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April 14, 2010

The Beast Below

Doctor Who: The Creature from the Pit

Due to be Released 3rd May 2010

Produced by 2Entertain
Review by John Williams

Tom_b In my darker moments, I can't help but wonder if 2Entertain's current DVD release schedule has been masterminded by an embittered Blake's 7 fan bent on proving, by attrition, that Doctor Who is rubbish. The majority of the stories released this year don't just have a bad reputation - they've often been picked out as the worst ever. Now I understand that there's a reason for such a bad run, and that 2Entertain don't want to end up like the last few years of the VHS days with nothing but stale bread remaining and no prospect of jam tomorrow, but following up the Myths and Legends boxset (aka the "You Have to Get These Anyway Because You Have OCD So Why Fight It" Triple Pack) with The Creature from the Pit is either an act of extreme derring-do or a sophisticated experiment in seeing just how far you can push the customer base. In the absence of hard drugs, prostitutes or the Rapture, the only way to get through this stream of releases unscathed is, as ever, to pray that the extras and restoration will see you through. 

2Entertain's DVD release schedule has been masterminded by an embittered Blake's 7 fan

The Creature from the Pit is a very old-fashioned and rather simple tale. It's the story of a giant beast that is cruelly placed into bondage by a powerful female ruler; it lives for years imprisoned below an unsuspecting population, occasionally managing to become visible to society via its large appendages, and all this simply because of its original desire to help the inhabitants prosper. It's the kind of story that you can't imagine being made nowadays, as sophisticated modern storytelling requires something more than the Doctor trying to help a giant beast below the ground. But on its own terms, the story has its moments - it's just a shame that they are all in Episode 1. The jungle scenes filmed in Ealing look pretty good, and everyone, particularly Tom Baker, looks convincingly sweaty. There's a good cliffhanger in which the Doctor flings himself into the pit, but after that it's about another 25 minutes of story spread over three episodes with only a nice performance from Geoffrey Bayldon and some ripe turns from Myra Francis and Eileen Way to distract from the horrific and sometimes embarrassing padding. And that's all before I've even mentioned the dreaded "you-know-who", but for that, you need to turn to the extras.

The big looming problem at the heart of The Creature from the Pit

Wardy One of the special features is almost entirely centred on the big looming problem at the heart of The Creature from the Pit: Lalla Ward's terrible performance. Ward mentions this at least 200 times in the commentary, along with 135 references to her "dreadful" costume, 47 remarks about the colour of her eye shadow and 28 comments about her uncomfortable boots. It would be cynical to suggest that Ward's compulsive pronouncements on her acting ability were designed to elicit strenuous denials from the other commentators (although they do) or, heaven forbid, to make her the centre of attention, but after about 15 minutes I was desperate for someone to shout: "Yes you were bloody terrible - no need to go on about it".  Sadly, no-one did.  I suppose I'm at a bit of a loss to identify exactly what Ward brought to this commentary apart from industrial quantities of hoity-toitiness and an inexhaustible admiration for Douglas Adams. Don't get me wrong - I love Douglas Adams as much as anyone, but after 100 minutes of Ward's encomiums I started to question even that. 

industrial quantities of hoity-toitiness and an inexhaustible admiration for Douglas Adams

It's a shame that (for me) Ward's contribution got in the way of what should have been an interesting commentary, because the troubled productions like this often make for a lively post-mortem over what went wrong. Mat Irvine is a talkative chap (on previous releases sometimes at the expense of fellow commentators) but here he is justified in trying to fill in the background about the creation of Erato, the eponymous creature, just as Christopher Barry also tries his best to give his side of the story. Although some of the commentary is frustrating there are certainly some laughs along the way, particularly at the end of Episode 4 when Barry is cut off in full flow, venting his spleen about credit squeezing. This was either a simple cut for timing, or a deliberate joke - either way it rather brilliantly makes it sound as if Barry was about to swear his head off.

Erato Fortunately the commentary is not the only source of information about the behind-the-scenes angst on the show. Team Erato is an excellent short film by Chris Chapman, who recently did such a good job on the Who Peter documentary featured on the Myths and Legends release. The stars of the show are the very likeable members of the BBC Visual Effects team (leader Mat Irvine, Steve Bowman, Steve Lucas and Morag McLean) who recollect the trauma they underwent when trying to realise the unrealisable. Steve Lucas is particularly laconic; he states that he could see the funny side of the disastrous Erato during production, and you sense that this was certainly not the case with Mat Irvine. The feature is also notable for a record-breaking number of references to pseudopodia, and some amusing penis euphemisms for which Christopher Barry wins the prize by referring to Erato's protuberance as its "masculine propensities".

masculine propensities

Blow It's undoubtedly the case that Erato is a terrible monster, but Team Erato demonstrates how awful the whole experience must have been for the Visual Effects crowd; no-one likes being a laughing stock, particularly when you're also going to be carpeted by your bosses once the production is over. This is exemplified by Morag McLean who recalls hating Erato so much that she almost took a Stanley knife to the unfortunate beast  before the production team had even done with it, but in addition to the anecdotes the film effectively sheds light on the reality of working at the BBC, and the very real divisions that existed between the levels in the managerial hierarchy. What particularly stands out is the way that Christopher Barry and Graham Williams clearly wanted to make an example of Mat Irvine as part of the fall out from the production, and the other members of the Visual Effects team recall their solidarity with Irvine during this time, and more than once refer disparagingly to the various managers as 'suits'.

This is also mentioned in the commentary in Episode 4, when Barry and Irvine touch on these sore points, and Irvine is very quick to say that no-one was really to blame but that "it was just the system" at the BBC. Thanks to the various internal memos featured in the documentary, eagle-eyed viewers with their fingers on the pause button will be able to make out a comment in a 1979 memo from Graham Williams which says "I do not believe we can do anything to improve on the system from our end. As with so many of our Servicing Departments it is not always the system [his underlining] which is at fault" and later goes on to mention his "frustration when individual lapses such as this mar a production". Clearly Irvine was blaming the system back in 1979, and he's still blaming the system now, so if nothing else he's consistent. It seems odd, and amusing that this dispute among work colleagues is still being picked over today, but Team Erato does a fine job of bringing it all back to life. 

Irvine was blaming the system back in 1979, and he's still blaming the system now

There are a few other extras in addition to Team Erato. Christopher Barry: Director consists of an interview with Barry filmed in Aldbourne (famously the setting for The Daemons), and it's a pleasant amble through the career of a very pleasant man. The only oddity in the piece was its rather sad and wistful incidental music.  I'm not sure the subject really merits this melancholic feeling; after all, Barry seems to have had a rather successful career and has lived a long life. But overall it's fine, as are the remaining extras which feature a highly eccentric clip of Tom Baker from Animal Magic, an extended scene from the story which was cut for violence, and last but not least, Nicholas Pegg's thoughtful and well-written production notes. So all in all, while not packed to the gills with extras, and lacking the crucial ingredient of a halfway decent story, this DVD release was much more entertaining than I expected, and will hopefully tide everyone over until next month when we get... The King's Demons. But don't worry, relief is at hand - Planet of Fire is also included and comes complete with free Kleenex.

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