds so pretentious. There’s an impartiality to Leeson’s K-9 that’s sorely lacking here. Too much inflection. Too much sass. Not for me. So much so that I’m legitimately entertained when he gets taken over by the rolly bramble thistles or whatever.

And then we’re left on the truly delightful cliffhanger in which The Doctor jumps into the eponymous pit because he doesn’t have any other options. In terms of that, it’s incredibly strong and the sorta thing that… works. It’s the last thing you expect and it gets you excited because of the “WTF” of it all. Great cliffhanger, this. And it works and doesn’t have a bad payoff. What more could you ask for?

Well… I dunno. Robert Holmes. But at that point I just feel greedy.

Part 2:

Because my interest in Doctor Who is more focused on the show as a character drama (although noticeably less in the classic series) or a series of science fiction adventures that test and challenge the main characters, more often than not I find that I don’t watch the show for its comedy.

That’s my own fault, I suppose. Plenty of people love Doctor Who “because it’s funny” (hell, it’s why most people like most things). I mean, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone judge a Doctor Who episode as their favourite because it was “so funny”. Now I’m not slighting that view, I’m really not. We all come to Doctor Who for different reasons (some show up because they want to see The Doctor shoot things) and I can understand someone or even most people liking the show for its comedic content or a Doctor because he’s “more funny” than the others.

What I’m left with, then, on this, the second time I’ve watched “Creature From the Pit” is the notion that this story is way more funny than I thought it was initially.

I’m not sure I like that. Or this. Well I mean I like the comedic in theory, but Doctor Who as a straight comedy is (again) not something I’m exactly interested in. Especially here. This episode is tremendously silly. Tremendously. The scavengers are comic relief. K-9 is comedically covered in cobwebs. The Doctor meets a philosopher who waves his hands and acts a whole manner of silly. But I just don’t find myself terribly interested in that whole thing. I mean. It’s well done I’d say (although definitely directed towards children), but it’s still not for me. Like my desire for good character work. Clearly not something everyone else wants.

But it’s all here. In all the characters. And that’s fine, I suppose. Nothing I can do about that. So I’ll roll with it.

I find that this is still strong as a story. It’s continuing the mystery of the planet Chloris and we finally come across the eponymous creature which is just a giant green blob that in no way ever looks phallic at all. It also brings up the super “Hmmmmm how about that” notion of how the weakling, lamer face prophet guy managed to survive for so long with such a ravenously bloodthirsty creature constantly going after and eating everybody. Is it because he’s crafty? Doubtful. He’s a dork. So there must be some other reason… Hmmmm….

It also sees a good strong showing from Tom Baker. He really does carry his own story pretty much solo the entire time. That’s not exactly easy to do.

Romana’s still good here, but it’s still glaringly obvious that she isn’t Mary Tamm much as we might want her to be. I don’t know why she’s so… I dunno. But she has K-9. And K-9’s cool. And I like the way she manages to smooth talk her way around Madame Astrada’s life and such like. It’s good and strong and really reminds me why Romana I was good most of the time (and sometimes Romana II can feel quite redundant), but what it does is really illustrate how good Romana I was at being entirely by herself and not dependent on The Doctor in any real sort of way. I like that, especially because they did make a good team and such but could also sustain plot lines on their own.

We also get some more of Adrasta doing… Adrasta things (like smacking Romana across the face (you get ‘em girl!) and such). But none of it is really that memorable. It just happens. It’s fine. It’s entertaining enough. It’s interesting enough. But it’s not blowing the doors off the place. It's not scrunching my mind into a pulp and then juicing it. No. It’s none of that. And that’s nice, although I wish it was slightly more memorable than it is, or rather that it’s more memorable for being solid than it is for being amazing face.

Anyways. Onwards!

Part 3:

I think my biggest issue is that I don’t really gravitate that much towards both Fisher and Williams stories because they’re clearly targeted towards children.

As such, I can’t find a whole lot to talk about in this part. Sure, it’s enjoyable but nothing in it really merits discussion. It’s very black and white (and gets a whole lot more black and white in the last part) with Lady Adrasta being evil and not too over the top until the very end (that last few seconds is a bit much) and The Doctor clearly a force for good as the story keeps going. He’s the one who spends all the time trying to learn about the creature and trying to connect and communicate with it. Adrasta wants to kill the thing. She’s clearly evil.

But there’s really not that much to say beyond that.

