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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts three and four)

Last night, before we learned that the gigantic green blob in the pit was an imprisoned alien ambassador and thought it was a hideous monster, our son suggested that once K9 zapped the creature they could use its body for a bouncy house. His mother had a simpler observation: “They thought a scrotum monster was a good idea?”

It’s certainly true that when Doctor Who‘s special effects hit this kind of rock bottom, they overwhelm any and all possible other topics of conversation. But I will say that if you can either ignore or just laugh about this amazing lapse of judgement, taste, and common sense, this story really has lots of very funny moments as well as Geoffrey Bayldon being incredibly entertaining. I laughed out loud several times, at the right moments. I spent most of the eighties pretending that 74,384,338 was my lucky number as well. Our son enjoyed this one, too. It was neither creepy nor scary, he confirms. It’s just a simple, straightforward adventure with nothing truly horrifying. Perhaps one day he’ll revisit the earlier Tom Baker adventures that frightened the life out of him, but he’s clearly much happier with this end of the shock scale.

The story also has Myra Frances going deep in search of the most ridiculous pantomime villain trophy and she’s kind of awful to watch as she sneers and snarls, but in fairness to the actress, when the script includes such bad guy chestnuts as “Have a care, Doctor!” then it’s kind of hard for any performer to be subtle. Francis is about to have some real competition in this category. Lewis Fiander and Graham Crowden are right around the corner. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts one and two)

I’ll tell you how to make sure the seven year-olds in the audience boo and hiss your villainy. Slap Romana in the face and order your guards to break K9 down into scrap. We’re watching the much-maligned “The Creature From the Pit,” written by David Fisher and directed by Christopher Barry, and the main bad guy is a Snidely Whiplash type called Lady Adrasta, played by Myra Frances. She’s a pure pantomime villain, one of many reasons this story isn’t very highly regarded, and our son just loathes her. Team her up with Count Grendel from “The Androids of Tara” and I’m not sure which of them will nya-ha-ha-ha! the loudest.

No, among the DR WHO IS SRS BSNSS crowd, “Creature” is one of those stories that makes people spit fire because they hate it so much. A big problem is the creature itself – more about that next time – but Adrasta’s comedy villainy doesn’t help, and a gang of very stupid bandits really is the limit. I’ve read people grumble that the bandits are played for laughs but they aren’t funny. No, they’re played for laughs among seven year-olds, which makes them very funny to that audience, although not really anybody older than that. Add in Tom Baker looking like he’s having a great time being silly and having fun at the expense of the drama, and some very Douglas Adams comedy about the Doctor reading Beatrix Potter and teaching himself Tibetan and you’ve got a story that isn’t serious in the slightest, but it’s mostly very fun to watch.

Helping matters: down in the pit eking out a meager existence while hiding from the mysterious creature, it’s our old pal Geoffrey Bayldon in the role of an astrologer who got on the villain’s bad side some time previously. It took a gentle prod, but our son did recognize who Bayldon was. “…Catweazle?” he asked, and I cheered inside. Marie’s pretty lousy recognizing actors as well. “Even I knew who that was,” she smiled.

This leads me to a fingers crossed moment. “The Creature From the Pit” was taped shortly after the first series of Worzel Gummidge was made. Bayldon co-starred with Jon Pertwee in this completely wonderful and anarchic comedy. The show has been released on DVD, but I’ve never read a good word about the quality of the film prints, so I decided against buying it, hoping against hope that the show might be restored and rereleased before our son gets too old to care. (The beat-up old VHS boots I had in the mid-nineties were bad enough!) Well, last week, we got a hesitant step toward that pipe dream: a complete set of negatives for all thirty of the British-made episodes was discovered. We’re hoping for more information soon!

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The Avengers 5.3 – Escape in Time

I’d like to think we do a good job teaching our son to be quiet and respectful when we watch TV together, and say as little as possible, but one of this episode’s first scenes features our heroes meeting up with a man from the ministry, and I thought that was probably Geoffrey Bayldon. “I think that’s the man who played Catweazle,” I said, and, after a beat, he replied “It IS Catweazle! I recognize his voice!” And he was so pleased that he just kept talking and we had to go back and watch the scene again.

Philip Levene’s “Escape in Time” has another great collection of familiar faces. The great Peter Bowles is the main villain, and his accomplices include Judy Parfitt, who’s known to contemporary audiences as Sister Monica Joan in Call the Midwife, and known to classic TV fans as appearing in darn near everything else, Imogen Hassall, who died at the stupidly young age of 38, and Nicholas Smith. I said that I didn’t know who that guy was, but he was definitely in an episode of Spyder’s Web. I was right, but he’s probably best known for seventy-some episodes of Are You Being Served?.

I think this is an episode more about the iconography than the story, which is about a supposed time corridor that is said to allow criminals on the run to escape into one of four previous time zones. The script is kind of humdrum, especially once the audience figures that the corridor’s a fraud, but it just looks so good! The corridor effect is a really great bit of trick photography, Peter Bowles gets to have fun as the cruel Elizabethan-period ancestor of his main character, and there’s a great scene where Mrs. Peel, carrying a stuffed crocodile, is menaced by a guy on a motorcycle wearing fox hunting gear. I think comic book writer Grant Morrison saw this episode as a child and had nightmares about it for years. His series The Invisibles definitely has a little “Escape in Time” in its DNA.

