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The Creature from the Pit

Inside the story that the earliest readers of Doctor Who Weekly were watching back in 1979…

The Fact of Fiction

Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances) has the Doctor (Tom Baker) at her mercy in Part One of The Creature from the Pit (1979).
The Doctor meets the Ectoslime in Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, Doctor Who Weekly issue 3 (1979). Art by Dave Gibbons.
The Doctor has a close encounter with Erato, the Creature from the Pit.

Forty years ago this month, the Fourth Doctor fell foul of a cloaked, metalclad tyrant – and fell, too, to the place where said tyrant kept a huge alien creature prisoner, surrounded by corpses. The creature might have crushed the Doctor beneath its vast mass – but, during the third episode of this exciting adventure, the Doctor discovered a way to communicate with the alien, befriending what turned out to be a sophisticated, intelligent being…

So it was that the Doctor survived his encounter with the Ectoslime on the floor of the arena where the robotic General Ironicus liked to throw his enemies. Then, having read the third instalment of the comicstrip adventure Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, as printed in the ‘Thrilling Third Issue’ of the new Doctor Who Weekly, which went on sale on Thursday 25 October, we boggle-eyed fans would have tuned into the very next episode of the Doctor’s television adventures – Part One of The Creature from the Pit, in which the Fourth Doctor fell foul of a cloaked, metal-clad tyrant… etc.

And we loved it, just like we loved Doctor Who and the Iron Legion. We smiled when, in the second episode, the Doctor tried to work out how to scale the face of the tyrannical Lady Adrasta’s pit with the help of a book titled Everest in Easy Stages, just as we smiled when the comic-strip Doctor bonded with the Ectoslime with the help of a gibberish joke about three aliens walking into a bar.

Many of those watching might have laughed out loud seven minutes and 35 seconds into Part Two, when they got their first proper view of the great, green, glowing Creature from the Pit. But they weren’t supposed to. Reviewing the scripts, we see how writer David Fisher’s stage directions had “something huge and shapeless” approaching the Doctor, groping around with what he envisaged as “an appendage shaped like a huge club – not a tentacle”. Let’s not dwell on what the appendage seen on screen actually looks like – because pretty much everyone who’s ever seen The Creature from the Pit has thought pretty much the same, ever since the day of recording: “When this great creature came around the corner, everyone in the gallery just roared with laughter,” director Christopher Barry recalled in DWM 180.

Let’s instead consider the impact of three small words from that stage direction: “not a tentacle”. If it had been a tentacle, of the sort seen in (for example) the previous year’s The Power of Kroll (1978) or in Part Three of the subsequent adventure Nightmare of Eden (1979), would The Creature from the Pit be anything like as notorious? But “not a tentacle” it said, and what we got certainly wasn’t a tentacle. Nothing like a tentacle.

The realisation of the creature made Barry very unhappy: “In the end it didn’t work at all, and I find the whole experience of that story unpleasant to talk about as a result. The monster is such an important part of a Doctor Who plot that if it fails, the whole serial tends to be ruined,” he’d said in an earlier interview, in DWM 99 (1985). Was he right, though?

Perhaps he’d have been persuaded otherwise if he’d been a reader of the famous pop and rock weekly New Musical Express. In a Dangerous Visions column from November 1979, critic Stuart Johnston insisted that The Creature from the Pit had been “vastly superior” to ITV’s prestigious sci-fiepic Quatermass, starring Sir John Mills, which had aired in four parts over the same four-week period, between Wednesday 24 October and Wednesday 14 November. Tom Baker, he wrote, was “a superior actor to the over-rated Mills anyway” – and, even though Doctor Who’s props and special effects were bound to be “cheap and nasty… we know that the show’s creators know that too – and they know that we know.” The humour, he continued, “seldom reaches a standard higher than childish but it’s good childish, not Crackerjack childish.” The bandits, for example, were “heavy metal freaks – brainless, hairy nurds [sic] obsessed by metal who provide the low-brow buffoonery which even Shakespeare was not ashamed to stoop to…” The monster may have been “a cheapo-cheapo giant air-filled polythene bag” but it didn’t seem to matter: “You can keep your pretentious nonsense… give me that heady Dr Who mixture any day.”

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About Doctor Who Magazine

DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE CELEBRATES ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY! The celebratory issue comes with: • A 32-PAGE SUPPLEMENT featuring an index of DWM and its sister publications, from 1979 to the present day. • A DOWNLOAD CODE for 11 complete hour-long audio adventures from Big Finish. Other highlights of this issue include: • Exclusive interviews with showrunners Chris Chibnall, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. • Doctor Who Weekly’s founding editor Dez Skinn and its original features writer Jeremy Bentham reunite to discuss the magazine’s earliest days. • Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell pays tribute to his friend and mentor Terrance Dicks. • A previously unpublished interview with Terrance Dicks, in which he remembers his working life away from Doctor Who. • Highlights from the original, unpublished manuscript of The Eight Doctors, Terrance’s first commission for BBC Books’ range of original Doctor Who novels. • Professional Doctor Who fiction writers select highlights of Terrance’s Target novelisations and other books. • A look back at how readers’ views of Doctor Who episodes, as expressed in DWM’s Season Survey results, have evolved over the last four decades. • The Fact of Fiction explores the 1979 story The Creature from the Pit. • A fiendishly difficult quiz, all about the first 40 years of Doctor Who Magazine. • Part Two of Mistress of Chaos, a new comic-strip adventure featuring the Thirteenth Doctor and her friends. • Audio reviews, previews, news, prize-winning competitions and much, much more! PLEASE NOTE: THIS DIGITAL MAGAZINE DOES NOT COME WITH THE DVD AVAILABLE WITH PHYSICAL COPIES OF DWM 544