The majority of this episode takes place in the underground mine in which the creature lives. The only stuff that’s not up there is the stuff with the scavenger’s pillaging Adrasta’s place for all the metal they can get their hands on. This, of course, is important for the cliffhanger and all that, but really it’s just an excuse to have more of that way, WAY British band of loveable ruffians who go around being tremendously unwitting goof balls and get into a series of wacky and crazy events. Honestly, they remind me a whole hell of a lot of the dwarves in Time Bandits, who, when I watched it recently, I really wasn’t a huge fan of.

Anyways. The mine.

This mine stuff is all… entertaining but not exactly what I would call interesting. It’s mostly just wandering around and people saying some things. It’s not quite bad, but again entertaining, there just isn’t a lot there. I mean, The Doctor wanders and then he sees The Creature and then he talks at it for a while and then he leaves. Romana keeps having trouble with K-9. There’s more posturing from Adrasta. How did they really get into the mine? There’s secret exits? Why has no one used them? That all seems silly. And again, nothing’s really happening. We’re just deepening the mystery of what’s going on and… sigh.

See, it’s entertaining. And it’s funny but I can’t pretend this is as interesting as the stuff in the first part, which was still the best part. This all just feels like stereotypically standard Doctor Who in all the best and worst ways. It feels a little padded and like the story isn’t progressing (even though it is, there’s just a few things left to do). It’s doing its best to be funny and entertaining and on a certain level it’s definitely succeeding, but at the same time this story really doesn’t have a whole lot of drive forcing the vehicle of the story forward. It’s unfortunate, but I find myself… rather bored.

And because of all that this makes this part the shortest episode commentary I think I’ve ever done.

Also, the creature still looks like a penis.

Part 4:


One of the things that’s fairly surprising in the grand scheme of the story is that Adrasta is killed seven minutes into this episode, which is… earned and also surprising. It’s good that she’s dead (it’s not unwarranted) and it totally makes sense as the logical progression for the rest of her character and the seeming story of this whole time. She’s pinned by wolf weeds and smothered by Erato (the eponymous Creature). And while that’s all nice and good, it does lead to… some… shall we say questionable choices as to where the story goes after this.

And even Adrasta’s death scene is fairly well done in its own way. It’s all pretty much just the one scene played out over seven minutes and it’s never really that boring (although god damn is it clunky on the exposition because all it is is a bunch of people explaining shit and wrapping up pretty much the entire storyline). It features a nice twist from the huntsman, who turns on his Lady because she is unjust and he’s had just about enough of her being greedy for greed’s sake and The Doctor’s attempts to get Adrasta to touch Erato’s mouthpiece is well done at the very least. Again, SUPER exposition, but fine. It explains all the pieces and the elements and I’m willing to go there with it because after four episodes we finally get some good answers.

But now that Adrasta’s dead, what happens next?

Spoilers: the story jumps the shark.

See, once Adrasta’s dead the story really has no idea what to do and it turns into… I don’t even know. Something messy. Something very very messy. Because then what’s the story about? Is it about finding out why Erato wants to leave? Is it about getting his photon drive back? Is it about the neutron star barreling towards Chloris? Or is it about the shaky peace treaty between Erato and the people of Chloris (which Adrasta almost ruined?). Because ummm… I don’t know.

It reminds me a lot of Fisher’s other story, “The Stones of Blood.” See, “Stones of Blood” has a weird twist halfway through part three where all of a sudden it stops being about the gothic countryside tale it was in the beginning and is suddenly about pixie justice on a transdimensional spaceship. So you see, left turn.

But here it’s… really bizarre. It really does feel like Fisher ran out of story even though he kinda hasn’t. The notion that Erato’s spaceship/shell has been calling out to the Erato homeworld has been established since the very top of the story. But just because it’s established doesn’t necessarily mean it works when you get around to it. No. The narrative thrust of this whole story has been the story of the creature in the pit and the mystery of that. Not what the creature did to doom Chloris to death.

And in that, it makes the whole rest of this feel completely awful. It doesn’t even work in the context of this episode because it’s only the last two thirds of this episode (and that makes it only a sixth of this whole story as a whole).

So what happens next is runaround. The story needs to ramp itself back up into telling another story, which leads to some really awkward stuff following Adrasta’s death that feels narratively stunted and inherently undramatic as Fisher sets up the story’s next narrative thrust. By this point in the story we should be firing on all cylinders, getting tons of payoff, payoff, payoff as we race towards a climactic conclusion. But the conclusion happened seven minutes in and we’re left with shilling out a completely underwhelming, completely unnecessary, and completely contrived final plot in which The Doctor, Romana, and Erato must race to save Chloris from the neutron star.

