Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world…
Oh dear, look at that monster. It’s shaped like… well, that’s unfortunate. How did nobody notice before it went in front of the camera?
Nope, sorry. I don’t buy that. I don’t believe for one minute the shape of Erato was an accident. It is far too coherent with the theme of the story for that, but everybody simply went a bit too literal and impressively proportioned with it and forgot that the Doctor was being played by Tom Baker. Present Tom with a giant phallus monster and there are certain things he will inevitably do with it. No, everything in this story is pointing in one direction, and that direction is… ahem… up.
To start with the suggestive monster first, Erato might bring to mind the word “erotic”. That’s because, like almost every name in this story, Erato is based on somebody from mythology. In ancient Greece, Erato was one of the nine muses. Her name actually meant “desired” or “lovely”. The muses were goddesses of music, song and dance, and Erato was all about the lyrics. Her chosen specialist subject was poetry, in particular poetry of an erotic nature. Then we have the planet that Erato is captured on, Chloris. This is another familiar name from Greek mythology, a nymph associated with new growth and spring time, appropriate for a planet that is verdant but has little mineral wealth. In other words, Chloris is a fertility goddess, particularly in the Roman interpretation of her.
The least obvious naming example is Adrasta, which takes inspiration from Andromeda and twists her name in a stellar way. In case you haven’t seen Clash of the Titans, Andromeda was the daughter of a queen who compared her beauty to the gods. They didn’t like that much, so they had her stripped naked and chained to a rock while Poseidon sent a sea monster called Cetus to ravage her. So Erato is clearly inspired by Cetus in that story, and in that respect his design starts to make sense in terms of referencing the myth. Erato is from a race of aliens called Tythonians, from the planet Tythonus, and here again we have a reference to mythology. Tithonus was the lover of the goddess of the dawn, who asked for him to be made immortal. She forgot to ask to make him immortal and young, so he ended up trapped in his own decaying body: trapped by the deeds of a lover, thematically just like Erato.
So Adrasta is very much a mythological character here, but it is subverted, because the well-endowed Erato/Cetus doesn’t actually come to ravage her or her planet. He comes with honorable intentions, but Adrasta is only interested in protecting her power base, so casts him down into the underworld and perpetrates the myth. Doctor Who creates a new myth from the characters of old. But what is the new myth about? What is the point of this parable?
There are two interpretations, both of which are valid. This is a thematically complex story that works on different levels. The most obvious interpretation, and the one that on balance probably holds the least water, is that this is a story about the evils of capitalism. Erato offers an alternative to capitalism, a simple system of exchange which fulfils the needs of two planets. One of them doesn’t have metal but has lots of vegetation; the other is the opposite. A simple exchange of resources, and everyone has what they need without significant cost to the other. Adrasta isn’t having any of that, because she controls the metal, and doesn’t want it to be plentiful for fear of losing her grip on power. The problem with this is that it ignores a couple of key points about Adrasta.
The thing is, Adrasta’s power is built along feudal lines, and her source of wealth comes from mining. She is so blinkered that she harms her own supply chain by filling up her mine with a monster. An opportunity has presented itself that allows mining to be confined to the past, and replaced by free trade with aliens. This is capitalism moving in to replace feudalism in its most extreme form, with one woman controlling the only significant resource. So you could see this as anti-capitalist or pro-capitalist, but if it is the latter it is pro- a very particular version of capitalism, one that is based on fair exchange of resources where a need exists rather than one woman holding all the wealth. It is an idealistic interpretation of how capitalism could work.
In the end, I suppose the problem with The Creature from the Pit is that the two areas of inspiration are never really integrated. It plays with mythology and it plays with capitalism, but never quite manages to make those two into cosy bedfellows, but you have to admire the attempt to engage with such interesting ideas, even if the design of Erato was an all-too literal interpretation of the themes of the story. Size might not be everything, but the scale of ambition here is… impressive.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.
(from Tithonus, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
The view from across the pond:
It’s easy to criticize Doctor Who for the lack of great special effects over its early years but it’s not really a fair criticism. For one, the series had a fraction of the budget that other series had and it was doing far more than most of those were doing. On top of that, the show was ingenious. Even when it borrowed ideas from other sources, it did so in a creative way. So when people used to make fun of the show, they were usually showing their own ignorance. They clearly hadn’t watched it because if they had, they’d have seen the genius behind it. And The Creature from the Pit is no exception. Erato alone is something different. He wasn’t a standard humanoid, bipedal alien. He’s introduced as the titular “creature from the pit”. It’s not a person, even though he actually is just a different looking form of person. He’s not a monster. He’s an ambassador. Unfortunately, the side effect of being creative is that sometimes you don’t get it right. You get Erato and his, ahem, appendage. No matter how good or bad the story, that’s all you remember about this one. I was tempted to write this story up with a single word: appendage. If nothing more, it would have made an easy read and a memorable one. The one where Mike had nothing else to say!
And really it does come down to Erato in the end anyway. He is a great idea. He’s an ambassador who is coming to Chloris (of course that’s its name) because metal is rare and plant life is abundant, so it sounds like a good foundation to setup trade. Alas the queen, Lady Adrasta, is greedy and doesn’t want her monopoly taken from her. Simple stories sometimes are the best to work with because you don’t have to create convoluted time travel paradoxes and you can focus on what is happening. So conceptually, this is a basic small-scale situation that the Doctor is going to help resolve. If we look at Star Trek for examples of alien life, way too many of those aliens have weird brow ridges, odd ears or big noses and that’s what makes them “alien”. That’s boring. They are the very standard bipedal humans we come to expect from Trek with rare exception. One thing we can’t do is accuse Erato of being boring. But this is where it gets tricky. I wouldn’t want him to know I was impressed by anything about him lest he get excited. That’s because what we have is a giant green plant-based alien who is capable of crushing his enemies and weaving metal to create an egg for travel purposes. Coincidentally, he’s also an ambassador who gets imprisoned by a greedy business woman. Greed might be the real enemy because had Adrasta not been so interested in staying on top of the food chain, in a business sense, she might have had an ally and fewer people would have died. Alas, where the Doctor goes, things are never that simple.
Yet, regardless of anything else, we will always remember this story as the one where the Doctor… blows into… that… appendage.
So um…. How ‘bout them Wolfweeds, huh? Pretty cool. Pretty cool…. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Nightmare of Eden