Our son enjoyed it, too. Once we got the confusion of what they were after sorted, I thought that he was finding that the story was incredibly easy to follow, with the escape route revisited twice and the enemy agents very easy to differentiate. On the other hand, he somehow didn’t understand that the escape route is a big hoax, and thought that Steed was actually traveling through time in the climax, rather than just walking from one set-dressed room to the next!

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Catweazle 2.13 – The Thirteenth Sign

To be honest, the final installment of this charming show isn’t anything like some of the laugh-a-minute episodes from earlier in this series. It wraps up all the lingering plot threads about the lost treasure, the thirteenth sign of the Zodiac, and Catweazle’s desire to fly, but it does so with warmth and happiness instead of lunacy. It’s a little more successful than the busy conclusion of series one in that regard.

Our son loved it, and wishes they’d made more. I agree! Catweazle is a hugely entertaining show for kids and adults. It’s been one of the most satisfying purchases that I’ve made to share with my son and absolutely recommend it for anybody with children. You’ll probably like it even without kids around!

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Catweazle 2.12 – The Magic Circle

Today’s episode really felt like marking time before they wrap up the series. They reintroduce the fact that Lord and Lady Collingford aren’t as wealthy as they appear, and that there’s meant to be hidden treasure on their property somewhere. Catweazle learns that something is trapping him in 1971, and he can’t use water to travel through time. And all the family catches a glimpse of the wizard for the first time. Since I haven’t used a photo to illustrate the supporting cast for this series, here they are!

Our son was so looking forward to this morning’s episode that he started humming the theme tune in anticipation. I wasn’t all that taken with this one, but he completely adored it. Part of the shenanigans involves a huge mob of cyclists racing around the village and everybody else on bikes chasing each other getting caught up in their lanes. I think that when you’re a kid, the sight of Peter Butterworth on a bicycle in his long johns swatting people with his hat because they won’t let him turn around is bound to be much, much funnier. And that’s fine, this is a children’s show and I’m so happy that he loves it.

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Catweazle 2.11 – The Battle of the Giants

This one was incredibly funny! We all really enjoyed it. It turns out that Lord Collingford and Groome have been competing with each other for years at a harvest festival to see who can grow the largest marrow. (We eat a lot of zucchini ourselves. Had no idea it’s the same vegetable.) On the day of the festival, both men are intolerable, and that’s before Catweazle unwittingly drops into the middle of things. There’s a ridiculous moment where identical buckets contain Groome’s fertilizer and Catweazle’s disgusting medicine, which seems pretty par for the course, but we weren’t expecting what would happen when the vegetables get a dose of medicine.

Arthur Lovegrove has a small part as the fellow who runs the local nursery and judges the vegetable competition. His character is called Archie Goodwin, and that strikes me as a little silly. Everybody knows the only plants that Archie Goodwin is qualified to judge are orchids.

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Catweazle 2.10 – The Walking Trees

We all really enjoyed tonight’s episode, in which Catweazle throws some military training exercises into complete chaos while searching for the sign of Capricorn. The main guest star is Tony Selby, who was in between series one and two of Ace of Wands, where he played Tarot’s original sidekick, Sam. Here, Selby plays a sergeant trying very hard to get this supposed “spy” to give up his name, rank, and number. Then Catweazle finds a live grenade and thinks it’s the Philosopher’s Stone. Just start counting the minutes until something explodes.

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Catweazle 2.9 – The Ghost Hunters

Our son absolutely loved this episode. I thought it was pretty funny, but it never quite rises to a great bit early on. Lady Collingford has decided that their house, which has 184 rooms, is haunted, in part because she keeps hearing this peculiar sound. Elspet Gray then gives this hilarious impersonation of Geoffrey Bayldon’s “tch-tch-tch!” noise and I hooted.

This rapidly descends into the sort of “he went thataway” farce perfected on American Saturday morning shows. Lady Collingford hires famous ghost hunters, played by Dudley Foster and David Cook. They’re a couple of scam artists who have wired the house with speakers, and Cedric has decided to try and spook them with a bedsheet, and Catweazle has decided that tonight, of all nights, is the right night to ask the house’s spirits to help him find the hidden gold in the house. Our son was howling with laughter; this was clearly one of his all-time favorites. Moray Watson is playing an upper-class twit in this series, but he defines the term “long suffering” tonight.

Dudley Foster died in early 1973, only 48 years old, but he appeared in just about everything a fellow could possibly do in British film and TV before then. Foster was cast as the villain Caven in a 1969 Doctor Who serial, “The Space Pirates,” which is the last incomplete story of that program’s run. Bizarrely, Foster appears in the five episodes of that serial that are missing, and not in part two, the only episode that survives. That strikes me as a little karmically unfair.

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