And because of that this entire story has been undermined. Utterly and completely, I’ll have you know. Now it feels like Fisher was making it up as he went along, which is amateur. Totally amateur.

Then again, though, this is exactly the stuff the kids would love. We get more scavengers (who actually contribute some disruption to the storyline even though their theft of the photon drive is clearly just more filler to kill time left on the story) and we get a final beat in which K-9 destroys a whole buncha metal and that evil old harpy second in command to Adrasta gets all greedy and says she’d rather die than not be rich. Again, that’s a little too black and white for my tastes, but this story isn’t written to my tastes, so whatever.

There’s some more lame stuff in the TARDIS about the final redirection of the neutron star, stuff that doesn’t even bother me because of the cheapo effects. That’s not even the issue (although they certainly don’t help)  because at the end of this I don’t care because it’s such a left turn.

Which is a shame, because other than that I could really write this story off as a story “not for me” or “a story for kids”, but now that we’re here it’s clear that this isn’t what we all want it to be. Or maybe it is. I’m not judging. All I know is it’s not what I signed up for and quickly loses my interest because it’s a ministory that revs up and then ends just as its getting a bit of momentum but by that point I’m so far gone off this story because I know it’s four parts and only four parts and this is just something tacked onto the end because Fisher clearly didn’t know how to make a story last the sufficient four parts.

Or maybe he did. I dunno. I think it’s just writer ADD or something.

And then it ends on a punchline. How very Douglas Adams.

Final Thoughts?: In the end, this story isn't for me.

That's not to say I think it's necessarily a bad story because I don't think it's necessarily bad. Sure it's bad if you're looking at it from a certain perspective (down your nose), but it's not meant for that.

I quite like it when Doctor Who takes that approach though. How many times does the show become something akin to tied to the past or encased in a specific formula or continuity? And how many times does that end up hurting the show/story in the long run? "Creature from the Pit" doesn't really hold to any sort of notions of continuity and is more concerned with taking you away and entertaining you for a while before setting you back down and letting you go on your merry way. If you sat down for a hundred minutes, chuckled a bit, got excited a bit, got invested a bit, and had a good time a bit then Fisher really did his job.

The problem then becomes the story's staying power.

On first viewing of this story I was pretty down with it except for the last fifteen minutes or so. I thought it a fun, entertaining romp and one that I quite enjoyed for the most part. Sure the last fifteen minutes were ridiculously problematic and something I had absolutely no care over, but fine. At least the first three and a third parts were pretty good. But this time I didn't have that same reaction. This time I had a big problem with the story towards the middle where it started to degenerate into something fairly generic and fairly boring for me. I loved the first two parts but found myself increasingly bored and WTFing the last two to the point where I honestly can't stop talking about this fast enough so I can move onto other things.

Then again, this story isn't made for me. It is definitely targeted towards a younger audience and is painted in broad strokes of good and evil, with fun wacky antics and tons of jokes and plenty of silly. And all of those things are fine in Doctor Who (the show itself is, of course, infinitely malleable) and I find that if asked the question I'd have to reply that deep down I do quite enjoy said elements. But when it comes down to it I like different versions and forms of Doctor Who more. I find I more enjoy the Who that doesn't so much serve the "kids" as it does elevate their understandings and challenges them into thinking and appreciating it more.

That's why in the end I can't quite jive with the Graham Williams stuff. It's just too simple. It's just too generic. It's just too... that. Give me something with a bit more umph, something that the kids won't just like but that they'll LOVE because it's not directed right at them. Kids love that stuff more, too. Kids don't want to watch kids stuff. They want to watch the stuff adults watch and they want to read the books adults read. So let them, and demand more. It brings in the adults and it makes the kids even more loyal and gives them something to look forward to rewatching when the adult bit comes around.

By not doing that we're left with surface and fluff. This story, essentially. And while I can't say that's never something I want, I can say there are other things I want more.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Atlantis! Diabolical mustacheness! Camp camp camp! FISH PEOPLE! MORE CAMP! AND LOTS AND LOTS OF OVER THE TOP MAGIC! It's called "The Worst Troughton Story" and with good reason! Also camp. "The Underwater Menace"! Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Cheapo, by-the-numbers Who rendered a minor classic due to trademark Douglas Adams' dialog liberally inserted throughout what was probably originally a pretty dismal script.
    I love this one because it's ssooooo funnnnny.