Friday, June 07, 2013

Doctor Who: 1979

Episode 516: The Creature from the Pit, part 3
First broadcast: 6pm on Saturday, 10 November 1979
<< back to 1978
The Doctor, er, greets Erato
The Creature from the Pit, part 3
Most DVDs of old-skool Doctor Who include a documentary about how the story was made. Not all stories have a making-of, and The Creature from the Pit has something a little bit different. "Team Erato" is a rather good 15-minute analysis of what went wrong with the design and construction of the monster.

It's got plenty of insightful detail on the way BBC Visual Effects operated at the time, and the problems of translating ambitious scripts with only limited time and resources. It's essentially about why the monster in the story, Erato, was not realised especially well. The implication, if only because there's no making-of to address the rest of the production, seems to be that the silly-looking monster ruins the whole story.

I don't mean to criticise either the documentary or the story. I like The Creature from the Pit, in part because it is silly and fun. But I also wonder how much a Doctor Who story lives or dies on the quality of its monster.

Many of Doctor Who's most acclaimed old stories have shonky-looking monsters: giant clams in Genesis of the Daleks, a fluffy giant rat in Talons of Weng-Chiang, the smiley dragon in The Caves of Androzani. So what makes The Creature from the Pit different? In those stories, the monsters only play a minimal role, while the real villains - Davros and the Daleks, Li H'seng Chang and Magnus Greel, and Sharaz Jek - are terrifying, grotesque creations that linger in the memory. In The Creature from the Pit, Lady Adastra is a perfectly serviceable tyrant. So it isn't that.

The Wirrn in The Ark in Space are also not entirely brilliantly realised - and for a lot of the time, the only evident villain is a man wearing bits of green bubblewrap. And yet that story is a chilling classic while The Creature from the Pit is not.

It's not as if Erato is indicative of a general lack of visual pizzazz in the story. The scenes of jungle and tunnels shot on film at Ealing really impress, the stakes raised by this being one of the few times we see the Doctor ever break a sweat. This is a dirty, grimy planet - bearing the influence of Star Wars in its grubby realism.

It's not just that the stuff shot in TV Centre on video looks a bit flat. (Again that's not unusual for Doctor Who - and I'm told a general audience usually couldn't tell the difference between video and film, though I've never met anyone that was true of.)

And it's not as if David Fisher's script isn't full of real jeopardy or doesn't tackle sophisticated ideas:
"To revise his climax, Fisher sought the assistance of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University -- a process made easier when it was discovered that some of the faculty were fans of Doctor Who. They offered a neutron star as a potent weapon, and suggested that one way to avert the threat would be to encase it in aluminium."
But there's something about the tone of the story that suggests we not take it too seriously - a silly monster in part 3 only compounds that feeling.

This won't come as much surprise to many old-skool Doctor Who fans. In 1993, Douglas Adams was interviewed about his time as script-editor on the show, which include The Creature from the Pit.
"Cause when I was working on Doctor Who, inevitably quite a lot of humour was in the programme and some people liked this and some people didn't. I have to say that in fact the way the humour went into the programme wasn't exactly the way that I intended it to ... A danger one runs, and I kept on running into this problem, is that the moment you have anything in the script that's clearly meant to be funny in some way, everybody thinks, 'Oh, well we can do silly voices and silly walks' and so on. And I think that's exactly the wrong way to do it ... I think that Doctor Who is at its best when the humour and the drama work together and that however absurd a situation may be it is actually very, very real and has very real consequences. That's the moment at which something that's inherently absurd actually becomes frightening." 
Douglas Adams, speaking on More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS
What he's talking about is tone, and I think tone is the secret of successful Doctor Who. This is something I've a personal stake in and I think about it a lot, so here's my current thesis:

The most successful of the Doctor Who spin-off stories I've written have each had a recognisble tone: Home Truths is a BBC Ghost Story for ChristmasShadow of Death apes the TV Doctor Who story The Seeds of DeathThe Pirate Loop is a manic, free-wheeling comedy from the first sentence. They work, I think, because they create a definite tone in the first scene and maintain it to the end. That helps an audience immerse themselves in the world of the story, and gives them cues as to how to respond. Other stories, despite great performances or plot twists, despite the best or worst structural tricks or special effects, seem not to satisfy to the same degree because the tone is inconsistent.

Sometimes Doctor Who on TV uses inconsistency to achieve a dramatic effect. The first half of the very first episode, An Unearthly Child is a kitchen-sink drama about a school girl who behaves oddly; then her teachers push their way onto the TARDIS and it becomes something completely else.

In fact, I think the TARDIS travels less in time as it does in genre. One week it might land in a slightly knowing Midsomer Murder, the next it arrives in the midst of the movie Outland, the next a classic serial with the best in BBC facial hair. Two stories set in the same calendar year can be completely different because they have different tones.

The problem, I think, with The Creature from the Pit, is that the tone is inconsistent. It ought to be dirty, sweaty space opera in the style of Star Wars, and sometimes - especially early on - that's exactly what it is. Or, it ought to be a light entertainment comedy, like the previous (and far more effective) story, City of Death. Being both, we never know quite how to respond to what we're shown, and that takes us out of the story. That's when we start to notice problems with the design or the way the story's been shot.

The Doctor's first meeting with the vast, uncommunicative Erato, played for laughs rather than as high-concept SF, is the worst moment of this mismatch of styles. So I'd argue that it's not the monster that's at fault, but the inconsistent way that he's spoken to.

Next episode: 1980

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